Transformation in Afghanistan: "We" and "they" or "we" and "us"?

Posted in Afghanistan | 29-Jul-13 | Author: Prof. Dr. Ludger Kuehnhardt

Prof. Ludger Kuehnhardt (left side with white shirt), here on tour with a German parachute unit in Mazar-e-Sharif : “ We need: Partnering and mentoring professional elites in numbers much bigger than the usual student exchange activities. Developing joint progress reports .Engaging with the Afghan Diaspora in all possible ways.”

Following the current transition in Afghanistan (2011-2014), the international community has declared the next decade (2015-2024) an era of transformation. The path is too long to foresee and too complex not to fail in trying to predict it. It would be more wise to think in categories of options:

  • Afghanistan 2024 could be a solidly rooted Islamic democratic republic with rule of law, separation of power, parliamentary primacy, a vibrant civil society and an economy that is harvesting the fruits of substantial external investment into non-drug related agriculture, natural resources and the infrastructure of this new hub of the Silk Road.
  • Afghanistan 2024 could be a country fallen back into civil war, followed by a renewed Taliban regime exercising a rigid Wahabi-type of Islamic rule.  Warlords and thugs are enjoying the projection of their vulgar powers by the smuggling of weapons, people and narcotics. The   rest of the formal constitutional order that was installed post-2001 has been tearing apart.
  • Afghanistan 2024 could be a country that is not only threatening its own citizens but other nations as well. Unlike post-2001, the international community will not engage in a second-ISAF operation, unless provoked like the British in the mid-19th century to return to the Hindu Kush battlefield.
  • Afghanistan 2014 could be a country run by the Afghan military, or elements of it. After the withdrawal of ISAF forces, the Afghan National Security Forces remained  the only solidly rooted modern structure in the country. At some point, the army leadership claimed to be the only guarantor of stability and development. The military takeover was criticized by the UN and around the world while historians recalled similar constellations of a developmental military autocracy in places like Turkey, Indonesia, and, of course, Pakistan.
  • Afghanistan 2014 could be the puppet-state battleground for geo-political and geo-economic rivalries, engaging China and India, Russia and Pakistan, Iran and Saudi-Arabia. Efforts by the European Union and the United States to engage with Afghanistan and its external patrons were more limited than ever, especially compared with the situation post-2001. Neither in political terms nor in terms of economic interests, the West could match its former military presence in Afghanistan.

It is not be difficult to imagine further scenarios and their respective details. For the international coalition, currently organizing the transition of Afghanistan and approaching the self-declared transformation period, time has come to re-define with accuracy the objective of its Afghanistan engagement - and to precisely identify the instruments that can back-up the objective. Since 2001, the objectives outlined for Afghanistan have changed several times. The objectives identified with Afghanistan came sometimes belated. A country that commands its sovereignty and natural resources, that does not pose a threat to any neighbor and manages its own affairs on the basis of good governance, respect for rule of law and human rights - such a country cannot be "created" by an externally induced transformation. Any objective of this nature has to grow from within a given society, recognizing its political culture and social fabric, the traditions and aspiration of its people, the potential of its own resources and the connectivity of its existence with that of its neighbors and the wider world. All these are truisms for any country on earth. In the case of Afghanistan, for a long time the starting point has been torn by the most vexing conflicts of the past generation. As a consequence, Afghanistan has become the other, the exceptional. To return to normalcy, to become just another normal country would be a great relieve indeed - for Afghans as well as for their neighbors and partners across the globe.

The planned era of transformation is meant to be accompanied by "Resolute Support", a mission that stretches the security component toward training and assistance (with the famous hub-and-spoke structure). The problem of Afghanistan has never been the lack of talented people or even properly educated ones. The problem of Afghanistan has been the existence of weak modern structures as compared with the rigidity of prevailing traditional ways of organizing life and the society. None of this will disappear soon - or should even made to disappear if one takes the recognition of cultural rights seriously. The real challenge for Afghans and their international partners will be to balance traditions with modernization, cultural identity with transformation and change as constitutive for the age of globalization. These are principles that make the international order acceptable for every nation and these are principles that can accommodate the desire of all human beings to lead a life in dignity.

For the West, these general remarks have certain implications if applied to our relationship with the Afghanistan we want to accompany through its next stages of transition and transformation. Here are the most obvious implications:

  • The strong military presence of the international coalition has not succeeded in transforming the relationship of "we" and "they" into one of "we" and "us". In fact, the distance between ISAF and the local population has grown over the years.
  • The gap between rule-abiding Western ways and oriental processes of negotiation is exacerbated by the different meaning of time, order and commitment. While in the West, loyalty is primarily to the direct family and to abstract legal norms, in the oriental context of Afghanistan, loyalties stretch across the lines of an extended family and toward ruling personalities.
  • No matter the promises and potential outlined in the different accords with Afghanistan - from the 2012 Tokyo Mutual Accountability Framework to bilateral, regional or multilateral  cooperation agreements with Afghanistan - the fact of the matter is that Afghanistan will essentially remain a place of its own choosing.

When you walk the streets of Mazar-i-Sharif or Kabul in the summer of 2013 you get away with the impression that people are longing for the ordinary, for a decent and reasonably predictable life. They care for their loved ones and want to apply their talents, as anywhere else on earth. The closer one gets to the soul of the Afghan culture, the stronger this feeling. The closer one gets to the contrasting ISAF realities, the stronger a sense of alienation. This does not mean that ISAF would in any sense do a bad or indecent job. The opposite is true: it is a peace mission for which the international coalition can be proud and every one engaged with must be applauded. But Afghanistan needs to go on. Afghanistan will continue to develop a new sense of ownership and self-respect that is not defined by old wounds and new conflicting interests. Afghanistan will remain a place harder than many others but should be supported in becoming as ordinary as any other place on earth. Security across Afghanistan, if necessary with a robust mandate to fight cruel violence that harms people lives is the first priority. This goes beyond bombing and suicide attacks against innocent civilians in general. The killing of the most prominent Afghan female police officer in Helmand province in early July 2013 or the efforts in the Afghan parliament to redress the rights of women are alarming signals for a possible de-Westernization of women rights post-2014. Ownership of Afghan affairs by Afghans will be the second most important  priority - for Afghanistan and the wider world. In light of the cultural traditions of Afghanistan, this will always include Islamic components which potential contradict Western values. The real challenge for both modernizing Afghans and their Western supporters will be to distinguish power interests from cultural matters (often exploited and misused in the service of power interests). It will remain essential to jointly define minimal standards of human dignity and civil rights that can accommodate decent Pashtun Islamic traditions with modern constitutional principles. This is of particular importance for the future of women and girls in Afghanistan.

There is no lack of strategies for Afghanistan and reports on Afghanistan. The EU Blue Book of 2009, the EU Country Strategy Paper 2007-2013 and dozens of elaborate web pages run by the EU, EU member states governments, the US administration and uncounted NGO's are part of this pattern. The trouble with most of them: These reports are driven by the desire to assess  Afghanistan or to do something for Afghanistan. Rarely, they come across as being designed with Afghanistan and meant to organize a future jointly with Afghans and the way they see it. After World War II, the transformation of Europe has been driven by the reconfiguration of inter-state-relations that over time became society-based communities (i.e. NATO and the European Union). No such thing has ever been contemplated with or even for Afghanistan. The only regional grouping Afghanistan has joined as partner and equal is the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC). Hardly anybody talks about it today in Afghanistan. SAARC is rarely understood to be a working community but at least it is a regional structure that includes the old foes India and Pakistan. To avoid that Afghanistan is torn between other geopolitical considerations, membership in a fragile SAARC may eventually turn out to be better than a phantom-community of Central Asian states or even of South West Asian states.

In light of the upcoming transformation decade, it would be forward-looking for the European Union and for the United States to engage Afghanistan and its neighbors, the Afghan state institutions and the Afghan civil society in new ways that go beyond the usual:

  • Partnering and mentoring professional elites in numbers much bigger than the usual student exchange activities.
  • Developing joint progress reports regarding the implementation of global norms and indicators, not just scrutiny assessments of Afghanistan and the way its leaders behave.
  • Engaging with the Afghan Diaspora in all possible ways in order to jointly contribute to  a broader notion of human security and a peaceful development in Afghanistan.

It is not too late to reverse the current trend of growing reciprocal mistrust between Afghans and their Western partners. Neither the legitimate government of Afghanistan nor the international coalition and its leaders would be well advised to pave the way forward with excessive suspicion and self-fulfilling skepticism. Realism yes and self-interests yes. But enlightened self-interest has always been more successful than trenches in which each party retreats. Afghan society will awake in the years ahead in ways that go beyond the past. Traditions cannot be eliminated by way of formulating international communiques. But the world must also recognize what is new in the emerging Afghanistan. Just to mention one example: New media are emerging and reach out to millions of Afghans. Mazar-i-Sharif, for example, is home to a private television channel named "Almas".  Committed young journalists, technicians and administrators are engaged in catering to the entertainment aspirations, but also to the needs of a society which remains predominantly illiterate. The name of the TV channel is the message. "Almas" means diamond, a raw and uncut diamond. Like Afghanistan 2013: The country is a raw and uncut diamond. To discover this basic truth and help cutting the diamond in a good way ought to be the essence of this year of preparation.