Afghanistan: It Is Time for a Change in the Nation-Building Strategy

Events of recent months demonstrate that a shift in the nation-building strategy adopted by the international community in Afghanistan is needed. Reconstruction and development have been alarmingly slow and the security situation across the country is gradually deteriorating. Spoiler groups, most notably former Prime Minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hizb-e-Islami party and the remnants of the Taliban and Al Qaeda have proven to be more resilient than earlier anticipated and are regrouping. Recalcitrant warlords, many receiving the support of the U.S. government, have also proven to be a monumental obstacle to security and development. The historical parallels between the present security situation and that which existed immediately prior to the Taliban’s ascent to power are striking and should not be overlooked. Security conditions in certain regional centers appear to have reverted to the status quo ante of 1992.

U.S. efforts to root out the last vestiges of the Taliban and Al Qaeda have only exacerbated this adverse situation. Fortunately, the ineffective and counterproductive nature of continuing U.S. military operations in Afghanistan has not been lost on the Pentagon. General Richard Myers, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently stated that the Pentagon has begun to consider shifting its priorities from hunting down Al Qaeda and Taliban forces to supporting reconstruction. Such a policy shift would certainly bolster the international reconstruction effort; it could be used as a catalyst to redirect and reinvigorate the flagging nation-building process.

A Bottom-up Strategy

What is needed is a change in the nation-building approach that has been employed since the fall of the Taliban in November 2001; reconstruction and democratization should be pursued from the bottom up rather than the top down. Current reform efforts, exemplified by the security sector reform process, focus on fostering the creation of robust state institutions. In a country where strong central authority is traditionally viewed with suspicion and apprehension, it is not surprising that such efforts have had only mixed success. This is not to say that programs to strengthen the central government are unnecessary. Quite to the contrary, they are imperative. However, they must be pursued in parallel with efforts to promote security and democratic development at the community and municipal levels. In Afghanistan, the village, and not the central government, was, and continues to be, the key unit of governance in the country. Accordingly, to achieve lasting peace and security, the international community should adopt a community-based approach to reconstruction that advances the rejuvenation of Afghan civil society from the bottom up.

Currently, the power of the Karzai regime is limited to Kabul and its immediate environs. Some would go as far as asserting that the Afghan Transitional Administration (ATA) controls little more than few streets surrounding the presidential palace in Kabul. While this is clearly an exaggeration, it is true that the authority of the government is largely absent in most areas of the country. Outside Kabul, the country is controlled by a myriad of major and minor warlords who carved out mini fiefdoms in the political vacuum that emerged following the fall of the Taliban. The central government lacks the wherewithal to subordinate these destabilizing figures and will be unable to do so in the near future.

The Afghan government and the international community should turn to civil society to fill this political void in the short-term. Such a strategy could serve to neutralize the power of the warlords and stimulate political and economic development.

Afghanistan has been largely portrayed as having no organizational structures outside of religious extremism and military factions. Contrary to these assumptions, Afghan civil society has been vibrant, inside and outside the country, for many years. In fact, Afghanistan has been home to some of the most courageous and successful civil society groups in the region. Throughout the Taliban era, indigenous organizations provided communities with such basic services as health and education. For example, in violation of Taliban law, which forbade the education of women, local NGOs in many areas established clandestine schools to provide secular schooling to both men and women. Afghan NGOs are dynamic and possess valuable experience that must be shared with the nascent civil administration, international agencies, and NGOs. With the power and resources of the central government limited, NGOs will, for the time being, need to fill gaps in fields such as human rights, the environment, gender, development, and the provision of basic services; thus they should be accorded more support by the U.S. and the international community.

Community-Based Approaches to Reconstruction and Peace-building

NGOs working in Afghanistan prior to the fall of the Taliban focused much of their efforts on supporting and building linkages with local councils, called Shuras. This community based approach enabled assistance actors to motivate fragile communities to assume control of their own problems. It fostered local initiative, a prerequisite for sustainable development. Such an approach should be in emulated in Afghanistan today.

The Shura, with the necessary resources and support, could serve as an engine for community development. It is true that the traditional Shura is a patriarchal body that excludes women from participation; however, it rests on democratic roots that should be cultivated. With the necessary reforms, the Shura could be molded into a broad-based, inclusive structure of governance, instrumental in identifying community needs, planning development programs, and implementing them across ethnic lines. This will give Afghans a stake in development planning and programming, allowing them to take ownership of the reconstruction process. Security conditions will gradually improve as a result of advances in participatory governance and community development, not vice versa.

The reestablishment of the Shura of Herat, a large city in the west of the country, demonstrates the potential for Afghan civil society to rejuvenate itself and act as an engine for change. Ismail Khan, perhaps Afghanistan’s most powerful warlord, controls Herat and surrounding areas. A recent Human Rights Watch report documented widespread abuses by the military, police, and intelligence services under the command of Khan, the local governor. According to the report, abuses include arbitrary and politically motivated arrests, intimidation, extortion and torture, as well as serious violations of the rights of free expression and association.

In spite of these stifling conditions, a group of university-educated men and women have established a Shura for the city. The organization’s charter states, “This Shura has been established to restore human rights in Afghanistan in full conformity of the Bonn Agreement.” (The Bonn Agreement signed on December 5, 2001 established a legal framework for the interim government in Afghanistan.) Anyone with a university degree may become a member of the council so long as he or she adheres to the terms of the Bonn Agreement. If Afghanistan is to break its political dependency on the warlords, Herat’s Shura should be strengthened and replicated across the country.

The U.S. and the international community should abandon the narrow state-centered approach to reconstruction that has dominated the nation-building process in Afghanistan. It is time to diversify this strategy; community-based approaches should be adopted to complement ongoing efforts to bolster central government institutions. National infrastructure development should be designed to be supportive of community-level governance, and correspondingly investment in such national infrastructure should be accompanied by community development initiatives. With power and authority heavily fragmented in Afghanistan, it is not logical to pursue centralization in such a rigid manner. This policy has proven to be ineffective in terms of advancing development and security. With the passing of the one-year anniversary of the Taliban’s flight from Kabul, it appears that it is time for change.