The Value of State-Building vs. the Cost of Nation-Neglecting in Afghanistan
December 12, 2008
By M. Ashraf Haidari, Guest Contributor
Hours after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the international community rallied in solidarity with the United States for a collective response. They traced the source of the terrorist attacks to Afghanistan, a country that had slipped backwards after the end of the Cold War into a medieval nightmare. The extremist Taliban government actively encouraged radicalism and terrorism, made Afghanistan a global base for drug production and trafficking, and was responsible for smuggling light weapons and illicit goods.
Living under the Taliban regime, the Afghan people suffered from unspeakable atrocities while state institutions collapsed and the country’s physical infrastructure was completely destroyed. The international impact of Afghanistan's downward spiral was widespread, with 9/11 only the celebrity that finally mobilized the world to take action. Before that, proxy conflicts had driven hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees into neighboring Pakistan and Iran, exported drugs had killed millions in many countries—while the money earned from those sales funded the war machine of the Taliban and militants far and wide—and Al-Qaeda had freely used Afghanistan as a base to target American assets worldwide. This in turn led to the bombing of the USS Cole in October 2000 and the American Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998. Afghanistan embodied the consequences of international negligence in the post Cold War era.
Then on September 11, 2001 the world discovered Afghanistan, and made the nation the main focus of the global fight against terrorism. To the international community, it was accepted wisdom that leaving Afghanistan to the Taliban had been a huge mistake. And with perfect hindsight, everyone agreed that if the international community had stayed on to help rebuild Afghanistan at the end of the occupation by the Soviet Union in 1989, the country would not have become Al-Qaeda's base for global terror attacks.
Seven years on, peace remains elusive in Afghanistan. Despite the international community’s resolutions, the same peace spoilers that ripped Afghanistan apart in the 1990s continue to undermine its new democracy and threaten international security. There are a number of interdependent factors that account for the resurgence of security threats, which should be explored.
While it took the Pakistan-backed Taliban movement seven years to establish its rule over Afghanistan, coalition forces ousted them in 45 days. Collapsing like dominoes in front of the Afghan-led advance, the Taliban forces gave up and crossed over into Pakistan in late 2001. From late 2001 to 2006, Coalition forces focused mainly on hunting down the remaining leaders of Al-Qaeda, leaving thousands of former Taliban combatants to their fate. This effectively allowed the Taliban to regroup, find new sources of funding, and receive weapons and insurgency training in Pakistan.
Gaps in security and governance at the district and village level have permitted the Taliban to capitalize on Afghanistan’s vulnerable human environment to prosecute a protracted war of harassment and terrorism. Consequently, insurgency-related violence spiked in 2006 when a new generation of Taliban forces launched large scale terrorist and even conventional attacks against military and soft targets in the south and east of Afghanistan.
In the face of rising violence and insecurity, Afghanistan’s reconstruction process has lost momentum over the past two years. More than 4000 Afghans, many of them civilians, were killed in military actions in 2006—a three-fold increase over the previous year. Additionally, suicide attacks—a phenomenon unknown to Afghans before 2002—jumped to 118 from 21. The year 2007 brought another drastic leap in terrorist activity: an average of 566 terrorist incidents per month were recorded, compared with 425 per month in 2006. Of the over 8000 conflict-related fatalities in 2007, over 1500 were civilian. These numbers should be expected to continue the upward trend. The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) reported in September 2008 that 1,445 Afghan civilians had been killed in the first eight months of 2008, a 39% increase over the same period in 2007.
The past two years have seen the highest number of foreign military casualties since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001 forced the Taliban from power in Kabul. With 258 deaths in 2008 so far, this year has been the deadliest for foreign troops since 2001. Nonetheless, U.S. and NATO forces have registered important battlefield successes in 2007 and 2008, including the elimination of several key Taliban commanders, such as Mullah Dadullah. But international military efforts have been hampered by a lack of troops and reconstruction resources. This has prevented Afghan and international forces from implementing an effective "clear, hold, and build" strategy in the restive south and east of Afghanistan, where Taliban fighters with sanctuaries in Pakistan have managed to maintain a foothold and civilian influence.
Despite being the world’s main front in the war against terrorism, Afghanistan has so far received less per capita reconstruction and security assistance than all other recent post-conflict countries. According to the Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief (ACBAR), Afghanistan received just $57.00 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 low with 1.5 to 2 foreign troops per 1000 people, compared to 7 per 1000 in Iraq and 19 per 1000 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 institution. Overall, some $6 billion has been spent this way since 2001, according to ACBAR. Consequently, lack of resources has led to short-term planning, with most attention given to quick fixes at the cost of long-term development projects to address basic popular needs.
It is clear that the invasion and occupation of Iraq shortchanged Afghanistan's rebuilding priorities. 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 has yet to play a strategic coordinating role in Afghanistan. The institutional gap has allowed a bevy of actors with overlapping mandates, competitive relations, and minimal accountability for performance to dominate international presence in Afghanistan.
More than 70 countries, international organizations and non-governmental organizations are present in Afghanistan. Yet, they have consistently worked outside of the Afghan government. With resources diverted from Afghan state institutions, the government has been unable to retain competitive employees for effective service delivery, and has often lost them to higher paid jobs with international organizations. The resulting weak institutional capacity coupled with underpayment has caused corruption in the government system. This in turn has harmed the legitimacy of the government in the public eye.
Of course, without strategic coordination of aid implementation, there can hardly be a unified public diplomacy strategy to engage the Afghan people. This has not only discredited the Afghan state but also increasingly isolated and alienated the Afghan people—the very beneficiaries of international intervention.
In the fight against drugs, for example, there has been much institutional difference in individual donor countries on how to address the problem. While civilian institutions have advocated for an eradication-led counter-narcotics strategy, the military has opposed it every step of the way. Nonetheless, some civilian institutions have pushed for eradication—spending hundreds of millions of dollars only to eradicate poppy fields of sharecroppers—who are often the poorest of farmers. In this whole tug of bureaucratic war, the Afghan people have been left out, neither listened to nor assisted with the long term drug problem.
Between 2001 and 2005 the basic institutions of central government were established with the full participation of the Afghan people. But law enforcement institutions, which constitute the face of any government, have been neglected from the beginning. The implementation of judicial and police reforms that should have been the foundation on which other state institutions were built was shelved indefinitely due to a lack of resources. Consequently, a security vacuum has widened in areas where state institutions are either absent or too weak to protect people, particularly in the south and east.
The Taliban and Al Qaeda insurgents are aware of the vulnerable human environment in Afghanistan where they operate. They understand that Afghanistan’s weak state institutions and the slow pace of reconstruction have turned the tables in their favor. Put simply, freedom’s greatest enemy in Afghanistan is not the Taliban or Al Qaeda but under-reformed and under-resourced state institutions that cannot deliver basic services to people. Thus, when left without a choice, people resort to whatever alternative is available for survival. Unfortunately, narco-terrorists have stepped in to provide that alternative by offering people protection in return for poppy cultivation and passive opposition to the government.
The fact that Afghanistan’s challenges are inter-connected and feed on one another make the country 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.
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? 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 to strengthen nascent Afghan state institutions so that they will 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 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.
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 launch terrorist attacks daily inside Afghanistan, mostly killing innocent civilians. 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. Moreover, drug-consuming countries in the region and beyond must recognize their stake in ending narco-terrorism. Millions of lives and billions of dollars are lost to the war on drugs in Iran, Russia, Europe, and the United States each year. If major consumer countries invest preventively to revitalize Afghanistan's agricultural economy, they will save the lives of their own citizens and deal a blow to their own domestic drug mafias. When Afghan farmers see that their crops can be preserved with cold storage and transported to neighboring countries on a modern road, they will replant their previously uprooted orchards. But if all they perceive is neglect and mismanagement, these farmers will keep falling back on the guaranteed profits of a poppy crop.
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 15,000) with a flexible mandate to secure Afghanistan. The U.S. recently announced deployment of some 4500 additional troops to Afghanistan by early next year, and President-elect Barack Obama is committed to increasing America’s military and reconstruction assistance to Afghanistan as soon as possible. U.S. assistance should be complemented with more military and non-military resources from other NATO member states to bolster military efforts to contain and defeat the Taliban.
Ultimately, 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 three years, as well as jumpstart the reform and development of the Afghan National Police (ANP) to meet Afghanistan's security and defense needs.
For Afghanistan to realize these objectives, 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.
In spite of these daunting challenges, we should never forget the ultimate sacrifices of some 1000 international troops in helping free and secure Afghanistan. Indeed, seven years of international blood and money have gone into creating a legitimate government in Afghanistan—something decades of time had failed to accomplish.
Pre-war modern Afghanistan was severely undeveloped, and did not have close to the number of modern day health clinics. Pre-war Afghanistan was also lacking today’s number of primary, secondary, and tertiary roads; schools, vocational facilities, and universities; five-star hotels and wedding halls or private TVs, radios, and daily and weekly papers. Cell phones and the Internet have connected the Afghan people with one another and with the rest of the world for the first time thanks to international reengagement after the fall of the Taliban. The Afghan people appreciate these facilities and continue supporting international efforts to build peace in Afghanistan.
Nation-building has never been cheap, and it takes time, patience, and commitment. However, the alternative, nation-neglecting in a world where security is globalized—is far more costly. To this extent, 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 of the past seven years. All stakeholders—Afghans and non-Afghans alike—should understand the gravity of committing to success until the Afghan people can stand on their own and secure the future of Afghanistan.
M. Ashraf Haidari is the Political Counselor of the Embassy of Afghanistan in Washington, DC. He was previously a Peace Scholar and Foreign Service Fellow at Georgetown University, and formerly worked with the United Nations in Afghanistan, Central Asia, and Europe.
Copyright 2008 The Diplomatic Courier. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.
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