Afghanistan should not blame others for its own faults
All countries have their own national interests. It is quite normal for them to engage with other nations to protect their own interests. With the end of the Cold War, ideology has been fast losing ground to political and economic interests as the defining motivation for international relations. More specifically, geopolitics is now being replaced by geoeconomics.
For the past two decades, the international community has been actively engaged in Afghanistan. The engagement has been multidimensional, from active military partnership to political and economic ties and sociocultural to humanitarian issues. Unfortunately, the Afghan leaders have been unable to grasp the changing dynamics of international politics. Secondly, Afghans have never been good at turning a situation into an opportunity, but very good at raising fingers at others when things go wrong. That is why Afghans have traditionally blamed others for their own problems, rather than themselves or their rulers.
With the communist coup in 1978, followed by the Soviet invasion and occupation, there was a flood of military and economic assistance for the Afghan resistance, especially from the West and the Arab world. But, due to disunity among the Afghan resistance groups, as well as a lack of purpose and vision, the country remained in conflict and the major recipient in terms of political and economic benefit was Pakistan, rather than Afghanistan. A typical Afghan response to this dilemma is to blame the dishonesty of our neighbors, without realizing that politics is not a family business — it is a game of interests played at the regional or global level.
Since 2002, there has been renewed interest by the international community in Afghanistan’s reconstruction and development. Billions of dollars have been spent on building Afghanistan’s hard and soft infrastructure and its virtually vanished institutions. Although substantial progress has been made, it does not match the amount of money that has poured into the country. Former President Hamid Karzai and incumbent Ashraf Ghani have blamed the international community for the wastage of resources and their failure to use them cost-effectively. Ghani has been particularly critical of US contractors for the wastage in administration costs.
In spite of the disinformation from some high-level Afghan officials regarding the role of the international community, many Afghans think it is the government that should be blamed, as it has not done enough to tackle corruption or build the technical and institutional capacity to effectively spend the billions of dollars of aid money for Afghanistan’s reconstruction and development.
In 2002, the newly established Afghan government had to virtually begin from scratch and was unable to deliver services. The Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRT) were the mechanism used by the US and other major international partners to deliver infrastructure services like roads, schools, clinics, bridges and irrigation canals. Their engagement helped generate thousands of jobs in the construction sector and helped promote the Afghan private sector. The PRT mechanism was fast-track, with a rapid impact compared to the government’s long and bureaucratic procedures, which featured excessive corruption and hindrances for the private sector. Local contractors are still highly reluctant to work on government projects because of unfairness and a lack of transparency in the awarding of contracts and disbursement of payments, even after projects are completed. Such local contractors reminisce about their direct engagement with donors like USAID, which treated them more fairly.
Almost half of Afghanistan’s national budget is still being supported by international aid, mainly from the US. But, with Afghan ownership of the development process, project delivery has become slower, less transparent and full of unnecessary bureaucracy in the name of controlling corruption. Over the past two decades, one of the main demands of our international partners was to empower local governments to increase efficiency and the fast delivery of development projects. However, the sad reality is that the government has been concentrating power in Kabul. With Ghani’s time in office, things have gone from bad to worse. He strongly believes that the best way to improve governance is to shift virtually the entire government machinery to the presidential palace. Ghani’s philosophy of micromanagement is definitely not helping Afghanistan’s governance issues.
Local contractors are still highly reluctant to work on government projects because of unfairness and a lack of transparency.
The message from the 2020 Geneva conference on Afghanistan was very strong: It made all future aid conditional on the Afghan government’s progress toward improving governance, tackling corruption and working for genuine peace. It is highly unlikely that the government will be able to achieve these targets in the near future at least.
With the Biden administration’s announcement of the complete withdrawal of US forces by Sept. 11, Afghanistan will enter a new phase by increasingly relying on its own capacities and resources. Overcoming these challenges will depend, to a large extent, on the resilience of the Afghan government and people at large. Afghanistan has a chance to prove to the US and other members of the international community that it can be a reliable partner in the future. I wish our rulers could understand this message loud and clear.
- Ajmal Shams is vice president of the Afghanistan Social Democratic Party and is based in Kabul. He is a former deputy minister in the Afghan National Unity Government. Twitter: @ajmshams