Toward Genuine Afghanization
By Shahrbanou Tadjbaksh
There could have been a lot of blaming during the fourth donor conference for Afghanistan on June 12 in Paris when the Afghan government received an additional $20 billion for the next five years. When 90 percent of all public expenditures depend on international assistance, the stakes must have been high.
As subtext to the nice speeches, donors, including bilaterals and international financial institutions, could have pointed their long fingers, united for once, at the staggering problem of corruption, weak budgetary execution, inefficient delivery, financial mismanagement, inability to raise taxes and incomplete administrative reforms. They inevitably raised their concerns with absorption capacity.
Afghan government officials, if they had prepared themselves by reading the recent Oxfam/ACBAR damning report on Aid Effectiveness released in March, could have retaliated by reminding donors that only $15 billion of the $39 bn originally pledged had been disbursed so far, and out of those, 40 % has returned to donor countries in corporate profits and consultant salaries. They could have lamented that two thirds of assistance bypasses the government completely, and that too much has been driven by donors’ own priorities, rather than theirs. The under-resourced agriculture sector was a prime example. They could also have pointed their fingers, although a shorter one since they were in the needy seat, at the lack of coordination, transparency and accountability of donor aid. A timid voice could have for example, but most probably didn’t, remind everyone that the last time they met in London, the outcome document known as the Afghanistan Compact had 77 measurable benchmarks for the Afghan government but none for donors.
These technicalities were the background of negotiations in Paris around the Afghanistan National Development Strategy, a hefty 260 page document, written in that grand language of international bureaucracy. Sure there were a large number of consultations with at least the informed and organized civil society actors at the national and sub-national levels during the two years of preparation of the ANDS. In the language of development assistance, the box of “bottom up” consultation was ticked. The question remains however as to whether this so-called Afghan document which proclaims the Afghanization of the development process is understood, or even known, by ordinary Afghans. How much have, at the end of the day, years of strategizing, negotiating, and planning changed the every day life of ordinary Afghans? Until they see tangible results in their every day lives, the Afghan population will most probably not buy into all these grand bargains.It may be propitious to recall that 2/3 of Afghans are illiterate and that more than three quarters live in rural areas, very far from urban centers where aid has concentrated. Yet, it is the ordinary Afghans that really want things to work, not because of some instrumental reason of regional stability, curbing international terrorism, or preventing institutional failure, but because they simply want a better life. And simply put, their lives in the past seven years have not all that improved tangibly.
Perception studies, including one that was recently carried out jointly between France’s Institute of Political Science and Kabul University, echo back incessive complaints about insecurity, and not only violence but also and especially lack of economic security. When they consistently ask for jobs and education, they are saying that they need to have the ability to understand the terms of that grand bargain and of its values in order to take genuine part in the reconstruction of their country. They should be heard loud and clear.Their dissatisfaction also emanates from a rising feeling of injustice, of historical experience with abandonment, of unkept promises, of hugely differentiated salaries, of uncontrolled corruption, so manifestly visible in the form of kitsch mini palaces constructed in the midst of garbage festered streets of Kabul, where invalids of past wars sit begging. There is no denying: the malaise points to a serious erosion of trust. Although the mistrust between donors and the government could have stolen the day in Paris, the most problematic one for everyone is the potential erosion of trust between the Afghans and their state.
Assuming that the international community is ready to hear the alarming message that trust has been eroded to dangerous levels, what can it really do? Surely trust is more easily broken than restored. Yet it must start by revising its own role in building and not breaking that trust that should be forged between the state and society. Until four crises are resolved, the cycle of mistrust will only spiral up and the technical list of what should be done will only grow longer.
First, the international community should deal with the crisis of state legitimacy. Afghans, no matter how entrepreneurial in spirit, want an authority to put order to their lives, protect and provide for them. During times of crisis, authority, control and discipline become inevitably coveted, and the incapacitated state becomes as evil in collective conscious as the predator one. Ancien regimes are then vindicated: During the Taliban there was at least security, and during Najibullah, the government at least controlled prices of primary goods in the market.Let there be no hesitation, the state is needed in Afghanistan and the international community cannot substitute for it. And state building starts by improving the legitimacy and efficiency of the government which then translates into its authority. Aid that undermines this authority can do harm. The way that the government has handled aid, with a combination of corruption and lack of capacity is fast discrediting it in the eyes of the population. But, in fact, it is the entire international architecture of aid that has been faulty so far.
Second, rushed timing should give way to slower pace that can bring in a lot more Afghan “buy in”. Time used to seem urgent back in 2001 for immediate deployment of international troops, instant democracy, abrupt opening up to market forces, and short term projects designed to show rapid results. In this rush to provide quick fix solutions and imported models, the national context and the nature of Afghan society was largely ignored. What was the use of formal, often modelled after Western institutions of democracy, when literacy levels were so high? What was the use of a rushed liberal market economy when national production was at a stand still, and the main lucrative part of the national economy, drug production, happened to be illegal and very receptive to informality? The market was captured through rampant monopoly and speculation, imports zapped up local incentives, and prices skyrocketed. When instant trade was prioritized over long term agriculture, the every day bread became tied to volatility of global food crisis and Pakistani politics. Massive and sustained investment in agriculture through irrigation and dam constructions, in job creation through public works, and in the education system are long term projects long overdue that could prevent future vulnerabilities.
Third is the imperative to better understand and accept the nature of Afghan society, even if it may not be modelled after the expectations of external agents of “modernization”, the hidden word behind all the talk about “reconstruction”. Ultimately, Afghan traditional society is inherently collectivist and religious. Tribal leaders, local councils (shuras/jirgas), religious actors (ulemas), and religious institutions such as the mosque and the madrassas provide moral authority in communities. They have considerable potential to strengthen bonds, pass on information, perform charity and redistribution of resources, and even provide security. Yet government officials and western donors are often reluctant to genuinely engage with them either for lack of familiarity or stereotypes that they are opposed to modernization. But these perceptions miss the point. It is necessary to establish genuine dialogue in Afghanistan about the “modernization” project underlying the grand bargains and how it can reconcile with traditional society. That conflict is played out every day in the National Assembly and among the 95 political parties. It is a genuine conflict and should not be avoided, denied or manipulated. Yet caution is necessary: It is the Afghan state and society that need to take the lead in defining the relationships. External actors have to understand how they work, but be very careful about denying their role or trying to eliminate them with their own understandings, and one may say prejudice, towards secularism and modernity. Fourth, the ownership of the peace process is ultimately in the hands of the Afghans themselves. This may be an obvious statement but it is not enacted. Negotiations with the Taliban for example are being carried invariably both by the government and by different international actors, often in secret, sometimes along contradictory dictates, and always unclear about what is the power that is going to be shared. Shrouded in this ambiguity, peacemaking is not a national reconciliation project that can be properly owned by the Karzai government and the Afghan people. There needs to be a national campaign of peace, one that will surely be slow, and rift with ethnic, clan and religious interests. But the international community should trust that the battle is now going to be using political instruments and no longer in the battle field, if it genuinely trusts the democracy it imposed.
If the political project should be Afghan owned, so should be the military one. The Afghan army is suffering from lack of capacity, training and equipment, while the number of international troops increases. Surely Afghans, who have learned about war the hard way, know their territory and the tactics of their enemies, better than others? It is legitimate to ask why the country which was supposed to gain sovereignty still has its security provided by international forces whose timetable and mandate have not been put through a vote in the national assembly.
If the international community continues to think instrumentally about Afghanistan in its quest to defeat so-called international terrorism, and does not trust the Afghans’ pace, their values, their resilience, and ultimately, their sovereignty, peace will remain a fantasy no one can afford anymore.