Success in Afghanistan: how to define it, how to make it happen
Success in Afghanistan: how to define it, how to make it happen
The Taliban’s Neighbourhood and Regional Diplomacy with Afghanistan (Online Event, 5 March 2024)
The Taliban’s Neighbourhood and Regional Diplomacy with Afghanistan (Online Event, 5 March 2024)
Speech / Asia 5 minutes

Success in Afghanistan: how to define it, how to make it happen

Speech by Nick Grono, Deputy President (Operations), at Policy Dialogue conference sponsored by the European Policy Centre, Brussels, 2 April 2008.

As the other speakers have focussed on the role of the international community, I intend to focus on those other critically important players, namely the Afghan government and Afghan institutions.

I agree with those speakers that there is not a military solution to Afghanistan’s problems. I also agree that there must be a political solution. But I don’t think that political solution is one of doing deals with the Taliban. There is a middle course. And that is to do what we and the Afghans have said that we would do for the last six years, but haven’t. We need to implement the strategy that the Afghan government has already signed up to – namely building governance and rule of law.

Too often in Afghanistan, when something doesn’t go right, straight away, we say it won’t work, or the Afghans won’t do it, so we need a new strategy. I’m beginning to lose count of the “last chances” for Afghanistan, and the number of new strategies I’ve seen over the past few years.

Let me give you just one example – the auxiliary police. Eighteen months ago the view of the Afghan government and many internationals was that there weren’t enough police in the South, so what we should do is create an auxiliary police – giving former militia a crash 10 day course in policing, and then letting them loose on the local population.  When this scheme was announced, Crisis Group expressed the strong view that this was abandoning all pretence of a professional institution in favour of handing out guns and uniforms to men with ten days training and doubtful command and control. "But we must do something NOW" was the resounding response. Now the programme has been deemed a failure, many of the men (and their uniforms and guns) never seen again. And in its place new ideas for militias and "auxiliaries" and "community defence" are being floated. Crisis Group is once again told there is not time to concentrate on building national institutions. "We must do something NOW". Imagine if that year that had already been lost had been spent training properly field levels leaders in the south and pushing deep reform through the deeply corrupt Ministry of Interior?

So what do I mean when I say governance and rule of law are the key? These are the buzzwords of international development these days – and to be honest it’s not always clear what we mean when we throw these phrases around. And I often think that those tasked with implementing them don’t have a clear idea of their objectives.

But let me explain what these mean in the Afghan context, and why they are so important. Because that will assist us in understanding how to get there.

Afghanistan has faced sustained conflict for almost 30 years now. And the enduring paradigm is that of abusive power-holders preying on the local populations. The power holders change – Afghan communists, Soviet military, mujahedeen, Taliban, and now re-empowered warlords, but the problem remains the same. The problem is that of highly personalised rule, a culture of impunity, and abuse of large segments of the population based on tribal, sectarian or ethnic affiliation.

Sarah Cheyes, a former reporter for American radio, who now runs an NGO in Kandahar, neatly summed it up, saying “In Afghanistan, the exercise of power remains personal. There are no institutions; there are only powerful men.”

The result is festering grievances, and an alienated population that turns against those believed responsible for the abuse – be they warlords turned governors, the government in Kabul, or the international forces who support them.

Far too little is being done to address these issues. Instead we – the international community and the Afghan government - favour quick fixes, such as arming local militias, empowering discredited warlords, making deals and giving impunity to abusive power-holders. This all goes to fuel the grievances of the local population, who understand the hypocrisy of such policies, and understand that they will continue to be the victims of these power-holders.

The international community reinforced this pattern of grievance and impunity back in 2001-2002 with our desire for a quick cheap war followed by a quick cheap peace. To achieve this we outsourced the fighting and stabilisation operations to discredited and, at that stage, largely disempowered warlords and commanders. The attitude was that they may be bad people, but at least they are our bad people. Then, with Western and Afghan government support, they entrenched themselves in their former fiefdoms and reverted to their old practices of human rights abuse, corruption, drug production and localised violence.

Some will say that  yes, mistakes were made, but we have to deal with our current reality.  But we shouldn’t give up on our strategy of institution building – the fact is that it’s not so much that it has failed, but we have hardly tried.  We were complicit in the creation of a highly centralised state for an historically decentralised country. We backed President Karzai’s desire to create a weak legislature. We largely supported his efforts to ensure political parties had no role in the system. The really important elements of a decentralised, and representative government, such as provincial and district councils, lack any power, or don’t even exist.

And finally, uncertainty about the strength and duration of the international commitment has encouraged the President Karzai and his government to turn to patronage as a means of ensuring they have a durable support base. So senior appointments, such as governors and police chiefs, are made not on basis of competence, but loyalty to those in power. This naturally leads to corruption, and fuels the cycle of grievance.

So what needs to be done. In very simple terms, we need to hold the Afghan government  and the international community to commitments they have already signed up to.

We need to commit to the long haul.

We need to emphasise institution building and accountability over favoured individuals in every area if stability is to prove sustainable in every area.

We have to learn from lessons of the past. Already most international talk for the next Presidential and Parliamentary elections focuses on who will win. Instead the international community needs to focus on ensuring a robust complaints and oversight mechanism while the Afghans decide the who wins.

The international community should use its control of the purse strings to persuade the government to act in the best interests of its people. This means accepting accountability, particularly at the local level, where improving representative institutions and service delivery is most needed to win hearts and minds.

It is vital that there is increased consistency and that we demand mutual accountability – both of the international community and Afghan government – to what has already been agreed.

Thank you.

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