January 01, 2010

Afghanistan: The Realm of Possibility

Writing about web page http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/2009/11/the-price-of-peace/

According to an analyst cited by Simon Tisdall, writing in The Guardian (Dec. 18, 2009), "Corruption goes to the heart of what comprises the Afghan 'state'." Lorenzo Delesgues, director of Integrity Watch, is quoted to the effect that "50 cents in every $1 of foreign aid is lost to corrupt or fraudulent practices" and "up to 90 cents for some USAid programmes."

Peter Galbraith, former United Nations deputy envoy to Afghanistan, criticizing the recent Afghan election as fraudulent, wrote in The Observer (Dec. 20, 2009): "This is a country in which it is impossible to monitor corruption."

In other words, the Afghan state is a loot chain; corruption is everywhere and everything. Sounds bad, doesn't it? But, if that is the reality, it needs to be acknowledged. The question then is: How?

Is it possible to build an Afghan state that is secure, clean, transparent, and accountable, all at the same time? I don't think so. In fact, I think a secure state in Afghanistan today cannot be those other things as well, no matter how desirable is the combination in principle.

More generally, our Afghanistan policy seems to have two objectives. One is to build the capacity of the Afghan state. We have to do this or we will never be able to leave. The other is to build a state that is free of corruption, based on democracy and accountability. My point is that these two goals are in fundamental conflict.

Many will argue that there should be no conflict between building state capacity and clean government. Often they will be right. In many contexts, democracy and state capacity go together. In most of Europe from the seventeenth century onwards, for example, nation states became became increasingly accountable to society, public opinion, political representation, and the courts. Public servants became markedly less venal. The more limits governments accepted on their executive powers at home, the more effective they became in raising taxes and pursuing commercial advantage abroad. So, clean government and state capacity went hand in hand.

To repeat, under the conditions that held in Europe in relatively modern times, there is no contradiction between developing clean government and state capacity. But this is not true in all circumstances.

At a minimum, there must be a public opinion led by middle-class political actors that are interested in holding government to account; in fact, more interested in that than in fighting for a share of the loot chain from governmental corruption and patronage. This is something that has never existed yet in Afghanistan and, while it could exist some day, will be brought into being only very slowly, in the course of decades or centuries, not years or months. To build our foreign and military policy something that not only does not exist, but is outside the realm of possibility, is reckless folly that has already cost the lives of many brave soldiers and innocent civilians.

Without such a public opinion and middle class political elite, the battle against corruption in Afghanistan can have only one end. It will steadily wash away the domestic foundations of the same government that is supposedly our ally, leaving it utterly dependent on external support and, without that support, at the mercy of our deadliest enemies.

If there is a conflict between secure government and clean government, which should come first? In my view there is no question: security must come first. Remember, we are not talking about the security provided by a welfare state or a well stocked freezer. We are talking about the security that comes from not expecting to be killed tomorrow. Human society survived and developed for its first twenty thousand years without clean government. Without security, in contrast, there is no possibility of improvement because all efforts must go into bare survival. Without security, there is only barbarism.

Writing in Prospect Magazine (December 2009), Alex de Waal makes the case better than I can -- so, I recommend that you follow this link and read it. The only viable Afghan government that will secure the lives of its own citizens and the border regions with Pakistan, de Waal writes, will be one based on patronage and revenue sharing. In historical perspective it is a form of government that would once have been called "feudal," which is why I wrote on a previous occasion that what Afghanistan needs is the right kind of feudalism.

Today we would call this form of government venal or corrupt, and it is true that it is not the best kind of social order that has been devised so far, at least from the point of view of advancing human development. But in some contexts it is the best that is attainable. A patronage state is better by far than anarchy or civil war. For Afghanistan and its Pakistan border, these are the real alternatives -- not representative democracy and clean government.

If any form of government can stabilize this troubled region, it will take the form not of a centralized constitutional democracy but of a federated patchwork quilt of baronies based on local rent extraction and rent sharing, in which the barons (whom journalists call "warlords" but there is no real difference between them and the feudal princes of Europe's early middle ages) have found more profit in promoting and taxing trade and interchange than in warfare. Each will keep terrorists and bandits out of their own manors because the latter threaten their revenues, not because they believe in human rights or the rule of law.

In such a society there will be only limited freedom of speech, unequal justice, and routine side payments for normal access to government. Dark things will continue to happen. Bribes and taxes will fund the loot chain. They will go to support the consumption of the barons and to pay off their supporters, as well as to roads and schools. Roads and schools will be built because they promote taxable activity, not because they benefit the whole society. On the whole, however, ordinary people will not be routinely killed in order to spread fear and overturn the established order; the region will cease to spread terror and terrorists across the world. A modicum of prosperity will return. 

It is not much to hope for, but compared with the alternatives it is a worthy goal. Above all, this goal is worthy because it is feasible. We should not spend a drop of our soldiers' blood on any goal that is outside the realm of possibility.


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I am a professor in the Department of Economics at the University of Warwick. I am also a research associate of Warwick’s Centre on Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy, and of the Centre for Russian, European, and Eurasian Studies at the University of Birmingham. My research is on Russian and international economic history; I am interested in economic aspects of bureaucracy, dictatorship, defence, and warfare. My most recent book is One Day We Will Live Without Fear: Everyday Lives Under the Soviet Police State (Hoover Institution Press, 2016).



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