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.
How did we get here? According to the conventional story, countries like Afghanistan are in trouble because they can’t sustain order, manage a budget, or deliver services. So we provide funds to kick-start development, charities to provide services, experts to run departments, and troops to enforce the law. A helpful cocoon emerges in which the state grows stronger. And when this state looks enough like the Czech Republic, we hand over the keys.
In 2005, the UN set up a peacebuilding commission to promote such technocratic state-building, which is especially fashionable in western aid departments. The state-builders normally show up after the peace agreements have been signed, give themselves four to six years to get results, and hold multi-party elections or a referendum on self-determination as a graduation ceremony. At the start it looks feasible and western governments, aware of their treasuries and fickle publics, rarely admit that the process might be much slower.
Yet even in tiny countries such hopes are fatally optimistic. Take East Timor, heralded as one of the UN’s successes. Its 1m people received $565m in support from 2002-05, backed up by Australian troops. But the country was soon back in crisis; in 2008 there was a coup attempt. The model is more unsustainable for larger countries: it would take tens of billions of dollars to similarly support Congo’s 66m people.
Look at statebuilding from another point of view: that of an embattled ruler. To him, all those dollars and foreign troops are a huge boon. The money can buy off some opponents, while foreign soldiers fight the rest. Strong, autonomous government departments, however, are a genuine threat. A chief of staff might launch a sudden coup, or a finance minister may put rival warlords on his payroll. Secret ballots are a problem too: it’s hard to pay off local powerbrokers under the eyes of election monitors. The ruler might speak the language of the rule of law. But the real game is buying loyalty. A well-managed, inclusive patronage system is often the only way of running such countries.
Afghan president Hamid Karzai is a case in point. A more talented politician might have been able to strike better deals with local powerbrokers, so that posts and payoffs were bargained for in backrooms, not with Kalashnikovs and roadside bombs. But skilful management cannot resolve Karzai’s main dilemma: any bargain he strikes is good only so long as his US backers remain in place. Both Karzai and his opponents know that the surge of 40,000 extra troops proposed by US General McChrystal is unsustainable, and that any agreements dependent on battlefield advances will be short-lived at best. Underneath the old model remains: a political souk where buyers and sellers haggle over the going rate for renting allegiances.
Even worse, Nato has crippled Karzai’s ability to bargain properly. Foreign firepower and funds give him the strongest hand in the souk, but western demands to stamp out corruption and defeat the Taliban stop him playing his best cards. And peace established by foreign troops, village by village, will quickly break down once the troops are gone—meanwhile, their very presence sparks disputes.
So the ruler has a fine line to tread. He must be strong enough to be indispensable to his foreign backers, but not so strong that they withdraw. Congo’s Joseph Kabila has played this hand masterfully. Following his disputed election in 2006, he has contrived to get the UN to increase its peacekeeping contingent and hunt down his adversaries. Best of all, the international criminal court has put his most formidable rival in the dock for war crimes. But should the troops withdraw, Congolese provincial leaders who have been underpaid for their loyalty will demand more—at the point of a gun.
Karzai’s best asset is that he knows how his country works, with loyalties transacted on the basis of kinship, faith and cash. The Taliban showed that a government can be run cheaply on the first two alone. The US is handicapped because it has only the third. In the months after 9/11, the Americans dollarised Afghanistan’s patronage system, flying in planeloads of shrink-wrapped $100 bills to pay off warlords, while putting on a fireworks display for the media to pretend that military might, not bribery, defeated the Taliban. It worked. But this hardheaded approach was then abandoned in favour of the illusion that, freed from the aberrant Taliban, Afghanistan would begin a path towards western-style democracy.
Today, it would be more cost-effective to ditch the extra troops and revert to funding patronage. This would mean different priorities, like taking control of the drugs market to deny the Taliban its best source of funds. A new patronage system could eventually be made fairer and more inclusive, perhaps allowing institutions to grow around it slowly. But this means thinking like an Afghan politician, not an international peacebuilder. If the west cannot follow this path, it will join the other superpowers humbled in the Hindu Kush. The war in Afghanistan will become more about salvaging Nato than about building a central Asian Denmark. And should Nato withdraw, others—perhaps China—will set the more modest goal of political stability, and pay hard cash to get it.