Asia Watch

The void in Trump’s Afghanistan strategy

After US President Trump announced his strategy for Afghanistan on Monday,much has been written about the eventuality of a negotiated settlement, the Afghan Taleban and Pakistan's role in the mix. Afghanistan's internal political situation has received much less attention.

Aug 26, 2017
By Thomas Ruttig
After US President Trump announced his strategy for Afghanistan on Monday,much has been written about the eventuality of a negotiated settlement, the Afghan Taleban and Pakistan's role in the mix. Afghanistan's internal political situation has received much less attention.Trump has explicitly rules out to "export democracy to faraway countries", as if democracy was a western-owned commodity. This is not good, as this situationis one 'colour' in the Rubik's Cube of conflicts in the country, without setting it straight the whole set would not be sorted.
Afghan institutions often only function superficially. Meanwhile, decision-making happens in a parallel system of kitchen cabinet-like circles and ethno-political dealings. Meritocratic principles that could lead to good governance, if they become the rule, fall on the wayside more often than not. Good results are mainly achieved against the system, or circumventing or short-cutting it, and through individuals inside it who dare to go against its pre-democratic workings.
The National Unity Government(NUG) with its president and its 'chief executive', a position not existing in the constitution, is the outcome of that very institutional weakness.Government-controlled bodies technically unable but, more importantly, politically unwilling to curb manipulation allowedthat the 2014 presidential electionwas botched. The two main contenders simply could not agree on who won; attempt by the UN to sort this out got stuck in the mess. (This was not too much different from the 2009 presidential and 2010 parliamentary elections and, therefore, predictable.) Then US Secretary of State John Kerry had to come in to invent the NUG, only to be derided today by the same Afghan politicians who made his intervention necessary. Strangely enough, even the Chief Executive does not insist any longer on a decision whether his position would be turned into that of a permanent prime minister, as stipulated in the 2014 NUG agreement.
Ever since, the NUG remained more busy with itself, quarrelling over influential and lucrative positions, than with the problems of a country, in which - after all the investments of the past 16 years - thirty per cent of the people continue to live under the poverty line and another thirty per cent not much above it. (These percentages are growing.) They include millions of refugees who have, many voluntarily, but often less so, returned from Pakistan and Iran. They are still waiting for being reintegrated into their society, languishing in makeshift settlements and scraping though with occasional day jobs in a market that is full of unemployed people. As one observer put it, in the context of Afghanistan's migration policies: "There are world-class policy papers, but close to zero implementation."
This is only the tip of the iceberg of Afghanistan's institutions weaknesses. The entire political system is out of sync, and thereare gaping holes. With the exception of the Attorney General's office, the judiciary is all but independent. Electoral oversight bodies have new members, but remain unreformed. The cabinet is often side-lined.The independent commission tasked to watch the constitution's correct implementation is bogged down in internal conflict.
Parliament has lost its full legitimacy; it should have been elected latest by June 2015. No one believes that the date set now, July 2018, is realistic, but no one says so publicly. One of the biggest oddities is the (unwritten) ban of political parties to form groups in it, thus denying the body of any political structure. Parties, although officially allowed to function and participate in elections, also cannot present lists of candidates to voters. This has virtually made each MP his or her own party, open tomanipulation and bribery. It has also undercut its own legitimacy by its often destructive attitude vis-à-vis cabinet ministers and urgent legislative projects.
All this has eroded constitutional checks-and-balances, and next to nothing has been done to fill them. The elites continue their selfish politicking, but rarely have time to addressthe deepening the social gap. On top, there is the return of the frightening ethnicisation of the political struggle, by all sides. This goes hand in hand with using the threat of violence as a political means. Crime is on the rise, and much of it enjoys political protection.
No doubt, there is some progress. Former US ambassador to Kabul Ron Neumann, one of the most perceptive Afghanistan watchers, recently wrote in The Atlantic that there were three things which had impressed him during his last trip to the country: "the reform of military leadership, civil service improvements, and anti-corruption efforts". He added that "none of the changes are complete" and"all could be lost or reversed", and he warned that particularly the forthcoming elections "may undercut them". This is because the rules of coalition building necessitate, from the point of view of candidates, to involve those "entrenched political elites" (Neumann) that anti-corruption reform are supposed to remove from the system based on legal procedures.
Electing a parliament  - and helping to this in a way that produces an accepted outcome -, for example, might sound like a luxury for a country torn apart by war. Particularly as there are many people in the West who stick to the semi-racist belief that Muslim-dominated country are 'not fit for democracy' anyway. After everything that transpired, I would not be surprised it that was also the opinion among White House advisors.
In this context, Trump's contradictory position vis-à-vis "state building"and his failure to mention the need for a strong, independent civil society and the defence of human and democratic in Afghanistan are highly problematic. A country as ethnically, religiously, politically and socially diverse as Afghanistan needs reliable institutions to manage and alleviate a set conflicts that consists of much more than the Taleban insurgency, Daesh's terror and the harmfully bad Afghan-Pakistanirelations. To ignore this fact bodes disaster for Afghanistan's future.
Daily Times, August 26, 2017

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