The cautious path to a stable state

The violent conflict in Afghanistan has been escalating since 2005, making the process of reconstruction that much harder. To bring stability to the country, the focus must be on strengthening the state and facilitating the rule of law.

To this day, half the population of Afghanistan is still living below the poverty line

To this day, half the population is still living below the poverty line. The majority of people have no access to clean water and electricity. The crime rate has soared. A current study by the Asia Foundation quantifies the pessimistic mood in stark figures: only 38 percent of those interviewed believe the country is headed in the right direction; 32 percent think the opposite, and the rest are undecided. In the space of two years, the percentage of those who consider themselves better off now than in the Taliban era fell from 54 to 36 percent. Afghans consider the biggest problems to be the security situation (36 percent), followed by unemployment (31), high prices (22), the weakness of the economy (17) and corruption (14).

Of course, some positive developments are also evident. For example, six million children now go to school – five times as many as in 2001; and yet, that is still only half the number of children of school age. There has also been a sharp decline in infant mortality – though this can hardly be described as progress, given that one child in six still does not live past the age of five. Despite a substantial improvement in basic medical care, the average life expectancy is just 44 years. The small steps forward depicted in these abstract figures and statistics are insufficient to constitute a fundamental turnaround.

What help does Afghanistan need in this situation? What role can scientists play? The Max Planck Institute for Comparative Public Law and Inter­national Law in Heidelberg has been monitoring the reconstruction of the Afghan system of government and law for some years now, and has been actively supporting the process since 2003 with advice and educational projects. The urgently needed change in military strategy cannot be a prime focus for the scientists’ work, and yet the continuing problems engendered by military intervention raise issues they must confront. It is clear that the conflict with the Taliban and other forces hostile to the government cannot be won by force of arms. The question is, why has so little thus far been achieved in rebuilding the lives of the civilian population? What must happen for there to be a noticeable improvement?

Naturally, improvements would be welcome in every area that affects the lives and welfare of every individual. On the other hand, consideration must also be given to which objectives are actually achievable in the present situation. It is not just a question of what to do, but of how outside assistance can be implemented.

The essential basis for any development is security. Where violence rules, it is impossible to provide anything other than emergency aid – help to prevent people from starving or freezing to death and, wherever possible, basic medical care. Longer-term action, such as the construction of highways, schools and courts, make little sense when the roads cannot be traveled for fear of being attacked, schools are being burned down and judges murdered. All of these things continue to happen, mainly in Afghanistan’s southern and eastern provinces.

As soon as and to the extent that the security situation becomes adequately stable, the state must be enabled to exercise “effective territorial control” in the sense of a legitimate monopoly on the use of force, and provide further services for its citizens. That may sound self-evident, but the behavior of foreign agencies – whether government institutions or private aid organizations – clearly demonstrates that many of them feel no more than a conditional commitment, if any at all, to this goal. Until 2004, the allied forces continued to bolster the power of the warlords with a great deal of money and weapons because they felt unable to control the country without a decentralized network fighting on their side. In the process, large parts of the population had their faith in a new beginning shattered.

In the meantime, no one gets past these warring parties who control both political events and the drug trade. For better or worse, even German army unit commanders have to sit down at the table with them to negotiate matters of security and reconstruction in “their” provinces. The effectiveness of the government in Kabul is also hampered by the fact that countless foreign agencies have developed their own structures for the provision of services.

Many of the traditional tasks of the state – establishing economic stability, guaranteeing a minimum of social security, public health care, education, combating the cultivation of drugs – have also been assumed by them. This is welcome insofar as it improves the actual living conditions of the recipients of their services, but it is also dubious insofar as the Afghan state is unable to develop in its own right. The money that foreign agencies spend is not available to Afghan institutions. What is more, in many cases they act without even informing their Afghan partners. In effect, they are largely paying lip service to the highly vaunted aim of “Afghan ownership.”

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