I had a few conversations that led me to the following thoughts about the Serena bombing:
Whatever happens next, this is a major decision point for everyone concerned in Afghanistan. Such operations will continue. Even if the vast majority do not succeed, the result will be a mix of the following:
- Many if not most of the civilian foreign expatriates currently involved in the delivery of aid or other activities in Afghanistan will leave.
- Most of the rest will be concentrated into a Forbidden City like the Green Zone in Baghdad. The U.S. Embassy is already such a compound, and the area around it in Wazir Akbar Khan is already so fortified that it might not take much more to turn that and the adjacent areas of Shahr-i Naw (palace, main ministries, UN offices, embassies) into such a zone.
The alternative is to go back to the original much misunderstood idea of the "light footprint." People say that Lakhdar Brahimi's idea of the light footprint has failed. They even confuse the idea with Donald Rumsfeld's idea of "economy of force." But there has never been a light footprint in Afghanistan. Brahimi imagined in the fall of 2001 that most of the aid to Afghanistan would be delivered through UN agencies, as it was in East Timor. As Special Representative of the Secretary-General of the UN, he advocated a light footprint for those agencies, so as to channel most of the aid to building up the capacity and legitimacy of the Afghan government rather than into parallel structures that would suck all the talent and money away.
That never happened. The SRSG could not control the agencies. But even that hardly mattered. Most of the aid was not delivered by UN agencies. It was delivered by an army of foreign contractors, consultants, and NGOs working for bilateral donors (that's aid-speak for "countries," like the US). And all those foreigners need security that NATO, the Coalition, and the Afghan government cannot provide: hence the proliferation of foreign owned-private security contractors -- and the Afghan private security contractors that they have spawned as their subcontractors, many of which are composed of supposedly demobilized militias.
I'm not attacking all those aid workers. I'm one of them. The point is not about our individual merits -- there are saints and sinners among us. God knows, I am probably a more legitimate target for the Taliban than that Filippina woman they killed in the gym. But collectively we have generated an infrastructure serving only our needs that dwarfs the infrastructure provided for Afghans. This infrastructure -- of which the Serena Hotel is the flagship -- is the most visible part of the aid system to Afghans. Projects may mature in a few (or many) years, but right now Afghans see the guest houses, bars, restaurants, armored cars, checkpoints, hotels, hostile unaccountable gunmen, brothels, videos, CDs, cable television, Internet cafes with access to pornography, ethnic Russian waitresses from Kyrgyzstan in Italian restaurants owned by members of the former royal family and patronized by U.S. private security guards with their Chinese girlfriends and Afghan TV moguls, and skyrocketing prices for real estate, food, and fuel, traffic jams caused by the proliferation of vehicles and exacerbated by "security measures" every time a foreign or Afghan official leaves the office -- I could go on, but the Serena is a symbol of all that.
Is there a way to make this danger into an opportunity? The Afghan government from the beginning has asked for more aid to go through the Afghan government budget, more contracts to be given to Afghan firms. The international reply has always been "lack of capacity," though I am not sure which is a more serious problem: Afghans' lack of capacity to do what foreigners require of them to get aid, or foreigners' lack of capacity to build meaningful skills or deliver aid in a way that Afghans perceive as effective.
We don't have the luxury of waiting around for some mythical "capacity building" programs that the "international community" apparently lacks the capacity to conceive or run (my apologies in advance to the exceptions -- please don't flood me with emails about how your program works -- I know some of them do). Do we want to support the Afghanistan that actually exists, or are we waiting for a new Afghanistan of our imagination to appear out of the mists of the Hindu Kush and deserve our aid? (Of course Afghans are also waiting for the superpowers and aid donors of their imagination to materialize, but it turns out that in reality -- well, see above.)
As far as I know, all this aid is not there because of anybody's generosity, though Afghans are required to say so from time to time. Did the US and other donors suddenly develop a bad case of generosity after September 11? I tried that argument from time to time during 1992-2001, but it didn't work. The US and others are in Afghanistan for their national security interests. So we can't just pack up and walk away if the Afghans don't conform to our desires. Sometimes I wish the Afghan government would keep that more firmly in mind.
It is possible -- though not necessarily so -- that these interests will coincide with that of many Afghans for a while. That's the question Afghans are asking: are the foreigners here to help us as well as themselves, or to help only themselves, even at our expense? That's the political question at the heart of counter-narcotics policy. That is the political question at the heart of disputes over civilian casualties, status of forces agreements, detainees, and how aid is delivered.
In fact it's the dispute that started the whole thing. Remember, Bin Laden stated on October 7, 2001, that the international state system (symbolized by the Treaty of Lausanne, to which he referred as the start of 80 years of humiliation) was a source of oppression to Muslims. He cited lots of examples. Muslims don't want to believe him. Whatever they have suffered or think they have suffered in this system, most don't see Bin Laden (or the Taliban) offering an alternative to modern education, science, health care, development, legality, and so on.
But they have to ask themselves -- what is the alternative the international system is actually offering us? For citizens of the UAE -- not so bad! For Afghans? They don't want more bombings, killings, executions, torture, corruption, invasions, ignorance, poverty, disease.... When I visited Afghanistan under the Taliban in 1998 people quietly let me know how frustrated they were. In the Pashtun areas, at least, people felt a degree of personal security as long as they obeyed the Taliban, but they were bitter about their poverty and lack of development and freedom. The universal strength of that feeling was the most lasting impression of that visit. Everything I have seen since has confirmed and reconfirmed it. But it has also confirmed and reconfirmed that Afghans are losing faith that they are actually being offered a share of what they think the "international community" has to offer.
I don't have a blueprint on my hard drive on in a cache somewhere. But the Serena bombing is a sign that unless Afghans are really in charge of their country, it will not be rebuilt. I know that some plans are out there. It's time to take a new look at them. Are they unrealistic? Maybe. But what is definitely unrealistic is thinking we can succeed with the approach we have used so far.
Now for Pakistan: the Afghan NDS says that the attackers were trained and equipped by networks based in Pakistan. That's not much of a surprise. As I mentioned in an earlier blog post, the UN already published a report on suicide bombings in Afghanistan, showing that they were organized, funded, and planned in the Tribal Agencies of Pakistan. Pakistan's main response (always proactive) was that its UN representative called the UN Secretary General and demanded that the report be taken off the website.
But I don't want to "attack Pakistan" (more emails). Pakistanis are asking similar questions: is the War on Terror making us more or less secure? Is it a common interest we have with the Americans or something imposed on us against our interest? Right now, there is an unbridgeable gap in Pakistan between the population's perception of security threats and the military government's doctrine of security threats, conforming to Washington's.
According to poll data, most Pakistanis seem to see the Pakistani military as the most immediate threat to their security. Nawaz Sharif told a cheering crowd the other day that a government supinely following the Americans' War on Terror had "drowned the country in blood." He was referring to the military offensives in the tribal territories and the attack on the Red Mosque in Islamabad last summer. Does his audience want to be ruled by Taliban and Usama Bin Laden? I haven't interviewed them, but I will hazard a guess: no they don't. But right now that is a secondary threat to them. Telling them they have to be for us or against us will only convince them that they are against us.
Conclusion: until Pakistan develops a legitimate political elite with a reasonable consensus about the national interest and national security, Pakistan will not be a "reliable ally in the war on terror." Why are the supporters of Benazir Bhutto more hostile to the military government than to the militant groups that probably killed her? Because they know that the military government used US aid to nurture those same militant groups and their civilian political allies in order to impose its own dictatorship. Reversing that calculus is the single most important task for security in both Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Now people will ask me how to do it. I have some ideas ... I'd like to hear some others. One hint: missiles, Drones, commando raids, and more military rule in Pakistan are not the preferred options.
Response from Farid Maqsudi, promoted from Comments:
The key to success for Afghanistan and stakeholders such as USA and the international community, is the shift of burden from US and international community to Afghans.
The accountability for the success and failure needs to be with the Afghans and the Afghan government.
A common Afghan knows what he/she wants and needs for better life.
I agree in principle with the government's position that aid should flow through it. But as President Karzai acknowledges the increasing corrupt environment, he must first take serious action against the corrupt culture to gain the confidence of the donors, citizens and the private sector.
I am involved in the reconstruction economy of Afghanistan and from experience, I can tell it is better for Afghanistan and the world to stop with much of the technical studies and consultants to consultants in the reconstruction projects.
Afghans are hearing about billions and billions of aid money but they don't see it benefiting them. Let's talk smaller money and extend it directly to the people so they appreciate the challenges of reconstruction as well as the benefits.
The Afghan government should promise and deliver to its citizens a number of high impact projects that will boost the confidence of its citizens and stakeholders.
No doubt that various entities in Pakistan are taking detrimental actions against Afghanistan but Pakistan is not the entire cause of the problems in Afghanistan. The Afghans on both sides of the border should demonstrate their patriotism for Afghanistan by taking constructive and peaceful actions.
It is high time that we address the basics.
It is time for President Karzai to take the respectful robe off and pull up the shirt sleeves.
It is time for President Karzai to spend several continuous months in each regional capitals like Kandahar, Mazar-e-Sharif and Herat to bring attention to security and reconstruction.
It is time for the international community to support Afghans.
It is time for the country to come together.