A Way Through the Afghan Labyrinth
(first appeared in Asia Times Oct. 07, 2008)
By M Ashraf Haidari
Since international re-engagement in Afghanistan was initiated seven years ago, the key institutions of a permanent government have been established. Considerable progress has been made in rebuilding infrastructure, in expanding access to basic healthcare, and in providing education to an increasing number of Afghan girls and boys across the country.
However, the country's progress is increasingly eclipsed by inter-connected challenges with domestic, international, regional and transnational dimensions that impede its stabilization and reconstruction. Each challenge facing the country feeds off the other and together they have engendered a vicious circle that is destabilizing Afghanistan and increasingly Pakistan too.
Afghanistan is geographically landlocked, politically and economically least-developed, and unfortunately located in a predatory neighborhood, where Pakistan's military establishment has traditionally seen a stable Afghanistan as a threat in the context of the country's hostile relations with India. Also, its nascent state institutions are weak and lack the requisite resources to deliver basic public goods to a population of vulnerable groups (eg, returning refugees, IDPs (internally displaced people), the disabled, former combatants, jobless youth, the elderly, and women and children), all of whom are engulfed in poverty and misery.
The lack of aid resources and a weak strategic coordination of aid implementation by the international community is another challenge. Observers of Afghanistan are certain to recall that, from the beginning, the international community has re-engaged in the country with a very light footprint. In 2001, during the initial planning stages for the war in Afghanistan, coalition member states agreed that a sound strategy had to include and combine combat operations, humanitarian relief and stability and reconstruction efforts.
In the years since the Taliban were driven from Kabul, coalition members have neither fully committed to the reconstruction task, nor have they ensured that there is a match between ends and means. As former US special envoy to Afghanistan James Dobbins notes, "Mismatches between inputs, as measured in personnel and money, and desired outcomes, as measured in imposed social transformation, are the most common cause for failure of nation-building efforts." Because too few troops and resources were committed to the country early on, this is exactly the direction Afghanistan is heading towards.
According to a recent report by the Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief (ACBAR), Afghanistan received just US$57 per capita in foreign assistance, while Bosnia and East Timor received $679 and $233 respectively, in the two years following international intervention. Per capita security assistance to Afghanistan remains woefully low with 1.5 foreign troops per 1,000 people, compared to seven per 1,000 in Iraq and 19 per 1,000 in Bosnia.
When it comes to international aid, the numbers can be deceptive, as donors have tended to bypass the Afghan government and funnel assistance to foreign non-profit and private-sector institutions. As a result, an estimated 40% of aid has gone back to donor countries in the form of corporate profits and consultant salaries. Overall, some $6 billion has been spent in this way since 2001, according to ACBAR. It should be noted that each full-time expatriate consultant costs $250,000-$500,000 per year.
It is clear that the invasion and occupation of Iraq shortchanged Afghanistan's rebuilding priorities, robbing the new Afghan government of much-needed resources. The paucity of troops and resources has proven useful for potential threats like the Taliban, who have intensified their cross-border terrorist attacks and now control parts of the country.
Although it is now seven years since the fall of the Taliban, no clear institutional framework for Afghanistan's nation-building and reconstruction has emerged. Despite broad international consensus and goodwill for the rebuilding of Afghanistan from the start, the United Nations remains a weak player in Afghanistan due to a lack of resources to meet its recently expanded mandate. In the beginning, the UN was deliberately denied an operational role in Afghanistan, perhaps, due to fears that donor fatigue would soon kick in, resulting in undelivered pledges of assistance to Afghanistan.
Hence, a lead-nation strategy was adopted, whereby major resourceful countries assumed responsibility for the reform and building of Afghanistan's key state institutions. The lead-nation strategy assigned the United States to reform and build the Afghan National Army (ANA); Germany - the Afghan National Police (ANP); Japan to disarm, demobilize and fully reintegrate (DDR) former combatants; Britain to fight and eliminate narcotics; and Italy to reform and build the judicial system.
Except for substantive progress in the reform and building of ANA, the other sectors saw nominal or no progress. The lead nations neither established a collaborative mechanism to ensure strategic coordination across their assigned tasks, nor did they bring enough resources to bear on implementing the reforms effectively. In the end, the lead-nation strategy was discontinued, as the designated countries reconsidered their roles as lead-partners - reasoning that only Afghanistan should be the lead-nation with them as its major implementing partners.
A bevy of actors with overlapping mandates, competitive relations and minimal accountability for performance, have characterized international presence in Afghanistan. The divergent and diffuse efforts of donors have created diverse opportunities for factions including the Taliban, drug traffickers, and criminals to undermine and derail the nation-building process. Efforts to enhance structures for strategic coordination on the ground, both within the UN and beyond, have been frustrated by the sheer numbers of actors involved, the limited extent to which these actors accept the coordination authority and the absence of policy coordination structures at the headquarters level.
More than 70 countries, international organizations and non-governmental organizations are present in Afghanistan. Yet, they have consistently worked outside of the Afghan government. For example, of all technical assistance to Afghanistan, which accounts for a quarter of all aid to the country, only one-tenth is coordinated among donors or with the government. Nor is there sufficient collaboration on project work, which inevitably leads to duplication of effort. This has seriously undermined the Afghan government's ability to build its capacity for effective governance and implementation of the rule of law.
The ultimate aim for both international donors and the President Hamid Karzai administration is for Afghan authorities to take ownership of the reconstruction effort. But the lack of international attention to the rebuilding effort from 2001 through 2004 had a detrimental effect on efforts to build the capacity of the Afghan government. More specifically, it enabled corrupt practices to become deeply entrenched. In addition, the scarcity of financial resources hampered the government's ability to compete with the private sector for services of the best minds. Many of the government's most skilled workers have departed to take higher paying jobs with international organizations. The resulting weak institutional capacity coupled with underpayment, in turn, fuels corruption, which damages the government's image in the eyes of Afghans.
Afghanistan would be far less instable if the country were not geographically cursed. Afghanistan's political and economic stability or instability is closely linked to the type of regimes in power in the region, those regimes' particular regional interests, their socio-economic conditions, and more importantly their relations with one another and with major world powers such as the United States. Without understanding and addressing the challenges posed by the regional dynamics, it is extremely hard to achieve long-term stability in Afghanistan. As we know, today, the main source and cause of instability in Afghanistan lie outside the country in neighboring Pakistan.
Transnational threats to Afghanistan such as al-Qaeda and its affiliates have fully reconstituted themselves seven years after 9/11, and are increasingly guiding and directing the Taliban's cross-border terrorism in Afghanistan. Operating from safe sanctuaries in Pakistan, al-Qaeda and its Pakistani affiliates continue to inspire, indoctrinate, and brainwash jobless and frustrated youth in the Pakistani madrassas, which the Taliban use as recruiting ground for their operations in Afghanistan. At the same time, transnational drug mafia has found Afghanistan a permissive environment for mass drug production to meet global demand. They have strategically joined hands with the Taliban and other threats to stability in Afghanistan for ongoing drug production and trafficking.
The fact that these challenges are inter-connected and feed on one another make Afghanistan by far the most complicated and resource-intensive international intervention since the end of the Cold War. Thus, securing and rebuilding Afghanistan is a far more challenging task for the international community than was Bosnia, Kosovo, East Timor, or even Iraq. But there are no options for the international community in Afghanistan but to succeed there. We know that the specter of revisiting September 11, 2001 is ever becoming likely with the al-Qaeda and Taliban resurgent in Pakistan's tribal region, from where they have managed to score frequent tactical gains across south and east of Afghanistan.
If the West is keenly aware of the cost of neglecting Afghanistan in the 1990s, and is determined to prevent it failing now, what is the best way forward now? First of all, in a country where there are so many interconnected and overlapping problems competing for urgent resolution, it is important to narrow down our priorities and focus on the key issues, including those with the greatest potential to help resolve the full range of problems. This means departing from ad hoc approaches to nation-building in Afghanistan, where the precious assistance of tax payers in donor countries has so far been wasted on quick fixes that have made no real difference in the lives of the Afghan people over the past seven years.
It is critically important as a priority to strengthen nascent Afghan state institutions so they will soon gain the capacity to fulfill their mandates and contribute to effective government. Without security and good governance, Afghanistan will be unable to attract foreign investment in the natural resource and infrastructure sectors, which we know can help provide alternative employment for poppy farmers and jobs for youth and returning refugees. We know from the experience of many developing countries (such as China, India, Brazil, Turkey, South Korea, Malaysia and others) that only sustainable economic growth, and not relief aid and hand-outs, will help reduce poverty in Afghanistan.
It is important to stress that Afghanistan cannot achieve self-reliance and self-sufficiency unless the international community enables it to do so. In light of the country's massive rebuilding needs, the international community must match ends with means. Committing long-term resources is absolutely necessary, but so too is ensuring that aid is effectively delivered through the Afghan state institutions to achieve the objectives of the Afghanistan National Development Strategy (ANDS). Therefore, the international community must deliver on the commitments made at the recent Paris Support Conference by aligning their aid with the objectives of ANDS, a key priority of which is to build capacity in the Afghan state institutions.
Regionally, the United States and NATO recognize the fact that the Taliban cannot be defeated in Afghanistan without dismantling their command and control infrastructure in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), from where they daily launch terrorist attacks inside Afghanistan, mostly killing innocent civilians. And unless external institutional support for the Taliban insurgency ends, military and civilian casualties will continue rising in Afghanistan, gradually giving the terrorists an upper hand. Pakistan's military and intelligence establishments must be persuaded to cooperate sincerely in the war against terrorism, while the country's civilian government must be strengthened to ensure stability in Pakistan and the rest of the region.
At the same time, NATO needs to bolster its military strength in the fight against cross-border terrorism in Afghanistan. The commanders on the ground are asking for three additional well-equipped brigades (about 10,000) with a flexible mandate to secure Afghanistan. The US recently announced deployment of some 4,500 additional troops to Afghanistan by early next year, which should be complemented with more forces from other NATO member states to bolster military efforts to contain and defeat the Taliban.
Ultimately, however, the key to securing Afghanistan will rest in the build-up of a professional Afghan army and police. The Afghan government plans to expand the size of the Afghan National Army (ANA) to 134,000 soldiers within the next five years, as well as jump-starting the reform and development of the Afghan National Police (ANP) to meet Afghanistan's security and defense needs.
For Afghanistan to realize these objectives, however, the international community must firmly commit to providing the country with long-term military and law enforcement equipment and training resources. Doing so will dramatically cut down on the current financial and human cost of the international military presence in Afghanistan, while enabling Afghans to defend their country more effectively now and in the future.
After seven years in Afghanistan, the international community understands that failing to secure the country will only strengthen the Taliban and weaken the trust of Afghans in democracy and weaken their support as a strategic partner in the fight against terrorism. The tragedy of September 11, 2001 reminds us that failure in Afghanistan is not an option, and peace can hardly take hold in Pakistan and the rest of the region without stability in Afghanistan. Nor can global security be ensured without consolidation of Afghanistan's democratic achievements over the past seven years. All stakeholders must commit to success in Afghanistan, leaving the country only when the Afghan people can stand on their own feet against the twin threats of extremism and terrorism.
M Ashraf Haidari is the Political Counselor of the Embassy of Afghanistan in Washington, DC. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org
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