The Real Transition That Afghanistan Needs

The Afghan guessing game is intensifying. Nobody can accurately predict what will happen in 2014 – the “transition” year – when international ground forces finally exit and a new Afghan president is elected. Pessimists foresee the outbreak of civil war and a rise in the number of safe havens used by international terrorists. This current rise in attacks, assassinations and abductions around the country will increase their anxiety.

May’s Nato conference in Chicago saw world leaders promise more cash to bolster Afghanistan’s fledgling security services, but can we not learn from history and recognise that no matter how much money and lives are expended on military intervention and training, more soldiering and policing will not deliver long-term security.

Military force seeks to prevent insecurity but ignores its root causes. Afghanistan’s insurgencies find acceptance among the poorest, most marginalised communities. These are villages in remote districts that are neglected by government and aid agencies. As US General Eikenberry was fond of saying, “where the road ends, the Taliban begins”.  Roads are important, but providing quality services that vulnerable populations can reach is vital.

Afghanistan’s under-development remains shocking. One in two children under five is chronically malnourished. Nearly half of school age children are out of school. Around half the population is underemployed. Over a third of the country lives below the poverty line. In such precarious environments, religious extremism, narco-trafficking, criminality and corruption thrive, for survival is paramount.

Undeniably there have been achievements over the past ten years. Access to primary health care has increased from 8 percent of the population to more than 60 percent. Access to electricity has increased by 250 percent. The Afghan government has increased its ability to collect revenue. And, yes, thousands of kilometres of roads have been constructed. Donors, development partners and NGOs have played a critical role in supporting Kabul in these and other areas.

But the fact remains that, despite over ten years of enormous foreign investment in Afghanistan, the lives of ordinary Afghans have changed little. About 40,000 Afghans die each year due to poverty and hunger. This figure is fifteen times more than casualties from war. Yet NATO has spent more than twice as much on its intervention in one month than all the combined international aid spent on social protection in eight years.

2012-03-24 14.08.22

Investments in the basic building blocks – quality education, nutrition and rural livelihoods – have for too long been dismally low when compared with the vast sums disbursed on governance and more “visible” macro-economic projects deemed to be the “silver bullet” for Afghanistan’s future GDP.

The poorest Afghans have understandably grown disillusioned with the corruption among Kabul’s political elites when tax-payers’ money should be going towards improving people’s social services. These Afghans naturally start to view the international aid community as equally self-serving and hypocritical. No wonder then that they accept the alternatives that are pressed upon them by Islamist clerics and their foot soldiers.

Next week, Afghanistan’s stakeholders from the international community will meet in Tokyo to discuss development. This is a major conference and needs to be treated as such, not simply as another stop-off in the Afghan diplomatic carousel.  It presents a genuine opportunity for policymakers to shift the balance of power away from war-weary Generals to the Ministers, Ambassadors and senior UN officials who will be responsible for the country’s future development.

If the “transition” is a discursive tool, let us frame it this way: the following two years should see the international community transition from a security-dominated agenda to a development agenda. Critically, this agenda must prioritise the most vulnerable Afghans’ needs and focus on sustainability. The UN must become the major partner in supporting the government’s development strategy.

One thing is clear: the elephant in the room at Tokyo will be the abject lack of human development in Afghanistan; that is, the international community’s failure to help the country’s poorest. Everyone there will be aware of it, but few will have the courage to speak up and propose solutions.

When aid targets the right people directly, it can work. The National Solidarity Programme, funded by the US, UK, Canada and Denmark among others, has empowered communities across rural Afghanistan to spend US$1.2 billion on their own development priorities. This kind of development practice is helping hundreds of thousands of Afghans move out of poverty. What’s more, such measures improve security, cheaply.

As western constituencies vote for accelerated troop withdrawals, and the military aid teams pack up their bases, and the media spotlight moves away from this country after over ten long years, we must finally transition to a more realistic approach. Spending a greater share of limited budgets towards ‘smarter’ development will improve the lives of millions of Afghans, both immediately and in the longer term.

Reducing poverty and hunger, preventing illiteracy and disease – these are not only inherently good things, but they also make communities less amenable to an insurgent’s methods of persuasion. This clearly benefits Afghan people and will go some way to relieving the concerns of a worried, if tired, international community.

Ghosts of Afghanistan: The Haunted Battleground

Old fort nr Bamiyan

Jonathan Steele has written a book that is brazenly illuminating. Ghosts of Afghanistan charts a sinuous and sobering history of the country over the past thirty five years. The results are grim reading but also perversely satisfying, as the categorical exposé of hubris always is.

Steele assiduously points out the many oversights of the Soviet and US campaigns in Afghanistan to teach us to learn from these mistakes. “The biggest lesson of recent Afghan history,” he writes, “is that it is wrong for foreigners to arm factions engaged in civil war. For foreigners then to intervene with their own troops is even greater folly.”

Rather than using chronological narrative form, Steele opts for myth debunking to shed light on the crisis. Thirteen myths are dispelled throughout the book. Some are more pertinent to the current Afghan context than others. Myth eleven, for example, writes Steele, is that the Taliban invited Osama bin Laden to use Afghanistan as a safe haven. The ramifications of this misguided intelligence were enormous. It became the principle rationale for the U.S. invasion.

Ghosts benefits from Steele’s thirty years plus of reporting on both the Soviet Union and Afghanistan. The prose is clear and lively. The personal anecdote is never far away. His history is well-researched. Steele examines WikiLeaks’ diplomatic cables from actors such as former U.S. Ambassador Eikenberry to demonstrate the increasingly cagey U.S. relationship with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, as well as the support the Pakistani intelligence service provided to the Taliban.

Steele also offers interesting analysis into reasons for U.S. reluctance to entertain a political solution between the Afghan government and the Taliban, based on America’s historical experience; namely, the success of fought victories in the Civil War and the two World Wars, versus their unsatisfactory negotiated settlements in Vietnam and Korea.

Where Steele perhaps comes up short is in his exploration of ghosts, if only because he could have taken it so much further. The Soviets called the mujahedin dukhi – ghosts – since they were so shadowy, much like the Taliban for the U.S. military today. But if today’s various insurgent factions remain spectres in the eyes of the West, then so too does the country as a whole.

This metaphorical ghostliness, or more precisely, misperception, strikes not only at the heart military failings in Afghanistan, but actually at the whole notion of foreign intervention in a weak state that has been – and remains – so weakly understood by outsiders working in the country. This military myopia stems from an overwhelmingly ‘blind’ international civilian engagement. And this breeds the myth-making that has partly caused such tragedy in Afghanistan.

Times Literary Supplement