The time has to be ripe

The formation of a government in Afghanistan is a long-drawn-out process

Joël van HoudtA wounded German soldier gets evacuated with an American helicopter in the Char Darah district, Kunduz province, Northern Afghanistan. The soldier broke his spine after his vehicle drove on an improvised explosive device (IED).

By Marleen van Wesel

Allard Wagemaker, a lieutenant colonel in the Royal Netherlands Marine Corps, was recently awarded his doctorate for his work on the role of armed intervention in the process of government formation in Afghanistan. "They seem to be giving up."

"I wanted to earn the Afghan warlords' respect, so I joined in a game of 'buzkhashi', a traditional Afghan game played by dozens - and sometimes more than a hundred – horsemen who propel a headless sheep carcass around a pitch. It's an extremely rough game, whips are used and horses rear up over each other. If you manage to sling the carcass into a marked circle, you win the match, glory and a tidy sum of money. There are hardly any rules – it's every man for himself. On the other hand, as the game is so hectic and has so many players, the players form ad hoc coalitions. That sort of opportunism is typical for Afghan politics."

Last week, Allard Wagemaker (1962), a lieutenant colonel in the Royal Netherlands Marine Corps, received his doctoral degree for his research into government formation in Afghanistan and the role of armed intervention in that process. However, besides doing field research, in recent years he was also a military assistance at the ISAF headquarters, which gave him easy access to both the military and politicians. "I had to take part, as a soldier: I had to prepare the meetings and consultations, and then I would attend them and observe the proceedings. Moreover, I spent a lot of time with the Afghans." His "buzkhashi" match helped forge a bond with the warlords and the general population, so he could hold interviews to find out what sort of world the people hoped to build.
The degree of optimism among the Afghans Wagemaker interviewed varied greatly. "As time passed, their faith in the future subsided. I wouldn't call the situation hopeless yet, but I've noticed a big drop in the turnout figures for elections. They seem to be giving up. A year ago, I would have said that it was still possible to form a government, but it's getting more and more difficult. Much depends on who's in the White House, and even then, intervention in Afghanistan is a 'war of choice'."
America's and Europe's political interests are not as great as they would be if they themselves were under attack. If that - a 'war of necessity' - were the case, we would really have to fight back. However, as it is, everything needs to be discussed between the politicians and then justified. Hot spots like Syria and Libya are demanding international attention too, and international attention is in short supply. "You don't just need the support of the intervening party, the source of the conflict should be ready too: the time has to be ripe for it. Forming a government is not something you can plan."
"It's still not impossible", he claims, "but they need a ceremonial head of state and ministers who are accountable to a parliament composed of parties and led by a prime minister. At the moment, it consists of individuals and the ministers are only accountable to President Karzai. They need a stratified democratic system and the provinces should be given more responsibility. Then there would certainly be hope for Afghanistan."
Afghanistan is not Wagemaker's first experience of conflict: "In 1991-1992, I spent six months in a guerrilla camp in Angola and in 1995 I was posted to Bosnia. I supposed to go to the Western Sahara in 1998, but that operation was called off at the last minute, just as we were boarding the plane, almost. I ended up in Iraq and Afghanistan later on. In 1992-1994, I was an exchange officer in the United States Marine Corps – straight after Operation Desert Storm, so it was a confusing time. The Americans were mainly concerned with the question of how to consolidate their military successes."
This question, now directed at Afghanistan, became the most important foundation for Wagemaker's dissertation: "Rupert Smith, the British general, observed that, since the Cold War ended, deployment of only military means has not been effective. Industrial war, as fought in the First and Second World Wars, has been replaced by 'war amongst the people' as Smith calls it. Traditional wars were vast, industrialised and usually total. There was a clear battlefield and military victories almost automatically resulted in political-strategic successes. But while in the past the population would undergo the consequences of a victory, thanks to television and the Internet, they are much more articulate now.
"Nowadays, you have to win society's support if you want peace, and you have to be very careful or else it won't work. Neo-colonialism must be avoided at all costs. The intervening party should primarily use 'soft power' and only use a bit of 'hard power' where necessary. The American political scientist Joseph Nye compares the process to the 'carrot-and-stick' method: you promise the parties involved a carrot and if that doesn't work, you might sometimes need to deal them a corrective slap."
Wagemaker had already seen how things can go right or wrong on earlier missions: "In particular, the heavy fighting in Sarajevo taught me a lot. I was working – as a nobody of course – very close to Rupert Smith and American diplomat Richard Holbrooke. When the Dayton Peace Accords were signed, I witnessed how difficult it is to broker peace." Although the Bosnian War is officially over, a government has still not actually been formed. But there are other examples: "Cambodia is the best example of success. The main thing that was done properly there was that the general population was involved in governing the country at an early stage. Another good example is East Timor."
Afghanistan is a prime example of the 'war amongst the people' paradigm. "Under the Taliban regime, the influence of the media had disappeared from Afghanistan, but afterwards, satellite dishes sprouted up everywhere like mushrooms. It's an amazing phenomenon to experience at first hand. They particularly like Indian soap operas and the Afghan version of The Voice. In fact, dinners and other social events are now arranged around shows.
"There are a lot of talk shows too; the Afghans are well abreast of affairs and have an opinion on everything, which is all due to television. The Internet is not yet quite as popular, and literacy is not widespread. But that is not necessarily a problem. You only need one person who can read and who has a computer – the rest of the neighbourhood just gather round."
Enormous advances have been made in the last decade, particularly at the regional level: Wagemaker witnessed how the level of prosperity rose and the range in shops expanded. People were accustomed to some level of participation due to the tradition of "jirga" and "shura", community meetings, but local participation has increased too.
Nevertheless, Wagemaker warns that these recent developments could just as soon disappear. "A huge mountain range divides the nation in two, from the northeast to the southwest. And it's not just a geographical issue: powerful warlords rule large areas that exist almost independently from each other. And by using their connections in Kabul, they are preventing Afghanistan from functioning adequately at the provincial level."
As a consequence, governors are replaced after about eight months, so they do not have time to formulate a policy for their provinces. If they attempt anything despite that, they feel Kabul breathing down their necks, because the provinces do not have their own budgets. "Meanwhile, people don't really feel that they are heard by the national politicians, and politicians should be listening if they want to win the support of the population: it's an essential condition for forming a government."

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