An Afghan Path Toward Stability

As debate intensifies over resourcing the war in Afghanistan, expert Clare Lockhart says more attention must be paid to helping Afghans rebuild their country’s battered institutions.

September 28, 2009

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

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Debate in U.S. policy circles over how to resource the Afghan war is focused on the military aspects. But Clare Lockhart, director of the Institute for State Effectiveness and a former adviser to the Bonn process (which established post-Taliban governance after the U.S.-led invasion of 2001), says improving Afghanistan’s governance capabilities will have a greater long-term impact. Lockhart says U.S. involvement is essential in two areas: bolstering Afghan security forces and helping civilian leaders craft a new type of stability compact based on governance models. But she opposes the international "civilian surge" supported by some policymakers, saying an influx of global workers and projects "leached away" the capability of Afghan civilian institutions built up in past decades.

The question of strategy and resourcing comes back to this idea of governance. Put simply, can a counterinsurgency [COIN] strategy succeed in Afghanistan if the Afghan government is not seen as legitimate in the eyes of its people?

What we’re talking about is a specific type of COIN strategy for the Afghan context. What’s important, and absolutely right about General McChrystal’s new strategy, is its key emphasis first on protecting the population, and second on building up the Afghan national security forces; the means of COIN are much more easily obtained if there is a legitimate government in place. If we look at Afghanistan today, it’s clear that there are enormous problems of weak governance. The approach [going forward] has to recognize that the essential challenge is to find a process of establishing good governance, and that’s very much part of the strategy and needs to be the central focus.

When the group of us who put together the Bonn Agreement looked at the situation back in 2001, it was recognized that the problem was that there wasn’t legitimate governance, and so the Bonn Agreement put forward a process for establishing legitimate governance, and the Bonn process ran from the end of 2001 to 2004, which phased over time to establish different parts of governance--focusing first for example on the National army, and then moving on to the question of the budget--but it took problem after problem and came up with solutions and built institutions over time. In 2005, the country was relatively stable such that [NATO alliance] countries were talking about bringing their troops home, and looking at the great successes. Since that time, there has been a deterioration in both security and governance. We need to take a similar approach now to the approach that we took in 2001 and say, "OK, so the problem is weak governance and lack of legitimacy, so let’s find a process to help or to enable the Afghan people to establish their institutions so that they can govern their own country."

We need a carefully articulated strategy for civilian governance. And what that requires is understanding the Afghan system of governance that already exists.

That challenge seems even greater now, in the wake of Afghanistan’s contested presidential election, which has still not been settled. What can the international community do in this regard?

It’s right to let the legal processes of the country continue. The most important aspect of governance is rule of law, and there are Afghan laws, there is an Afghan constitution, so the process must be worked out in accordance with those laws. So allowing the IEC [Independent Election Commission of Afghanistan] and the ECC [Electoral Complaints Commission] to do their work is important. But because the elections themselves were a flawed process, we need to look at--from the Afghan perspective--a government that can regain the trust of the people. That has to be the goal.

There are three options for how the Afghans can put in place [such a] government. One is for there to be a winner declared after this process. The hope would be that they would put together a cabinet with individuals who have competence and experience such that they can lead a particular institution that they are tasked to lead. Far more important to the quality of governance is going to be what the broader team looks like. So that’s the first option. The second option would be for there to be some kind of unity government. Not a unity government in the sense of the early 1990s solution of parsing out the country to the big power holders, but a unity government in the sense of people, national figures who are respected for their integrity, sense of justice, and so on--all the qualities that Afghan[s] ...admire. They would come together and agree to work together. The third option should be ECC declare either a certain proportion of ballots or one or more of the candidates, or even a whole process invalid, which is within their mandate to do so according to the Afghan electoral law. Then one would want to see a transitional government, a caretaker government put in place like the government that led the country between 2002 and 2004 relatively successfully.

During recent testimony in the Senate, you expressed some optimism that success is still possible in Afghanistan, despite uncertainties in the wake of the recent election. But the road you describe is long. Are you concerned that the West’s political will to achieve these objectives might be waning?

There’s this myth being put forward that [Afghanistan] is ungovernable, that it’s a country full of wild people, and these myths are faulty myths. Any Afghan who lived in Afghanistan through the 50s, 60s, and 70s will describe a picture of a relatively functional government. The Afghan people in the villages--even if they are illiterate--deeply desire justice. So I’m worried that the debate has become so abstracted from the ground condition and, moreover, from the experience of 2001 to 2005, where it really was possible to establish institutions. When I arrived in Afghanistan in early 2002, there were fully-functional civil services in most provinces, with 240,000 civil servants in place turning up at work every day and administering the country to a fairly good standard. So I’m worried that some of the debate is not recognizing this experience.

In terms of the political world, I am worried. What’s necessary is the engagement of the U.S. with finding the right solutions that will allow Afghanistan, or enable Afghanistan, to rejoin the community of nations. U.S. engagement with Afghanistan is necessary for it to regain its sovereignty and independence. I do believe it is possible to come up with a strategy, an approach that would see that outcome, if one looks at what are the essential components of sovereignty and craft an agreement or compact with that as a very clear goal.

There’s this myth being put forward that [Afghanistan] is ungovernable, that it’s a country full of wild people.

What does that engagement look like?

The security partnership is absolutely essential. And if we look at a surge of troops, sometimes that’s been misinterpreted. The main reason for those troops is really to act as mentors for the Afghan security forces, and certainly helping the Afghans create a monopoly on the use of force through building up security forces. So the first component is security forces and training for them. The second is this broader political framing. And we need a carefully articulated strategy for civilian governance. But when we say civilian, it’s very important we realize that this means the other components of an Afghan civil service. And what that requires is understanding the Afghan system of governance that already exists; understanding what functions it already carries out under Afghan law and Afghan policy--and it basically means Afghan decision-making, Afghan systems of justice, and then two basic social services: a health system and an education system. Then ideally, an irrigation system and the components that will underwrite the agriculture that used to flourish in the 70s. [We’re talking about a] simple set of services that used to exist in the 50s, 60s, and 70s, that still existed in 2001, but were eroded somewhat over the last few years, partly because so much of that capability was leached away by all these UN agency and NGO projects.

Now that doesn’t mean doing big nation building at all, in fact quite the reverse. So I’d actually question the need for what’s been termed a ’civilian surge.’ I don’t think this means 2,000 civilians nor do I think it means a million civilians; I don’t think that’s what’s needed. What’s needed is understanding the Afghan laws and systems, understanding what is appropriate for the Afghan context, and then focusing on what’s really the process of governance. The most important is the Afghan budget process. And it means resourcing the Afghan Reconstruction Trust Fund--ARTF--which is administered by the World Bank. It’s actually the World Bank that’s the central player here on the international side. And then it requires just a handful of international advisers who are very experienced in design to partner with the Afghans to help them partner and understand where are the gaps. This could actually take a relatively small number of people because the key is, we’ve got to focus less on us and more on them, the Afghans. And they know what to do, they have a good system in place. The Afghan budget law is one of the best in the world, according to the budget experts who reviewed it back in 2002. So the systems are all in place.

And yet there remain deep-rooted problems with corruption and with the way that money is being allocated through contractors, right? Unraveling that will take time, time that some in the international community suggest has run out.

Afghans have been building their institutions over centuries. So [if] one takes an Afghan view, institutions are by definition patterns of behavior over time. So establishing institutions is going to take a very long time. The question is what can an effort, the international effort, do most usefully that will help put Afghanistan back on the [road] to self rule and self governance as quickly as possible? And we need to be extremely focused on the mission objectives but understand what are those critical factors that are going to help enable that to happen. It absolutely is a focus on building the national security forces and then a focus on improving the capability of the Afghan institutions to deliver to the Afghan people.