Thursday, 28 June 2007

On Nation-Building: Bad News From Afghanistan

Unlike Iraq, there are still some reasons to hope that all is not yet lost for those who might wish to help bring about some kind of peace and stability to Afghanistan. Unfortunately there are less reasons for hope now than they were last year, which were less than the year before.

Afghanistan was always an interesting case for nation-building. The Taliban government was basically a collection of notables from the Kandahar region who had bought the loyalty of regional tribal leaders and warlords throughout much of the country. Those who had rejected their offers, mostly ethnic and sectarian minority groups who had fought in the Soviet war and had been part of the post-communist coalition government, the Taliban waged a brutal war of extermination against. Even here, most of their successes were dependent on Pakistani military know-how and funding.

When the Americans began their war on the Taliban, the victory was won, for the most part due to the same regional tribal leaders and warlords being bribed to join the Northern Alliance. There are plenty of recorded instances of local "Taliban" forces turning on the Pakistani and Jihadist volunteers in their camp - often massacring them - after the local commander had cut a deal with the NA.

The fact of the matter is that most Afghans were weary of war, weary of fighting and the prolonged dissolution of their country. They were happy to side with anyone who would promise them safety and security and a decent shot at bettering their lives. When the Taliban government fell and the Northern Alliance formed the nucleus of a new Afghan government, one would have assumed that it wouldn't have been too difficult to convince the populace that the future lay with the new government.

As if turned out, the assumption was overly optimistic. Unsatisfied with the short, victorious 'war' in Afghanistan, the American government turned to its new crusade in Iraq. Afghanistan became the "forgotten war". Huge amounts of aid to help rebuild the country were promised by the world, but only a fraction was delivered. Of that, far too much is wasted on vanity projects and unproductive expenditure. Its interesting to read the following in this BBC article:

Most international officials, aid workers and consultants in Afghanistan live a hermetically sealed life - advised not to step outside by armed security guards, and often working at very high salaries on very short-term contracts.

So too much of the money earmarked for aid to Afghanistan actually goes straight back to donor countries.

The Chief of Staff at the Afghan Counter-Narcotics Ministry, Abbie Aryan, condemned the culture of "champagne and caviar consultants" who come to Afghanistan and "deliver nothing".

There is still no internationally agreed strategy on how to tackle the drugs problem.

Britain plays a lead role in trying to stop the cultivation of opium poppies, and Mr Aryan says that large amounts of British money have been wasted on things that the Afghans do not need....

Rather than responding to Afghan concerns, and helping to fund an eradication coordination unit, when the Counter Narcotics Ministry wanted to set one up, the British government is instead funding a project for aerial photography that will cost more than $10m.

The Director of Survey and Monitoring at the ministry, Engineer Mohammad Ibrahim Azhar, told the BBC that when the project was first proposed, the Minister Habibullah Qaderi asked the British why they could not use a local plane, or at least provide equipment that would still be there when the project finished.

Instead the contract is with a British firm, with two British engineers running it in Kabul.

In his Samuel Johnson Prize-winning book, "Imperial Life in the Emerald City", Rajiv Chandrasekaran wrote about how reconstruction in Iraq was a joke. A way to provide astronomical salaries and impressive resumes to young college Republicans and Republican party interns, with little to show for it at the end. By the time the insurgency had become a full-blown insurrection and reconstruction was wound down, the hopes for normal Iraqis that their lives would materially return to the standards that existed in the pre-war, sanction-hit Saddam era, let alone improve on it, had disappeared except for some areas in the Kurdish north. Given that Afghanistan was a multi-national operation with full NATO, UN and Aid agency involvement, things were better managed than in Iraq - but not by a huge margin.

But it certainly was a lost opportunity. Conditions were ideal to make a real impact felt on the ground in the everyday lives of people. But as the years slipped by, conditions deteriorated. The Taliban resurgence, fanned by Taliban sympathisers in Pakistan saw an attempt at insurgency in the mould of Iraq. There was a growing loss of sympathy with the foreign armies, as the civilian casualties mounted, and the Afghan government as farmers turned to poppy cultivation, and the authorities sought to curb it. With the establishment of bases in Waziristan and the recent huge influx of cash and expertise bought by Iraqi Jihadists and bankrolled by Saudi millionaires, the Taliban was in a position to start convincing an increasing number of people that the future lay with them, and not an aloof, murderous and possibly soon-to-leave American military.

Given that NATO has killed more Afghan civilians this year than the Taliban (and that's not including the civilians NATO has killed in Pakistan), how much longer can the good-will be sustained?

One also gets the feeling that the whole exercise of "nation-building" needs to be examined carefully. Most of the major aid agencies have accumulated vast reservoirs of experience and wisdom on techniques that are, or are not effective. But Aid Agencies only account for a fraction of the massive sums devoted by foreign governments and International donor organisations such as the IMF etc. These often have their own priorities and constituencies that need to be appeased when it comes to signing off on big sums of money.

But more than that, I wonder if ideology also comes into play. States and political elites often have ideological views on how a country develops, what causes this, what are its needs and how the process works. This is apart from views on what institutions a modern state has. Would funding an incipient health care system for Afghanistan be high on a list of priorities of a country that does not believe in universal healthcare, for example?

One gets the feeling that the institutional knowledge and understanding of a country like the United States is so limited that it is particularly unsuited to the task of nation-building. Can it wise up?


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