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08 Oct 2008

An alternative course for Afghanistan

US and Afghan soldiers training

US and Afghan soldiers in April 2008

Ortwin Hennig offers some provocative food for thought and discussion about charting an alternative course for Afghanistan.

By Ortwin Hennig for EastWest Institute (EWI)

I would like to begin with four theses summarizing at the outset what I will later elaborate on:

Thesis 1: Barack Obama wants more American and European troops in Afghanistan. But are more soldiers the solution? Would more soldiers really make a difference? My answer is “no.”

Thesis 2: We cannot refashion Afghan society after the Western model. Afghan society is to a large extent still pre-modern, if not to say pre-feudalistic and, on top of it, Islamic. Any such attempt runs counter to their traditions and their religious, historical, cultural, social, political and judicial values and is bound to fail for that reason.

Thesis 3: If it is correct that less than 10 per cent of international aid for Afghanistan goes directly to Afghans, it is fair to say that the international “aid business” contributes to the fact that Afghanistan, 7 years after the fall of the Taliban, is still facing a fundamental crisis of governance. Therefore, stepping up the civilian effort is also no panacea.
Thesis 4: I get the impression that nobody in Afghanistan beyond the inner circle of President Karzai wants to or can build a functioning Afghan state – with the exception of the Taliban. This impression makes me say that at the end of the day, the best we can hope for is a regime run by more moderate elements of the Taliban: one that is pious but without Al-Qaeda connections, Islamic but not terrorist, not Western but not hostile to the West.

So it makes perfect sense to talk about alternative futures for Afghanistan.

The following observations on alternative futures for Afghanistan are of a purely personal nature. Some of you might find the views I am going to share provocative, and that’s what they are meant to be: food for thought and for discussion.

Potential for military success is limited

Our approach is too militarized. We need to demilitarize our strategy. There are about 50,000 foreign troops already in Afghanistan. Another couple of thousand, or even ten thousand more, will hardly change the situation. If we were to have the same density of soldiers per square kilometer as in Kosovo, NATO would have to deploy another 300,000 or 400,000 troops.

First, we haven’t got that many soldiers. Second, an increased military presence would only fuel the ongoing insurgency. Third, we must not forget that neither Alexander the Great 2,300 years ago nor the British in the 19th and 20th centuries nor the Soviets twenty years ago could militarily succeed in Afghanistan. (The Soviets eventually had 150,000 soldiers stationed in the country).

And by the way, soldiers cannot build political and administrative structures. The military is no alternative to politics, civil administration, and development.

We won’t succeed if intervening forces invest more into their own infrastructure than into civilian capabilities within the state and society.

Historical experience in Afghanistan – but not only in Afghanistan – tells us that foreign military intervention doesn’t reduce violence: it instigates it. After seven years, our troops aren’t considered liberators; they are perceived as occupiers. We haven’t succeeded in communicating to ordinary Afghan people the reasons for our presence in their country.

Solutions must be local

At the same time, our strategy needs to be “indigenized.” Foreign powers cannot run Afghanistan. Afghans need to be in the driver’s seat.  Afghan authorities need to demonstrate real commitment. The international community needs to foster local ownership and really cooperative approaches. All this is lacking to date.

War against terror is incompatible with peace

As I said, an increase in the size of security forces is not conducive to stability and peace, nor is it an effective tool to fight terror. Also, external promotion of democracy according to a western model has not and cannot counter terrorism in Afghanistan.

Our two goals - to fight terrorism on one hand and to reconstruct a peaceful new order in Afghanistan on the other - contradict each other. They are not compatible with each other. One excludes the other. Due to these divergent goals, a coherent strategy for Afghanistan has been lacking to date. The focus on military means reveals an absence of political approaches and a lack of a long-term strategic planning. To maintain that we defend our security at the Hindu Kush is no strategy.

Follow the money

Maybe the international community has not done enough economically on the civilian side. If my figures are reliable, we have poured 9.5 billion euros into Afghanistan since 2001.  Sure, this is only half of what has been promised. But a third of this amount of money has been spent on foreign advisors, foreign aid workers, and foreign suppliers. A sizeable portion has gone into the pockets of Afghan officials. Without much better coordination, the impact of civilian efforts will also remain limited.

What’s the endgame?

I am concerned that NATO is about to tie its own fate to that of Afghanistan. A realistic approach would instead require NATO states to jointly start defining the criteria to measure success and failure and to develop exit strategies to ensure that the alliance acts together when victory is not forthcoming. Such approaches are also lacking. We are muddling through. The internal cohesion of NATO is at stake.

This situation need not occur if NATO member states admit mistakes and are ready to not only think about Afghanistan, but also to rethink it.

Is a military presence necessary?

We all understand the geostrategic importance of Afghanistan and its region for the West. But to safeguard our interests there, we need not maintain a military presence in Afghanistan the way we do. The US already has safer and less expensive basing agreements of equal strategic importance in the region in countries such as Uzbekistan and Mongolia (as Bartle Breese Bull has pointed out in the International Herald Tribune).

A regional approach

When talking about alternative futures for Afghanistan, we need to talk about our failure – or better – our lack of political will to engage either the Taliban or regional powers in search for solutions. We are talking here about Pakistan, Iran, India and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, of which Russia and China are members. Unless we understand that a regional approach is essential and act accordingly, the stalemate and our ad hoc approach will continue.

A regional approach, the likes of which EWI advocates, will not be set up overnight. But the international community must put energy and focus into it if we want stability in Southwest Asia.

A traditional approach

Afghan society is strongly influenced by tradition. Governance in Afghanistan was never centralized, but depended heavily on local politics and elites. Afghanistan has been characterized by a lack of central state structures or even thinking in state terms. Instead, village communities, clans, tribal groups and religiously defined local committees form the most important reference points for political identity and action in Afghanistan.

The international community and the government alike have been excluding these traditional elites, even though they enjoy a high level of legitimacy. They exercise influence over people. They should be the transmission belt between the international community and the people.

Also lacking is an attempt to bridge the gap between modern and traditional structures and to integrate traditional Afghan institutions such as jirgas and shuras into the formal political process. These failures have alienated the Afghan people and thus led to stagnation in the state-building process.

A cultural approach

It is true that civil society terms such as “participation,” “cooperation,” democracy,” “gender,” “equality,” etc. have existed in Afghanistan in the past. The problem is that today they are associated with external influence and a lack of autonomy in the population, and thus are met with mistrust. At the same time, people feel that their own values and norms are considered inferior and anachronistic.

In a country that is pre-modern, and where state structures are practically nonexistent, the focus on a politically defined civil society is an extremely controversial approach and it risks perpetuating the potential for conflict. Our thinking and our deeds should reflect their state of mind and their political culture, not ours. We do talk about cultural sensitivity, but we often don’t live up to it.

Keep it local

There is no need for the massive foreign expertise that we have been witnessing in Afghanistan. More engagement and assistance do not only produce duplication, competition, and a waste of human and financial resources. They are also unproductive, if not counter-productive. For example, the Afghan state apparatus and administration have weakened since the intervention, not least due to a strong brain drain to international NGOs, who pay much better than local employers. Development, including in the humanitarian field, should be driven by demand, not supply or donors.
What’s our mandate?

The return of a regime with some - even moderate - Taliban members and still based on a strict interpretation of Islam would, of course, be traumatic. But if a majority of the Afghan people were to let this happen, would it be our moral and political obligation to stop it? Would we be obliged to do it as long as none of our vital interests are concerned, no threat to world peace and no genocide?

Ortwin Hennig is a Vice President of the EastWest Institute and Head of its Preventive Diplomacy Program. He is Brussels based.

Editor's note:

Text of remarks made at the first EWI Study Group meeting on Alternative Futures for Afghanistan and the Stability of Southwest Asia.


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