There is no quick-fix for Afghanistan

Opinion piece in the Guardian.

It’s spring again in Afghanistan. At this time of year, events follow a familiar pattern: the mountain snows melt, Nato gears up for expected Taliban attacks in the south, and experts tell us it is our “last chance” to keep the country from falling into the abyss and propose new strategies to forestall this.

But Afghanistan does not need yet more new strategies. Too often in Afghanistan, when something doesn’t go right, straight away, we are told it is not going work, so a different strategy is required. Too often, experts propose quick fixes to deep-rooted problems that are simply not amenable to rushed solutions. The latest such proposal gaining much currency in Kabul and some western capitals is that of a grand bargain with the Taliban. The talk is of identifying the “moderate” Taliban leaders, and luring them over to the government’s side. While there may well be a need to attract the Taliban’s foot-soldiers – often disenfranchised and alienated Afghan youths – away from extremist leaders, talk of high-level deals in fact risks exacerbating the problem it is trying to solve.

The sad reality is that Afghanistan has suffered from sustained conflict for almost 30 years. The enduring paradigm is that of abusive power-holders preying on the local populations. The power-holders change – absolute monarchs, Afghan communists, Soviet military, mujahideen, Taliban, and now re-empowered warlords – but the problem remains the same: highly personalised rule, a culture of impunity, and the abuse of large sections of the population on ethnic, regional, tribal, or sectarian grounds.

The US and its allies reinforced this pattern of grievance and impunity in 2001 and 2002 by outsourcing the fighting and stabilisation operations to discredited and largely disempowered warlords and commanders. When they entrenched themselves in their former fiefdoms, they reverted to their old practices of human rights abuse, corruption and drug production, working once again to build their own networks at the expense of central government authority.

The result is festering grievances and an alienated population that often has little faith in its leadership and offers rich pickings for insurgent recruitment.

Quick fixes, such as arming local militias, empowering discredited power-holders, making deals and giving impunity to extremists, don’t address these problems – they worsen them. The local population understands the hypocrisy of such policies, and knows that they will continue to be the victims of these power-holders.

Indeed, Kabul and the international community should be doing what they have said they would do for the last six years, but haven’t. They need to implement the strategy that they have all signed up to – namely building representative, participatory institutions that provide good governance and economic development and enforce rule of law.

What does this mean in practice? The international community must commit for the long haul. It needs to hold the Afghan government and itself to commitments already agreed – such as the vetting process for governors, police chiefs and other senior officials. Institution building and accountability must take priority over favoured individuals in every area if stability is to prove sustainable. We must focus on a proper presidential and parliamentary election process, including a credible complaints mechanism. We must work with Kabul to properly empower legitimate provincial councils and hold long overdue district council elections, to help this highly centralised state deliver services at the local level, where it really matters. We must get the judicial system working, particularly at the local level, so it can deal with the prevalent land, water and tribal disputes that cause so much localised conflict.

None of this requires a radical new strategy. The necessary steps are set out in the Afghan Compact (pdf), agreed with much fanfare by Kabul and its international partners back in 2006. The next big international conference for Afghanistan, in Paris in June, presents the opportunity for a frank assessment of progress to date, particularly on appointment vetting, transitional justice and disarmament, all of which appear to have been forgotten. Properly prioritise and implement these commitments and we will see real improvements in the lives of ordinary Afghans in all parts of the country. Then we won’t need talk of doing deals with the Taliban, because their reluctant constituency will have already turned against them.

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