I received the following essay on Afghanistan in an email from AEI. I thought it interesting enough to post here. It was written by Radek Sikorski in his trademark style; a mixture of optimism and hard-nosed reality.
For thoses not familiar with Radek, he’s a Polish emigre, a former Afghan guerrilla, an award winning photographer, a foreign correspondent, a political analyst and a former deputy defense minister of Free Poland. He’s currently a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
Nothing like hot dust in one’s face and the roar of a low-flying helicopter gunship to make a man feel alive. The last time I heard that sound in Afghanistan was in 1987: A patrol of Soviet Mi-24s were spitting gunfire at the house in which I was hiding with a mujahedeen convoy, in a village near Kandahar. This time, though, the sound of gunships–these decorated with the American white star instead of a Soviet red on the side–did not make me duck. On the contrary: The sound of helicopters in Kabul is now hopeful evidence of the foreign presence giving Afghanistan its best chance in 25 years.
True, the signs of the war with the Soviets and the civil war that followed are still everywhere: debris of old jets at the airport, carcasses of government buildings, posters instructing pedestrians how to recognize various types of mines. This is still a city under pressure, and security is tight.
Even so, it’s an improvement since my last visit, shortly after the fall of the Communist regime in 1992. Kabul was then still at war. Troops loyal to the defense minister, Ahmed Shah Masud, were fighting it out against those of the prime minister, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. They converged around the municipal zoo, where monkeys saluted, Soviet-style, if you pointed a Kalashnikov at them. The Intercontinental Hotel, a Kabul landmark, was a dark shell on a hill, riddled by RPG rounds.
This time, I collected my e-mail in the business center of the now-rebuilt Intercontinental. It’s a functioning establishment with giggly American girls in the bar, a cellphone shop, and a soon-to-be-completed swimming pool. From there I set off to pay my respects to the former king, Zahir Shah, whose presence back in his royal castle is seen by many Afghans as a symbol of a return to some kind of normality. In the slum that is Kabul today–the city was first destroyed, then overpopulated with refugees–the palace is a time capsule, with spacious courtyards and old plane trees evoking a grander past. The picture of a modest retiree, Zahir Shah did not fight to be restored to the throne and seems satisfied to play the role of godfather–“Father of the Nation”–to the new regime, which is, in a way, a pity. For such a particularly diverse culture as Afghanistan’s, a constitutional monarchy could have provided a focus of national unity instead of stirring the factional passions that are rising in anticipation of the presidential election, slated for October 9. Still, at 90 Zahir Shah is one of the few Afghan leaders in many a decade with a fighting chance to die of natural causes, which is saying something.
His presence is not the only evidence of a city returning to life. If you can call it progress, the BBC World Service is broadcast on local FM radio, there’s a “John Kerry for President” cell in Kabul, and you can buy Fahrenheit 9/11 on DVD before its release in the U.S. (My copy cost $3 and promptly malfunctioned.)
The returning refugees may stretch the infrastructure but they are the surest sign that people have regained hope at last. There are executions of foreign aid workers, armed clashes on the unruly border with Pakistan, and even car and suicide bombs of apparently increasing sophistication. But we will misjudge the dynamic if we fail to keep things in perspective. Tens of thousands of people died in this country every month in the 1980s during the war with the Soviet Union and it wasn’t news. Hundreds died every month in the 1990s from mines and the civil war and that wasn’t really news either. Today, casualties are in the dozens most months, and suddenly it is news, taken by some as evidence of imminent collapse. For the first time in a quarter century, more Afghans are now dying in car accidents than in politically motivated violence–a miracle, even allowing for atrocious Afghan driving.
There is also anti-Americanism, to be sure. Interestingly, it seems to rise the higher one goes up the social ladder. “Americans are worse than Russians,” a middle-ranking Foreign Ministry official told me indignantly. “They charge around in their vehicles, making everyone move aside. When the Russians searched houses they used female officers to go into women’s quarters, but Americans barge in regardless, which we find very offensive.” He seemed particularly angry that European-style restaurants in Kabul barred Afghans. This, if true, would be something like the Nur für Deutsche rule in Nazi-occupied Poland. I checked, though, and the restaurants mostly just apply Afghan law, which bars the sale of alcohol to natives.
On the other hand, most ordinary Afghans I met recognized that their liberation from the Taliban would not have happened without U.S. assistance. They also appreciated that NATO troops provide a check against interference by neighboring states, which had fanned the embers of war.
The most urgent question therefore seems to be not whether Afghanistan is on the mend, which it is, but which model of reconstruction does the most to encourage the forces of integration. There are at least two: Let us call them the Kabul model and the Herat model. In the capital, we have the classic internationalist project, as practiced all over Africa and more recently in the Balkans. Foreign-donor institutions are so central and so numerous–3,400 at the last count–that guidebooks routinely include city plans with the locations of the major U.N. agencies and NGOs. It is through this network that major international spending programs are effected. Features of this model include diplomatic or semi-diplomatic status for personnel, SUVs with distinct license plates, heavily protected offices, expensive outside experts, and accountability (if that’s the word) to international bodies with incomprehensible acronyms. Critics have called this system’s administrators the “Lords of Poverty.” In fairness, it provides many indispensables: Returning refugees receive food, farmers get seed, and the civil authorities bask in the legitimacy conferred by the outside world. In places as broken as Afghanistan, international agencies’ monitoring of human rights and press freedom can be a useful check on local abuses.
The drawback is that it is costly to get anything done. Foreign contractors demand total security for their personnel, which is incredibly expensive. The Kabul-Kandahar road, for example, which was a crucial test of the Karzai administration’s ability to project stability outside Kabul, was budgeted to cost about $35 million but ended up costing $300 million. More subtly, the foreign institutions, by virtue of having pay scales devised in richer countries, tend to pay wages well above the local average. Talent flows to where it commands a higher price, thus denuding native institutions of capable people. Over time, a dependency culture sets in.
Until recently, they have done things differently in Herat, Afghanistan’s third-largest city. As the capital of the Timurid empire, Herat used to be the Florence of Central Asia, and local pride is still strong. It was here that the original rebellion against Communist rule took place in March 1979, and Herat was also the first city to be liberated in 1992. The leader of both events was Ismael Khan, a charismatic former officer of the Afghan army. I met him in 1987, the year of the most intense fighting between the Red Army and the Afghan resistance, at a commanders’ conference in the caves near Sargah in the central region of Ghor, which Ismael Khan organized with one eye to future politics. He was subsequently captured by the Taliban and escaped the Kandahar jail, soon to rally with the Americans and to return to Herat in triumph.
The Western press now routinely refers to former leaders of the resistance such as Ismael Khan as “warlords,” so I was a little apprehensive as to what I would find on my return to Herat. It was with growing astonishment that I noticed signs of prosperity. The “little Hiroshima” in the suburbs–where years of Communist pounding had turned swaths of the city into dust–is now a busy commercial area with street lights, a new bypass, and hundreds of workshops. The stretch of desert on the northern hills has been completely built over with a vast customs terminal, a war memorial, and a string of municipal parks. The remains of the mausoleum of Queen Gowar Shad–once a gem of Islamic architecture–have been enclosed with a new wall to prevent further damage. The university is functioning again. Not only are girls attending school, I have never seen so much commitment to undo the damage inflicted by the Taliban: Female teachers work in shifts in tents pitched around main school buildings. Uniquely in Afghanistan, Herat has a drug-rehabilitation clinic, a mental institution, and a steady electricity supply.
I spent several days with Ismael Khan. The man took an obvious pride in doing things the Afghan way, using Afghan companies, Afghan personnel, and Afghan resources. I accompanied him to the provincial town of Shindand, where the remains of a huge Soviet airbase are sinking into the desert. He has remodeled the oasis, with its warren of medieval mudhouses, on a grid pattern that will facilitate transportation and trade. The main street has been covered with asphalt, and Ismael Khan pushed the button on the municipal water supply. A Soviet transmitter atop an old fort has given Shindand live TV for the first time. “If I had asked an NGO, they would have taken six months and spent millions. We did it ourselves in two months,” he told me proudly.
Interestingly, the effort to improve amenities seems to be going hand in hand with a reformation of some of the more repressive values. I listened to Ismael Khan speaking in the only clump of trees for miles around, to a mixed crowd of men and women in burqas and shawls. “How can you drive your women to suicide by keeping them locked up at home! How can you deny education to your daughters, so that they cannot help your own grandchildren! What kind of men are you to arrange your marriages and pay for your wives!” I suspect the locals are more likely to accept such radical change from a moderate Islamic leader than from a professional U.N. do-gooder. Forced secularization had already been tried by the Communists and it was as much a disaster as the Taliban’s fundamentalism. Change, to be accepted, should spring from the philosophical and cultural roots of Afghan society, and should happen at a pace that its conservative people can bear. Islamic modernizers in the mold of Ismael Khan seem to act as the functional equivalents of Christian Democrats and can provide a vital bulwark against fanatics.
Warlords and Dog-Washers
The Kabul elite finds it difficult to acknowledge the homegrown success of someone like Ismael Khan because, on top of all the other divisions within Afghan society, perhaps the most important one today is between the veterans of the wars against the Soviets and the Taliban, and the returning Afghan professionals who would like change to proceed much faster. The “warlords” return the compliment by calling the latter “dog-washers”–alluding to the fact that the same men and women who held lowly positions in the West have become ministers in Kabul. To a sympathetic observer, it seems Afghanistan needs both groups: the veterans for their patriotic and religious credentials, the former exiles for their expertise in running a modern bureaucracy and economy.
The biggest threats to the settlement that President Hamid Karzai has skillfully nurtured seem external. One is that the United States may get distracted, as it did in the 1990s, from finishing the job in Afghanistan by a crisis elsewhere. Another is a radical takeover in Pakistan. Afghanistan will not be truly consolidated, and Pakistan will not be secure either, until the latter establishes proper control over its own tribal territories. When Lord Curzon established the North-West Frontier Province at the height of the Raj, it was an expedient arrangement for managing ungovernable Pashtun tribes. But now that it has become a haven for terrorists and drug lords, the Punjabi core of the Pakistani army should be encouraged to sort it out.
The third and most likely threat to Afghanistan’s future is the drugs whose production has spread from the Afghan-Pakistani border and the traditional heartland around Kandahar to most provinces. According to some reports, drugs constitute up to half of the Afghan economy and they finance much of the private construction, particularly in the capital. The interweaving of Taliban and al Qaeda politics with drug-related crime networks could create a deadly base for a continuing insurgency for years to come. As we’ve learned elsewhere, the only way to fight the drug trade is to eat into its profit margins–by legalizing the stuff in the West, or in the producing country, and taxing it appropriately–which is, of course, politically unacceptable. If swaths of Afghanistan become Colombia-style provinces of a post-Taliban narco-insurgency, we in the consumer countries will not be without blame.
For the moment, however, we still seem to be winning. We can do even better if we motivate our soldiers, diplomats, and aid workers to take a more robust posture in their reconstruction activities. Withdrawing personnel after every atrocity risks creating a vicious circle: The more precarious the situation in a province is, the fewer foreign diplomats or NGO workers venture there. Consequently, the locals become more hostile toward the foreign presence, as less reconstruction assistance is delivered. Afghanistan is a tough place, and foreign personnel should accept risk as part of their job description.
Afghanistan also suggests a practical way to revitalize NATO. There are 7,000 NATO troops in the country, doing much to relieve U.S. forces hunting al-Qaeda. There could be more, were it not for a technical reason that stems from NATO’s Cold War origins. Whereas NATO headquarters is supported by a central fund into which members pay according to a negotiated formula, military operations are financed by the members themselves. This was fine in the past, when a Soviet invasion was assumed to be such an existential threat to all of Western Europe that countries could be counted on to act irrespective of cost. In today’s out-of-area operations such as Afghanistan, however, it creates perverse incentives: The more a country wants to help, the more out of pocket it is. Meanwhile, free riders, well, ride free. The sooner we move to financing operations from the central fund as well, the more quickly we can send additional troops to Afghanistan and the more effective we can be in future emergencies.
I have to say, I’m most fascinated with the contrast he strikes between the cost effectiveness of government and NGO projects and those undertaken by locals. I’ve heard the same criticism applied to the reconstruction process in Iraq. Too many foreign contractors, too little local involvement. It seems you benefit in several ways from allowing locals to spearhead reconstruction: 1) Dramatically lower labor costs. 2) Dramatically lower security requirements. 3) Stimulus to the local economy through employement of local professionals, craftsmen and laborers. 4) A sense of local ownership and accomplishment and the enhancement of a community ‘can-do’ and ‘take-charge’ spirit.
It’s also worth noting Ismael Khan, the governor of Herat, was recently relieved of his position by president Hamid Karzai. There was sporadic violence in the wake of his removal but things have since calmed. I have no idea what to make of that other than Karzai found it necessary to remove him in order to consolidate his power and authority in the provinces.