Afghanistan: The Mirage of Peace: State

“The tribes consider the king rather differently to the Tajiks, the latter vesting the king with many powers, whereas for the tribes he has limited prerogatives; the tribes are largely selfgoverning.” (Elphinstone 1815)

State and nation

A nation is, wrote Benedict Anderson (1991), ‘an imagined political community’. Although the state exists as a political entity with recognized territory and institutions of governance, the nation exists in people’s heads and provides a sense of belonging. Nationalism, the sense of attachment to a nation, has often been a driving force for state formation; a force that in recent times has had so many negative associations that it is hard to remember it was once viewed positively.

In some ways it is remarkable that after a quarter of a century of war many Afghans’ imagining of their nation is still so strong. Despite the intense conflict people have been through and the fact that all ethnic groups except the Hazaras also spread across into neighbouring countries, people continue to see themselves as Afghans and do not generally wish to secede or to join neighbouring states. Yet the sense of nationhood is not equal across territory. What it means to an uneducated, older woman up a mountain valley is not what it means to a young man returned from the refugee camps of Pakistan, nor an educated person in Kabul. Nor are the geographical bounds of the nation always clear. The Pashtuns have ignored the frontier along the Durand Line in the south and east ever since the British drew it in the late nineteenth century. The physical porosity of the border-once off the main roads people travel across it as if it does not exist-is mirrored in the sense of belonging: the tribes here owe more loyalty to kinsmen across the border than they do to Kabul. This does not mean that they are not Afghan, nor that they want a separate state; rather, it is that being Pashtun is not a subset of being Afghan but a separate and overlapping identity-and, of the two, being Afghan is for many the less tangible, and therefore the less important.

Notions of belonging do not only change with distance, they change with education. Belonging for most Afghans is still created through the spoken word, through legend and story, parable and precept, and much of this goes from the local to the universal Islam, passing nation by. It is thus not surprising that those who have the strongest sense of themselves as Afghan-rather than, for example, as inhabitants of a valley or tribe-are those who have had access to education, and thus who can access more directly the world beyond. Where the noneducated, rural Afghan does connect to nation, it is often not in the sense of being part of a political community but rather through some form of engagement with its bureaucratic embodiment, the state, and this relationship is normally dealt with via a representative. Thus historically the state not only governed through the representatives of communities, but the whole concept of nation, and of the political legitimacy of its rulers, was mediated through these representatives. A friend in Qandahar, who is now the deputy head of the Electoral Commission, was asked in February 2004 whether people would register and, in the end, vote. ‘If the tribal leaders encourage them,’ he said. ‘Otherwise it is impossible. If someone from outside tries, it cannot be done.’
This relationship sets the parameters of what the state today can be, and how it can operate. To envisage a state that has meaning only for a minority of educated citizens and then assume that it can somehow be rolled out to the whole of the country in the space of a couple of years is asking for problems. Yet that is largely what the Bonn agreement has set in train. It also has implications for how those who seek to rule the nation might gain legitimacy among its people. Legitimacy implies being regarded as an acceptable person for the job by those with influence, and at least having the passive acquiescence of the majority of citizens. Without this, conflict is likely to ensue. For, given the fractured nature of politics in Afghanistan and the endless scope for contenders to power-or even simply disenfranchised groups-to gain support from neighbouring countries, it is unlikely that any one group could rule by force.

Discussions about issues of legitimacy in presentday Afghanistan often prompt people to recall an idealized past. It remains unclear whether this is due to an innate conservatism-a fear of new political notions-or whether it can simply be put down to the evident failure of the politics of the last three decades. There is an overwhelming sense that the political actors that have dominated in the recent past lacked legitimacy in the eyes of most of the population, who also find it hard to have much confidence that the present is any better. The gun is seen to rule, the term ‘faction’ is used rather than ‘party’-and factions are associated with guns, not with politics. It was the failure to provide even basic security that more than anything undermined the legitimacy of the mujahideen, and conversely it was their ability to provide this most essential condition that gave the Taliban some legitimacy in the eyes of many, despite dislike of their other policies.

In Afghan history the state has tended to be regarded as having legitimacy if it fulfils three requirements: it embodies the concept of Afghanistan as an independent Islamic territory; it acts as a broker between clans, tribes and ethnic groups-although not necessarily on equal terms; and it provides a certain level of benefits to citizens, including security and access to public services and infrastructure.

A presumptive leader needs to straddle two worlds: to understand, be part of, and value tradition, and balance this with the requirements of a modern state. The notion of a hereditary ruling class is part of Afghan political culture. With the exception of the very brief reign of Bacha i Saqao, members of the Durrani tribe led the nation from 1747 to 1978. David Edwards (2002), writing about the PDPA takeover of power, notes that the fact that Nur Muhammad Taraki was the son of a poor semipeasant, semishepherd family, about whom little was known before he became president in 1979, was a marked departure from previous practice and highly radical in terms of a society where background was extremely important. The most profound innovation introduced by the PDPA, he writes, was not land reform or women’s rights, but ‘the notion that kinship didn’t matter, that literally anyone could lead the nation’. The perception that where a person comes from is important still persists. Commenting on the current political situation, a highly educated and welltravelled clan leader from the Jalalabad area spoke of how: ‘Rootless people are now in power. In the West the root is education. We do not have that, so the root was those who were known, the khans, the malik, business people. People who come from poverty to be king, they only work for their own and those around them.’

A short history

The history of the Afghan state extends back little more than a hundred years, to the reign of Abdur Rahman Khan (1881-1901) who, with the help of British cash, created a wellequipped army and used it ruthlessly to crush internal dissent and turn Afghanistan from a tribal confederacy into a centralized state. However, the tribal areas were never brought totally under central control and continued to retain a measure of independence. The country’s borders conformed more to imperial needs than internal logic; its northern frontier was the outcome of negotiations between the British and the Russians, while the Durand Line reflected the strategic fringe of imperial India.

Succeeding rulers opened up the country to trade, undertook land reform, regularized taxes, improved roads and increased educational provision. Yet tribal society remained strong and, as none of the leaders was prepared to use might to govern to the same extent as Abdur Rahman Khan, the state remained weak. In a pattern that was to be repeated throughout the history of the modern Afghan state, Abdur Rahman Khan was able to build a strong state only by dint of foreign financial backing. The price of this, in the wake of the second AngloAfghan war, was the ceding of control of external affairs to the British. After the First World War, resistance to this outside interference in the country’s affairs grew and led to the assassination of Abdur Rahman Khan’s son and successor, Habibullah, in 1919. His son, Amanullah, seized the throne, declared the country’s independence which, after a brief war, the British conceded. Amanullah tried hard to transform Afghanistan into a modern nationstate, reversing the isolationist economic policies and opening up the country to trade. He undertook land reform, regularized taxes, improved roads, increased educational provision and, in 1921, gave the country its first constitution. But his ambitious plans were ahead of both the state’s capacity to implement and of society’s acceptance of direct state intrusion in family or community affairs. Amanullah’s attempts to shift power away from village elders and the religious establishment and his liberal stance on women’s issues led in 1928 to a series of regional insurrections which finally toppled him. It was a movement led by the Tajik Bacha i Saqao that was the first to move on Kabul and seize power. The rule of this Tajik usurper, however, lasted less than a year, before Nadir Khan, eldest of the Pashtun Musahiban brothers, deposed him. Thus began a dynasty that lasted until 1978.

The strategic position of Afghanistan, first as a buffer state between the Russian and British empires, then as a site of Cold War politics, allowed Afghanistan to develop as a classic rentier state. From 1956 to 1973 foreign grants and loans accounted for 80 per cent of the country’s investment and development expenditure (Rubin 1995). This relieved the state of the need to confront resistance to taxes from rural landowners and merchants in order to build up a domestic taxation base and so made it less important to set up governmental structures to control the country. In Amanullah’s time, taxes on land and animals were believed to represent some twothirds of government expenditure (Fry 1974); by the 1950s they did not even cover the operational costs of local government. Instead, external funds were used to build a modern state sector in Kabul that bypassed the rural power holders, leaving them with a large measure of local autonomy. The political elite neither organized the rural majority, nor represented their interests. Far from attempting to govern the country effectively, they simply acted as one link in a chain of patronage for a few areas that were deemed to be of strategic importance. Just as it had been at the turn of the century, Afghanistan’s rulers continued to fragment tribal power and manoeuvre round it, rather than confront it. Part of that manoeuvring was to bring the tribes into government. From Abdur Rahman Khan onwards, the business of politics was conducted through informal, vertical channels of client-patron relations and kinship networks were important in obtaining state posts. It has resulted in what one writer has called the ‘tribalisation’ of the state (Shahrani 1998), a process which aimed to detribalize society by coopting key players into the state structure.

Meanwhile, at village level, people continued to rely on local power networks; the state had little authority and largely used local leadership to govern. A contract existed: a minimal level of loyalty for a minimal level of services. As an NGO worker put it: ‘The government made roads, built karezes, planted gardens and made a school in the district centres. What it did not do was interfere in the domestic sphere.’

The provision of these services, along with the continued maintenance of Afghanistan’s independence and a reasonable level of security (even if in many cases this had more to do with traditional structures than the state itself) gave the state a certain measure of acceptance. This, however, was always liable to be contested, and a sense that there was a need to increase legitimacy among key constituencies, for example urban intellectuals and rural traditional leaders, led to provisions for elected upper and lower houses of a consultative parliament in the 1964 constitution. However, the legislation permitting the existence of political parties was never signed, and the king retained control over the executive, which was neither selected from, nor responsible to, parliament. Parliament was seen not as an institution for nationwide democracy but as a means of gaining legitimacy and political support. At this it failed. Although those interested in politics had more freedom than at any time in the past, in the absence of formalized parties to regulate political conduct, politics was both disorderly and inefficient. At the same time, the bureaucracy of government was highly dysfunctional (Maley 2002). In addition to endemic financial corruption, there were serious problems of nepotism (Kakar 1978). Finally, the state’s failure to respond adequately to the famine of 1972 underscored just how little concern its leaders had for the Afghan people. This paved the way for the overthrow of Zahir Shah by his cousin and former prime minister, Mohammad Daoud.

For all his energy, Daoud failed to stem the disillusionment with the old order. In some ways his regime was seen as even less legitimate than the one that preceded it. Traditional authority at least still carried some weight, but in dissolving the monarchy Daoud forfeited this association with the authority of the ruling class while failing to develop alternative sources of legitimacy. There was increasing suppression of opposition; it was at this time that the infamous Pul i Charkhi prison was built, in which many opponents of this and succeeding regimes were incarcerated or lost their lives. Daoud coopted the language of revolution (inqilab) without backing it up with muchneeded reforms, despite allying himself with radical groups such as the extreme leftist Parcham group, whose members would later betray him (Maley 2002). Like those before him, he needed foreign cash for his strong state and therefore became increasingly dependent on Soviet aid. The state, however, continued to fail to bring visible benefits to the majority of the population. Ironically, greater access to education served only to increase frustration. Universities were full of students experiencing for the first time the dislocation between their rural, traditional backgrounds and life in a big city; and once graduated, jobs in keeping with their skills and aspirations remained scarce. The oil boom of the early 1970s also led to unprecedented opportunities for labour migration, even for those without formal education, and this altered patterns of social control and exposed people to new ideas. The time for change had come.

The principal communist organization in Afghanistan, the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), overthrew Daoud in the Saur Revolution of 27 April 1978 but was immediately beset by internal struggles. In addition to the personal differences of its leaders, the Parchamis wanted a more gradual approach to change, while the Khalqis wanted it now (Maley 2002). Although the Khalqis initially won the struggle, there was little popular support for their illconceived programme of radical reform, and no state machinery capable of properly implementing their ambitious plans. Unsurprisingly, botched efforts at land redistribution and attempts to radically reorder gender relations soon led to revolt in the countryside. The reforms not only threatened the status quo but were perceived by conservatives to challenge Islamic values. Meanwhile in the cities, in one of the worst periods of internal oppression that Afghanistan had experienced, those deemed to be opponents of the regime were imprisoned, tortured and sometimes executed. Alarmed by the growing disorder and fearful of an attempt by the USA to regain in Afghanistan the influence it had recently lost in Iran, Soviet President Brezhnev sent troops across the border in December 1979.

For many Afghans, this was to destroy any last shred of legitimacy that the PDPA government might have retained, for despite the fact that the troops had technically been ‘invited’ by the Afghan government they were widely perceived as foreign invaders. Afghanistan had lost its independence, and resistance to the occupation soon spread. From 1979 until the mid1980s the Soviets virtually controlled the Afghan state structure. All major offices were staffed with Soviet advisers and, in economic terms, governmentcontrolled Afghanistan became a Soviet republic. The USSR paid the government’s deficits and gave financial and technical assistance to state investment. Afghanistan’s natural gas supplies, developed with Soviet money and expertise, were sold directly to the USSR at subeconomic prices. As with the Soviet Union itself (Lieven 1999), the nature of the Sovietcontrolled Afghan state was as a social network providing access to goods, services and patronage; a base of political power in its own right. As the conflict deepened, the contrast between the plight of rural and urban communities was stark. Because the war had led to shortages of food and fuel in Kabul, the Soviets provided 100,000 tons of wheat annually as a gift, and the same again in exchange for goods. Despite continued political repression, the major cities became enclaves where the state continued to function relatively well, markets thrived, people had health services, jobs, food rations and education. Thousands departed to undertake advanced studies in Soviet countries. Even though they lived under constant fear of rocketing, for many urban Afghans it was, comparatively speaking, a good time.

The political war, however, was lost. In sacrificing Afghanistan’s independence, the regime also lost its legitimacy. Despite removing the more radical elements of PDPA and moderating their policies, nothing the Soviets could do-short of leaving the country-could redeem it.

One last attempt was made. The old Soviet protégé, Babrak Karmal, was in 1986 replaced by Najibullah, who had been head of state intelligence, KhAD. Under the banner of ‘national reconciliation’, Najibullah publicly embraced Islam as the religion of Afghanistan, abandoned plans for the transformation of the countryside and proclaimed the importance of the private sector (Rubin 2002). The old Soviet ideology of class struggle was replaced with the concept of nationhood through cooperation. But it was too late. Kabul and other governmentcontrolled cities were increasingly vulnerable, as Soviet support began to dry up; while across the frontlines the mujadiheen increasingly used revenue from opium to supplement the foreign assistance that was funding their wars. In order to maintain military control of key enclaves and access to the highways, Najibullah increasingly had to cut deals with local militias, rather than rely on the conventional chain of command. In the end they sealed his fate.

Finally, faced with the huge cost of the conflict, and the internal political changes that were taking place in the USSR, the Soviets gave up. The signing of the Geneva Accords paved the way for Gorbachev to order his forces out, and by February 1989 the last Soviet troops left northwards over the Amu Darya river. Their departure allowed factionalism to come to the surface within government ranks, but Najibullah used the military assets left behind by his sponsors to retain control for another three years. To this day, many Afghans refer to Najibullah as the last strong leader they can remember, whose regime they believe had the potential to establish a stable state had it received wider international political support: ‘Najib was very smart, if he had had support from the western powers he could have brought peace to Afghanistan, he was flexible. The UN should have forced the neighbouring countries to reach consensus and to stop supplying weapons to Afghanistan.’

Even his past, it seems, could be forgotten by some: ‘One big weakness was that Najib was head of KhAD. People remembered this and at first they did not trust him. But then gradually people started to trust him-everything has a time and when it has gone it has gone. For the US and the UN it would have been a good opportunity to support Najib: systems were established, even corruption was low.’

But support was not forthcoming, and it soon became clear that Najibullah’s government was being undermined from too many directions to survive. As things began to unravel, the discipline of those involved in state structures was affected. And there was a corresponding loss of faith in government:

“People expected the government to bring stability and security. From the state they expected health and education. But the people were weakening every year, they became so warhit that in the end they were not much interested in education: ‘we are hungry, we have no future’, they would say. After 12th grade they would join the army; it was a bleak future. Teachers were very poor. In the government no one was working, they were just sitting, chatting, talking of the government.”

And yet as the mujahideen drew closer to Kabul, many of those involved in the state also became afraid of the future. The account of a friend captures something of the fears and feelings around at the time:

“I was thinking, ‘this [Soviet] regime is terrible’. At that time we had to go to the army, we couldn’t go to our villages. There was lots of propa ganda from the West, through the radio, against the Soviet Union. We were thinking of freedom. There were leaflets, saying that the mujahideen were heroes, and we expected freedom and a flow of money. We were dreaming of the time the mujahideen would come. But there was also concern that if the mujahideen came there would be many assassinations, that was the big worry. In the village there was no protection, the mujahideen came, took the father in the night and killed him. The things that happened at that time, it was terrible, it is hard to tell those stories, they were brutal, men killed in front of people. Human rights? Where were they? Not only the mujahideen but the Communists also, torturing anyone connected with the mujahideen.”

Despite the international recognition of the new Islamic State of Afghanistan, made up from the mujahideen groups, the departure of Najibullah signalled the effective end of a functioning state. In its place, the struggle for territory and political power seemed to become an end in itself for the various factions. It was as if the jihad justified each faction’s exclusive, and therefore fruitless, claim to power.

Graffiti that appeared on walls in central Kabul months after the fall of Najibullah perhaps summed up the feeling of many. Referring to Najib’s student nickname of ‘the cow’, and the track record of the incoming administration, it said simply, ‘Give us back our cow, and take away your donkeys…’

Although the mujahideen parties had had varied success at organizing at a local level while in opposition, like those before them they subscribed to the concept of a centralized state and once in power immediately began to battle for its control. Kabul had both symbolic and actual value, for which the factions competed and in the process tore the city apart in a frenzy of fighting and looting. Across the country, ethnic and tribal alliances were used in the pursuit of power (Roy 1986; Rubin 1995) and, with no single force strong enough to take control, they led to the disintegration of the state.

With the division of Afghanistan along largely military lines, the state fragmented into autonomous units with their own networks of power; fiefdoms that were largely based on regional groupings of commanders or factions. Some of these worked better than others. The Shura e Nazar, or Supervisory Council of the North, which had been set up precisely to be a counterbalance to Najib’s government, proved unable to cope with the shift to real political power (and responsibility) in Kabul. In the north, on the other hand, Dostum ran a virtual ministate, centred on Mazar i Sharif. His rule was often authoritarian and brutal, but this ensured a relative security which enabled the bureaucracy of the state to continue to function. Trade with the CIS states was buoyant and Mazar i Sharif came to be regarded by many foreign aid agencies as an island of peace and prosperity in an otherwise turbulent country. Having established a separate currency for the region and even his own airline, few people in those days called Dostum a warlord. In the east, the Nangarhar shura in Jalalabad, under the leadership of Haji Abdul Qadeer, also looked across the frontier for the means to maintain its autonomy from Kabul, raising significant revenue from the transit trade with Pakistan and establishing a virtual air bridge with the Gulf, which was reportedly also used for the illicit export of narcotics.

The war saw civilian authority become subordinate to military authority, which was often highly abusive. It was this abuse of power, which went on at all levels, coupled with a serial failure to provide any benefits to the wider population, that destroyed the legitimacy of all those who pretended to govern. There was no reason to trust the country’s leadership any longer. Some rural areas continued to run their affairs without a state, with justice being dispensed by elders or a shura of commanders. With a few exceptions, services, where they existed, were provided by aid agencies, primarily NGOs. Other parts of the country, however, were under the control of rival commanders who looted, pillaged and raped. This was certainly the case in Qandahar, where the factions preyed upon the population to the extent that, in the words of a friend, they ‘were happy for any change’.

The Taliban state

Thus was created the space into which came the Taliban. In response to the chaos and anarchy of the mujahideen, their avowed goal was to reassert central control by some form of state structure, initially in Qandahar. Although the picture often painted of their rule is one of unrelieved oppression, it was in fact more varied than that. While in many places they governed harshly, even brutally, in others-whether because these palces were marginal to their project or because they recognized their inherent ungovernability-they negotiated compromises with the local leadership. As did many regimes before them, they often left the remote areas to govern themselves. ‘Tribal people just carried on their own affairs,’ as one elder from Zabul put it. On the other hand, elders in a village close to Qandahar spoke of how, ‘during the Taliban time no tribal system could function, they didn’t want it’. Others, too, saw that they had failed their people: ‘The Taliban became cruel, threatening people, not respecting order, not wanting educated people, making forced conscription. People were fond of music, but they stopped all celebrations. They forced the people to grow beards and brought them to the mosque for prayers. They took money from people. Village leaders were afraid of the Taliban, but they could do nothing. The Taliban wanted to finish such people.’

Reactions to their rule were similarly varied, and at times surprising. Some Pashtuns felt betrayed, as hopes of a better government proved illfounded, local customs and ways of working were not respected, and increasing numbers of foreigners joined their ranks. Moreover, many recalled how the Taliban had said they would bring back Zahir Shah, which is why they had given their support.

Yet in some places in Hazarajat, where the Taliban’s arrival had been anticipated with real fear, they governed better than people had anticipated. Not in the towns of Yakawlang and Bamiyan, where the persistent struggle with Hizbe Wahdat for control led to a string of atrocities, but in the rest of the region where they effectively passed control to local leadership. In contrast to Kabul and urban centres, aid agencies often found they could circumvent rules and regulations. ‘The Taliban, they didn’t ask us what we were doing,’ said a worker from Oxfam, ‘they just said, “Are you an agency?” We said, “Yes, we are an agency.” They never bothered us. Only with one district governor did we have problems. He said, “You cannot have a girls’ school.” We said, “It is not a girls’ school, it is a mosque.” He said, “OK”.’

For those of us who lived in Kabul at the time, the image of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan that the Taliban established after taking over Kabul in 1996 seemed at times to owe more to conjecture on the part of the outside world than to the reality of policy enacted on the ground. Despite impressions of an intolerant regime that swept away everything connected with previous administrations, change was far from wholesale and there was a good deal of flexibility in practice. Aspects of the old state apparatus that were deemed not to compromise Islamic precepts were simply left alone. As well as being expedient, this allowed the Emirate to reclaim the formal authority of the state, whose specific policies were then defined or clarified by edict. The fact that these edicts often emanated from Qandahar rather than from Kabul, and that they usually bore the imprimatur of a group of ulema or similar religious authority-rather than that of the presumptive head of state and protector of the faithful-served to make the whole process of governance seem all the more mysterious to Talibanwatchers at that time.

In addition to the young footsoldiers who gave the movement its name, the Taliban drew upon disaffected-and in some cases opportunistic-mujahideen. As a result, the administration inevitably faced pressure to reconcile the interests of disparate groups, based on religious, factional or geographical affiliations. Where this situation differed from the earlier mujahideen administration, however, was in the general acceptance, at least initially, of a primary loyalty to the Emirate, which should come before personal or factional interests.

Having failed to understand the phenomenon of the Taliban movement, the regime that they strove to put in place was quickly characterized by the western world as ‘failed’. As the deputy leader, Mullah Rabbani, pointed out in response to a question from a UN envoy about human rights during 1999: ‘You do not seem to understand that we are Afghans. We try to take responsibility for our people, while those who you choose to recognise as representatives of Afghanistan sign international agreements on behalf of their people, while having limited control. You treat us like an armed faction, while expecting us to behave like a government.’ Yet although often publicly dismissive of the opinion of the international community, the issue of UN recognition seemed to remain curiously important to the Taliban leadership.

While abhorring the excesses of the regime-and ridiculing both its presumptions and its apparently simple operating practices-there was an enduring fascination on the part of outsiders as to how the Taliban maintained control with such ruthless effect. The primitive outward face of the Emirate in fact hid a somewhat more worldly structure that was integrated into regional trading networks that provided them and others with an important source of revenue. There seems little doubt that these networks grew in strength during the mid1990s, and that this involved a web of commercial players with far better international contacts and market access than the Taliban themselves.

Aid and the state

Aid has long been part of the strategy by which outside nations have gained influence in Afghanistan. This is not unusual. From the 1950s onwards, the global pattern was for official development aid to be given as part of a postcolonial framework that was not only concerned with reducing poverty in the South through economic growth but also fitted with the interest of western countries in maintaining their influence in the world. Thus, in Afghanistan in the 1960s and 1970s, countries from both the West and East jostled for influence, adopting the different departments of Kabul University and funding a raft of development projects. Many of these were part of the state’s modernization project, and many were failures-or at the best only partial successes.

The Soviet invasion changed the nature of things. Thereafter, the battle lines of the conflict were mirrored in aid flows, as Soviet aid to the Kabul government was pitched against western aid to the mujahideen. Though presented as solidarity aid to freedom fighters engaged in a just cause, the truth was that the aid to the mujahideen was often an instrument of government policy, and NGOs were established as fronts for this. AfghanAid, for example, was set up largely to implement the agenda of the UK government, while the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan emerged from antiSoviet feelings among the public, tinged with a hardline Calvinist edge. Few questions were asked about the nature of the crossborder operations, and neither the fundamentalism of the mujahideen nor the conservatism of rural society appeared to be an issue to those who two decades later were to decry the Taliban and seek to use aid as a means to moderate their behaviour. On the contrary, it provided an unassailable-and romantic-cause célèbre. Guests at dinner parties in Peshawar were entranced by stories about the ‘inside’ from heroic aid workers who, dressed in local garb, had trekked over the mountains with bearded mujahideen, battling against the might of the Soviets. In many ways, NGOs followed the factions, competing both for territory and the protection of their commanders, apparently with little idea of how much this compromised them in the eyes of the population. The fact that much of the humanitarian assistance was given in ways that were deeply damaging to the future of the country passed the majority of NGO staff by.

At this stage of Afghanistan’s history, aid not only supported war but contributed to the future fragmentation of the state. Individual commanders boosted their standing by the aid that they could bring to the areas under their control. While efforts were latterly made by donors to create a unified structure among the mujahideen that might form the basis for a future government, this was secondary to the overwhelming need to destroy the Soviets.

The UN and the failed state model

By the mid1990s, the rationale that had been driving global aid since the 1950s was looking distinctly flawed. Bilateral development aid depended on having a government to give it to; yet in a number of the poorest countries of the world the nationstate had all but disintegrated, or at least was the site of serious conflict. Afghanistan was a case in point. Meanwhile the humanitarian crises associated with such longdrawnout conflicts-variously known as complex emergencies, complex political emergencies, or situations of chronic conflict and political instability-called into question many of the assumptions of classic emergency aid. As crises stretched out across the years, the notion of what was development aid and what emergency aid became blurred. Rather than being an operational distinction based on types of need, it now frequently became a political issue of recognition. Debates became polarized between the notion of giving aid for ‘humanitarian’ purposes, argued by its proponents to be free of politics and based only on need (at least in intent, though most would recognize the practice as being more complicated), and the attempt to take account of outcomes-the extent to which giving or withholding aid might improve the situation of the beneficiary group. A critique of humanitarian assistance was developed that highlighted how aid could do harm as well as good (Anderson 1996).

At the same time, the need to address the issue of conflict became a central concern of development policy (Duffield 2001b). Part of the role of international organizations came to be seen as rebuilding wartorn societies in a way that would help to avert future conflict, such engagement being seen as necessary if peace and stability were to prevail. In line with this, the UN started to reconsider the role it should be playing in longterm conflict countries. The problem was that, in the absence of any form of local representative political organization, the desired outcomes were decided by outsiders, as was the means to reach them. Unlike in South Africa, where the ANC clearly articulated the way in which it wanted assistance to support the struggle for liberation, in most crisis countries there was no movement to speak on behalf of the people. The benchmarks to which these outcomes were therefore tethered, and which were their claim to legitimacy, were the various international instruments that indicated some bottom line of welfare and security. It was in this context that the notion of rights came increasingly to be heard in the debate about aid.

The evident collapse of much of the state bureaucracy, the descent of parts of the country into chaos, and the continued internecine fighting in Kabul prompted the UN to characterize Afghanistan as a ‘failed state’. The longstanding humanitarian emergency had now become an ‘emergency of governance’. While special envoys continued to shuttle between factions in an effort to find a political solution, the UN agencies moved into the vacuum to assume responsibilities as an almost surrogate government. They not only provided assistance but also attempted to take on systemwide policy and planning functions and acted as the country’s spokesperson in dealings with journalists and foreign diplomats. In keeping with the global move towards addressing issues of conflict, the UN developed a new approach, the Strategic Framework for Afghanistan (SFA), designed to bring together the political and assistance wings of the UN in common pursuit of a peaceful solution to the Afghanistan crisis.

Adopted in 1998, the SFA aimed to provide ‘a more coherent, effective and integrated political strategy and assistance programme’ through a ‘common conceptual tool that identifies key activities…on the basis of shared principles and objectives’. The overarching goal of the UN was articulated as one of facilitating ‘the transition from a state of internal conflict to a just and sustainable peace through mutually reinforcing political and assistance initiatives’ and ensuring ‘no “disconnects” between political, human rights, humanitarian and developmental aspects of the [international] response’.

The UN’s work in Afghanistan was seen as having two components: an assistance pillar and a political pillar (in later versions there was a third pillar, human rights, whereas in the earlier version human rights was seen as integral). Within the assistance pillar the key operational element was known as Principled Common Programming. Although an intent of this was to agree common principles to which the aid community could sign up, thus establishing ‘bottom lines’ for negotiations, both donors and agencies found this difficult in practice. Not only were there many different sets of principles-Common Programming principles, agency principles, donor principles-but there was no agreement as to what took precedence when principles contradicted each other. Was the imperative, for example, to provide humanitarian assistance or to support women’s rights?

In order to realize the goals of the SFA, a comprehensive restructuring of aid coordination mechanisms was undertaken after 1998. This, it was felt by donors and agencies alike, would result in greater coherence and effectiveness through processes of collective analysis and common operational programming. In keeping with the aims of the SFA, this restructuring envisaged more systematic links between the wider humanitarian community and political actors within the UN. The extent to which opportunities for consultation between the political and aid wings of the UN were taken up, or resulted in greater coherence, was limited, due in part to the failure of the UN to undertake comprehensive reform of the management within and between the agencies concerned. By not undertaking reform, the UN also limited its ability to determine a common position on a range of key assistance issues.

An examination of aid behaviour between 1998 and late 2001 suggests that, regardless of the SFA, donor policy and practice in Afghanistan were driven by priorities set in capital cities, rather than by collective positions agreed on the ground. Furthermore, most donors maintained a degree of ambivalence towards collective positions, especially where these might compromise their independence of action. Funding priorities were found to bear only an incidental relationship to the priorities articulated in the SFA and PCP. Instead, funding patterns appeared in many cases to relate to specific issues of concern to the donor country and its broad political attitudes towards Afghanistan. The lack of commitment to a collective position was perhaps the most evident at the Afghanistan Support Group meeting in Stockholm in 1999 when, in response to efforts to define an appropriate process of engagement on rights issues, the USA assertively stated its intention to act unilaterally if necessary.

Even as the Taliban asserted the authority of their central administration, and took on an increasing range of functions of government, the UN continued to pursue the failed state model in its dealings with the country. While this might partly be explained by the fact that only three countries had accorded formal recognition to the Emirate, there was evident confusion on the part of key UN memberstates as to how to respond to the presumptions of the Taliban, and an increasing dislike of what they saw of their policies. Donors and aid agencies alike tied themselves in knots over how to deal this. On the one hand they refused to recognize the government’s existence, yet on the other they insisted it should be responsible for the provisions of international treaties signed by previous Afghan governments. This led to what one commentator described as a

strange absence of authorities as authorities. The Taliban appear as the object of advocacy and of conditionality, but not as authorities that are in fact already engaged in the running of a country. It is as if UN assistance activities can continue in a vacuum without engaging the authorities except to advocate to them. The fact that they are not recognised means almost that they are not seen, a situation bound to lead to unrealistic goals. (Leader 2000)

Even though most memberstates of the UN did not recognize the Taliban government, the operational agencies ended up working with them. For if the UN wanted to work in Afghanistan, which it clearly did, there was no alternative: by the end of the 1990s the Taliban controlled 90 per cent of the country’s territory.

Nowhere was the confusion about how to engage with Afghanistan more apparent than in the issue of what was called ‘capacity building’.

Despite the fact that investments had in the past been made in strengthening a range of institutions, inside and outside the formal state, donors and the UN now came to perceive that ‘capacity building’ of government departments risked lending legitimacy to the Taliban state. As a result, UN official policy as stated in the SFA indicated that:

“Institution and capacitybuilding activities must advance human rights and will not seek to provide support to any presumptive state authority which does not fully subscribe to the principles contained in the founding instruments of the United Nations, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women and International Humanitarian Law.” (UNOCHA 1998)

This implied working where possible with communities rather than authorities, in effect to try and bypass the Taliban. Yet aid agencies wanted to deliver humanitarian assistance to a country in longterm need. For this to happen, departments had to function, at least to some extent, and the UN and other agencies had to engage with them. Constructing a mode of service delivery that ignored state structures simply wasn’t feasible. So, for example, UNICEF implemented its expanded programme of immunization with and through the Ministry of Public Health, UNHabitat conducted its water and sanitation work through municipalities, UNHCR had joint projects with the Ministry of Martyrs and Repatriation, FAO had a contract with the Ministry of Agriculture for seed multiplication and WFP programmed its food through the Ministry of Rehabilitation and Rural Development and the Ministry of Public Health.

Assistance that was provided to sustain, even if not build, the capacity of relevant departments to undertake this work included both technical and salary support; for civil servants continued to be paid next to nothing and, without some remuneration, could hardly be expected to work. This led to a remarkable set of double standards. In order to sustain health structures at a time when support from the central or regional administration was negligible or nonexistent, direct payments of ‘incentives’ to public health professionals and support staff became routine throughout the 1990s. Following the controversy about female healthcare in Kabul in 1997, and more general concern about the discriminatory policies of the Taliban, some donors expressed dismay at payments to civil servants through presumptive governmental structures, while others went as far as specifically to preclude any such payments from their contributions. In order to maintain support for public health staff providing vital services, therefore, both UN agencies and NGOs began to pay such incentives to individuals, rather than through the local health structures. However, despite their attempt to register disapproval of the Taliban administration, at least one major donor who had restricted payments via UN and NGOs continued to fund the ICRC to pay incentives for hospital staff. The payment of these incentives was generally acknowledged to have been instrumental in ensuring continued access for female patients in the two largest hospitals in the city. As was noted at the time, the

combination of a formal policy which does not accommodate the political realities of the situation, and a multitude of UN agencies with their own mandates, has led to a situation where policy…is confused and indecisive. This confusion is most apparent in terms of engagement with the administrative structures. In effect, each agency has pursued its own line in determining if and how it will work with the authorities. (Leader 2000)

The legacy of centralization

By 2001, when the international spotlight again focused on the nature of the Afghan state, Afghanistan had been through a number of different versions of statehood, ranging from the modernizing 1960s and 1970s, through the Soviet model, to the accommodations of Najibullah and finally, via the collapsed state of the early 1990s, to the Taliban’s strict version of an Islamic state.

Throughout all, however, the model of statehood remained that of a unitary central authority; the devolution of power from the centre has never been part of the Afghan political imagining, much less practice. Even at the time when the factions were dismembering the country, a central state remained the ideal, and the prize to be fought for. One of the key reasons given by Afghans for this has been that a strong state is needed to save the country from interfering neighbours. Yet history has shown that whenever the Afghan state was said to be ‘strong’, it was a strength that was bought with foreign money-and at the price of foreign interference. Moreover, these resources were used not against Afghanistan’s neighbours but against its people. From Abdur Rahman Khan, through Daoud, the communists, and finally the Taliban, administrations that have aspired to be strong have also been politically repressive.

The bureaucracy of the state is extraordinary in the degree of centralization of its formal structure and fiscal arrangements. Provincial authorities have neither taxraising powers nor can they raise loans. Outside central government, the only tax autonomy is at the municipal level, and that is minimal. Provinces do, of course, collect taxes-most notably customs taxes-but that is theoretically on behalf of central government, and should be remitted to Kabul. The provincial government structure is a mirror of the central structure (although not all ministries are represented) and heads of departments report to their parent ministry in Kabul rather than to the provincial governor. The districts again replicate the same system, although even fewer ministries are represented-indeed, some districts have only an uluswal. Staffing establishments are set centrally, as are rates of pay. In the past, particularly in the communist times, budget requests were prepared at the provincial level, and the governor and heads of departments would review proposals before sending them up to the centre. This no longer happens and the entire process is now topdown, with the provincial budget being simply the sum of various ministry decisions. That in other countries systems exist where significant budgetary and taxraising powers are devolved to the local level is a matter of surprise to many Afghans.

Another legacy of the succession of centralized administrations is that local politics has often been used less to deal with local issues than to increase the influence of dominant groups at the centre. The central mountain region of Hazarajat was effectively split up and apportioned between different provinces in order to prevent Hazaras developing a strong regional voice that could make itself heard at the centre. All groups have gerrymandered provincial and district boundaries whenever they have had the chance. The Pashtuns did it to ensure they dominated the liberal parliament in the early 1970s; in the 1980s and 1990s the Tajiks split Badakhshan into ever more districts and the Hazaras created new districts in southern Hazarajat. The trend continues today, with the creation of a new province of Panjshir and another of Dai Kundi. The actual interests of regions, far less communities, has been of little concern to those seeking to pursue their interests in this way.

The challenge facing those involved in reconstructing the ‘new’ Afghanistan will be how to rebuild a recognizable state from the threadbare institutions and systems that survive. This implies not only a functional state that actually works for ordinary people but also a symbolic state that represents the interests of the many, and can therefore be a source of confidence and pride.

(Source: Chris Johnson & Jolyon Leslie, “AFGHANISTAN: The Mirage Of Peace,” Zed Books, London – New York, 2004)

Republished by Kajian Internasional Strategis


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