Sunday, 3 June 2012

Tensions Between Security and Reconstruction

Ali Ahmed 

By Astri Sukhre 
Hurst & Co, London, 2011, pp. 293, £ 25.00


Astri Sukhre describes how and why the US led international project in Afghanistan is in the trouble that it is. This helps with getting the picture right, for only then can prescriptions be examined for their worth. Currently, the US is engaged in getting the Taliban into a dialogue. It is simultaneously negotiating with the Afghan Government to-wards establishing a permanent US strategic presence in Afghanistan. It would be difficult to reconcile the latter with the former. This is likely to continue the series of US missteps in Afghanistan since 9/11, comprehensively critiqued by Sukhre in her book under review. It is not so much for her description of the past decade, but for the implications for the coming one that the book is important. The book is on how not to do peace- building or nation-state making. Not that the US was interested in undertaking this at the outset, given the distaste of the Bush-Rums-feld combine for employing the US military on nation-building tasks. However, if that was not their intent, then it can be said that they should have let the otherwise distasteful regimes stay in place, both in Iraq and Afghanistan, rather than have reduced the two states to rubble by concerted, and vindictive, military action. If it was unable to reconstruct it should instead have chosen a political and policing approach post 9/11. Since the US chose the military route, it cannot be absolved for misapplying the ‘light foot-print’.
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Outsourcing the work of rehabilitation of a state at war for two decades prior to Operation Enduring Freedom to the UN, even as military action continued under the aegis of the NATO in an out-of-area operation, was equally self-delusive. No less than a Marshall Plan was warranted, along with a peace keeping mission. However, with the Taliban kept out of the Bonn Conference, peace making was ruled out at the very outset, leaving peace enforcement by the ISAF as the only possibility. The outcome has been evident in the tension between security and reconstruction, unsparingly brought out by Sukhre.
The superpower’s self-image, and hubris of its neoconservative minders, along with the need to keep Afghanistan from becoming the ‘graveyard’ of the NATO, kept the military template operational till Obama belatedly applied a course correction in the form of a ‘surge’. Even in this the military surge proved more consequential than the civilian surge. It was spearheaded by a refurbished counter insurgency doctrine and implemented under the stewardship of America’s modern-day military hero, Petraeus. With American stamina under question, neither of the two special envoys, the late Holbrooke of the Balkans fame, nor his successor, Marc Grossman, has been able to extricate the US from the strategic predicament that its earlier Viceroy, Zalmay Khalilzad, had got it into.
The onus has been borne by the UN, represented by the assistance mission in Afghanistan, UNAMA. Even though Lakhdar Brahimi, associated with the peacekeeping reform document that bears his name, was at the helm of the UN mission initially, the UN was marginalized. For instance, though a ‘political mission’, the deputy to the Special Representative for political affairs was only appointed as late as March 12. Another entity within the blame cross hairs is the Karzai regime, arraigned for all of Afghan ills, beginning with its very weakness. The contradiction intrinsic in this self-exculpatory buck passing is in how a weak regime, one implanted by the international community, can at all be expected to deliver. Its task has been made ever more challenging by the centralized Constitution envisaged for a diverse Afghanistan; by the kind of reconstruction undertaken by the consultants-NGO system in place; by a dysfunctional judicial system prepared by Italy as lead nation; and, by the improbable creation of cohesive security forces by the militaries of the several states involved in the project. Sukhre rightly points out that emerging at the end of a decade of such engagement is a dysfunctional ‘rentier’ state.
While the military and political aspects of the project are better known, the book’s contribution is in dilating on peace building, specifically, the reconstruction, constitutional, governance and judicial dimensions. The promises of funding for Afghanistan have been plenty and liberal. However, it is spent on a ‘second civil service’ comprising high paid consultants living in a secure green zone. Elections have been based on a ‘rarely used’ Single Non Transferable Vote system, chosen seemingly to streamline power in the President by keeping the Parliament divided and the opposition weak. The problems with Karzai’s reelection and the parliamentary elections are too well known to recount. The jirga and the shura being disregarded, the Taliban stole a march as better dispensers of justice. The anti-drugs campaign has also not delivered the results that the Taliban can be credited with in its crack-down just prior to their being summarily ousted. The upshot of these inadequacies has been in the peacebuilding mission being as questionable as the military intervention.
The book’s critique of the project is not only thorough but equally importantly—timely. The surge is winding down and the 2014 time-line looms. Sukhre’s suggestions are worth working into the end game: firstly, that a settlement to be acceptable must be ‘inclusive enough’ to take on board parties that have the capability to undo it; secondly, paring down of the rentier state is necessary; and thirdly, in her words, ‘on the military side, it would be particularly important to recognize that “more is less”’. Her final point is worth reiterating that, ‘Arming the Afghans to the hilt is neither sustainable policy nor a plausible condition for a peaceful post-transition order.’
Despite its making a mere three references to India, the book could do with an Indian readership. This would help defuse the strategic arguments made by security analysts fixated on Pakistan’s seeming proximity with the Taliban. This makes India’s position on talks ambivalent, further marginalizing India. The book could help generate ‘out of the box’ ideas such as the substitution of the peace enforcement mission with a peacekeeping one, perhaps, who knows, even a hybrid UN-SAARC one!