A Recipe for Losing Afghanistan

October 31, 2006

And we are back from the commercial break! Thanks for staying with us for Part-II of “How Best to Lose Afghanistan”- the delicacy you are just about to savor. Where were we?

Ah, yes! So you have the dish with various ingredients in it (Warlords – dozen of, cleaned up and debearded, mixed together; Drugs – a goodly few thousand tonnes of, processed or otherwise; Slow/ineffective reconstruction – five years of; and Corruption – per taste, no need to be tight-fisted with this ingredient) at the ready.

Let this simmer for some five years (during which period you can go away and busy yourself with some sort of distraction… like Iraq) and then come back and add the following to get the desired delicacy (about which, mind you, nothing is really delicate : a monumental collapse and implosion, a likely humanitarian catastrophe, and inevitable far-reaching fallouts.)

Additional ingredients:

1. Shady Deals with the Taliban: This one is essential to get just the right kind of tang. Start making deals with Taliban remnants and gradually pull back from the areas that you leave in their trust. This ingredient will work its magic of extremism, anachronism, male-chauvinism, wahhabism, and other quite potent -isms.

2. Civilian Casualties: liberally bombard the dish with every seasoning at your disposal. The desired effect is total alienation of the hearts and minds that will work in collusion with the additional ingredient #1 and contribute to the final pate.

3. Re-legitimize Gulbuddin and Mullah Omar: By making overtures that they, quite sadly, might reject at first. Realize that you are the one who is at their mercy at this point, so you have to swallow your pride. Their role in completing your concoction is quite essential.

4. More Alienation: Of hearts and minds in other regions, by narrowly focusing all your attention to a certain part of the dish. Make sure the other areas understand this.

5. Lastly, and most importantly, keep listening to me -I am your advisor -think-tank -study group -working paper -white paper -expert- observer-consultant-…, and I have spent my entire life studying the dish, so you can be certain I know its ins and outs. In one word, I am your gourmet chef and you need me to get this delicious disaster just right.

Now sit back, engage in some other failed diversion (you always have another episode of Axis of Evil to busy yourself with) and wait.

Give it no more than two years at most, and enjoy!

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Thank Your Government for Neglect

October 31, 2006

I was recently at a gathering on Afghanistan held at a DC think-tank. Much of the discussion was understandably focused around the two themes of “what went wrong?” and “what now?”. During the Q&A session somebody asked whether there were any plans to tackle the lack of electricity in most of the country and its unreliability in the capital. One of the panelists, a journalist who had recently travelled to Afghanistan, shared this intereting anecdote:

“In western parts of Kabul and many parts of the Central Highlands region, members of the Hazara ethnic community have started self-sufficient, micro-level electricity generation schemes. These are highly successful models of community participatory development that have taken place largely outside the purview of the government and the NGOs. In many of these areas, power availability is much more reliable when compared even with the capital region. Already a well-developed system of billing is in place whereby those moneyed businessmen who capitalize on the generators and their fuel collect money from the people in return for the service.”

I can personally corroborate this with anecdotes of my travels to Jaghori district of Ghazni province last summer, where many houses used electricity for lighting, and some even had televisions and satellite dishes. (In fact, I remember the bizzare episode of watching on CNN International the announcement of justice O’Conner’s resignation. I had to explain the reason for my sudden excitement.)

It would be nice to leave it at this. A nice and happy little success story. But I am itching to go on and put this in a historical context for further clarification. And because I am feeling mean and bitter tonight (which is when things suddenly begin to make a lot of sense.)

Let’s start with this bit: “These efforts have taken place largely outside the purview of the government and…”

But of course they are outside the purview of the government! In fact, they have sprung up because of government neglect -and centuries of it- and not despite of it. It is when people are subjected to long periods of systematic neglect, discrimination, and socio-economic marginalization that they learn to fend for themselves. For certain sectors of Afghanistan’s population, to the extent that there has ever existed a central state, its principal raison d’etre and functionality has remained limited to alternating bouts of exorbitant taxation and genocidal warmaking. Effective administration, development, and provision of services has never been a priority in these areas. (To be fair, these have not been much of a priority elsewhere either, but we are speaking in comparative terms here -so don’t pretend like you don’t see my point.)

This is reflected even today, for instance, in the staggering figures for infant and maternal mortality rates in the neglected Badakhshan province in the northeast, and official footdragging with the construction of a vital highway to the central province of Bamiyan -three years after the Italian government has pledged the funds specifically for the project! (I travelled along this road last year, and let’s just thank the Japanese for their dogged Land Cruisers. Even so, it is a bone-crushing experience. If anybody out there is thinking of it, I would caution and recommend the presidential means of transport- helicopter yourself to Bamiyan, or the breathe-taking Band-i Amir, or wherever else you want to sightsee for a day or two and campaign and make promises and out you go.)

So let’s not credit the Hazaras too much for their resourcefulness and self-reliance. They have had centuries to learn that -in the immortal word of the king of pop- : “They don’t really care about us.”

(Incidentally, this same hard-won lesson may place them in an advantageous position in an era where statist models are giving way to social entrepreneurship and civil society -driven growth… or am I getting ahead of myself talking about Afghanistan?)