“There is no sense of trust”

Nine years ago, US troops took over Kabul. Instead of making progress, Afghanistan seems to have sunk ever deeper into civil war since then. In an interview with Hans Dembowski, Conrad Schetter, an expert on Afghanistan at Bonn’s Centre for Development Research, discussed why development efforts have not borne more fruit.

[ Interview witch Conrad Schetter ]

Why are the results of development policy so meagre in Afghanistan?
The donors made a lot of mistakes. The biggest one was probably to focus so much on the state. Even ­today, donors do not really understand that Afghanistan is not run vertically from the top. Rather, Afghan society regulates itself horizontally in local power arrangements. Such arrangements are often unstable, but they do exist and are respected. The demand for a strong central state is simply out of touch with people’s mindset. Kunduz, for instance, has a farreaching irrigation system; it is operational without government management.

Do development agencies tip over local balances of power when they intervene?
They are certainly at risk of doing so. Many donor agencies acted as though they could start from scratch in Afghanistan, but often their engagement threatens certain vested interests, so they meet with resistance. War lords play a role, and so do religious leaders. The prevalent power arrangements differ from province to province – and often even from village to village. But if one does not pay attention to the underlying networks, one quickly gets into trouble.

Donors have hardly coordinated their development policy in Afghanistan according to the principles of the Paris Declaration on Aid ­Effectiveness, which they all signed. Could donors have achieved more if they had given President Hamid Karzai’s government more funds to implement its programmes?
It’s true that the donors did not comply with the principles of the Paris Declaration in Afghanistan; their development efforts are indeed quite fragmented. But to some extent, that fragmentation reflects an extremely fragmented country. As I said, the idea of a fully operational and strong central state seems alien to Afghanistan’s people. It is certainly true, however, that donors did not pay enough attention to what the people think is normal and desirable.

For development efforts to succeed, must there not first be security?
I cannot answer that with a simple yes or no. In regard to Afghanistan, both terms – “security” and “development” – have too many connotations. Their meanings depend on who is using them. For the people, security not only means protection from physical violence, but also a reliable supply of food and water – and a relatively stable horizon of what to expect in the future. For soldiers, in contrast, security basically means: “Here I am safe from bullets and bombs.” It is noteworthy in this context that the international allies’ proclaimed goals have become ever more modest over the years. In the beginning, there was talk of “civil society”, next came “state building”, then “security”, and now the catch word is increasingly “stability”. The terms indicate that they have less and less of a vision for the country.

But doesn’t the US military’s counter­insurgency doctrine emphasise civilians’ security in the comprehensive sense?
Yes, it does, and the current field manual certainly is an intellectual and rhetorical masterpiece. You can’t argue against it ideologically. The problem is that reality does not follow well-drafted sentences. Soldiers are not culturally sensitive social workers, and they never will be. They are trained to fight ­after all. So it’s perfectly normal that the military perspective will dominate among the dislocated troops. Never forget that they have reason to fear for their lives.

History shows that counter-insurgency wars are rarely won. Do you think that NATO will just pack up and leave someday?
I do not believe that the USA will completely withdraw from this geostrategically important country. And as long as the Americans are there, their allies will probably support them. But I do not believe either that there will be success in the sense of Afghanistan becoming, in a few years, a stable de­mocratic state which is no longer a source of unrest. My forecast is that NATO will keep the big towns while rebels and warlords will control the countryside, and this setting will probably be considered fairly stable. Basically, the international community is buying time, hoping that the problems will eventually take care of themselves. In any case, it was wrong to try to establish a strong national government in Kabul by means of elections that then did not meet democratic standards. The result is the lack of legitimacy we now face.

Paul Collier, a British economist, argues that elections in fragile states mainly polarise and therefore tend to exacerbate crises. On the other hand, he says that economic success offers opportunities for long-term change, especially as fast growth is possible for many years after massive destruction. Could that hold true in Afghanistan?
In theory, yes. The country does have a lot of resources. And it is also true that some cities are experiencing noticeable economic growth. But it is far too early to speak of any kind of long-term transformation.

It is estimated that the illegal drug trade is worth the equivalent of 30 to 50 % of Afghanistan’s gross domestic product. Can there be peace in such circumstances?
It certainly is not very likely. I find it striking that ­attempts to eradicate the drugs economy have only brought about cartels. Poppy plantations and ­opium marketing started out as small grassroots operations, but the more it was tried to put an end to the opium economy, the more violent mafia structures emerged, and they are very hard to tackle. We must not forget that the people involved in this business are not all insurgents. Pretty much everyone with any say in the country is involved, at least indirectly. Though opium cultivation is currently in decline, this trend does not result from repression measures. The reasons are business-
related: the warehouses are full.

Latin Americans have begun to openly discuss the legalisation of drugs in some way or another, with the goal of depriving illegal cartels of enormous black-market profits. Three former presidents of Mexico, Brazil and Colombia started this debate. Are such ideas tossed about in Afghanistan as well?
As far as I can tell, only the allies are discussing these matters in Afghanistan. The Afghans themselves tend to accept things at face value; they are simply trying to make the best of a desperate situation in order to fend for themselves and their families. After decades of civil strife, there is no sense of trust among the people, and that is also true of the elites. They do not trust each other, they do not trust the Western allies, and they do not trust the neighbouring countries. In their ears, our notion of the rule of law sounds like yet another utopian, ideol­­ogical promise – like the Soviet Union’s socialism propaganda or George W. Bush’s freedom rhetoric.

Questions by Hans Dembowski.

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