Lessons from Afghanistan: Another layer to US’ withdrawal

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November 12, 2021 3:14 AM

Limited understanding of local governance needs of the ordinary Afghan blighted the efforts at the national level in the war-torn country

A recent piece by Frances Brown of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace offers an analysis of what went wrong in the process of trying to aid local governance in Afghanistan. (File image)A recent piece by Frances Brown of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace offers an analysis of what went wrong in the process of trying to aid local governance in Afghanistan. (File image)

As India struggles to occupy a central place in creating a regional security dialogue on Afghanistan, it is useful to keep studying what happened in that country and why. The United States clearly failed in enabling the creation of a sustainable government at the national level, including a military that believed in the government as a durable representative of the country. Even corrupt governments can instill loyalty in their soldiers, but that was not the case here. Certainly, the national government was disconnected from large parts of the country and its population, and by the last phase of the US pullout, that situation had become extreme.

But there is another layer to this story. The US and other Western governments apparently devoted considerable attention, time and money to strengthening subnational governance in Afghanistan, by increasing local governments’ capacity, accountability and responsiveness. If that project had succeeded, it might have led to very different initial conditions when the US announced its withdrawal, and to a less precipitous collapse of the national government.

A recent piece by Frances Brown of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace offers an analysis of what went wrong in the process of trying to aid local governance in Afghanistan. The reasons she mentions are several and complicated. First, technical assistance did not take account of local political realities.

Second, the focus was often on formulaic efforts to “foster dialogue” or “build trust,” without a clear understanding of incentives or existing processes. Third, donor efforts did not integrate clearly with existing government hierarchies, going from local through provincial to national. Sometimes, temporary and parallel organizations just created confusion and left no durable legacy. Fourth, even technical capacity building was not well-conceived, in terms of priorities and fit for local needs. Finally, weaknesses at higher levels of government acted as a drag on efforts to improve matters at the local level.

Reading Brown’s analysis, one is struck by how there is an absence of any concrete reference to what local government is meant to do. Admittedly, this is not her focus, but it hints at what might have been the real issues with foreign aid at the local level in Afghanistan. Local governments everywhere are supposed to provide public goods such as safety, sanitation, public health services, basic education, and so on. The closeness of the people to the government at the local level has pluses and minuses. It can increase accountability, but also lead to capture by powerful interests. Power may not just be driven by wealth inequalities, but also be factors such as gender inequalities. What impact the local government has on the local private economy is also important.

In a nutshell, strengthening local governance requires an understanding of local economies, societies and politics, on the way to understanding what people want from the governments closest to them. It seems that, for the “international community,” this understanding may not have been adequate at the local level, just as it was inadequate at the national level. By contrast, what has happened over recent decades in Bangladesh suggests an alternative approach. There, foreign donors have partnered with local NGOs, avoiding some of the power and patronage structures embedded in every level of government. They have also focused on a few well-defined services with measurable and understandable benefits—microcredit in particular—though these have often been bundled with other social services, community building, and raising general awareness. This is a model of strengthening civil society, partly as a substitute for strengthening local governance, but also as a precondition and eventual complement to that goal.

It may be that the initial conditions in Afghanistan were not conducive to this kind of approach. It is also plausible that the Bangladesh-type approach to effecting change does not fit well with the way in which Western government donors are used to operating. Brown’s description of how they operated in Afghanistan is instructive, suggesting a bureaucratic model that is driven by a limited understanding of people’s basic needs and motivations, and of the societal structures in which they function.

What does any of this have to do with national and regional security? Simply that national bureaucrats and politicians who do not understand and respond to what people care about in their daily lives cannot provide security in any meaningful sense.

The author is Professor of economics, University of California, Santa Cruz

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