Meanwhile, in Afghanistan

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.

Radek writes:

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.

Which Model?

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.

12 thoughts on “Meanwhile, in Afghanistan”

  1. The post war German economic miracle did not occur until Ludwig Erhard threw out all the (very non-Chicago boys) American imposed economic planning and controls and introduced a new currency, liberating the German people to become the diligent people they were until they started to realize the consequences of acquiring the East at a ridiculously high P/E.

  2. “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. ”

    To whom? Us, or the Afghanis? Are Americans insisting on outlawing the drug trade over the locals’ objections? Or is this an initiative of the local government?

    (I guess I should poke around Google for a while…)

  3. Why not simply buy all of the opium crop ourselves and then burn it? Or maybe even better yet, agree to pay the same prices for a food crop and deliver it to the Afghan people?

  4. “Why not simply buy all of the opium crop ourselves and then burn it? ”

    Well, we do that right now. But thanks to the law, we have to buy it from criminals before we can burn it, at inflated prices, yielding the criminals an enormous profit.

  5. As a dogwasher* and a UofC grad (what else? Econ), I pray for American presence for at least the next 60 years until a new generation of Afghans who have never experienced war take over the reins of power. American imperialism – that is devolution of power to common man – is the right cure for the maladies of Afghanistan and the broader Islamic world despite all the whining that we hear from the sophisticated internationalists. There will be many bumps along the way but the main thrust of introducing democratic forms of governance is the right one and America can only retreat at a great peril to herself.

    *The term dogwasher (sag-show-i) was first introduced in a poem in one of the first free publications in Kabul after the fall of Taliban. Two fictional characters from the relatively peaceful days of Afghanistan meet after 25 years of separation and start again their political commentary (all in poetry) about the state of affairs. One remained behind in Kabul and talks about the humilation he suffered under Taliban, and the other about the humiliation he had to go through in the West by “washing dogs” for a living while telling his relatives in Pakistan that he was a successful shopkeeper.

  6. Thanks for that. I have to say that I agree with a lot of what Radek wrote. We can get something done with our CERP dollars alot faster than the NGOs because we just pay for, say a school, to be built by the Afghans. They do decent work, at a reasonable speed too. All they have to do is follow their own plans and guidelines, and they do a good job of rebulding.

  7. More on your man, Ismael Khan…

    From the Kansas City Star…(free reg. required)

    “In some western provinces, life for women is so unbearable that dozens, perhaps hundreds, have committed suicide by setting themselves on fire. Ismael Khan, the warlord who rules the western city of Herat, has brought back many repressive rules, including forbidding women from working or from being seen with men who are not close relatives.

    “Ahmad Bassir, Herat correspondent for Radio Free Afghanistan, reports that women there[under your Man, Ismale Khan] see no difference between their lives now and under the Taliban. Most human rights progress, says Amnesty International, is limited to the capital of Kabul.”

    From the Sunday Herald

    “Human Rights Watch researchers reported this week that he has set up a sort of mini Islamic police state in the western province of Herat where he is governor. He has denied their claims Š that his security services carry out torture and make politically motivated arrests and that police check to make sure couples can legitimately be out together, even taking unmarried women to doctors to find out if they have recently had sex.”

  8. It’s hard to get a reading on someone like Khan from the other side of the world. Different correspondents give different impressions. Western and Southern Afghanistan seem to be the most fundamentalist. Sikorski gives the impression Khan has been trying to use persuasion to gradually change ideas. Your links give the impression he’s the one directly responsible. I don’t know, I’m not there.

    On the other hand, I’ve read fairly consistently that the Herat governate has gone the farthest in bringing security and development to its’ residents.

    Either way, I’m sure the situation is more complex than either of us understand. That being said, I’m not ready to write off Afghanistan and I have to hope Karzai is making the right moves. He strikes me as decent, forward looking and competent man. He’s got an enormous task in front of him and can use all the help he can get.

  9. Ismael Khan was probably the most egregious example of a private military force in Afghanistan. It was this kind of personal abuse of power that opened the door for the easy rise of Taliban in Afghanistan in the aftermath of collapse of Soviet occupation of the country. Taliban, and we all now know what they stood for, brought an end to private armies that were controlling even different streets in the major cities of Afghanistan. Couple of years ago I watched a video of two militia forces (whose leaders are currently standing for presidential election — no, Karzai is not one of them) fighting an open warfare over different neighborhoods of Kabul.

    I do not really like centralization of power but Ismael Khan had to go. Most Afghans associate warlords such as Ismael Khan with the complete lawlessness and anarchy (raping of boys and kidnapping of married and unmarried women of opposing groups by the private militias was commonplace!) that existed between the collapse of Soviet occupation and the prison-style peace of Taliban. Currently, Afghans view these warlords as the surrogates of American military. Staying in bed with those who helped the US topple Taliban may not be in the interest of America in the long-run. As such, I think the removal of Ismael Khan (which Afghans think was done through indirect support of a competing warlord by American military) and restitution of power in the hands of a legitimate government set a good precedent. All warlords, including the one who was fast advancing against Ismael Khan’s forces and is currently under house arrest in Kabul, have taken note.

    Again, I am an optimist and in another three years we will witness major improvements AS LONG AS America sticks to her guns.

  10. I really find that the MSM is once again doing us down. Today the AP had the following article concerning the upcoming elections in Afghanistan and the deaths occurring now. Seems like there is no way we can do anything that might cause a death and be in anythng except a quagmire with not possibility of winning at all with these people:

    Afghan Death Toll Mounts As Voting Nears

    A man stands among the graves of foreign militants and Afghanis who have died in the fighting of the recent past since the American intervention in the country, at the cemetery in President Hamid Karzai’s home town of Kandahar, Afghanistan, Sunday, Oct. 3, 2004. Less than a week from an historic experiment with democracy, and three years removed from the brutality of Taliban rule, Afghanistan remains mired in a spiral of killing that undermine Western claims of success here. At least 957 the number of people reported killed in political violence this year, according to a review by The Associated Press. (AP Photo/Elizabeth Dalziel)

    October 3, 2004 04:07 PM EDT

    KANDAHAR, Afghanistan – The killing in Afghanistan spirals onward, undermining U.S. claims of success in pacifying the country with less than a week to go before an historic experiment with democracy – direct presidential elections.

    The deaths of three Afghan soldiers and two militants over the weekend – barely noted in news reports – brought to at least 957 the number of people reported killed in political violence this year, according to an Associated Press review. The toll includes about 30 American soldiers.

    With Afghanistan three years removed from the brutality of Taliban rule, President Bush has acclaimed the Oct. 9 presidential vote a beacon of hope for the Islamic world, and a prelude to even more tricky balloting slated for January in violence-plagued Iraq.

    But the tally of dead in Afghanistan – a haven of tranquility compared with Iraq – is an indicator of the task facing both the U.S. military and whomever becomes Afghanistan’s first directly elected president – most likely the American-backed incumbent, Hamid Karzai – to consolidate a shaky peace.

    The number of dead was drawn from a review of hundreds of daily stories by The Associated Press since January 1. The actual toll is believed to be significantly higher, since many killings in remote areas are not reported.

    “Nobody relishes figures like that,” said Maj. Gen. Eric Olson, the No. 2 American commander in Afghanistan. “I think we’ve only just begun in terms of a permanent and lasting secure environment in Afghanistan.”

    Afghanistan’s first post-Taliban vote will draw the world’s attention to Kabul, the battle-weary capital being transformed by a building boom as many Afghans bet on peace after more than two decades of horrific war.

    The focus of the continuing insurgency lies in the south and east of the country, where regrouped Taliban rebels and other anti-government groups are expected to mount coordinated attacks before or on election day.

    Western intelligence reports seen by AP warn of militants slipping over the border from Pakistan to attack the United Nations and polling stations in and around towns like Kandahar, the former Taliban capital.

    Some also talk of possible car-bomb attacks, others of attempts to hide explosive charges in fruit carts – a tactic already used to tragic effect with the slaying of 14 children in Kandahar in January. The Taliban claimed it was planning to target passing American patrols.

    “For sure, we are expecting some casualties,” said Talatbek Masadykov, the U.N. official in charge of a swath of southern Afghanistan, including Kandahar. Most foreign aid workers have already left the city because of the heightened threat of violence.

    There were fresh signs Sunday of militants on the move.

    U.S. and Afghan forces fought suspected Taliban near Spin Boldak on the Pakistani border, killing one rebel and capturing 16, said Khalid Pashtun, spokesman for the governor of Kandahar. No American or Afghan troops were wounded, he said.

    On Saturday, rebels killed two militia guards at the home of a former senior official in Uruzgan province, said police chief Rozi Khan. A third soldier died when troops came under fire as they tried to flee with a suspect captured during the battle. The prisoner also was fatally wounded, Khan said.

    The attacks continue despite the predominance of militants among the reported casualties.

    Based on AP reports nearly half of those killed in just over nine months have been militants.

    Some 260 Afghan security forces also have died – although that figure includes the victims of factional violence – alongside 160 civilians, more than 40 aid or reconstruction workers and about 30 U.S. soldiers.

    Officials at the Afghan Interior Ministry and presidential palace were not available to comment on the figures.

    Military officials and foreign diplomats say militants still are able to slip back and forth across the rugged Afghan-Pakistan frontier, making it hard for the 18,000-strong U.S. force and its Afghan allies to destroy them.

    Meanwhile, a government offer of amnesty to former Taliban willing to end their resistance has seen hundreds of former fighters released from Afghan jails but has failed to produce any obvious political gains.

    Copyright 2004 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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