Saturday, June 26, 2010

We are Afghanistan

The troubles of forging unity from tribalism and chaos are universal.

With support for the nation-building effort in Afghanistan waning, it seems timely to discuss how common its lessons are for societies around the world. Afghanistan has never had a strong central state, unlike, say, Iraq or the US. As we in the US rush headlong into an always-on, utterly connected, everyone talking to everyone else world, we have left the insular tribal worlds of our own forebears far behind. Even the Germanic tribes of pre-Roman Europe seem to have been more organized and cosmopolitan than what we are facing in Afghanistan.

On the other hand, the perennial pull of state's rights here at home, the nihilism of modern Republicanism, and insurgent subcultures like urban gangs, remind us that state legitimacy is not secure even in the most "advanced" cultures- it has to be earned perpetually. And overarching all these organizations is the international political system, which remains dedicated to an anarchic individualism reminiscent of the Germany of Luther's time, or before.

So what will it take to glue Afghanistan back together, and what lessons can be taken to or applied from elsewhere? I'll start in my backyard. One blight of urban life is gang tags, which are applied dog-like to territories to proclaim gang "ownership", a form of sovereignty among gangs, or in extreme situations, over everyone else in the territory as well, as we see in Brazil's favelas and Mexico's cartel-owned cities and provinces.

Erasing such tags is part of a "broken windows" strategy to assert the legitimacy of a community's silent majority over the vandalizing minority who by their "ownership" signs try to assert political hegemony. The lesson is at once extremely simple and complex- that whoever controls the local infrastructure and public spaces gains social power. If we concede our public spaces to corporations in the form of billboards, we give them dominant legitimacy. If we concede our public spaces to gangs, we give them legitimacy, first to tag and counter-tag territories in never-ending internecine battles, and then, if we are sufficiently negligent, legitimacy over other aspects of our lives, like parking lot security, small business security and shakedowns, and eventually coercive power over the entire local political system.

What's the lesson? An obvious one is to know what is going on in order to know how to wield power. We have to know what is going on with gangs in order to realize that their tags are not gifts of public art, but adversarial political statements. We need to know the real power structures on the ground in order to break them and replace them with more broadly legitimate structures. Likewise in Afghanistan, we need to know the social / political setting in order to know the signs they produce. Schools for girls may make *us happy, but they might be threatening to a hide-bound traditional culture. While rebuilding Afghanistan requires some degree of cultural change on its part, we'll have more success the less such change we demand. I'm no expert, only commenting on the need to know what we are doing before trying to rebuild a nation, rather than reading the lessons of failure afterwards.

A second lesson is that the (silent) majority needs an active voice if it is to drown out the vocal, even armed minorities vying for political control, including whatever elite class currently holds power. Such majorities are easily cowed by armed coercion, so it can be tricky to know their true attitude, especially in a canny and beaten-down culture like Afghanistan. The Afghan tradition of elder conclaves remains one of the bulwarks of civil political dialog, and needs to be fostered throughout the system, especially at the grass roots. More generally, such a voice requires media that discuss and bring to light gang/Taliban activities, corruption, cultural ideals, etc. And it requires official channels that control coercive power, are responsive to community needs, effective in addressing them, (such as apprehending gang members), and free of corruption that impairs each of the foregoing elements.

Afghanistan is sadly far away from each of these elements- militias roam the country, the Afghan army has little loyalty or competence, the government is breathtakingly corrupt, the population is largely illiterate, and the stolen presidential election indicates a certain lack of responsiveness to the populace. Where will all this end? The situation is not lost, but without more trust and organization among the anti-Taliban, pro-democracy and pro-state elements, our role is futile.

One critical angle is the nature of central government in Afghanistan. With artificial borders, impassable terrain, and multiple quasi-independent ethnic groups, central governments have never been very strong even when they have been brutally tyrannical. Yet empowering the presumed silent majority of Afghanistan (including women) over the various gangs either allied with or part of the Taliban requires that the state have quite a bit of countervailing power- power that needs be legitimate in that majority's eyes if it is to be effective in the long run. That is the basic trick- how to draw the allegiance of the people (who may or may not have voted for the government) to its use of power over Talibs and other fanatics whether religious, mercenary, or the usual mixture thereof.

The alternative model is one of decentralization, where the parts of Afghanistan go their own way under token sovereignty in Kabul. In the absence of external threats, this would be quite attractive, but it lays the country wide open to divide-and-conquer by the Taliban and its ISI/Al Qaeda allies. That is the threat that necessitates our involvement and in the long run necessitates a strong central state, however novel the idea is for Afghanistan. One way to help this along would be to put the tribal areas of Pakistan on the table- to start discussing the idea that there is a cost to Pakistan for destabilizing Afghanistan, and that cost is US and international support for transferring the "tribal areas" that Pakistan has never shown much constructive interest in to their more natural home in Afghanistan, forming a more unified Pashtun region.

(Incidentally, the firing of General McCrystal puts another interesting light on the universality of these state power issues. It would not serve America well to put its own constitution in danger for the sake of more effective Afghan rebuilding. Seen from the perspective of ancient Rome, we are already in mortal danger by having standing armies, paying them as mercenaries rather than drafting them from the eligible population, paying various proxies to fight for us, sending them off to countless far-away wars and garrisons with little end in sight, and having a sclerotic and corrupted Senate virtually unable to serve the public interest. The last thing we need is military insubordination that brings ultimate civilian control into question.)

This brings me to the international system- another political system with some need of integration and federalization. Right now, nations exist in a largely lawless domain where armed states and non-states compete for shifting alliances either trying to gain legitimacy in the eyes of some audience, or trying to exert direct power over or under the table. The powerful bully the weak, and chaos is held at bay largely through the good (or not so good, depending on your perspective) offices of Pax Americana.

Al Qaeda has shown the power of PR over mere bombs and aircraft carriers. Their message continues to corrode the status/legitimacy of the US in the Muslim world. This is doubly remarkable because their own brutality hardly renders them attractive, as might be, say, the far more justified plight of the Tibetan people under the Dalai Lama.

Having a more organized and democratic international system (i.e. a world government) would be very helpful to address such issues of common concern, like the lawless fishing of the seas, pollution, and climate change. Perhaps the greatest need, however, is to set a floor of minimal standards of local governance, monitoring failed states before they became festering international sores and taking a systematic, organized response that is stronger than the shrugging and flaccid UN ministrations they are met with today. With respect to Al Qaeda, a coherent world government would be much more likely to treat such irritants as policing and governance issues rather than some kind of clash of civilizations / war on terror, etc. The US didn't have an international structure to turn to, forcing it to "go it alone" with all the problems attendant to such foreign adventures.

Afghanistan is a model of state failure, suffering decades of civil war capped by the brutally benighted government of the Taliban. The international system as sponsored by the US is not in quite such a chaotic state, after the last century gave us such cautionary lessons. But the US will not always be the global superpower, nor is it universally appreciated in that position. So it would be wise to build international institutions, as we are building national Afghan institutions, that can further the peaceful interests of humanity in an effective way.

  • Friedman is pretty down on Afghanistan. But how can our work there not "resonate" if it has world-wide importance?
  • Know thy parents.
  • Why are we failing? Because markets are not enough.
  • Who governs Britain?
  • Stem cells to the rescue.
  • Bill Mitchell quote of the week, explaining the curious phenomenon where the private markets were clamoring for public debt issues even when the government was running surpluses. And secondly, the fact that public debt has always found a market:
"If you then think about this, independently of the specific proposal that the paper is considering, public debt serves a core function for private profit-seeking. The mainstream macroeconomics textbooks and commentators never emphasise this aspect of public debt.
They are always relating it back to profligate government spending and the sovereign default. The reality is that public debt plays no fundamental role in funding government spending. But it plays a very crucial role in underpinning the risk management in the private sector.
In other words, public debt is really corporate welfare."

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