An Afghan boy rides his skateboard at the Naderkhan hill in Kabul, Afghanistan
The terrorist attacks of September 2001 in New York and Washington prompted the intervention of a military coalition led by the Americans that rapidly ousted the Taliban from Kabul and the major urban centers. Since then, Afghanistan has experienced dramatic changes. The democratization process conducted under the guidance of the international community has resulted in the holding of two loya jirga (June 2002, December 2003-January 2004), followed by presidential and legislative elections (October 2004 and September 2005, and again August 2009 and September 2010).
After a period of hope, these formal successes did not prevent a further deterioration of the situation on the ground. Afghan government mismanagement and corruption, the inefficiency of reconstruction projects, the resurgence of the Taliban, rampant criminality, and the explosion of drug production and trafficking are regularly invoked to explain these developments. Afghanistan is the destination of thousands of experts who conceive their endeavor within the framework of a struggle between the values of modernity (democracy, human rights, women’s empowerment, secular education, accountability, to mention but a few) and the archaisms of tradition (such as religious conservatism, tribal and ethnic divisions leading to cronyism and corruption).
Paradoxically, such an international involvement may recall the presence of the Soviets in the 1980s who, in addition to their harsh military occupation, already implemented a development policy consisting of female emancipation, literacy campaigns, and land reform that met the fierce resistance of large segments of the rural population.
Stuck in a normative perspective that prevents them from analyzing the structural factors at work, many observers are haunted by the question “what went wrong?” Most consider that the recent success of the insurgency is a corollary of the failure of the reconstruction process. In a country that mainly produces poppy and migrants, political leaders have to tap resources coming from outside to build their constituency. We may identify four transnational networks that bring material and immaterial resources.
The first are the migratory networks that are linked to the displacement of millions of people. Indeed, a large proportion of the Afghan population has fled from violence in the last decades and went mostly to neighboring countries, but also to the Arabian peninsula and the West. UNHCR counted in 1990 over 6 million Afghan refugees, mostly distributed between Pakistan and Iran, and 1.5 million internally displaced people. After many years, the migratory movements are highly organized and became a major, even constitutive, element in the social, cultural and economic life. Afghan refugees and migrants have developed very efficient social strategies based on the dispersion of the members of kin groups and ongoing circulation, bringing money and skills and contributing to the rise of new political claims.
The second are trading networks, including the narcotic economy, whose impact on Afghan society and politics cannot be exaggerated. They are constituted by illegal activities, smuggling of manufactured goods, and drug trafficking. All kinds of consumption items, from household electrical goods through televisions and computers to motor vehicles, flood the national markets, some are shipped successively to the countries bordering on Afghanistan.
The amounts involved are enormous considering the mere fact that more than 90% of the world’s heroin came from Afghanistan in 2007-2008. These activities also include the hawâla system used by simple laborers, shopkeepers and businessmen to remit money from or to Afghanistan through the circulation of goods across international borders. Such a feature makes trading networks indistinguishably mingled with migratory networks.
Third are armed networks. They include Islamist networks, which allow insurgents to receive weapons, money, fighters, and logistic support from a nebulous, global world of sympathizers, but also private security contractors, which employ tens of thousands of personnel in Afghanistan and sell their services to NGOs, embassies, business companies and even national armed forces. The structural similarity between foreign military and the Islamist groups is visible in the propaganda being spread by both in their competition for winning hearts and minds.
In 2010, President Karzai repeatedly called for the banning of the private security firms, but has met with intense resistance from both the diplomatic and humanitarian milieus, revealing the limitations of his power and state sovereignty.
Finally are the humanitarian networks, with UN agencies and NGOs implementing state-like programs, thus also contributing to the emergence of new forms of sovereignties. Many have denounced in the last years the “mixing of genres” that results in the instrumentalization of aid in support of a stabilization agenda aimed at rallying the population’s support for counterinsurgency objectives. They stress how, for several decades now, they have provided health care, education, training and employment. But their action also favored the rise of a class of people who have very successfully invested a new profitable professional niche and occupy now a growing place in the public arena in Afghanistan.
They are playing an increasingly important political role. Overall, ministers and members of the parliament, traffickers and commanders, human rights’ activists and Islamic militants, security guards and taxi drivers, shopkeepers and farmers – all Afghan men and women are connected in one way or another with the outside world. Although these actors do not, of course, deploy comparable strategies, they all promote their visions and interests in relying on transnational resources.
In such a context, is the Afghan state empowered or undermined by the proliferation of nongovernmental organizations that form global networks of power? Sovereignty in practice may include illegal networks, strongmen, insurgents, vigilante groups, foreign troops, and – should we add – humanitarian and development organizations. All are now part of the national political landscape and are in tension with state sovereignty. The government has little ability to collect taxes, and the national budget is heavily provided by international aid. Considering the displacement of sovereignty induced by the massive international presence, we can here speak without exaggeration of a “globalized protectorate.”
The Afghan state lacks two things that are necessary to build domestic and international political legitimacy: a set of founding principles stemming from a shared narrative of the past; and the capacity to generate revenue and have transparent forms of redistribution. As long as these two aspects, among many others, are not tackled successfully through a political process, no military action will bring a durable solution to the crisis of the Afghan state and society.
Author works for Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies – Geneva