Afghanistan's government must fight corruption and quickly deliver services to Afghans, because Taliban militants are filling gaps and winning support to their cause, a top counter-insurgency expert said on Monday.
The Taliban were already running courts, hospitals and even an ombudsman in parallel to the government, making a real difference to local people, said David Kilcullen, a senior adviser to US commander General Stanley McChrystal.
"A government that is losing to a counter-insurgency isn't being outfought, it is being out-governed. And that's what's happening in Afghanistan," Kilcullen told Australia's National Press Club.
Afghanistan has been in a state of political limbo since Aug. 20 presidential elections, with partial results so far placing President Hamid Karzai in the lead, but not by enough to avoid a second round against his main challenger, Abdullah Abdullah. But the election, which the Taliban failed to disrupt with rocket attacks, has been marred by allegations of fraud with around a third of the votes counted.
Kilcullen, an Australian military officer and adviser to past US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, said Karzai's government was failing to maintain a rapport with local people, who were now turning to the Taliban for court judgments, education and even fair taxation assessment.
A network of 15 Sharia courts in the Taliban-dominated south spent relatively little time on hardline Islamic issues, as Westerners usually believed, but instead focused 95 per cent of effort on civil issues, like land and inheritance disputes.
Local people would laugh at the idea that they could go to the police if a bike or goat was stolen, Kilcullen said, while the Taliban had even set up an ombudsman's office near the southern militant stronghold of Kandahar to hear complaints.
"It's a direct challenge to the international security forces," he said.
"If the Taliban do something that offends you, you go to the ombudsman and you complain, and they hear the case. Sometimes they fire or even execute Taliban commanders for breaking the code of conduct."
Kilcullen said hard fighting in Afghanistan would likely last another two years, after which insurgents would hopefully believe it was better to negotiate than continue combat with international and government forces.
That would be followed by a three-year transition to effective Afghan government and five-year overwatch period involving international forces as back-up, he said.