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Accepting Indigenous Solutions in Afghanistan

Commentary, 17 February 2009
Central and South Asia
The Afghanistan Opinion Poll 2009 should wake up the international community to the necessity for a change in approach. Global actors have to engage with the reality on the ground, and stop trumpeting ineffectual and imported strategies.

The Afghanistan Opinion Poll 2009 should wake up the international community to the necessity for a change in approach. Global actors have to engage with the reality on the ground, and stop trumpeting ineffectual and imported strategies.

By Frank Ledwidge for

What is striking about the BBC/RUSI poll is not that the level of general support for foreign intervention and the state it supports is low; it is rather that the international presence still clearly has a constituency of more than 50 per cent of those polled. Some of the infrastructural aid, especially in the north and central regions is undoubtedly bearing fruit.

Another 'tipping point' - time to accept that the civilian assistance mission has gone seriously wrong

The RUSI/BBC results are incidentally borne out by the regular Asia Foundation surveys which point to substantial, although steadily reducing, support for the Karzai government and foreign assistance to it. It may well be however that should those results be disaggregated according to location, the picture is not so positive. This would of course be most evident in the southern and eastern provinces.

As matters stand, the glass may well not be half empty at all, although the level is dropping fast. As the commentators regularly have it, this may be another one of those tipping points.

Value-based rather than effects-based approaches are doomed to fail

As part of the much heralded Obama strategic review, in addition to the likely military 'surge' (much of which will go to Helmand) there will be a full reassessment of civilian aid. The failed lead-nation approach where the United Kingdom 'took on' counter-narcotics, Germany police reform and so on is now effectively dead in the water. It will have to go.

The sooner there is a realisation that Afghanistan is and should be the 'lead nation' in almost all fields the better. To that end the news that there is to be Afghan input into the Obama-Holbrooke review is welcome indeed. This is another sign that the international effort is slowly accepting that value-based rather than effects-based strategies are doomed. Nowhere is this more evident than in the field of the rule of law, where comfortable western assumptions about human rights and legal procedural regularity collide to their detriment with Afghan assumptions concerning justice and law enforcement.

Problem of Taliban secondary to jobs and poverty

The BBC/RUSI poll notes that only 11 per cent of people consider the Taliban to rate as their first or second most serious problem. For most Afghans, like civilians anywhere, poverty, unemployment and security are the key problems. It is certainly the case that whilst the Taliban are blamed for a lack of security, in Helmand at any rate police are regularly cited as at least an equal menace. Military action will therefore be secondary to the effect to be gained through well-targeted development.

Helmand and the south are notoriously difficult to sample by way of polls. There is certainly a significant constituency within Pashtun southern Afghanistan that recalls that the Taliban came to power on a manifesto precisely and explicitly for providing justice. In a society where 99 per cent of disputes are settled in a tribal or local context, initiatives purporting to extend or strengthen the power of a greatly distrusted state are not the best way forward. The views of many Afghans, both Pashtun and others, in the South and elsewhere are distinctly unpalatable for western minds. This was, happily, explicitly acknowledged by Des Browne the former Defence Secretary in July 2008 when he acknowledged that Afghan solutions in the justice sector must be respected and supported even if they do not sit well with our own norms.

Indigenous solutions trump silver plated foreign models every time.

At the national level, western governments need to stress their awareness, as the Afghan constitution does, that Afghanistan is an Islamic Republic, not some form of displaced secular EU aspirant state. Afghans are acutely aware of this, and deeply proud of it and indeed their independence. They will not tolerate being dictated to. The sooner the large aid community in Kabul internalises this, the sooner matters may really begin to move.

Inertia within the international assistance community, fixated as it is so often on irrelevant and actively counter-productive norms, and bound by a culture of consultancy and often ill-founded 'expertise' is unlikely substantially to change in the short term. Afghanistan has never been susceptible to interference, as opposed to advice which it readily accepted in the 1950s-1970s. Tinkering with action plans for reform will fail unless it is fully realised that indigenous solutions that work, in however ramshackle a fashion, trump silver-plated foreign strategies every time.

Lt. Cdr. Frank Ledwidge was Former Justice Advisor to the UK Provincial Reconstruction Team in Helmand

The views expressed above are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of RUSI.

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