Special Report: Nation-Building Blues

Special Report: Nation-Building BluesA former NGO worker tells the inside story of Afghanistan's rocky path to "democracy"

On September 18, 2005 millions of Afghans defied the threat of violence to return to the polls for the second time in a year, this time to elect their national assembly. Over 5,000 candidates—men and women, ethnic minorities and nomadic tribesmen, former communists and royalists, Taliban and mujahideen—vied for the chance to have a say in the post-war future of their nation.

The elections marked the final step in the political process begun three years earlier with the signing of the Bonn Agreement, which established a timetable for the transition to a permanent, democratic government.

Afghans expected that President Karzai and the international community would prevent warlords – responsible for much of the country’s destruction during the civil war, and for ongoing human rights violations – from capturing the national assembly and provincial councils. Yet, when the provisional results were released four weeks later, more than half of those elected to the 249-seat lower house of parliament, or Wolesi Jirga, were the very same former fighters and like-minded Islamic conservatives.

The membership of the national assembly is likely to have a significant impact on how Afghanistan’s future plays out. During the Emergency Loya Jirga of June 2002, convened to choose the transitional government, the inclusion of large number of religiously conservative military commanders among the delegates quickly silenced open debate. At the Constitutional Loya Jirga, eighteen months later, factional leaders nearly hijacked the final text, securing several concessions to Islamic law.

Without the checks and balances of a legislative body, President Karzai has so far ruled by decree. Now that such a forum exists, many experts are predicting a confrontation. Factional leaders and conservatives within the assembly could mount a challenge to Karzai’s reform agenda – if they can overcome their own ethnic and regional differences. Alternatively, internal squabbling could neutralize the parliament, posing no threat to Karzai or deadlocking the government as a whole.

National elections often represent the endgame for international involvement in state-building, after which they begin to draw down troops and diplomatic offices. As the last of the concrete benchmarks mandated by Bonn, the international community might be tempted. But it should be loath to so.

Afghanistan has come a long way since 2001, but despite efforts by the Bush administration to portray it as a success story, the country is far from out of the woods. In addition to factional leaders and their militias, Taliban and other anti-government forces continue to wage a insurgency across the south and east. Illegal drugs are also spreading at an alarming rate, not only in the south, but across the country, undermining stability in the short and long term. Disillusionment is growing.

Afghanistan is the first “state-building” mission by the international community since the start of the “war on terror.” Unlike previous missions of its kind, involvement in the country was not motivated by primarily humanitarian concerns, but strategic ones. In order to deny al Qaeda terrorists a safe-haven in this failed state, a stable, legitimate government capable of meeting the needs of its people had to be recreated after the U.S.-led Coalition Forces toppled the Taliban.

The United Nations was called upon to provide assistance to the Afghan government with implementation of the Bonn Agreement. When the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan was established in March 2002, explicit in its mandate was the principle that, compared to UN state-building missions in Bosnia, Kosovo, or East Timor, the Afghan government would have the lead role in its own reconstruction.

In theory, this “light footprint” approach meant that the UN would rely on as few international – and as many Afghan – staff as possible.

In practice, years of war left few qualified Afghan civil servants. Extremely low and irregularly paid salaries – 30 dollars a month remains the norm – are a significant obstacle to recruiting and retaining qualified civil servants. Many key functions therefore are performed by contracted international experts. Efforts to overhaul essential government functions are underway, though reaching the provinces and districts has been slow. Reconstruction funds have flowed disproportionately to urban centers, particularly Kabul. Nonetheless, the National Solidarity Program and others like it have been set up to focus on district-level needs. NSP is expected to eventually provide block grants to locally elected councils in every village in the country, provided that insecurity can be overcome.

Limited authority outside of Kabul has further limited what the government can deliver on its own. For better or worse, international partners and NGOs are relied upon for results. Keeping the footprint light has not been without other compromises as well, such as fewer UN staff available for critical tasks like monitoring human rights violations.

The Bonn Agreement was an agreement among victors. The exclusion of Taliban representatives ensured that a significant portion of the ethnic Pashtun population supportive of the old regime was unrepresented. Sensitive but critical post-war issues like national reconciliation, disarmament of combatants, and accountability for serious violations of human rights, were absent from Bonn. These intentional omissions have since had to be negotiated, often at great pain, between Karzai and factional figures.

The leadership of the Northern Alliance—all ethnic Tajiks from the Panjshir Valley, home of slain leader Ahmad Shah Massoud—entrenched themselves in the ministries of defense, foreign affairs, interior, and the intelligence service, exacerbating the sense of exclusion among other Afghans.

Extricating them has been a priority ever since. Karzai and the international community have prioritized marginalizing the commanders by transitioning the Ministries towards civilian control and broader ethnic composition. This was a prerequisite for further reform, including establishing the Afghan National Army to replace the factional militias on the payroll of the Ministry of Defence, which remained a collection of personal armies rather than a unified force, as well as undertaking disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration of the militias.

Extending the writ of the central government beyond Kabul is a paramount challenge. Nearly four years after the initiation of the Bonn process, the central government still does not have a monopoly on the use of force. Weak security institutions struggle to challenge the de facto military control on the ground by Taliban and insurgents loyal to Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, as well as by factional militias. This year has been the bloodiest since 2001; attacks by Taliban are rising rather than dying out. With only 30 percent voter turnout in the south – compared to 50 percent nationwide, violence appears to have kept many eligible voters at home. Insurgents have targeted nascent government institutions, reconstruction projects, major political events, as well as Afghan and foreign staff responsible for implementation, restricting access to a wide swath of the countryside.

Marginalizing factional leaders, meanwhile, has had to be undertaken in a way that would not prompt them to also take up arms against the government. Nearly two years passed before a process for disarmament was agreed and then actually begun.

Nonetheless, the factions are gradually weakening through a combination of incentives and coercion. The electoral process has provided further impetus, as some factional leaders trade bullets for ballots. Nearly 63,000 soldiers had turned in their weapons by the end of the disarmament campaign for official militias in July 2005, while over 9,000 tanks, personnel carriers, and other heavy weapons have been secured.

Still, thousands of “unofficial” militias outside the MoD structure – many loyal to and supported by the very same commanders in charge of formal units – remain, especially in remote areas beyond the reach of the central government. These forces pose a greater threat to Afghans than terrorism. They commit human rights violations—from illegal taxation to rape and murder—with impunity, whether because their commanders are also local government officials, or because the latter are powerless to challenge the commanders. These militia allow factional leaders to continue exerting influence despite disbanding their official forces.

The militias also engage in the drug trade and other illicit economic activities. In 2004, Afghanistan accounted for 87 percent of the world’s opium production. The drug economy out-competes legal economic activity. Drug profits—some $2.2 billion in 2004—finance terrorists and unofficial militias, hindering reintegration of ex-combatants, fueling corruption, and tainting electoral politics. As cultivation spreads, it brings these ill affects.

The Afghan government has taken numerous steps to combat opium, but its strategies have largely failed. The international community’s preoccupation with eradication disproportionately affects poor farmers locked into share-cropping arrangements. The marginal reductions in supply so far achieved actually benefit traffickers, who profit from higher prices. Higher prices, in turn, fuel the spread of cultivation. More attention is needed to interdiction, in particular on roadways out of cultivation areas and to the border. Yet, even this will fail if it is not accompanied by economic development.

In the long term, reestablishing security and the rule of law depends on Afghan security institutions becoming self-sufficient. So far, they are not up to the tasks demanded. Consequently, the Afghan government still depends on international forces to provide security. While the Coalition Forces are responsible for war-fighting, the International Security Assistance Force is mandated to protect the political process.

There is no national peacekeeping force; ISAF was restricted to Kabul until August 2003, when widespread calls for its expansion were finally given a green light.

Instead, a collection of small Coalition and ISAF-commanded civil-military units, or Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs), are scattered throughout the country. Until late 2003, PRTs were based predominantly in a few safe provincial capitals, rather than in violence-plagued areas beyond the reach of civilian aid workers.

As the PRTs have slowly spread, their mandate has changed from digging wells and building schools—a role that provoked outcries from humanitarian organizations—to providing a security platform for projecting the authority of the central government. Enthusiasm for this role has varied; some PRTs appear more interested in their own security than that of Afghans, due to domestic political concerns.

Yet, PRTs are not a security solution in and of themselves, nor are they a substitute for a wider peace-keeping force.

Despite its shortcomings, the light footprint has proven the right approach in Afghanistan. Indeed, it may have been the only practical option for the UN. Insecurity, the counter-insurgency by Coalition Forces, minimal transportation and communication networks, and, not least, the existence of an internationally recognized government-in-exile under President Burhanuddin Rabbani, who stepped aside in Bonn for U.S. favorite Karzai, all hindered a large deployment of civilian experts. But its trade offs warrant consideration before such missions become the new paradigm for UN state-building.

State-building requires not only providing security, but also reestablishing the rule of law, and undertaking the nuts and bolts of governance: making policy, drafting budgets, collecting revenue, paying salaries, etc. In Afghanistan, this has had to be accomplished in parallel with ongoing war-fighting by the Coalition Forces. This latter agenda, while no less important, has been at times at odds with the state-building objectives pursued by the United Nations and wider assistance community.

The decision by the Coalition to continue supporting Afghan militias after the removal of the Taliban, for example, strengthened warlords opposed to the emergence of a strong central state, perpetuated violence and human rights violations, and ostracized a majority of the population. Meanwhile, prisoner abuse, culturally inappropriate searches, and civilian casualties erode public trust and provide propaganda for anti-government insurgents.

Afghanistan has also demonstrated that in a highly unstable security environment, peacekeeping forces must provide a nation-wide security umbrella for civilian reconstruction and political activities. Insecurity has greatly restricted access by the UN and non-governmental organizations to large areas of the country. This has deprived countless communities of a “peace dividend” and, in places, undermined confidence in the new government.

Inadequate security forces also have necessitated compromises in the political arena that, while regarded as necessary for security in the short term, have had negative consequences for the long term. The failure of the international community to more aggressively restrict political participation by factional leaders has prevented spoilers from emerging, but it has marginalized moderates and impeded extension of central government writ. Unable to stand up to factional leaders on its own, the government, too, has been forced to make deals damaging to self-interest. This, in turn, affects other critical areas, from ethnic and political reconciliation and emergence of rule of law, to checking the growing drug trade, and maintaining public confidence in government.

Not least, tensions exist between the international community’s twin goals of establishing a strong state capable of resisting terrorism and its ideals of democracy and respect for human rights. The Karzai government, with the support of the US and UN, have at times undermined democratic ideals in an attempt to outmaneuver warlords and religious conservatives. At the same time, the ongoing participation of factional leaders in the political process has generated criticism that the UN prioritized “peace before justice.” In 2002, the UN reported that, “Given ethnic reprisals, insurgency and factional clashes, there was a strong demand to…bring Afghan leaders into the peace process and reduce human rights violations.” Two years later, it is not clear that these goals are compatible.

There are strong public demands for some measure of accountability for past crimes, including by several individuals elected to the national assembly. At present, the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, the principle human rights body in the country, is undertaking a national consultation on transitional justice in order to determine whether past crimes should be addressed, and if so, how.

With the completion of the parliamentary and provincial council elections, the process laid out in the Bonn Agreement ended. It was hoped that Bonn would permit the emergence, by steps, of government broadly representative of all Afghan people. This has gradually been borne out, if imperfectly. There is, however, a long way to go before the underlying objective of Bonn – to “promote national reconciliation, lasting peace, stability, and respect for human rights in the country” – is achieved.

Significant hurdles remain before Afghanistan can be considered a success, whether the measure is the stabilization of the country and elimination of terrorism, or the achievement of justice and democracy endorsed in the Bonn Agreement. Either of these goals on their own are tall orders. Realizing both will require lasting involvement by the diverse international actors working in partnership with the Afghan government. The outcome will affect not only the long-term security and well-being of Afghans, but the international community as a whole.