Afghanistan is not a wellunderstood country. This is something of a paradox, for a great deal of impressive scholarly work has been devoted to the analysis of its politics, economy and society, and events such as the Soviet invasion of December 1979 and the US overthrow of the Taliban in October-November 2001 earned it a prominent place in the headlines. Yet, all too often, Afghanistan is popularly depicted in terms of crude stereotypes-hirsute warriors, wildeyed religious extremists, women consigned to the margins of social life. The complex realities of this exceptionally diverse territory have somehow not connected with its wider image. The course of events since September 11, 2001 has not greatly improved the situation. Now a different set of misleading images has been injected into the public realm, images which paint Afghanistan as an American success story, a threshold democracy, and a model of what the Bush administration’s approach to ‘nationbuilding’ can achieve. Ordinary people comparing these images have every reason to feel thoroughly confused.
There are, of course, good reasons that help to explain the prevalence of simplistic impressions of Afghanistan. Fathoming the politics of remote countries is always a challenge. Many commentaries have been authored by transient media visitors whose brief has been to capture a little local colour rather than shed light on complexity. And some Afghan political leaders in their own interests have sought to exploit stereotypical images to win support. But perhaps the most important is that the course of events in Afghanistan over the last quarter of a century has given rise to a situation that cannot readily be analysed through the casual deployment of concepts or categories appropriate to less disrupted lands.
The most salient feature of this situation is the breakup of the state. After the communist coup of April 1978, the Afghan authorities lost much of their capacity to raise revenues from domestic sources; and after the Soviet invasion, the Afghan state was substantially dependent on resources supplied by the USSR, amounting to an artificial lifesupport system. With the disintegration of the Soviet state, this aidflow ceased, and the Afghan communist regime collapsed less than four months later. Its successors inherited only the shadow of a state, with compromised legitimacy and limited administrative capacity. Thus, Afghanistan’s challenge has been far greater than that of shaping a government. It is that of rebuilding the state, and establishing its position as the dominant power within Afghanistan’s boundaries. There are few precedents on which one can draw to map out a path that Afghanistan should take, and certainly no magic solutions to its problems.
When the state breaks up, other authority centres typically emerge to discharge some of the functions that the state would normally perform. Some win significant local support; others claim symbolic legitimacy on the basis of the roles they undertake, defending communities and interests from external threats. To posit ‘democracy’ as the only conceivable source of legitimacy in such circumstances is to overlook the intensification of local bonds and the erosion of the willingness to trust strangers, both features of social interaction that one can expect to find when confidence in the state has been severely weakened. But as well as legitimate local authority centres, state breakup also fosters the entrenchment of a range of distinctly unappetising forces: predatory, extractive ‘warlords’; drug traffickers; even terrorists. All have some interest in acting as ‘spoilers’, in blocking the reestablishment of an effective state, and some may flourish with support from state and nonstate actors in neighbouring countries, highlighting the transnational character of the problems with which disrupted states can be confronted.
Afghanistan also runs the risk of being forgotten. The sad tale of its efforts to secure reconstruction assistance highlights the problem. In Tokyo in January 2002, it received substantial pledges of assistance, but as of November 2003, only US$112 million of reconstruction projects had actually been completed. It was in the light of this failure that a further meeting took place in Berlin on 31 March and 1 April 2004. In preparation, the Afghan government provided a detailed programme entitled Securing Afghanistan’s Future which pointed to some key areas of need. The central conclusion of the report was that ‘Afghanistan will require total external assistance in the range of US$27.6 billion over 7 years on commitment basis. A minimum of US$6.3 billion of external financing will be required in the form of direct support to the national budget-preferably more, since budget support helps build the State and its legitimacy.’ At the conclusion of the meeting, a ‘Berlin Declaration’ was published, welcoming the commitments made at the conference. Unfortunately, these amounted to only $8.2 billion for the period March 2004-March 2007, and $4.4 billion for March 2004-March 2005. The Afghan government had little option but to welcome this result, but given the compelling case it had constructed for greater assistance, the outcome was deeply disappointing. In the light of Iraq, Afghanistan is yesterday’s conflict. As I wrote in early 2002, the ‘War on Terrorism and the hunt for Bin Laden put Afghanistan on the front pages. It will soon be off them.’ Yet a powerful lesson of September 11 is that it rarely pays to neglect Afghanistan. If we do, we should not send to know for whom the bell tolls.
These issues are vital to the future of Afghanistan. They are also the central concern of this book.
Chris Johnson and Jolyon Leslie are superbly placed to reflect on these issues. I first met Jolyon Leslie at Bagram airbase, north of Kabul, in the mid1990s. Khwaja Rawash airport in Kabul was closed for security reasons, and he had driven the then head of the United Nations Special Mission to Afghanistan, Mahmoud Mestiri, to Bagram so that he could leave the country. I managed to hitch a ride back to Kabul with him, and that hour’s conversation established just how effectively he had managed to develop a sense of Afghanistan’s complexities. Subsequent encounters in Afghanistan, and in cities as remote as Amman and Paris, confirmed this original impression. Chris Johnson was working for Oxfam when I first met her, and her experience with numerous aid projects in Afghanistan has made her one of the bestinformed and most informative observers of Afghan reconstruction. The power of their analysis, however, derives from a shared characteristic which social scientists can easily overlook, namely an ability to grasp what one might call the ‘smell and feel’ of a situation. This book is a brilliant example of the illumination that such an ability can offer. Weaving instructive and moving anecdotes together with the fruits of scholarly research, they convey to their readers a sense of daily life in Afghanistan with a vividness that few observers in the past have ever managed to achieve. Some will find their analysis pessimistic, while for others it may appear unduly optimistic. But no one can fail to benefit from reading their thoughtful and moving book.
AsiaPacific College of Diplomacy, Australian National University
(Source: Chris Johnson & Jolyon Leslie, “AFGHANISTAN: The Mirage Of Peace,” Zed Books, London – New York, 2004)
Republished by Kajian Internasional Strategis