Since the Taliban Regime was ousted by the US-led coalition forces, international initiatives have been trying to rebuild Afghanistan as a democratic and liberal state for a long-lasting peace. However, despite all efforts, Afghanistan is still far from being stable. As a significant reason, Emrah Ozdemir (Karatekin University, Turkey) investigates to what extent the interveners could understand the situation of the country and the people of Afghanistan.

Afghanistan is a country shaped by the long-lasting civil wars and external interventions of different actors. Despite its unique state formation process, social, cultural and demographic back ground, the country has been known as a failed state that has to be cured with an external intervention based on democracy and liberal market economy. This classical rapid prescription was created based on the military intervention of the US-led coalition after the 9/11 attacks. This military intervention characterised as a war against terrorism turned into a heavy foot-print statebuilding initiative with the counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine redeveloped by the soldiers experienced in Iraq.

The military intervention following the COIN doctrine emphasises a population-centric approach and cultural awareness as key tenets of the efforts. This approach focuses on a normative agenda of building a central state mechanism to satisfy the needs of the population. Since they diagnose the lack of a governance mechanism, which could gain the support of the local population and maintain basic services for them, as the biggest reason of insurgencies, they try to address this by establishing a capable state and government structure relying on normative western prescriptions in terms of security, governance and development. This perception degrades the population to a passive position. The biggest delusion of this concept is the misevaluation of the main drivers of the instability and conflict in the country. Therefore, the doctrine tries to simultaneously implement liberal-statebuilding policies and military operations, without paying adequate attention to the local expectations and peculiar characteristics of the local context.

The Bonn Agreement, thus, adopted the features of a democratic peacebuilding framework including a national constitution and elections for a representative government. Similar to the Bonn Agreement, for a more stable country, the Afghan Compact was also built on three essential pillars; security, governance and development. These three pillars were designed to build mirror images of the western ideal type state and society. In this regard, statebuilding efforts have relied on the idea that a liberal democratic regime and the economy can prevent the Taliban’s re-emergence in the country.

These flawed perceptions disallowed the interveners from understanding the root causes of the real grievances in the country. There are important differences between the perceptions of the local people and the interveners, and interveners have not realised these differences due to their own agendas in the region. There is a general inclination among the local people that the war in Afghanistan is a proxy war created by foreign actors using ethnic, sectarian and tribal conflicts in the country for their own interests.

The pragmatic policies used by the interveners, contrary to the expectations, resulted in deteriorating circumstances in the country, particularly with regards to political and economic equality. The most significant pragmatic policy was the collaboration with the warlords and local powerbrokers to fight the Taliban. Although it seems a viable solution in the short-term, this collaboration caused these actors to gain more power and emerge as a threat, undermining the legitimacy and authority of the Afghan state. These warlords and powerbrokers are the reality of the country, and to some extent they have a de facto legitimacy in the eyes of the local people. In this regard, the initiatives seeking sustainable solutions should negotiate these power figures. However, instead of pragmatic policies, these negotiations should focus historical, social and cultural context of the country.

Another pragmatic example of the liberal statebuilding policy was the short-term development projects conducted by international military forces in terms of the efforts to win hearts and minds of the local people. To the Afghan people, the efforts were nothing more than temporary and short-term projects, and so could not solve the main problems of the population such as poverty and unemployment. Moreover, in a country where warlordism and economic and political inequalities are a daily reality and the dominant problems destabilising the country, free market economy and a neo-liberal development ideology have only increased the gap between the social classes as well as the people and the state.

Afghanistan, as a multi-ethnic and tribal society, does not have a robust social structure. Therefore, the Afghans do not only have different perceptions from the interveners, but also have different ideas amongst themselves about society. However, the narrow COIN doctrine perspective disregarded these differences, and instead tried to implement one-size-fit-all policies superficially in keeping with its military objectives. Thus, despite the great efforts in terms of economic and human resources, the struggles of the interveners have not been adequate in defeating the insurgency nor in building a self-sufficient and democratic state prioritising the needs and necessities of the people.

In this regard, more emancipatory mechanisms at the bottom-up level can make useful contributions for finding more sustainable local solutions for Afghanistan. Due to local ownership and the opportunity given to local people to decide, indigenous examples have been more valuable and maintainable than direct statebuilding interventions as a means of counterinsurgency in the country. This is a difficult but long-term solution for the country, and the Afghans need political and economic support to realise this difficult endeavour. However, a thinking bottom-up approaches and local-based policies are enough to stabilise a conflict zone seems a naïve assumption. Deep structural deficiencies such as flawed power structure and covered hierarchies among the society, ethnic affiliations, poverty, corruption and regional maters create important obstacles for bottom-up approaches.

In addition, the War on Terror discourse of the US-led coalition forces alienated the Taliban and isolated them from the political platforms. However, this exclusion ignored the social and economic grievances that motivated the members of the Taliban too. Despite its archconservative religious and governmental perceptions, they represent a group of the people in the country. Therefore, that it is not possible to solve the insurgency problem only by using coercion, but rather that international and regional actors should also support reconciliation and the peace process. The conflicts and unstable circumstances in the country have direct relations with regional issues. Thus, besides Afghanistan, the regional issues also need sincere and realistic efforts opening up the way to more participatory solutions.

Lastly, misinterpretations of the lessons learned in Iraq and Afghanistan shifted the attention of the western interveners from counterinsurgency ‘towards intervention at a distance [or indirect rule] aimed at enabling local powerbrokers to become more capable to fighting insurgent, of policing their population, and of governing more responsibly’.  This new strategy emphasises the necessity of aggressive military efforts to support local allies instead of liberal interventionism. However, the ignorance of local socio-economic and political grievances in terms of local perceptions remains as the biggest mistake of the new indirect rule, similar to the mistake of the COIN doctrine. As already evident in the initial phase of the Afghanistan campaign, supporting local powerbrokers according to the western interveners’ strategic aims may achieve the short-term goal – to defeat insurgency – but it cannot bring long-term stability.

This post is the revised and updated findings of a three year Ph.D research completed by the author at Swansea University, Wales. 

This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of South Asia @ LSE blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please read our comments policy before posting. Photo credit: ArmyAmber,  Pixabay

Dr Emrah Ozdemir is an assistant professor in the Department of International Relations, at Karatekin University, Turkey. He served as a gendarmerie officer for 16 years, and deployed several different locations including Afghanistan. He is currently working on political economy of modern wars, post-conflict policies, critical security and global politics

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