An Afghan Policy Built on Pipe Dreams
First published in The New York Times, March 3, 2007.
The international community’s policy in Afghanistan is based on the claim that Afghans are willing partners in the creation of a liberal democratic state. Senator John McCain finished a recent speech on Afghanistan by saying, “Billions of people around the world now embrace the ideals of political, economic and social liberty, conceived in the West, as their own.”
In Afghanistan in January, Tony Blair thanked Afghans by saying “we’re all in this together” and placing them in “the group of people who want to live in peace and harmony with each other, whatever your race or your background or your religion.”
Such language is inaccurate, misleading and dangerous.
Afghans, like Americans, do not want to be abducted and tortured. They want a say in who governs them, and they want to feed their families. But reducing their needs to broad concepts like “human rights,” “democracy” and “development” is unhelpful.
For many Afghans, sharia law is central. Others welcome freedom from torture, but not free media or freedom of religion; majority rule, but not minority rights; full employment, but not free-market reforms. “Warlords” retain considerable power. Millions believe that alcohol should be forbidden and apostates killed, that women should be allowed in public only in burqas. Many Pusthu clearly prefer the Taliban to foreign troops.
Yet, senior officials with long experience with Afghanistan often deny this reality. They insist that Taliban fighters have next to no local support and are purely Pakistani agents. The U.N. argues that “warlords” have little power and that the tribal areas can rapidly be brought under central control. The British defence secretary predicted last summer that British troops in Helmand Province could return “without a bullet fired.” Afghan cabinet ministers insist that narcotics growth and corruption can be ended and the economy can wean itself off foreign aid in five years. None of this is true. And most of them half-know it.
It is not only politicians who misrepresent the facts. Non-profit groups endorse the fashionable jargon of state-building and civil society, partly to win grants. Military officers are reluctant to admit their mission is impossible. Journalists were initially surprisingly optimistic about transforming Afghanistan. No one wants to seem to endorse a status quo dominated by the Taliban and drugs. Humankind cannot bear very much reality, particularly in Afghanistan.
Does it matter? Most people see our misrepresentations as an unappealing but necessary part of international politics. The problem is that we act on the basis of our own lies. British soldiers were killed because they were not prepared for the Helmand insurgency. In the same province, the coalition recommended a Western-friendly technocrat as governor; he was so isolated and threatened he could barely leave his office. Hundreds of millions of dollars invested in anticorruption efforts, and the police and the counter-narcotics ministry, has been wasted on Afghans with no interest in our missions. Other programs are perceived as a threat to local culture and have bred anger and resentment.
Still others have raised expectations we cannot fulfil, betraying our friends. I experienced this in Iraq, where I encouraged two friends to start gender and civil society programs; we were unable to protect them, and both were killed. Even when we fail, instead of recognizing the errors of the initial assessment and the mission, we blame problems in implementation and repeat false and illogical claims in order to acquire more money and troops.
The time has come to be honest about the limits of our power and the Afghan reality. This is not to counsel despair. There is no fighting in the streets of Kabul, the Hazara in the centre of the country are more secure and prosperous than at almost any time in their history, and the economy grew last year by 18 percent. These are major achievements. With luck and the right kind of international support, Afghanistan can become more humane, prosperous and stable.
But progress will be slow. Real change can come only from within, and we have less power in Afghanistan than we claim. We must speak truthfully about this situation. Our lies betray Afghans and ultimately ourselves. And the cost in lives, opportunities and reputation is unbearable.