Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Our Role in Afghanistan

Some time ago I disparaged a new approach to helping failed states called communitarianism, in which teams of sociologists and anthropologists study indigenous power structures and determine how to transfer authority to them, rather than trying to fight corruption or build institutions.

Despite my criticism, I've been thinking about the theory ever since. Today I went to a lecture by Dr. John Watson, currently a prof at the Munk Centre, U of T and formerly the long-time CEO of CARE, and although he didn't use the same terminology, I think I'm a convert.

Stripped of all jargon, it's a pretty simple idea: Societies like Afghanistan have power structures that are different from ours, but they work, and if we try to "fix" them we will make things worse.

At a fundamental, personal level we in the west don't understand oral traditions. When we intervene in a country like Afghanistan we are more likely to destabilize the country than help. We apply our perspectives on the situation when we should be applying the perspective of local people.

Our policies in Afghanistan and Pakistan are not working. We are creating a civil war in Afghanistan - which we will lose - and we are serioulsy destabilizing Pakistan.

The view of Aghans is very different from ours. We think that Al Qaeda attacked us so we have the right to go after them in Afghanistan. They think that Al Qaeda are the heroes who drove the Russians out of their country, and many of them see us as just another military occupation that they will have to repel. But it goes further than that.

The Pashtun people in Afghanistan and Pakistan live by the Pashtunwali code, two tenets of which are Melmastia (that hospitality must be granted when requested, even to enemies) and Nanawateh (that asylum must be granted when requested, and even fought to protect). This code evolved because it is required for survival in the harsh mountain environment. The code is not an anachronism and it will not disappear. The code also contains a strong fealty to nation (Hewad), which is why the Pashtuns have historically joined armies to help protect their country.

When the US tries to force the Pashtuns to abandon the asylum they give to Al Qaeda, the US is trying to break their code - and if they do, the part of the code that makes them loyal to the state may break too. This US policy is currently threatening the stability of Pakistan. (It is destabilizing the state in other ways, too, because in forcing Pakistan into its war against the Taliban the US is making Pakistan act against its national interests.)

The Afghan state is not a modern state with modern institutions, but it works. It might be described as more like a mafia systsem, with head men that enforce the rules, take rents, and limit violence. Many states in the world work this way. It doesn't mean they are failed states, and they aren't the product of evil men. Powerful warlords and government corruption may be fundamental to how they work. Attacking those features could be very destabilizing. We need to leave them alone to the messy process of figuring out the transition to a modern state.

A chief in Afghanistan once said to Watson: I'm blamed for being corrupt and siphoning aid money. But when I build a school, it costs $50,000. When USAID builds a school, it costs $200,000. Who's the crook?

We need to base development policies on their popular perception of the world, not ours. Our policies are leading more states to the brink of failure.

Since World War II, only eight countries have transformed from underdeveloped to developed, and none of them were the focus of international donors. Of all the insurgencies since 1970, only 7% were ended by military force.

In the 1990s in Somalia, civil war caused the state to fall apart very quickly. That led to an international intervention, but after US soldiers were killed the US pulled out very quickly, leaving the country in chaos. However, there were still business people who wanted to make money, so they turned to local religious figures to lead. The religious leaders went to militias to help enforce their rule. That was the beginning of the Somali nation state. It would have evolved, but the US saw it as the growth of terrorism and so they got their friend Ethiopia to attack Somalia. In reality, the only way to stop terrorism is to stop asymmetrical military conflicts. Asymmetrical military conflicts always result in terrorism.


Bert said...

The view of Aghans is very different from ours. We think that Al Qaeda attacked us so we have the right to go after them in Afghanistan. They think that Al Qaeda are the heroes who drove the Russians out of their country, and many of them see us as just another military occupation that they will have to repel. But it goes further than that.

Not all of the Afghan's believe that, not by a long shot.

My wife worked with a Muslim lady whose family escaped Afghanistan about 16 years ago because it was getting too dangerous for them to live there. Most of the people she know's are deeply greatful to the coalition forces there. They do aknowledge that unfortunately, there are some civilian casulties, but that's mostly because the Al-Qaeda people hide out with the innocent people.

Yappa said...

According to theory of communitarianism, there is often a western-supported power elite in these countries that wants to bring in western institutions, but they are at odds with the rest of the population.

Plus, of course, there is always a plurality of opinion. I don't think there's any question, though, that our prolonged stay in Afghanistan is not going very well.

The Mound of Sound said...

I wouldn't say we're causing a civil war but we sure are babysitting one.

A former US State Department "expert" said that there has never been a Muslim state that succeeded without eliminating warlordism and tribalism.

In Afghanistan, we drove the Taliban out and handed the keys to the remaining warlords.

Until you understand just who these warlords are, their histories, how they operate and the grip they have on the Kabul government, the rest is fanciful talk.

Five tribes - Pashtun, Tajik, Uzbek, Hazara and Turkmen. Each of them has, at various times, been at war with each of the others. Each of them has, at various times, been allied with each of the others.

One thing you left out about Pashtunwali is the sworn duty to avenge. We kill one of them - a misplaced aerial bomb for example - they are duty bound to exact revenge.

I constantly wonder what part of "infidel" do we not understand. We are economically different than those people. We are religiously, linguistically, culturally, politically, societally alien to those people. They've seen infidels like us come and go. One of the few things they can take real pride in is their history of driving infidels out of their country.

You should read the report of Anne Applebaum (I think that's her name) just published in the Washington Post in which she describes how our foreign aid programmes are botched and how they often backfire on the Afghan society.


Bert said...

I'll have to agree with you that often times in many other countries there is a western supported government that tends to get prettyb corrupted. That's bad, and I wish there would be a way of ensuring that wouldn't happen. Unfortunately, in the power vacuum that was there after the Soviet withdrawl, the Taliban rose to power which turn out to be sympathetic to Al-Qaeda. I don't think anyone can honestly say the Taliban was anything good. How can you support a govenment who keeps women subjugated, wearing burkah's, and kills people who are guilty of educating young girls ?.
Things aren't going well in Afghanistan, I agree, but pulling out prematurely will be very bad. I think we ought to send MORE troops & resources, not less. Look at Iraq. By all accounts, the "Surge" has paid off over there.

Yappa said...

The notion "You can't mess with other country's power structures without fucking them up" may seem pretty simplistic, but I think it may be a code to hang on to (a prime directive, if you will) (just kidding) when wading through the maze of information about developing and failed states.

I've been puzzling over this issue for a long time. Post-colonial aid efforts have gone on in Africa for decades, and are only making things worse. Is it specific policies (like the IMF's) that are to blame, or is it that messing with power structures is just too hazardous to ever be successful?

There are always competing reasons for doing things - and western power elites in countries will always have a big say in critizing the indigenous power structure, leading us to believe that we have local support.

In Afghanistan the argument is that the Taliban treated women very badly. And they did. But in Iraq, Sadaam treated women very well - they had the highest education rate for women in the Arab world - and we don't count that as important. Of course there are a lot more arguments, but just citing an atrocity doesn't justify overthrowing a country's indigenous power structure.

Another example: in the US it's not uncommon for a CEO who's fired for incompetence to get a multi-million dollar golden handshake, but most of us don't call that corruption. Corporations and their lobbies spend millions supporting candidates and getting things in return, but most of us don't call that corruption. CEOs use their power to compensate themselves at hundreds of times the compensation of their employees, even though they're supposedly maximuzing return for shareholders, but most of us don't call that corruption.

And yet we feel justified in saying other countries are corrupt so we can send in an army to "liberate" people who haven't asked to be liberated.

Thanks for the Anne Applebaum mention. So far I've found two good articles by her at WaPo.

The Mound of Sound said...

You're right, the Taliban did treat Afghan women very severely and so does the new bunch of thugs pulling the levers of power. Here's something to chew on - the remaining warlords are also Islamist fundamentalists. It reinforces their power structure.

When female MPs get rape threats in the legislature and must don burkas and make covert visits to their own constituencies - when girls are still imprisoned for refusing their fathers' demands that they marry other old geezers - when poverty drives parents to sell their daughters to keep the rest alive - the plight of Afghan women is hardly improving.

As for the Taliban, consider how they came to power. In the wake of the Soviet ouster and fall of the communist government, Afghanistan needed a new ruler. Afghan rulers are chosen from the Pashtun tribe. The leading candidate at that time was Hekmatyar. He was so brutal, so given to butchery,so treacherous that Pakistan's ISI (intelligence service) installed the Taliban to thwart a Hekmatyar takeover. By contrast, the Taliban were moderate.

The less we know about these people and their country the more we're apt to view Afghanistan in a delusional, Western perspective.