Afghanisation’ has emerged as the buzz word from the London Conference on Afghanistan, held in January, one of only six international conferences held outside Afghanistan since 2001 to determine the country’s future. Following the gathering, it is now being claimed that the Kabul government has laid out its priorities for the first time. Henceforth, goes the argument, governance in Afghanistan will be Afghan-led, security will be ‘Afghanised’ and Kabul will take the lead in the process of reconciliation and reintegration with the armed insurgency. But to long-term observers of Afghanistan, the ‘new’ emphasis sounded very much like the old scriptures. Is this sudden emphasis on ‘Afghanisation’ just a coded reference to an exit strategy?
In fact, it was London and the same Labour government that, in 2006, hosted a conference that initiated the policy document called the Afghanistan National Development Strategy (ANDS). While far from perfect, that blueprint was and remains the seminal document identifying Afghanistan’s needs. It was finalised, adopted and endorsed by the international community in 2008 in Paris, along with pledges to route more funds through the Afghan government, allow Kabul to determine priority areas and plans for spending, and build and strengthen institutions that would allow Afghans to govern themselves. In other words, ‘Afghanisation’.
The supposedly new aspects at the 2010 London Conference were thus not the Afghanisation plans. Rather, the fresh issues revolved around a timeline for beginning the handover of responsibility for security to Afghan forces, allowing for the withdrawal of international troops. A ‘peace and reconciliation’ programme that would create the conditions allowing for this withdrawal was also an important consideration – sounding suspiciously like an exit strategy, rather than the professed long-term commitment. Western countries have tried to minimise the impact of their intention to withdraw troops by saying they would first build up the Afghanistan’s police and army forces. It is clear, however, that the troop-contributing countries are loath to wait until these two bodies are fully up and running. A week before he hosted the London Conference, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband appeared before the US Senate to emphasise that “however much national security forces are built up, they will not have a monopoly of force in a country like Afghanistan … local community-based initiatives are inevitable.” He concluded that the international community would need to consider supporting the latter initiatives in some circumstances.
This ‘new’ peace and reconciliation/reintegration strategy smacks of the same expediency – a chance to allow the international community to depart gracefully. In these instances, ‘reintegration’ refers to plans to buy off Taliban foot-soldiers who, it is felt, are in the insurgency mainly for economic reasons; while ‘reconciliation’ is seen as a settlement with the leadership of the Taliban based on a series of political concessions, which have not been defined to date. There is certainly little new in the reintegration proposal, as a national commission has been attempting to do just that since 2005, with limited success. Similarly, political reconciliation with the Taliban leadership remain nebulous, with the militants clearly maintaining that the Afghan state, in its current form – designed as a democratic Islamic republic with a modern Constitution and equal rights for all citizens – is unacceptable.
Worryingly, many influential sections within Western policymaking have begun questioning whether a ‘Western-style’ democracy is suitable for a ‘tribal nation’, while paying rhetorical homage to the Afghan Constitution. One hears such rhetoric in drawing-room conversations amongst internationals tasked with constructing policy for the country. A concrete example, however, is the emphasis on traditional justice mechanisms from the most influential partners. In a strategy document released by the US government at the end of January, President Barack Obama’s administration stated that it was “neither necessary nor effective to replace traditional justice mechanism with formal institutions”, adding that it would “help create space for traditional justice mechanisms to re-emerge in areas cleared of the Taliban”. While it is true that the formal justice system is not accessible to the majority of citizens currently, the traditional justice mechanisms based on customary law are deeply problematic. The Pashtunwali code, for example, includes the use of women as barter to settle debts, resolve disputes and as retributive payments. This is not only in the case of criminal law, but also in civil disputes. Laws also allow for retributive killings of family members of the person who has committed a crime.
Writing recently for the respected Afghan Analysts Network recently, Anders Fange, the country director of the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan, argued that one of the two fundamental mistakes made by the international committee was its “obsession to impose an essentially western state model and political organisation, completely ignoring the fact … that Afghanistan is a predominantly traditional society where a more unpretentious version would have been more appropriate and sustainable.” Fange argued that the loya jirga system of local gatherings, which would appoint representatives for decision-making, would probably have been better than the general elections. However, this argument does not take into account the fact that traditional mechanisms, which were only partially representative, have been vitiated by years of war, with community leaders being sidelined or subverted by the ongoing conflict and the emergence of money and muscle power.
This reading also does not even recognise that the current form of democracy in Afghanistan does not resemble any Western-style democracy, nor even any democracy in Southasia. As things stand, the Afghan system forbids participation by political parties, while its combination of system of single, non-transferable votes, along with its multi-seat constituencies, is designed to ensure political fragmentation and non-representational politics. The rights enshrined in the Constitution, the laws as well as the criminal and civil codes are not yet understood by the majority of those implementing them. In these circumstances, the contention that Afghanistan has had too much, rather than too little, democracy seems designed to allow Western |countries to look the other way while a beleaguered government in Kabul compromises on hard-won human rights and civil liberties.
On the next train out
If evidence were needed of the West’s short-term focus with an eye firmly on the door, it is clear in the stated goals of the ‘civilian surge’ made public by the recent US strategy paper, in which Washington states that it intends to pour aid into provinces where its troops are based, as well as use civilians as “force multipliers”. Both of these intentions run contrary to the best principles of aid delivery and humanitarian assistance, which must be independent, neutral and driven by needs, as underscored by the UN’s Humanitarian Action Plan (HAP) for Afghanistan for 2010, launched in November 2009. According to Robert Watkins, the UN’s resident humanitarian coordinator in Afghanistan, the plan had received only two percent of promised funding by mid-February. The HAP map, which identifies the needs according to area, clearly shows that the provinces most in need of humanitarian assistance are not the ones being identified by the international community for aid.
NGOs working in the field have also repeatedly drawn attention to the dangers of the militarisation of aid. Past experiences have shown that the use of military resources for delivering aid and humanitarian assistance, as well as the use of civilians to further military objectives, has endangered the role of real humanitarian personnel, in addition to developing non-sustainable projects. Those focused on short-term benefits, including perceived short-term gains such as the militaristic efforts at winning hearts and minds, have ignored this plea. In fact, the trend towards short-term spending with an emphasis on the pursuit of military and political objectives is likely to deepen.
Meanwhile, the UN, which has a coordinating role in Afghanistan, has been unable to exercise its muscle. Indeed, it remains in a state of unprecedented crisis following the unseemly wrangling over the August 2009 presidential elections. While the spectacular falling-out between the UN’s top man in Afghanistan, Kai Eide, and his deputy, Peter Galbraith, ended with the acrimonious departure of the latter, the fissures have helped those not keen on a strong UN role. The UN’s freefall during the elections has, however, only attenuated a crisis caused by confusion over its broader role and functions. Its political mandate, which includes supporting the Afghan state-building project, has mired the organisation’s country team in the political chaos, eroding its ability to play a neutral role in the intensifying conflict.
This crisis goes far beyond the remit of the country team, however. A stronger UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) depends partially on the skills of the UN leadership within Afghanistan, but even more so on the ability of the UN leadership in New York to give its mission some teeth. That has been singularly lacking. In his hunt to find a successor to the beleaguered Eide, who is expected to leave at the end of February, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon could do no better than appoint an official, the Swedish diplomat Stephen De Mistura, who first turned down the job. Clearly the last thing the UN team in Afghanistan needed for its morale was a reluctant envoy to lead them.
The UN’s role is likely to be further circumscribed in the near future. Presenting the HAP, the UN has admitted that increasing insecurity has meant that there would be greater dependence on NGOs and other non-UN actors to deliver humanitarian assistance. Decreasing access and diminished authority, following the chaos of the August elections in which the UN was in a supporting role, has compromised its ability to play the role of politically neutral referee – and the Afghan government has taken advantage of this. On 17 February, President Hamid Karzai signed off on an ordinance that rescinded the UN’s right to appoint independent members to the Electoral Complaints Commission, the only body that successfully challenged the electoral fraud in the August elections (see Himal December 2009, “Is it over?”).
The UN is in a catch-22 situation. While a strong envoy might help to re-energise the organisation’s mission in Afghanistan, it would almost certainly be rejected by the Karzai government. Following the worst attack on the UN, on its guest house in Kabul city in October, in which five staffers and lost their lives, the organisation withdrew (temporarily, it said) over 600 staffers. Asked about the impact of this withdrawal, President Karzai has said that it would have “no impact”, adding “they may or may not return. Afghanistan won’t notice it. We wish them well wherever they are.”
Increasing hostility between President Karzai and the international community has turned him from an international favourite into a barely tolerated partner. Having created and backed a system in which all power is centralised in the presidency, the international community is at a loss now that President Karzai is no longer amenable to their suggestions. Under the circumstances, instead of creating institutions and processes that could balance the sharing of power and decentralise administrative authority, there is a danger that the international community, especially the US, might be headed for more quick-fix solutions. Indeed, written into its stabilisation strategy are proposals for the direct finding of select governors and ministries. While this could well help to bypass a recalcitrant President Karzai, it will end up creating parallel structures of governance and multiple sources of concentrated power, thus further deepening the reigning culture of poor accountability. These individuals, paid directly by the donors, are likely to be answerable to the main funders and not to Kabul, further weakening any effort to build institutions. Yet for those looking for a quick exit, that could prove to be the answer rather than the problem.