Sunday, July 17, 2011

The Death of Afghan Utopia?

A more hopeful view of the future Afghanistan comes from another Foreign Affairs article entitled “Defining Success in Afghanistan: What Can the United States Accept”? It was authored by Stephen Biddle, Fotini Christia and J. Alexander Their and appeared in the July/August 2010 issue. The basic argument of the piece is that the Western dream of a centralized Afghan state based in Kabul embodied in the Bonn Agreement of 2001 and the 2004 Afghan constitution is incompatible with the historical past of Afghanistan. The authors argue that decentralized form of government has a proven historical track record of success and could work to achieve the stated national security goals the United States had in invading Afghanistan after 9-11. 1. To prevent Afghanistan from being used as a base from which to stage terrorist attacks against the United States and its’ allies and 2. To prevent, insurgents from using Afghanistan from destabilizing its’ neighbors like Pakistan. Two different types of decentralized government are proposed: decentralized democracy and mixed sovereignty. I will outline the authors argument for each and then add in my reactions.

Afghanistan is a highly decentralized society and any attempts to centralize it like Amanullah Khan (1919-29) and under the Soviet backed People’s Democratic Party in the 1970’s have failed. Following the Soviet invasion centralized authority broke down leading to a diffusion of political, economic, and military power across ethnic and geographic areas. Although years of war and chaos have unsettled the Afghan countryside local communities remain fundamental sources of Afghan identity and accountability. Under a decentralized democracy, Kabul would retain control over matters of foreign policy and national security while giving to the regions responsibility for things like drafting and enacting budgets, the ability to use traditional alternatives to centralized justice for certain crimes, to elect or appoint important regional officials, and perhaps collect local revenue and enforce local regulation.

This approach has the advantage of potentially winning over local populations who are mistrustful of centralized authorities in Kabul and as an added bonus, the clan and tribal structures that exist and have been legitimized over thousands of years meaning that the legitimacy crisis is avoided because they’d be continuing to operate the way they have for thousands of years. From a Western perspective, decentralization fits in with other post Cold War state building (Bosnia, Ethiopia, Sierra Leone, others.) and none of those states have failed. The authors list three challenges to decentralized democracy though: Taliban, Afghanistan’s lack of human capital, and Afghan power brokers whose autonomy, status, and ability to profit from corruption would be threatened. The Taliban could be better fought if the population supports the government and if the Taliban see their military options as limited, some of them might be enticed to reconcile (.) The big worry is corruption, the thought is that if we bring financial matters down to the local level councils can see how the officials are spending money in the area and lessen corruption. Further, it could make the central government more efficient by allowing local leaders to focus on local issues.

The downside which the authors acknowledge is that the U.S. would have to fight an extended counter-insurgency campaign, which as mentioned in the Robert Blackwell article, I referenced last week, the Karzi government doesn’t seem willing to let us fight as Karzi prefers a lesser American presence within Afghan cities and villages rather than a larger presence as counter-insurgency doctrine dictates. Furthermore, who’s to say that the local leaders don’t just line their own pockets as the average Afghan still wants for basic things or just serves the needs of his clan or tribe at the expense of minority populations. I think this may be one of the better options that I’ve heard for an Afghanistan that’s not a complete and utter mess, but I’d have to know more like “How are these local councils set up…are leaders elected to terms or appointed through local means. This basic outline sounds interesting, but the nuts and bolts of such a decentralized system worry me.

The other option is a mixed sovereignty, which is similar to decentralized democracy except that it would give local leaders the power to rule without transparency or elections, as long as they didn’t cross three red lines imposed by Kabul: hosting terrorist or insurgent groups, infringing on rights of neighboring provinces, and engaging in large scale theft, narcotic trafficking or exploiting state owned resources. Right there, I have issues because in the first place, Afghanistan is one of the most corrupt places on Earth already and the government has shown no ability to stop it. As the authors acknowledge moderate corruption would be permitted. Everyone’s idea of moderation is different…maybe all the corruption that currently exists is moderate to the Afghans and such a policy of non transparency worries me, who would know whether corruption has exceeded moderation. Afghanistan is not a small place…would Kabul be effectively blind in the outermost regions and lets not get started on the human rights prospects of the people we fought so hard to liberate. To the author’s credit, they share this concern stating that some provinces may go more conservative, but others may be more liberal than a conservative center. Can you tell I’m not a fan of mixed sovereignty? Then again, it really isn’t my choice. Any thoughts readers?

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