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Forward Operating Base Delhi, Garmsir District, Helmand Province, Afghanistan—December 7

Flying into Snake’s Head
     Flying into Snake’s Head the name given by the US and British soldiers to a patchwork of canals in Helmand province, Southern Afghanistan.  Photos © Ed Girardet.

Kinetic summer

We’re in the Snake’s Head, the name given by the U.S. and British soldiers to a bulbous patchwork of canals in the Helmand desert in Southern Afghanistan, part of a ribbon of fertile land running south from the Malmand Mountains and commanded by the irrigation network built with U.S. assistance in the 1960s. The Helmand River valley is at the frontline of the current episode in Afghanistan’s Thirty-Year War.

Field Marshall Gerald Templer said of the 1952-4 conflict in Malaya, “The answer lies not in pouring more troops into the jungle, but in the hearts and minds of the people.” This philosophy animates the counterinsurgency strategy for Afghanistan set out in General Stanley McChrystal’s recent Initial Assessment. McChrystal is quoted as saying that "the shot you don't fire is more important than the one you do."

British forces have fought in this area since 2006. In July this year, in the biggest airlift operation since the Vietnam War, the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force joined them and drove the Taliban further down the snake’s tail.


On our way to Helmand where U.S. and U.K. forces are fighting Taliban and over 93% of the world’s raw opium is produced.

Although the intensity of face-to-face combat in Helmand has diminished in recent months, on the day the journalist Eddie Girardet, my World Bank colleagues Hugh Riddell and Susanne Holste and I arrived at the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) HQ in Lashkar Gar, over 80 IED incidents were reported throughout the province.

It’s winter now, there is no standing crop and the fields look dry and blasted. This undistinguished landscape, though, produced 93% of the world’s raw opium supply in 2007 according to UNODC (more about drugs and violence in another post).

The insurgency is a lot more complicated than the ‘Taliban’ tag suggests. More an association of various people fighting the government and/or the foreign soldiers than a discrete organization, some are motivated by jihad, some by the humiliations and hurts they and their families have experienced, some by anger at official corruption and high-handedness, some by local feuds, some by the drug trade. Many are Helmandis. Some are travelling warriors from other parts of Afghanistan. And some are another sort of foreigner—Pakistanis, crossing over Helmand’s southern border, or international mujahidin from Chechnya, Saudi and elsewhere.

War on two fronts

Wherever the physical epicenter of jihadi thought and command may be, the Marines and the British in the PRT are clear that this isn’t a fight over territory: in Afghanistan, it’s a war about the way people react to different governance alternatives; a war of perceptions, to use WDR-terminology. However effective the 42-nation International Security Assistance Force may be, this is what gets you worried. Andrew Wilder, the Research Director for Policy Process at the Feinstein International Center at Tufts University, wrote recently in an op-ed, “As one tribal elder in the southeastern province of Paktika put it, the very real “lack of clinics, schools, and roads are not the problem. The main problem is we don't have a good government”….Not only are foreign aid projects unlikely to make either the Afghan government or its international backers more popular, but reconstruction assistance seems in fact to be losing—rather than winning—hearts and minds….the single overriding criticism of aid was the strong belief that it was fueling massive corruption, which undermined some of the positive impacts it may have otherwise had.” While we were in Afghanistan, a Guardian story by Aram Roston was doing the rounds, describing how the US army secures its logistics convoys by paying protection money to a cast of the dubious and malign—including various Taliban commanders.

If “the snake of corruption” delegitimizes both the Afghan government and its international supporters, so also do appearances of foreign domination, be they military or political. Martine van Biljert writes of the recent presidential election “The focus by international actors in following a precarious—almost imaginary—process in order to insist to their domestic audiences that ‘the system worked’…confirmed [Afghan] suspicions that the electoral process…is mainly an elaborate cover for decisions made elsewhere.”

I couldn’t yet discern a clear international strategy on how to win the governance war, but even ten days in a country I don’t know told me this was the battlefield that matters most, and that international actors face a potent dilemma. We can’t stand back from something we have helped create, but a crudely-conditioned approach will risk further government delegitimation in the eyes of Afghanis.


Submitted by Kim on
This is a great example of what we should be doing with World Bank blogs! Thanks for posting your experiences!

I just want to point you to an article by Rory Stewart, 'Afghanistan: What could work', The New York Review of Books, January 14 - February 10, 2010, p. 60-64. It could help answering the question Nigel Roberts ends his blog with, what international strategy to follow. I think it is a great article.

Many thanks for this comment. Rory Stewart's article, which is a commentary on President Obama's speech on Afghanistan of December 1 2009, touches on a number of issues we are we are exploring in this year's WDR. Among these are the unrealistic timeframes for change that so often underlie international strategies that support state-building: "It was assumed that it would be possible within a reasonable time (some documents claimed within seven years) to build a stable centralized state, largely independent of foreign support, arranged around the rule of law and a technocratic administration, with a vibrant economy based on lawful commerce and trade." Related to this, he points to the short attention spans and continuous switches between policies that are common in many countries: "We armed militias in 2001, disarmed them through a demobilization program in 2003, and rearmed them again in 2006 as community defense forces. We allowed local autonomy in 2001, pushed for a strong central government in 2003, and returned to decentralization in 2006. First we tolerated opium crops; then we proposed to eradicate them through aerial spraying; now we expect to live with opium production for decades." He also articulates the post-Victorian impulse that can still form attitudes in the development community: "a belief in the moral imperative of humanitarian intervention, backed by our failures in Rwanda and our success in the Balkans; a maximal vision in which no one good ("security," for example) can be achieved without the achievement of every other good (such as "development" or "the rule of law"); a rhetorical tradition in which all goods are seen as consistent and mutually reinforcing; and an Enlightenment faith that there is nothing intrinsically intractable about Afghan culture and society and that all men can be perfected (to a Western ideal) through the application of reason and the laws of social science." He then credits President Obama with a more modest position on Afghanistan: "we should accept that there is a limit on what we can do. And we don't have a moral obligation to do what we cannot do." What is challenging for us in the WDR context, though, is Rory's view that a coherent strategy in Afghanistan should not include the type of state-building enterprise that lies at the heart of many donors' strategies, and can succeed without it: "The effective, legitimate Afghan government, on which the entire counterinsurgency strategy depends, shows little sign of emerging, in part because the international community lacks the skills, the knowledge, the legitimacy, or the patience to build a new nation." I'd be interested to know what you think about this proposition---not only for Afghanistan, but elsewhere.

In reaction to Nigel Robert's question what to think of the need to include the typical donor state-building enterprise in the approach to Afghanistan: Taking a pragmatic realist view, I think the best case scenario for Afghanistan is: Working towards a hybrid central state, in which security can be provided: In this scenario, the main tribal networks manage to agree on a power-sharing (or ‘reconciliation’) deal, including the Pashtun tribes. This results in a critical weakening of popular support for the Taleban (Tb) jihad. As a consequence, the security threat posed by Tb and other armed opposition can be contained and security is improved. The state will maintain a hybrid character blending democratic and traditional-tribal political orders. Critical democratic state institutions can be maintained and continue to be reinforced (e.g. civil and political rights, institutional checks on elected officials, merit-based civil service, protection of position of women). A central question in this scenario is what combination of democratic-bureaucratic governance and traditional relationships’ politics is to be sought. It would be essential that the hold of the warlords over government is broken and that they are replaced by leaders that have more legitimacy with the population (some of them traditional tribal). The government would manage to build the capacity of the ANSF and maintain their reliability, and would thus be able to increasingly rely on the ANSF to secure stability. The government would be increasingly effective and legitimate as a consequence of its success in containing the security situation, its enhanced inclusiveness and enhanced democratisation. Central state institutions continue to function in a hybrid way, i.e. partly following a tribal-clientelist logic. Sub-national governance below the provincial (or possibly district) level is secured by legitimate non-warlord traditional/tribal institutions (who ‘mediate the state’), but with effective links to national governance and development programmes. Narcotics revenue flows to Tb and AQ are reduced, although flows to government cannot be stopped. The government will continue to largely pay lip-service to anti-corruption (because it depends on clientelism, i.e. corruption to serve its clients, for survival), although extremely predatory corruption may be reduced as a consequence of the improved security situation and increasing rules-based functioning of the government, but progress will be slow and incomplete. The International Community (IC) could support the emergence of this scenario by: o Diplomatic support for negotiations, and politically-informed technical advice on the elements of democratic state institutions to be retained. o IC succeeds in imposing moderate governance conditionality in return for its military and development support. The conditionality focuses on retaining critical elements of democratic state institutions (e.g. inclusiveness, civil and political rights, excluding predatory warlords, etc.) but the leverage is moderate on issues that Karzai needs in order to survive (clientelism, corruption, narcotics revenues) and in view of the necessity to buy-in the Tb. o Aid focuses on reinforcing the democratic state institutions, sub-national governance and addressing (local) drivers of conflict. IC civil-military support – including the surge - is focused on building up ANSF and protecting population and has to be successful. IC may need to secure support from locally legitimate powerful local military factions supportive of the national reconciliation model, but the inherent risks are formidable since this scenario hinges on replacing war commanders by more legitimate local leaders. o Reduced IC kinetic operations, since they involve collateral civilian casualties while not succeeding in holding and building territorial gains. o Targeted intelligence-led side-lining of hardcore Tb and Al Qaida leaders (in Afghanistan and Pakistan) is maintained and has to be successful. o All three elements above are necessary to create negotiating space for both government and moderate Tb. o Counter-narcotics (CN) focuses on reducing Tb access to drug revenues and developing alternative livelihoods, while silently tolerating narcotics revenue flows to government on the medium term, to keep government funded. This scenario is in my view to be preferred to a scenario where too much emphasis is put on military fight against the Tb, which would lead to the continuation and even expansion of war. It is also to be preferred over a scenario in which the Karzai government would be forced to push through with democratisation, anti-corruption (AC) and governance reform, especially with various elections, vetting senior appointments and CN. The result of such pressure, if effective, would be erosion of his power base, resulting in renewed contest for state power and possibly reversion to war. Any comments are welcome! Louise Anten

Louise: You are suggesting a number of elements of an approach that is unconventional insofar as Western powers and donors are concerned, and which substantiates emerging WDR thinking of a more general nature. The approach you lay out, as I understand it, a) embodies a form of governance specific to Afghani realities and experience; b) accepts certain interim compromises which may be distasteful to donor policy-makers (clientilism and corruption, for example); and c) embodies a long-term commitment to the country. What we observe in many conflict interventions, though, is the misperception that dealing with conflict is a short-term proposition (analogous to tackling the physical aftermath of a hurricane). While opportunities for change often need to be grasped quickly, helping societies build the kind of institutions needed to seriously confront conflict dynamics takes many years of sustained effort. Rory writes about the unrealistic expectations that have afflicted post-2001 thinking in Afghanistan; one of our concerns is that patience and attention spans may be decaying in a world of continuous media coverage and short political horizons.

Submitted by Bryan Nash on
Through this article I came to that what we actually doing with the world bank blogs. Thanks for sharing your information with us.

Nigel, your summary nicely catches my main points. I'd like to stress two points though: One is that the 'form of governance specific to Afghan realities and experience' does need to blend traditional/customary institutions and more 'modern' elements, of which the most important is probably inclusivity (i.e. including all groups and tribes). If not, conflicts will persist and statebuilding will be impossible. The second is that the compromises that would be tolerated (rather than accepted) temporarily would also have to be judged on their impact on peacebuilding and statebuilding. E.g. in rural Afghanistan people do not accept excessive corruption that serves for personal enrichment, and such corruption fuels conflicts. So this type of corruption had better not be tolerated. However, people do tolerate that leaders take care of their constituencies, in a way that according to formal modern rules would be corrupt. Reforming those 'rules of the game' would in my view have to wait to a later stage. I know it's unconventional, so again, your comments and especially experiences are welcome!

Submitted by Venapro on
Maybe is true that in Afghanistan people do not accept excessive corruption that serves for personal enrichment, and such corruption fuels conflicts, but the fact still remains; it is very difficult to prove and to prosecute. So it stays only on speculations.

Pretty good post. I just stumbled upon your blog and wanted to say that I have really enjoyed reading your blog posts. Any way I'll be subscribing to your feed and I hope you post again soon.

Submitted by Anonymous on
I'm interested in your particularly Western view of the situation in Afghanistan. The west has surely taken an interest in the region for many decades. But as is noted above, has not been consistent in its aims in the region. The West's engagement in Afghanistan now is as a result of the Taliban's support to terrorism. The West has maintained a "Just War" stance in the region, given that the West was attacked. The problem is what happens post conflict. As you state, the dewvelopment of a functioning system of government is the key. The debate above tries to articulate - in Western terms, what the West wants to see. Perhaps the West should take a step back and try to see the region through the eyes of its enhabitants, and the cultures and histories that have ebbed and flowed through the region for many centuries. We in the West are all to quick to shop our particular brand of democracy and good governance as the right thing to do, when the West, quite frankly, has very little experience in governance in relation to the centuries of cultures and peoples in South West Asia. My point is this - this region of the world needs a particularly regional recipe for "development". And the word developpment is used in their regional context, not the Western context. The regional context is one of tribal and ethnic structures, and their thinking is long term. Their regional view includes Pakistan, Iran, and India as major actors. Theie regional view includes the Shia/Sunni tangent. Their context does not include social contracts between the people and the government. Their way of life does not include Western languages, thought, or comforts. We must reject Western views if we truly wish this region to stabilize. We must engage the major and minor regional actors to act and not remain silent. It is, after all, their region. We must be wary in our own context of terrorism and its elements. But this warienss is almost mutaully exclusive to stability in the region. We must assist regional actors in regional engagement. We must demonstarte to them, and teach them ways that regional actors can be engaged and energized. We in the West have many useful models of regional cooperation that have been used in the past in other regions which elements of which could be applied to this region. We must get engaged and creative and energize regional actors. I take for example the OAS as a framework for regional political, and ecomomic engagement. NATO's PfP and Mediterranean Dialogue programmes are more military oriented, but are regional outreach programmes. There are many examples or reginal engagement. If we as the West applied as much energy to this region as we do in the Middle East even to this day, we would have assisted in the development of a more regional context. My point is this. We as the West have adopted a prescriptive stance to the region that is suited only to our needs, and is related to our perception of accountability and good governance. Lets take a step back and begin a regional diplomatic campaign centred on the development of a regional system of develpment - show that we are engaged, but demonstarte that we are not meddling.

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