March 27, 2009
SECURING AFGHANISTAN: THE WAR OF PERCEPTIONS
An Interview with M. Ashraf Haidari, the Political Counselor of the Embassy of Afghanistan in Washington DC
International Affairs Forum:
What is your government’s reaction to the new strategy for Afghanistan, which President Obama announced today?
The government and people of Afghanistan welcome the new US strategy for Afghanistan. The strategy is truly comprehensive in scope, pledging to provide the requisite military and non-military resources to stabilize Afghanistan. We appreciate the fact that the new US strategy incorporates our core concerns and demands and, that is, to focus on consolidating our new democracy by building our state institutions, both civilian and military, so that we overtime build the necessary capacity to drive the rebuilding process and defend our country. I also want to add that the strategy’s regional approach is the key to securing Afghanistan and the broader region. We know that unless the safe havens and financial sources of support for Al Qaeda and Taliban are completely dismantled and destroyed in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan would hardly stabilize. Regional cooperation is a cornerstone of our foreign, security, and development policies, and we look forward to working with the Pakistani government and our common allies to defeat Al Qaeda and the Taliban.
Let us discuss some of the emerging perceptions or misperceptions about Afghanistan. Does Afghanistan really need a Jeffersonian democracy? This is a question often posed by liberal critics, who believe that the US must lower its expectations in the country and should not get into a long-term democratic nation-building task in your country?
Let me be very clear on this, and speak for the Afghan people based on my own experience as an ordinary Afghan who suffered many hardships as an IDP and refugee because of the past conflicts and violence. Since the end of the Cold War, no nation has demanded as much justice and democratic rule of law as the Afghan people. We have suffered in the hands of Communists, in the hands of extremists, and in the hands of terrorists, and we know that our secure future lies in democracy. In the wake of 9/11 tragedy and shortly thereafter, Western experts were saying that democracy is not for a “backward and traditional people.” But we clearly remember on the presidential (2004) and parliamentary (2005) elections days that the Afghan people turned out in large numbers to cast their ballot to elect their leader and representatives. The Afghan people understand that it takes time to consolidate our democracy, but they do demand that our allies help us restore security and basic justice and rule of law across the country. We are very optimistic that the new US strategy will begin addressing our people’s basic demands, as we strive with our allies to continue consolidating Afghanistan’s democracy.
Do you agree with the statement that Afghanistan is turning into “another Vietnam,” that it is a “graveyard of empires,” or a “quagmire?”
No, I completely disagree with these wrong perceptions that have unfortunately gained some currency. The US went to Vietnam or Iraq for totally different reasons and purposes. The US and more than forty other countries are in Afghanistan at the welcome invitation of the Afghan government and people. Afghans across the country are fully united with our international partners against the return of the Taliban and Al Qaeda to reclaim our country and to resume brutalizing our nation, or destroying our cultural heritage. If some Afghans have been alienated over the past seven years, it is because of the collective shortcoming of the international community, as they’ve faltered to deliver on the very basic expectations of the Afghan people or in some cases harmed them due to overreliance on rapid air strikes that have caused civilian casualties. The additional forces, some 17,000, that are deploying to Afghanistan will help address this problem. A civilian surge to build institutional capacity and provide job opportunities for our young population will make significant contributions towards winning the peace in Afghanistan.
And let me clarify the fact that the “graveyard of empires” has no relevance to our country or people today. Literally speaking, which modern country is not a “graveyard of empires” that rose and fell in distant past? Look at Europe’s bloody history just until last century, and see where they are today. Our population is young, hopeful and very optimistic—most in their teens and 40s—who are aware of a globalizing world where their welfare belongs to the future not the past, and a secure future demands democracy and integration with global economy which the Afghan people ask our international partners to help with so that we globalize too and not be “globalized.”
Do Afghans treat and perceive US-NATO forces the same as former Soviet forces in 1980s?
No, as I pointed out earlier, the Afghan people welcome international presence in Afghanistan. From the very beginning, our people have perceived US and NATO-ISAF forces as liberators, while we considered the Soviet forces as godless invaders and occupiers. And that is why the Soviets were ultimately defeated in Afghanistan, because they were not welcome and did not share a common agenda with us. Today, the main concern of ordinary Afghans is what if our allies pack up and leave us prematurely again, like they once did in early 1990s. The Afghan people have once experienced brutal rule by the Taliban and their terrorist allies. We never wish to return to tyranny and chaos that reigned in Afghanistan under the Taliban. Afghans demand freedom, justice and peace which cannot be restored in our country without international assistance.
Another perception is that Afghanistan is a “dirt poor country” in comparison with Iraq which sits on massive energy reserves that would pay for its long-term development. Does Afghanistan have natural resources that if exploited could help grow your economy on a sustainable basis?
After thirty years of war and destruction, our people may be poor economically but they’re rich in experience, resilience, and enterprise. By the same token, our country is physically underdeveloped and destroyed but it is rich in natural resources of different kinds. I think if the international community harnesses the resilience and enterprising genius of Afghanistan’s young population and helps them exploit our natural resources such as oil, gas, copper, iron ore, precious stones, and other minerals, our economy will soon become self-sustaining to cover our government’s core budget expenditure and to provide the resources for Afghanistan’s long-term development. As I said earlier, we are glad that the new strategy for Afghanistan strategically focuses on increased civilian assistance to help revitalize our agriculture sector and to help exploit our natural resources. If this truly materializes, I can assure you that Afghanistan will stand on its own economically in less than 10 years.
What do you say to those who say Afghanistan is the most corrupt country in the world?
Corruption is not a cause but a symptom of weak governance. I think the problem of petty corruption across the Afghan government is one that most Third World states and post-conflict fragile countries share. Not only have we endured thirty years of war and devastation with a full decade of state failure and collapse during 1990s but we also began the process of building modern state institutions too late in early 1920s. This means that even during our peaceful times, Afghanistan was suffering from weak institutions whose consolidation frequently discontinued and eventually stalled under the communist regime in 1980s.
When the international community reengaged in Afghanistan in 2001, our country was completely stateless, and our partners had to begin building the state institutions from the ground up under harsh circumstances. So, the strength or weakness of governance in Afghanistan today is clearly a function of how much effective coordinated aid has gone into building a functional state in the country. For example, we know from the meager level of resources committed so far to reforming and building the Afghan judiciary and police that corruption prevails in these two key state institutions today. It is very obvious that better paid, better trained, and better equipped officials in any government in any part of the world would have less incentive to be corrupt—and Afghanistan is no different from others.
Because the judiciary and the police constitute the first point of contact between public and government, people tend to judge the government’s legitimacy and performance based on their daily experience with those institutions, even though we have frequently taken serious action against corrupt officials and introduced drastic measures to curb corruption in the whole government. So far, several inept ministers and over a dozen corrupt administrators, governors, police chiefs, and diplomats have been fired. The Afghan government recently appointed a new Minister of Interior to accelerate the reform and building of the police, and we established the High Office of Oversight and Anti-Corruption to fight systemic corruption in the government that is at the heart of the problem.
With a recommitment from the US to jumpstarting the justice and police reforms in Afghanistan, I have no doubt that we will see very drastic reduction in petty corruption in these two institutions. We expect similar results in other institutions if adequate resources are provided to deliver on the strategy’s key objective of training, paying, and equipping Afghans to govern and secure their country.
Our final question is about Afghanistan as a “narco-state,” a perception that is very current in light of your country’s massive production of narcotics. Do you agree with this perception?
No, I completely disagree that Afghanistan is a “narco-state.” The fact is that since 2001 our share of licit economy has outstripped that of our illicit which is now less than a third of our annual GDP. But we know from international experience that global demand for narcotics finds supply in environments where state institutions are weak, where general instability is high, and where poverty is rife. Although we are in such dire situation today, the number of our drug-free provinces has increased from 6 in 2006 to 18 in 2oo8—which means that that no opium is grown in more than half Afghanistan’s thirty four provinces. We have made this significant progress in provinces where the government has been in firm control, and delivered alternative assistance to farmers and prosecuted drug traffickers. But where the writ of the government has been weak or absent from the very beginning, poppies have continued to bloom, despite the presence of international forces in those provinces. As a result, more than 90% of all of Afghanistan’s opium is grown in just five provinces in the south-west (Helmand, Kandahar, Uruzgan, Farah, an Nimroz), where the Taliban are resurgent and hold widespread influence.
But how can we eliminate drugs in Afghanistan on the long run? I think the best weapon against narcotics is gradual, but steady prevention in the form of improved governance and rule of law, sustainable alternative development, and increased security. Quick fixes such as forced eradication of poppy crops only target the effects of poppy production, not its underlying causes. We know from international experience that eradication alone is ineffective. Decreases in cultivation in one area can simply lead to increases in another, and news of impending eradication efforts can provoke growers to disperse cultivation over a larger area, much like investors diversifying portfolios to hedge risk. So, counter-narcotics efforts must be enacted contemporaneously across the country in a strategic manner.
Above all else, Afghan farmers must be given the opportunity and necessary resources to grow alternative crops. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that most Afghan farmers are sharecroppers, whose landlords dictate what they can grow. Consequently, the high-value opium poppy is the crop of choice.
Liberating our farmers from this cycle of dependence requires that they have access to both land and alternative financing, in particular micro-lending. Further, to make alternative crops more lucrative to farmers, investments in infrastructure are needed. In addition to supplies of water, seed and fertilizer, farmers must have access to reliable farm-to-market roads or to cold-storage facilities to preserve products for later export.
Once effective alternatives are available, Afghan farmers would have an incentive to try to transition away from poppy cultivation without paying a financial penalty. An initial grace period could be extended, beyond which noncompliant farmers would face crop eradication and criminal prosecution.
At the same time, I believe it is very important that counter-narcotics efforts target all players in the long chain of the opium trade, including traffickers, distributors and dealers, who pull in about 80 percent of the export value of Afghan narcotics. Essential to the prosecution of these kingpins is a functional justice sector, with coordinated law enforcement and judicial activities. Right now, inadequate compensation, training and equipment limit the ability of the approximately 8,000 Afghan policemen and 1,500 judges from effectively combating this threat.
The tenets of our religion, Afghan culture and the legal system all prohibit the production, consumption and trafficking of drugs. Our poor Afghan farmers would honor these tenets right away if they were given a legal and viable option. Poppy cultivation has declined 19 percent over the 2007-2008 period, but this success could be reversed if we do not deliver an effective combination of carrots to aid poor sharecroppers and sticks to enforce the law against high-value drug traffickers as the main drivers of drug production in Afghanistan.
We welcome President Obama’s firm commitment to creating alternative opportunities for Afghanistan’s destitute population and poor farmers. The implementation of the new strategy is key to overcoming the narcotics challenge. Drugs is a cross-cutting problem and requires a cross-cutting solution as proposed by the new US strategy in Afghanistan. The Afghan government and people stand ready to cooperate with the US and our common allies to eliminate drugs in Afghanistan through long-term programs that give hope to our nation.
Thank you, Mr. Haidari. We look forward to continuing our discussion in the future.
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