Four Years Have Passed

by Joshua Foust on 11/9/2008

Clare Lockhart, one of the architects of the Bonn Agreement, and a close colleague of Ashraf Ghani, Afghanistan’s former Minister of Finance and a potential candidate for President in 2009, has her idea of how to “fix” Afghanistan:

After 9/11, stability was created through a partnership between the Afghan people and the international community. In December 2001, the Bonn Agreement laid out a political framework to allow increasing numbers of Afghans to become participants and stakeholders in their country’s future, with a sequence of events set out in a clear timetable using mechanisms like the loya jirga—a national convention of Afghan representatives—that would be culturally familiar to Afghan citizens.

A group of Afghan leaders and managers was empowered to implement an economic reform agenda to complement the political process. It started with simple mechanisms such as putting in place a national currency. In 2001, there were at least three different currencies in circulation and millions of afghanis were required to buy a simple meal. The hawala dealers—the Afghan money changers—agreed with the government on a plan to change the currency, and before long a new currency was in use across the country. Afghanistan’s new Cabinet designed its first post-Taliban budget, working out how many policemen, doctors, teachers, and soldiers would be required to keep the peace and restore essential services, and it set out a vision for the future of the country in the “National Development Framework.” These leaders designed a transparent process to create a cell phone system where companies bid for licenses in return for a fair price to citizens and revenue to the government. The U.S. government made a risk guarantee available to investors. As a result, rather than the small numbers of satellite telephones that existed in 2001, there are now more than 5 million cell phones in the country, which have sent more than $1 billion in revenue to the government. They also designed a national health system that set standards for health care and contracted out basic services in partnership with nongovernmental organizations.

She’s right that this saw a great deal of success. I would argue, however, that there was no way the international community could not see success, at least of a sort, because building a country up from zero means any progress is good progress. That being said, Ms. Lockhart is very apt at describing just how the International Community has failed Afghanistan in a stunning way—and for that, her essay is absolutely worth reading.

However…

Ms. Lockhart doesn’t seem to get that her own reforms played a huge role in creating an unstable picture. While she is right to excoriate the International Community for creating a shadow economy no Afghans could participate in, and a shadow government no Afghans had a stake in, she doesn’t seem to get that it was the Bonn Agreement that did this, as it governed both Afghanistan’s initial political institutions and the relationship of the international community to those institutions. There is very little allowance for her own role in building a house on sand.

I’m also finished the book she coauthored with Ashraf Ghani a few months ago. I didn’t write a review of it, because it didn’t say anything. The book argues that national and local initiative, and a rejection of the project-based aid community, are vital for breaking debt cycles and creating home-grown economic stability. Great, that’s not exactly new thinking. But her big idea now is to change the nature of Afghanistan’s relationship with the International Community, into more of a mentor-protégé relationship.

Mixed in which this is precious little about how one would go about doing that in Afghanistan. For starters, to turn Afghanistan into a standard issue state will require fundamentally reordering the normal institutional makeup of most communities. The idea of a benevolent-but-distant government, for example, which has actually worked quite well for most of Afghanistan’s modern history, is absent.

The countries that transformed successfully all partnered with the aid system but with a clear vision for how best to use the money, with rights and responsibilities on both sides and clear recognition that domestic leadership was the critical factor. In the short term, resources and military commitments will be required for Afghanistan, but if good governance were restored, Afghanistan could be steadily raising its own revenue and meeting its own bills. A series of reinvigorated national programs managed and staffed by Afghans in partnership with development banks and experts would be far cheaper than the thousands of foreign-run projects. By supporting national programs in partnership with civil society, donors could shift their emphasis to creating a good governance system from the bottom up.

There is a whole range of organizations in the United States and across the world—from volunteer associations to land-grant colleges—that could partner with the effort at reasonable cost. New technologies, such as soil analysis of satellite imagery and using long-distance engineering and architecture support, could drastically reduce the costs of travel and security that are necessary when outsiders are on the ground; they could instead partner with Afghan engineers, architects, and agronomists at Afghanistan’s universities. Rather than sending in thousands of civilians, the shift in emphasis could be to training Afghans to do the jobs themselves.

I don’t want to be a naysayer, since this seems like a really good idea, but Ms. Lockhart’s head is in the clouds. The basic problem facing Afghanistan isn’t governance, it is security. And even when Afghans talk about governance, they really are talking about corruption. Her plan doesn’t have in it provisions to curb corruption, which will permanently sink any initiative into governance. Security must come first, of course, and especially since security is actively undoing what little progress there was. But the governance issue MUST be placed in an anti-corruption context, or all of our newer good intentions will wind up in exactly the same place as all our old good intentions: in the blood-soaked dirt.


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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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