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Tuesday / April 25.

Lessons from Afghanistan

By Susan Harris

Credibility is a tricky issue. In countries like India, electoral malpractices will not undermine the democratic nature of the procedure or the results, whereas countries like Afghanistan are always under the shadow of different interests. The recently concluded elections in Afghanistan were reported as cleaner and fairer compared to the 2009 elections. As the troops prepare to withdraw from Afghanistan, some immediate inferences can be drawn. There will be huge cuts in foreign aid coming in and that there is a perhaps unavoidable discrepancy between the intention and consequence. Intending to rout out and destroy Al Qaeda, the consequences have been far from satisfactory. Afghanistan is Asia’s poorest state, it is the world’s largest opium producer, it has a dismal rank for gender equality and it is one of the most corrupt states in the world.

If we assess the situation today we enter a series of arguments which are sensible but which constantly refute or contradict each other. For example, critics say that once the troops completely withdraw, the region is going to fall prey to illegal activities and authority. But you can argue saying that Al Qaeda has in fact spread to more countries such as Pakistan and Syria, and even Taliban has control over large parts of the rural south. The spate of attacks doesn’t attest to control by the intervening nations; rather it shows a constant defiance on the part of the rebels to assert their presence in the war torn country.

In the same vein one can argue that if NATO leaves there is going to be parallel cut in aid dollars which will crush any nascent rebuilding or development. But you can refute this by saying that the exhausting term of war has led to a donor fatigue where NGOs and other organizations are tired from helping out Afghanistan and where regular help has not led to any distinct changes in the face of the landscape-therefore this withdrawal is inevitable and necessary. One might argue further and say that one must not understate the strength of foreign aid, and that in the absence of aid, the economy will most certainly collapse. Then you might claim that most of that was phantom aid, and most of that was spent indirectly to help the Afghan economy so it doesn’t have the pivotal role to the economy that is often attributed to it. Further you might add that opium has a significant role to play and that it constitutes a large chunk of the informal sector of the economy and if we are criticizing the US for ignoring the specifics of the Afghan culture then opium could be explained as an ingredient of this national culture. It has been on the rise since the US occupation, and more importantly it provides employment, not in a parallel economy but in an economy where unemployment is rampant because of the civil war and where most of the drug traffickers are top officials in the Karzai government and opium trade is one of the main sources of livelihood for the agriculture-intensive nation. Would this be Afghanising the democracy instead of democratizing Afghanistan?

In which case the final argument which seems to trump everything else: neglect after intervention by the international community will make Afghanistan a breeding ground for terrorism. To which you can still protest that it wasn’t terrorism that ruined Afghanistan’s economy but foreign aid. The country is so dependent on foreign aid that it has hindered indigenous capacity building and the vacuum left by absence of infrastructure or institutions requires long term solutions. But any kind of long term planning will not yield immediate results and the international community requires improvements to validate its intervention. In fact Reconstruction and Development post conflict has not included much reconstructing or developing. As Duffield has pointed out, promotion of development has become synonymous with providing security. Lack of knowledge of the conflict and excluding local involvement in reconstruction has only alienated the people and exhausted everyone making a debacle of the US policy of ‘winning hearts and minds’. This has also implied that intervention for security, and military become so interchangeable that military intervention or support becomes a substitute for foreign policy in Afghanistan. Such an antiseptic war has only led to a dollarization of economy which is embarrassingly obvious and underhand. Post-conflict reconstruction is a holistic endeavor and involves military for restoration of law and order but it is not its primary function; it must also be economic and rehabilitate lost livelihood and improve the social conditions such as providing reconciliation and justice. But so far intervention has been crudely militaristic and economic.

This isn’t an idealistic complaint either. A poor reconstruction and development has implications in the society such as internal displacement and brain drain and increase in number of people needing social assistance and a continuing lack of infrastructure and economic decline because of lack of normalcy in imports and exports and overall dependence on other countries and accumulation of debt.

In such a context, full of paradoxes, it becomes eminently clear that the way we expect warfare to settle conflicts and restart human development is erroneous, and even if we minimize damage and downplay conflict, development is still arbitrary and not easily conjured.

Susan Harris is currently pursuing Masters in English Literature from Delhi University. She is interested in world affairs and India’s place in global politics. She enjoys film noir and science fiction.