by Dr. Philipp Münch, Lecturer in Security and Armaments Policy at the Military Academy of the German Armed Forces in Hamburg (siehe hier für eine deutschsprachige Version). This article was originally written for the Journal of the Catholic Military Bishop for the German Armed Forces, “Kompass. Soldat in Welt und Kirche“, for the July/August 2018 issue.
Almost every report on the situation in Afghanistan concludes that the country is far from liberal statehood. The latter means that state representatives should enforce laws and regulations that stem from the rule of law and comply with international human rights standards nationwide. However, the scope of the Afghan government is limited. Parts of the country are controlled by insurgents or other rulers who resist government orders without actively using force. However, even many state representatives — including in the field of justice — also ignore the formally well-existing constitutional procedures. Not infrequently, the representatives of the Afghan state sell state goods and items. So, what many Westerners see as “corruption” is widespread in Afghanistan.
All this raises the question of why, despite unprecedented international and Afghan efforts since 2002, it has not been possible to achieve liberal statehood in Afghanistan. This article argues that among the causes that can be found in the country itself, the main reason for the failure lies in the contradiction that liberal statehood presupposes, on the one hand, an assertive, comprehensive rule of a government. For without such, the desired rules and laws cannot be enforced. At least in history, nowhere has it been possible to achieve comprehensive rule by liberal means. On the other hand, however, such a rule can hardly be achieved by liberal means, but the main Western supporters of Afghan governments have been pressing for this since 2001. The article will outline this dilemma through the presidency of Ashraf Ghani.
The term of Ashraf Ghani
Ashraf Ghani became president of Afghanistan in 2014. He more closely corresponded to the ideal Western image of a modern head of state than his predecessor Hamid Karzai. Ghani had studied at the American University of Beirut as well as studied and received his Ph.D. in the United States. After the Afghan communist coup of 1978 and the following conflict, he remained in the United States and worked for the World Bank, among others. Overall, he spent most of his adult life outside Afghanistan, apparently internalizing Western ideals of formal statehood and liberal market economy.
Ghani appeared in the presidential election against Karzai as early as 2009 but was significantly defeated due to lack of local support, garnering only 3 percent of the vote. He learned from this: in the run-up to the following election in 2014, he — like his main rival Abdullah Abdullah — secured the support of local rulers across the country. In return, he promised them political appointments. In the second round of voting, Ghani received the most votes. However, the vote counts soon revealed that many of the ballots on both sides were forged. Therefore, Abdullah did not accept the result. Only after intense negotiations and pressure, especially from the US side, did both parties agree to a compromise. This meant that both were predominantly equal and formed a “National Unity Government“. In this government, Ghani was appointed the president, and Abdullah received the specifically created role of a government chief.
Initially, Ghani faced the great challenge of reduced numbers of international troops and amounts of aid payments. As a result, countless Afghans who were employed directly by the international military or aid organizations or indirectly benefited from their payments suddenly lost their income. At the same time, much of the military support for the Afghan security forces disappeared, leaving more dead and wounded. Ghani and Abdullah, whose competencies were not clearly separated, also blocked each other in governance.
Ashraf Ghani’s policy
Ghani’s policy was firmly based on a technocratic ideal that he had internalized at US academic institutions and think tanks as well as during his work at the World Bank. Accordingly, it would be especially important to implement concepts with the appropriate people. These concepts included, in particular, liberal economic reforms, such as those advocated by the international financial institutions. In order to enforce his policy, he gradually succeeded in establishing himself as the clear main decision-maker vis-à-vis Abdullah, despite the unclear competencies. He dealt with matters of almost all departments down to the executive levels and made all key appointments in the Afghan state apparatus. In many cases, Ghani made the appointments, often staffing them from scratch with comparatively young and educated Afghans.
I just voted. And I thank the ANDSF, the IEC staff, and the great people of #Afghanistan who made it possible to vote despite the risks involved. Today we proved together that we uphold democracy. With casting our ballots without fear we honor the sacrifices of the fallen. pic.twitter.com/wrUCEa0MCR
— Ashraf Ghani (@ashrafghani) 20. Oktober 2018
Ghani maintained a generally very close relationship with international donors and troop contributors — including the US in particular. In addition to government investment, better governance, and fighting corruption, he wanted to increase Afghanistan’s economic output, notably through agreements with neighboring states aimed at further opening the Afghan market. He also wanted to use a diplomatic initiative to persuade Pakistan to no longer support the Afghan Taliban. For this, he entered into a highly controversial intelligence collaboration in Afghanistan.
The success of Ghani’s presidency cannot yet be definitively evaluated. It is clear, however, that both camps of the “National Unity Government” hindered each other severely. This prevented coherent policies and rapid formation of a cabinet. Ghani’s technical understanding of politics also hampered his administration. Because of it, he disregarded the importance of balances of power and networks in which Afghan officials are involved. The most obvious consequence was the short-term capture of the capital of the strategically important northeastern province of Kunduz by the Taliban.
There, Ghani had previously dismissed key officials who had commanded armed groups during the jihad and civil war (mujaheddin commanders) and replaced them with young, educated people. However, these were unable to mobilize networks of commanders against the oppressive Taliban. Consequently, Ghani dismissed the new provincial governor and again elected a member of a mujaheddin faction. A similar development was seen in the equally important southwestern province of Helmand.
Regardless of initial lip service and despite Ghani’s initiative, the Pakistani government remained loyal to its old policy of supporting the Afghan Taliban. Even if at times some Taliban factions signaled a willingness to talk, this movement continued its fight against international troops and the Afghan government. Any resounding successes of Ghani’s liberal economic policy, which lacked the money for its investments, were not apparent. Instead, it turned out that without competitive production through trade liberalization, Afghanistan was losing more and more economic power. Ghani and Abdullah allowed the constitutional date for a parliamentary election in 2015 to expire. Likewise, they failed to call a general meeting to change the constitution. Both had promised this before taking office in order to formalize Abdullah’s new office. Because of the lack of success and because he seemed less and less to stick to the ideal of liberal statehood than had been hoped, Ghani’s international supporters began to lose their trust in him.
Dilemmas of liberal statehood
Both Karzai and Ghani saw themselves unable to establish state rule solely under the rules of formal statehood. Although Ghani tried in a much stronger way to implement Western policy and economic concepts. However, to date, this has been unsuccessful. Both ultimately resorted to informal networks to local rulers in order to consolidate their rule. One of the main reasons that liberal statehood could not be established is that it relies on fundamental principles that do not exist in Afghanistan. In particular, this seems to be the absence of a consolidated nationwide rule.
This suggests at least the historical development of liberal statehood in North America and Europe, but also in Southeast Asia. Likewise, all liberal states today were previously authoritarian, even pioneers of modern democracy like the USA and Switzerland. Until the second half of the 20th century, both featured elements that today are considered incompatible with liberal statehood. Looking at the historical development of present liberal states as a process of gradually achieving certain conditions, Afghanistan would be at about the same level as European countries achieved in the early modern period. This means that Afghan heads of state, like once the kings of Europe, are trying to consolidate their rule by attracting competing political leaders through appointments (back then at the court). However, according to today’s Western standards, this form of government is considered “corruption” because state resources are used solely for calming competitors. The resulting bloated government apparatus is indeed inefficient, but at least it provides some stability by immobilizing the stakeholders it employs.
International trusteeship seems conceivable as an immediate solution, in which international stakeholders are using their troops and police to ensure that the orders of the Afghan government are implemented. However, it has been shown that few countries are willing to provide enormous resources and to accept the death of their citizens for this purpose. Besides, there is a real danger that such a trusteeship will lead to a new form of colonialism. Such a tendency can already be observed in many missions with similar goals. Wanting to achieve liberal statehood by liberal means appears to be one of the biggest dilemmas of Western efforts in Afghanistan.