Avoiding failure in Afghanistan means embracing its patronage politics—bribes and allby Alex De Waal / November 17, 2009 / Leave a comment
Published in December 2009 issue of Prospect Magazine
Afghanistan: “a political souk where buyers and sellers haggle over the going rate for renting allegiances”
When Nato concedes a draw in Afghanistan, it will be because of its failure to understand the country’s politics. But a deeper failure will lurk in the background. In the past decade the west has launched a huge experiment to build capable states in the world’s most difficult countries. Troops, technical advisers and aid budgets are the tools of choice. The experiment is said to have worked in East Timor, Kosovo and Sierra Leone; now Afghanistan, Congo and Sudan are top of the target list. All are failed or fragile states where patronage is paramount and where the political arena is a marketplace, not a debating chamber.
The problem is that Nato and the UN are terribly bad at patronage politics. Their operations are run from green-zone ghettoes and their representatives are risk averse, obsessed with procedures and rarely interacting with their hosts. No one in Afghanistan gets promoted for bending the rules to fit the reality of patron-client relations and the exchange of favours.