Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Afghanistan Project: After the 2009 Presidential Elections

The Afghanistan Project in the coming five years:

Like many Afghans of my generation, I was born during a communist coup d'etat, spent my childhood against the background of an anti- Soviet Mujahidin struggle, and became an adult during a civil war which resulted in the rule of the Taliban. In al three eras the transition of political power in Kabul was accompanied by bloodshed. This is an experience that millions of Afghans share. Given this violent past our present democracy does represent a change for the better despite all its shortcomings. Afghans have learned over the last eight years that political leadership can no longer be gained by force. This is a reality that is hard to understand unless one has lived in Afghanistan, and has experienced the many violent changes of power first hand. Even until as recently as eight years ago, overthrowing the regime in Kabul by using violence was considered normal, if not natural. If in the short period of eight years, Afghanistan has learned to embark on two elections with people risking their lives to cast their votes this war is most certainly not a lost cause. Afghans have proven themselves as quick learners, easily adapting the global standards of civilized politics. Dismissing this success is not only unfair, but also amounts to making a mockery of those who cast their votes despite widespread threats.

As the government in Kabul is preparing for a new term, the international community’s 'warnings' have increased tension in the country. But at this moment, it’s essential for both sides to act responsibly and make joint efforts. It’s equally crucial for the international community to respect Afghans and bear in mind the country’s conditions when formulating their expectations of Afghanistan. The international community’s contradictory policies have confused Afghans. For example, the United States and its allies are fighting a war to save the world from terrorist attacks and are trying to strengthen the Afghan government to help protect its people. Afghans appreciate this cooperation but find it unsettling when the same international community threatens their government with withdrawing support or reducing the provision of resources to the country. The international media is quick to politicize such policy debates but it is the militants who ultimately take advantage of the growing mistrust between Kabul and its international allies. They win the propaganda war.

Similarly discouraging for the Afghan public is the United Nations’ recent decision to relocate 600 of its international staff because the move shows that despite its undeniable commitment to Afghanistan, the UN is nonetheless ready to pull out immediately if it feels that the safety of its staff is compromised. But the truth is that the whole of Afghanistan is presently under threat. The United Nations’ sudden pull out might not have a significant impact on development or reconstruction efforts but on the propaganda war front, the move can easily be interpreted as another victory for militants, not only in Afghanistan but also in its neighboring regions. Once again, the militants win the propaganda war.

Given this situation, I believe that reflection on and assessment of the current challenges and finding solutions for them should be a starting point for both the Afghan government and its international allies as they embark on another five years of partnership. A partnership that requires both parties to listen to each other, and look at issues from a realistic ground perspective. The international community needs to draw its lessons from the mistakes of the past eight years in three main areas, diplomacy, defense and development. In terms of diplomacy, the Afghan government should be listened to, understood and respected. Afghanistan needs to be understood in its own terms, by taking into consideration its geopolitical context, rather than from the simplified perspective of a place susceptible to accommodating terrorists and insurgents. The international community has been looking at Afghanistan from the perspective of its Pakistani neighbor without paying attention to the history of conflict between the two countries which renders Islamabad a hardly impartial advisor. But Afghans now can be hopeful on the defense front because the new US approach has re-evaluated the situation through General Crystal's much more realistic lens. The general's efforts to understand Afghanistan is key for adopting the right strategy in fighting terrorism and insurgency in the country and the border regions. However, the General should bear in mind that an increase in the number of troops alone is not enough to win this war. The recent attack on British soldiers by an Afghan police has revealed that there are problems in the Afghan police force that have so far been ignored. The incident might be isolated and not part of an organized pattern of resistance to the foreign forces, but it definitely has made Afghans think that were service in the police and army force compulsory (as it used to be in the past), we would have been in a better security situation now. This is because compulsory police service would mean that all Afghans would have a family member in the police and army force and hence feel a sense of ownership of the war. The Afghan army and police’s morale is low partly because Afghans feel that their lives are viewed as less valued than the lives of their Western counterparts. The fact that investigation into hundreds of civilian deaths rarely results in improvement of the situation has not helped either. People continue complaining that sporting a long beard, wearing a turban and being dressed in baggy shirts and trousers does not automatically qualify them as insurgents. But many cases of arrests on the basis of such misconception are still pending in Bagram airbase and even in Guantanamo Bay. Afghan journalists risk their lives to protect their international colleagues in many instances, but we hardly ever hear their stories. Why? All these examples question the very basic notion of our humanity. Are we Afghans regarded as lesser human beings?

Development aid is an equally controversial issue and one can hardly argue for its effectiveness be it as carried out through international NGOs, the government, or the UN. The UN mission in Afghanistan is supposed to be that of a coordinating body, overseeing the international aid that comes to Afghanistan through donor countries who each allocate aid as per their own country’s strategy. But so far, the UN mission has proven itself unable to pull together all strings of funding mechanisms for Afghanistan. Surveys conducted in Afghanistan show that only a fraction of the aid remains in Afghanistan as a large part of it is used to pay for the salaries of non-Afghan experts. Contracts usually go to international private companies and even the international coalition forces award their projects to such companies. I recently read a 136-page application form for a coalition forces project that aimed at building a facility in Afghanistan and it took me almost a whole week to understand the project’s requirements. This makes it hard to believe that development aid is there to promote Afghan resources and give Afghans a sense of ownership. Given the present crisis of development aid accountability, the UN’s warning the Afghan government to provide evidence of accountability in governance or else face a withdrawal of support can reasonably be viewed as unfair. The lack of local capacity is often simply an excuse for outsourcing development work. The UN should be a role model of accountability and effectiveness so that Afghans can learn from them. This, however, is not possible at the moment. So for example, millions of aid dollars were spent in developing the Afghanistan National Development Strategy (ANDS) drafted by Afghan international expatriates but the strategy has not yet hit its basic indicators of 2008 (its first year of implementation). This is another example of aid ineffectiveness in the country. Many argue that the ANDS reads like a cut-paste version of Cambodia's Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper.

The UN rightfully expects the Afghan government to remove 'war lords and power brokers' from the government but fails to offer an alternative. UNAMA's transitional justice initiative died before it got any momentum, allowing war lords and strongmen to remain in power. Some argue ,this had put President Karzai in a difficult position and he has been holding together warlords because sidelining them would lead to rebellion and ultimately a civil war. This is especially the case when the figures in question have strong tribal ties and wield regional power. Would the UN be willing to start working on a new transitional justice initiative together with Afghan government in line with global justice mechanisms in the next five years? The UN should understand that the president has no choice but to accommodate strongmen and warlords for the sake of stability especially in present circumstances when the international coalition is no longer sure about their involvement in this war.

Considering these lessons learned, the Afghan government does bear the brunt of responsibility and Afghans expect their new government to live up to their and the intentional community' expectations this term. Afghans have for many years been questioning the government’s corruption, the lack of justice and the inefficiency of aid provision on the streets of Kabul and elsewhere in the provinces but their voices usually do not make it to the international media. The demand for a better government and justice isn't the international community's expectation alone, Afghans share this sentiment. While there’s no doubt that Kabul and its international allies have had problems, this does not justify dismissing the undeniable achievements made in the past eight years. There’s still hope and the present problems are simply part of growing pains for both Kabul and its allies.

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