One of the most pressing dilemmas facing Afghanistan today is the gap between Afghan and Western views on what constitutes an effective political system and a functional nation-state. For the majority of Afghans, life revolves around their immediate community. Authority is exercised by local leaders not necessarily affiliated with the central government. For Afghans, the existence of a country called the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan is largely irrelevant.
The state of Afghan society has proved a challenging obstacle to international efforts in the country. In March 2009, the White House released a “White Paper of the Interagency Policy Group’s Report on U.S. Policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan”, the hallmark of what was to be a new and unified policy for Afghanistan and Pakistan. Less than six months later, the policy is already under review.
Security, however, remains the primary focus. The first recommendation in the March 2009 white paper highlights the importance of “[integrating] population security with building effective local governance and economic development.” This thinking is based on the idea that a government improves its legitimacy and is less likely to suffer from an insurgency if it is better able to provide security to its populace. But this approach assumes that the bulk of that population is unarmed, which is not the case in Afghanistan.
The capacity for self-defence in Afghanistan has historically been required to protect against a wide variety of threats. Each village has an informal means of defending itself. The fact that they are independent of the government leads to the fear that they might side with insurgents.
In addition, for the United States to gain the support of the leadership of each locality would require something tantamount to bribery in the minds of Western powers. In Afghanistan, what might be considered corruption elsewhere is treated as a mutually beneficial arrangement. Operating without patronage is largely unimaginable and even potentially offensive to all those involved.
While it is usually the responsibility of the government to outlaw such practice, the central government historically has had little influence outside of Kabul, the capital. Such factors play a significant role in how the United States can and should engage in Afghanistan. By providing aid and other assistance on a level the average Afghan understands, the United States conveys a level of authority that resonates with them. At present the central government has neither the resources nor the ability to deliver on this scale.
Most lacking in Afghanistan is a sense of national identity, which can help spur these developments. Currently the primary identifier is based on kinship, rather than citizenship.
Despite this, the international community envisages an Afghan state that includes formal government institutions, a broad consensus on gender equality and a secular judiciary. To achieve this would require multiple shifts in the mindset of the population, something that took hundreds of years in Western Europe.
The United States continually hopes that major progress in the development of Afghanistan as a unitary country can and will be achieved peacefully through a Western electoral process that is currently alien to the vast majority of Afghans. This progress should be viewed as a decidedly long-term goal, which international actors can provide assistance for, but which Afghan actors will need to direct.
Based on the current Afghan economic and political environment, a cohesive policy that both the United States and Afghanistan could be content with would involve broad agreements on engagement between the international community and the government in Kabul. To help build a secure Afghanistan, the international community must understand the reality of the Afghan political and economic environment and engage with Kabul to agree upon a common path forward.
The United States should continue to cooperate with Afghanistan to stop terrorism and the narcotics trade, which requires continued support and development for government security forces. For its part, the Afghan government should seek international aid in developing its formal institutions in order to strengthen its role not only in Kabul, but also across the country.
* Joseph Trevithick works as an analyst for Globalsecurity.org, a defence information website, and holds a M.A. in conflict resolution from Georgetown University. This article first appeared in The Sacramento Bee and was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).