Thursday, October 1, 2009

What to do in Afghanistan?

No one seems to know what to do in Afghanistan. There are huge debates within the military. The White House is thinking about the options. More and more voters oppose sending more troops. No doubt the situation is very difficult. But one difficulty most of us have is that we have very limited information about Afghanistan and the situation there.
Every now and then, though, we get a glimpse of the reality of Afghanistan and what we see is a mixture of Alice in Wonderland and Gilbert and Sullivan.
A recent newspaper report relates how the Afghani constitution provides for provincial councils. Every province is supposed to have a council elected by the inhabitants of the province. These councils were elected when the people voted recently. There is only one problem. There is nothing for these councils to do. Every province is run by a governor appointed by the national president. The provincial councils may neither pass laws nor make decisions about spending money. They have no function. Some of them never meet.
The same Constitution provides for the election of district, municipal, and village councils. But villages and municipalities are run by village elders who consult with the male leaders of the locality after Friday night prayers at the mosque. These local councils, supposed to be elected later this year, promise to have the same future as the provincial councils; they will be completely useless.
How did Afghanistan get this Constitution that clearly does not fit its actual institutions? After the fall of the Taliban in 2001, a conference was held in Bonn, Germany under UN auspices to discuss the future of Afghanistan. The conference picked Afghani leaders who would write and later approve a new constitution. This constitution was written, supposedly, by Afghani experts but you need not look very closely to see that a lot of American “ experts” had significant influence on the process. The Afghanis voted for the Constitution and then proceded to govern themselves pretty much as they have done for a long time.
But every step they take is, apparently, closely supervised by a long list of American nongovernmental organizations. The article mentions the Feinstein International Center at Tufts University, the National Democratic Institute, USAID ( which pays for a significant portion of these useless elections), there is the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit and the Aid- Effectiveness Program of Oxfam (usefully located in Boston).
Most members of the Provincial Councils are twiddling their thumbs after spending money and effort to get themselves elected. One notable exception is the brother of Pres. Hamid Karzai, who “made a reputation for himself by holding news conferences denouncing ineffective international aid.”
What a story! We try to establish democracy in Afghanistan by participating actively in writing their constitution for them. The constitution we write elects many people who would have no job to do. Many NGO bureaucrats anxiously watch over this constitution adopted by Afghanistan for the sake of American support and approval. In the meantime, the people in the provinces, towns and villages of Afghanistan continue to follow their established forms of government including their own forms of local consultation.
One of the two goals of American policy in Afghanistan, according to Gen. McChrystal, is to strengthen the Afghan government. Which government is he talking about – the government we imposed on Afghanistan or the government that actually governs the country?