William Maley, Professor and Director of the Asia-Pacific College of Diplomacy, Australian National University

Frédéric Grare, Visiting Scholar, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Summary prepared by Faaiza Rashid, Junior Fellow, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

On July 19, 2006, Carnegie hosted an event on, “Rescuing Afghanistan: A Balance Sheet.” William Maley presented his research focusing on the current problems in Afghanistan and steps that need to be taken to prevent greater problems. Maley discussed how compared to Iraq, Afghanistan may seem like a success story; however Afghanistan remains on a knife-edge, and the loss of momentum in its post-Taliban transition puts it at grave risk of relapsing to a state of dangerous insecurity.

 Maley elucidated that the roots of the growing complexities and tensions in dealing with Afghanistan are much deeper and long standing and require durable approaches. In the late 1970s, the state in Afghanistan collapsed in terms of its administrative capacity and its legitimacy eroded in the eyes of the Afghani population. The collapse of communist regime in April, 1992 exposed the weakness of the nation and proved that the citizens had become dependent on the social institutions of communism. Further, the fragmentation of political elites compounded the weakness of the nation; the high degree of distrust amongst political elites made it almost impossible to demilitarize politics.  Decades of social dislocation exacerbate these complexities. Maley pointed that in this context the Taliban grew and prospered. Taliban was a pathogenic force, created with the displacement of 6 million people into Pakistan and Iran.  The Afghans were denied traditional societal roles and refugee camps provided a perfect place for the radicalization of individuals.

According to Maley, the Afghan state is crumbling and regional powers are staking their claims on the country. Historically Afghanistan was used as a buffer state or a mill stone for other powers to further their interests.  The Bonn process in 2001 was to set forth a road-map for the reconstitution of the state, not only in terms of administrative capacity but also re-legitimization; however, no one at the process knew what the problems were. A significant set of positive events ensued such as drafting of the constitution in December, 2003 and January, 2004; presidential election in August, 2004, and the parliamentary elections in September, 2005.

Maley stated that the Bonn process had its limitations. Firstly, transitional security could not be achieved with just an agreement. Secondly, transitional justice was a problem.  A significant number of powerful actors were unsavory characters whose past records would not have allowed them to participate in the political process in a less destroyed state.  A flourishing of warlords in politics ensued.  Lastly and most seriously, the Bonn process failed to engage in any appraisal of what the structures of the Afghanistan state should be and do.  Instead of focusing on the structure, ministerial designations from the past were treated as prizes to be doled out to participants of the process. The messy government structure crippled the development of institutional capacity in a twofold fashion: firstly, overlapping and unclear responsibilities in different ministries led to nasty inter-agency competition and secondly, the disposition on the part of people who have controlled ministries to treat them as personal fiefdoms.  Crony capitalism thrived.

Maley also analyzed the various challenges in the implementation of the Bonn process. Firstly, the loss of momentum in the transition associated with the blocking of the international assistance force beyond Kabul sent a signal to Afghanis that the support from the greater world was transient and non-durable and that there was some risk that the Taliban could return. Secondly, since 2004 Afghanistan has suffered from a misunderstanding of the path toward the legitimacy of the government.  Legitimacy is not won or maintained until a vote is made.  It is at best conditional and must be renegotiated on almost a daily basis. Thirdly, the constitution creates a strong presidential position without a strong president.  Karzai’s ability to build a state is awful. Fourthly, the central state has tried to pacify rural areas by putting spoilers into power, which backfired. Fifthly, false promises are a big problem.  Foreign funds have been pledged and what has materialized on the ground has had serious repercussions.  Sixthly, the government caters to the dominant ethnicity comprising of 47 percent Pashtuns.  Seventhly, corruption is crippling the government, and this is visible to the poor people of the country. The last two factors have come together to prop up several Pashtun politicians.

Maley noted that Afghanistan has once again become a spot for regional competition. Nationalist and secularized personalities have climbed the ladder in the government. This has scared Pakistan because of the historical Pashtun border conflict. Further, if Iran feels threatened, it will cause problems in Afghanistan, Syria and the greater region to cause problems for the U.S. and its allies. 

Looking forward, Maley concluded that dealing with the Afghan situation will take time and commitment. Firstly, any actions that will retard the momentum further must be avoided. For example, reduction of planned strength of the Afghan national army and the U.S. presence has had disastrous consequences for the momentum of the state building process. Secondly, pressure on Pakistan must be maintained to prevent it from meddling with Afghanistan. Thirdly, state capacity must be enhanced by using some of the benchmarks that were built into the Afghanistan compact more effectively. Some of the resources going into Afghanistan have bypassed the state entirely and instead have gone to private hands.  Fourthly, leverage must be used to pressure Karzai to move rapidly to produce an administration that is cleaner and more competent both centrally and locally. 

During the question and answer session Maley said that the impact of shunting aside some of the corrupt actors from the government would be less severe than thought because the support bases of many of these warlord-ish actors is far more fragile than may be perceived.  On the question of where would one start with the reconstitution of the state, Maley said that one must begin by cleaning out the central state vis-à-vis getting rid of people in central government whose reputations are dire.  This would mark a symbolic break from the unhappy and corrupt administration.  Henceforth, more would need to be done through the national solidarity program that is a device to get more resources to farming through local councils.  This will give a greater feeling of power to local actors on the ground. 

On the question of international contractors, Maley said that they can offer speed of implementation and concrete results. However, international contractors lack local capacity building and sustainability in their projects. So striking a balance between an impact that is palpable and sustainable is a delicate one but it can be driven by domestic political demands of the donor country as well as by the needs of the recipient country. Political instability, mobilization of resources and false pledges to the local people of capital influx often puts a damper on this balance.

With respect to regional dynamics and the role of Russia and Iran, Maley concluded that currently Russians are playing a watching game. Russia maintains strategic interests in the region, but Russia also has had its fingers burned in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Maley considers Iran to be neither a positively constructive nor a destructive actor mainly because of Afghanistan’s Shiite component (15-20 percent of the total Afghan population) for which Iranians want a degree of protection. If the Iranians are attacked by Israel or by the U.S. in the context of the nuclear issue this could consolidate the position of Iranian president, Ahmedinejad, by boosting Iran’s internal nationalist sentiments which would guarantee a longer persistence of Ahmedinejad’s type of rule. In that context Afghanistan is potentially a theatre in which the Iranians might seek to exercise much more influence. Maley concluded that the nightmare scenario for the region would be if the Iranians tried to destabilize Pakistan.