| ||Rejuvenating Appetite for Success in Afghanistan|
By M. Ashraf Haidari
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Broadcast or print news reporting out of Afghanistan is almost always negative, period. Since last year, the supposedly free, unbiased press has been unrelentingly feeding their viewers and readers appetite-based news, and the appetite for positive news out of Afghanistan has been shrinking—not only because of growing unemployment and financial problems in some of major donor-countries, but also because the appetite of those countries’ politicians for remaining committed to Afghanistan has been declining. Indeed, when politicians begin losing the will for the work needed for success in situations like Afghanistan, think tanks, supported by corporate foundations and government grants, have to adjust accordingly. And the so-called experts, often associated with those think tanks, will have to follow suit, or else they will go out of fashion and possibly out of work.
That is how international public opinion about Afghanistan is being shaped these days. A heavy dose of defeatist, snapshot-sensational content goes into news reporting on Afghanistan. Such news is hardly about what is working in the country, or how the progress Afghans have so far made must be consolidated as irreversible success in the fight against terrorism. For example, on November 14, 2012, the Asia Foundation released a landmark survey of the Afghan people, reporting that “just over half of Afghans think the country is moving in the right direction (52 percent), an increase from 2011 (46 percent) and 2010 (44 percent). Support for the government’s peace and reconciliation remains very high (81 percent).”
The survey provides details of how improvements in the quantity and quality of public or private services in 34 Afghan provinces have increased popular optimism about the direction and future of Afghanistan. As expected, however, the survey has failed to grab much attention from major press outlets or think tanks, which continue obsessing about post-2014 Afghanistan, a scenario they consistently envision as bleak and chaotic. This unconstructive method of discussing the situation in Afghanistan only bolsters the enemy’s anti-government war propaganda, with negative implications for regional stability and global security. A few observations are worth mentioning.
First, the arbitrary content of news reports and policy briefs only adds fuel to a political blame-game among the very key stakeholders, who must work together as partners to address Afghanistan’s multidimensional problems with regional and transnational roots. For instance, the frequent criticism of widespread corruption in the Afghan government is hardly helpful, even though the Asia Foundation survey of the Afghan people ranks corruption as the third main challenge facing Afghanistan, after security and unemployment. This only runs the risk of pitting the international community against the Afghan government, preventing both sides from finding a durable solution to the problem of corruption.
If corruption is to be fought, it must first be contextually defined, or else it remains a buzzword, much used and abused by anyone wanting to vent frustration and shift blame to the Afghan government. On the Afghan side, corruption is a systemic problem and a symptom of weak governance, due to a lack of international investment in building the democratic institutions of “checks and balances” in Afghanistan’s nascent, 11-year old state. Without capacity and resources, Afghan state institutions have been unable to fully execute their constitutional responsibilities to provide people with such integrated services as security, rule of law, social protection, and a sustainable livelihood.
Of course, a police officer and a judge, both of whom constitute the eyes and arms of any government respectively, would hardly be effective in their jobs if they were not trained, equipped, and paid adequately. If this problem chronically persists, the incentive for most law enforcement officials to remain employed by the government, in an environment of pervasive insecurity and poverty, will become one of engaging in bribery in order to satisfy the basic survival needs of their families and their future.
On the international side, corruption has come to mean spending tens of billions of dollars to prop up parallel structures for unsustainable service delivery in Afghanistan. As the audit reports of the United States Congress and other oversight bodies of the donor community demonstrate, much of donor-related corruption involves the use of private contractors and multiple sub-contractors, each of which skims off between 20 to 80 percent of the funds sent to Afghanistan. The continued channeling of aid resources through parallel structures, including contractors, NGOs, and UN agencies, undermines the very Afghan state institutions which must be built to restore statehood to Afghanistan. After all, the country has a resilient and enterprising nation, but it direly needs a functioning state.
Second, the public, both in Afghanistan and the donor-countries, is easily misled when all they read in the papers or watch on TV is negative news about every aspect of international engagement in Afghanistan. Afghans are gradually led to believe in conspiracy theories, asking why the best armed and equipped forces of more than 40 countries have failed to defeat a few terrorist groups. By contrast, the taxpayers in donor-countries may wonder where and how their tax funds have been spent, if the life of an ordinary Afghan has not changed much 11 years after the fall of the Taliban. And they can hardly accept the tragedy of losing their sons and daughters in a far-flung nation, if they are not shown the inextricable link between their own homeland security and stability in Afghanistan.
Third, indeed, it is the Taliban and their supporters in the region that stand to gain from a continued miscommunication of facts and mismanagement of expectations in Afghanistan. In the uncontrollable battle of perceptions, the Afghan people and their international supporters stand to lose, even though the big war of ideas for restoring peace, liberty and pluralism in Afghanistan is clearly theirs to win.
With these observations in mind as a check against enemy propaganda, two indisputable facts must be forcefully acknowledged in the press and think-tank reports on Afghanistan. This is rarely done in a way that highlights the main causes and sources of instability in the country.
First, like many of the “bottom billion” countries, Afghanistan is a landlocked nation with a rough terrain, whose stability and prosperity will depend on those of its immediate and near neighbors, as well as on these neighbors’ commitment to non-interference in the Afghan affairs. Further, as in developing countries like India and Brazil, the problems of crime, corruption, poverty, and disease will not disappear in Afghanistan for some time to come. This is a developmental problem, and it takes decades to overcome, if not centuries. Although Afghans have made significant progress in addressing these challenges in just 11 years, far more work remains to be done before the country is on a sustainable development path. In a nutshell, Afghanistan’s dynamic situation must be accepted as a work in progress, which the international community should continue supporting until Afghans firmly stand on their own.
Second, terrorism is the main cause and source of insecurity in Afghanistan. Outside the country’s borders, mass indiscriminate violence is systematically employed, in the form of IEDs and suicide terrorist attacks, to destabilize Afghanistan and victimize its innocent civilian population, including women and children. The instrument of delivering this external self-defeating policy is the Taliban, who will unlikely change their behavior unless key actors in the international community help end state sponsorship of terrorism as a tool in pursuit of strategic rivalry between competing, hostile states in South Asia. Only when this harmful dynamic is transformed into genuine, good neighborly relations, focused on regional economic cooperation, shall stability take root in Afghanistan. Or else, unfortunately, the country will remain a victim of its cursed geography.
M. Ashraf Haidari is the deputy ambassador of Afghanistan to India. He formerly served as Afghanistan’s deputy assistant national security adviser, as well as deputy ambassador to the United States.