Avoiding failure in Afghanistan means embracing its patronage politics—bribes and allby Alex De Waal / November 17, 2009 / Leave a comment
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…