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Journal of International Peace Operations
Volume 5 – Number 2 – September & October 2009  

Feature | Afghanistan

Beyond the Elections: Key Lessons for International Peacekeeping in Afghanistan

By M. Ashraf Haidari

The study of the political landscape of a country used to involve looking for the existence of certain state and security institutions; it has changed in the recent decades to examining whether these institutions perform as they should. In the case of Afghanistan, however, the metric is slightly different. Here, human capital has remained underdeveloped, courtesy of the decades of war that preceded the current state-building efforts. As a result, the question here is not whether institutions exist, but how well institutions are run and how meritorious those running them are.

Capacity, or lack thereof, in the police, the judicial system, the bureaucracy, education and other fields is a thread that weaves through the successes and failures of our efforts to build a state essentially from ground up. In what follows, I will outline some of the key lessons learned over the past eight years. Indeed, whether or not we proactively work together to build upon these vital lessons learned will determine our collective success or failure in the few critical years following the 2009 presidential and 2010 parliamentary elections in Afghanistan.   

Afghanistan’s battle against the Taliban and other extremist elements is unique in that it is the national police, not the army or the international forces, who constitute the first line of defense. Our sincere efforts to fight drug-trafficking and production, defeat the insurgency, and create an enabling environment for the civilian institutions also hinge on this key area.

However, law enforcement institutions have been neglected from the beginning in Afghanistan. The implementation of judicial and police reforms—reforms that should have been the foundation on which other state institutions were built--was shelved indefinitely due to a lack of resources. This paucity of resources has contributed to a significantly higher number of police casualties. Between 2007 and 2009 alone, more than 1500 Afghan National Police (ANP) officers were killed. Close to 600 Afghan National Army (ANA) soldiers have lost their lives in the same period.

The total International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) casualties since 2001 are at about 1300. Thus, given the substantially higher risk environment the ANP faces and the seminal role it plays in maintaining day-to-day law and order across Afghanistan, it is very important that long-term attention and resources be focused on police training and equipment. These enable them to counter threats from the Taliban and other militant elements, who are often better trained, paid, and equipped.

Another related and equally neglected institution has been the Afghan justice sector. Although the effectiveness of the justice sector determines the legitimacy of any government in public eyes, the reform of this critical sector in Afghanistan has unfortunately received the least amount of international attention and aid resources. Afghanistan has fewer than 1500 judges and 400 defense lawyers for a population of approximately 33 million. Most of these judges and attorneys lack modern legal training, as well as office resources and protection to execute their duties effectively. This is one of the main reasons why 62% of Afghans believe the government does not provide timely justice, and only half believe the government’s justice system is fair; compare this to 70% favorability for traditional methods, according to an Asia Foundation survey.

The popular sense of justice is still percipient—Afghans expect the government to provide them timely and effective justice. Indeed, failure to do so will undermine popular confidence in the government, as well as in the state-building efforts of the international community.

Work on the justice sector must be complemented by an increased emphasis on aid effectiveness. In the past, many donor-related contractors have undermined the Afghan government’s efforts by working parallel to it, instead of working with it or through it. Over the last eight years, this parallel method of operation has resulted in very little transfer of knowledge and skills to Afghans. Donor-related firms continue to receive highly profitable contracts, which they frequently subcontract to smaller companies for implementation.  Indeed, each layer of subcontracting skims some 20% of the taxpayers’ aid monies, consequently robbing the beneficiaries of the “billions of dollars” in officially announced aid to Afghanistan.

Moreover, most of the contractors and their affiliated business partners neither have the necessary work experience in Afghanistan nor the right expertise to operate successfully in Afghanistan. Yet, so far, only about 10% of all aid money given to Afghanistan has been spent through the government; the rest has been channeled through private contractors and other means. And because of a lack of consultation and coordination with the Afghan government and people, these agencies have concentrated most of the aid activity in insecure areas, apparently hoping to help defeat the insurgency by winning the people over. Not only has this tactic not worked, but the absence of enough aid in the peaceful provinces has caused disillusionment among the masses and given insurgency a foothold there.

Coupled with aid effectiveness is aid coordination. So far, donor countries have failed to effectively coordinate their efforts in various sectors. This has hampered aid effectiveness and slowed down the process of state-building. Case in point is the education sector. In many instances, the building of a school is constructed by one country, the chairs and desks are provided by another, and other equipment is financed by a third donor—if donors notice the shortages in the school that was just “built.” The overall aid effort in the country is characterized by this same lack of coordination.

Common to each of the above lessons is the importance of human development and institutional capacity building in Afghanistan. Past experience is instructive in this regard, as the first point of contact between the Afghan people and the governing entity used to be the army, the police or other militia groups. These institutions mostly kept people in check rather than protecting them. As a result, Afghans are not used to—but have shown great demand for— a government whose main function is to protect them and maintain conditions for peaceful life.

Unlike established democracies, therefore, the source of legitimacy and support for the government in Afghanistan does not overwhelmingly come from electoral majority. It rather comes from the nature of people’s first experiences with the government, the bureaucracy, the police and the justice system. The more positive these experiences, the greater respect and legitimacy the government and the democratic system garner in the eyes of the Afghan people.

In order to ensure that these popular experiences are positive, building institutions that are staffed by qualified professionals is necessary. In case of Afghanistan, that has to happen from scratch. As stated earlier, with less than a third of the Afghan population being literate, the pool of competent people for professional careers and leadership capacities is already small. Unfortunately, decades of war have significantly hampered human development in Afghanistan, and the absence of effective state institutions in these periods—such as the police, the army and a civil bureaucracy—has certainly contributed to the deceleration of the development and transfer of knowledge and skills to successive generations.

Therefore, human development and institutional capacity building must top the agenda of international peace operations in Afghanistan. Without enough knowledge and skill, Afghans could hardly achieve self-sustainability to help drive the rebuilding and development of Afghanistan on their own. The road leading up to this level of competence is long and hard, but a serious emphasis on education and training is imperative.

Improving the infrastructure for, and quality of, both secondary and higher education coupled with ensuring greater inclusion of women in education are cornerstones of this policy. To complement that, helping Afghanistan establish a culture of meritocracy in all hiring and firing, and emphasizing accountability in all institutions of the government is critical to improving governance and curbing corruption.

Finally, it is important to note that international peace-building efforts so far enjoy tremendous popular support in Afghanistan. Some of the most recent public opinion polls indicate that more than two-thirds of the Afghan people believe our country is headed in the right direction. A July poll by Glevum Associates found that an overwhelming majority of the Afghan people—more than 80 percent—believe the August elections will be inclusive and representative. Such overwhelming popular trust in the democratic process is a signal to the international community that the Afghan people are still optimistic about the future, support human rights and the rule of law, denounce extremist elements, and demand a future with democracy rather than militant extremism.

But perhaps the most important lesson is that even after being neglected twice—first after the defeat of the Soviet Union and then after the ouster of the Taliban—the Afghan people still want to be part of the global community of nations. They are ready to give the international community another chance.

Indeed, international peace operations have hardly been cheap, and it takes time, patience, and commitment. However, the alternative— neglecting Afghanistan again—in a world where security has rapidly globalized, is far more costly, as we vividly remember from the tragedy of September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States.

To this extent, failure in Afghanistan is not an option, and peace can hardly take hold in Pakistan and the rest of the region without stability in Afghanistan. Nor can global security be ensured without a consolidation of Afghanistan's democratic achievements of the past eight years.

All stakeholders—Afghans and non-Afghans alike—should understand the gravity of committing to success by building upon the above lessons learned until the Afghan people can stand on their own and secure the future of Afghanistan.

The author is the Political Counselor of the Embassy of Afghanistan in Washington, DC.

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