Monday, July 02, 2007

Bush allies seem to go in only one direction

Afghanistan is moving backward

By Haroun Mir

KABUL - The Afghan government and its North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies are struggling to bring stability to Afghanistan as NATO's stabilizing efforts are being undermined by bad governance.

Reforming government institutions and rebuilding vital economic infrastructures should have been the priority since the collapse of the Taliban regime in 2001. In fact, during the past three decades of continuous conflicts and civil wars and the Taliban's assumption of power in 1996, Afghanistan's administration and economic system became paralyzed and dysfunctional.

The country has not seen economic progress since the Soviet invasion in 1979. The middle class disappeared, the best-educated people left the country, and all signs of modern education and government institutions were replaced by a traditional, not to say archaic or "backward", system.

Since the fall of the Taliban, the effectiveness of the governing authority has been mediocre at best. Afghanistan has not been able to reform a corrupt and antediluvian administrative structure. While the Taliban and their foreign allies are the cause of many troubles, bad governance also contributes to the worsening of the country's situation.

Despite international attention and the presence of NATO forces, as well as billions of US dollars in aid, nothing substantial in terms of reconstruction has been accomplished. Even in relatively peaceful provinces, popular frustration over government ineptitude is mounting.

Two aspects of an efficient and effective administration, performance and accountability, are entirely absent from the Afghan administration. Rampant nepotism eliminates the notion of merit and competency. In the absence of effective government actions and activities, the functionality of the government's vital institutions is reduced even in the immediate periphery of Kabul. Deficiencies in government services force the villagers in the south and east of the country to turn to the Taliban for security, justice, and protection of their private property.

Corruption has become a common practice in the country, seriously undermining NATO's effort to win the "hearts and minds" of Afghans. Without an effective monitoring system, administrative corruption could undermine all financial efforts to develop the Afghan economy. Despite widespread cases of corruption and mismanagement of funds, not a single corrupt senior official has been brought to trial, much less seen justice.

Ordinary Afghans believe that some of the corrupt high officials are implicitly protected by powerful NATO countries. NATO ends up bearing the brunt of the blame in part because the Afghan Parliament does not have the capacity to monitor the government's activities.

But international institutions have made their share of mistakes. With a mandate to reform the Afghan administration, they have failed in their mission. The misunderstanding and lack of communication between foreign advisers and Afghan administrators has ensured that the pace of administrative reforms is very slow, despite the presence of a significant number of foreign advisers and allocation of plenty of financial resources.

The majority of Afghan high officials, who have come from Western academic institutions, have limited management skills. Sometimes they have difficulties reconciling modern concepts with the reality on the ground. In addition, higher salaries in non-governmental and other foreign organizations attract the best civil servants from crucial positions in Afghan administration.

As a result of dysfunctional administration, President Hamid Karzai is losing the broad popular support and legitimacy that he had enjoyed before the presidential elections in 2004. People in remote provinces distrust the central government and are tired of unfulfilled promises. Until now, Kabul has failed to recognize priorities in each province, and the bulk of aid provided by foreign donors is unaccounted for.

Decentralization in public administration has been a major policy in many developing countries. Why should Afghanistan become the exception? A centralized education system, a centralized economic policy, a centralized heath-care system, and similar inefficient and ineffective centralized systems are bound to fail in Afghanistan as well as elsewhere.

As in developed countries, the criteria of responsiveness and accountability should become the norm in Afghan public administration. In fact, local-government officials, instead of being accountable to the people and responsive to their needs, are following ill-advised directives from the central government in Kabul.

To achieve the long-term goal of stability and progress in the country, people should be given the opportunity to participate directly in their own local political life by electing provincial governors as an alternative to their arbitrary appointment by the central government. The initiation of political debates about the possibility of alternative governing systems in Afghanistan, which would provide a greater role and political participation for people living in remote provinces, should be encouraged. Indeed, modern effective governing systems well suited to the geography and ethnic mosaic of the country should be considered as potential alternatives to the current failed centralized governing system.

Indeed, the growing administrative corruption combined with recent resurgence of Taliban attacks in the northern and western provinces is a major cause for the degradation of security throughout the country. This is a signal for a deeper problem that, if not dealt with appropriately and in a timely way, could expand resentment and insecurity to the relatively peaceful northern and western provinces.

It is incumbent on NATO countries to help the Afghan government reform its old and inefficient institutions. The stakes are too high to let a dysfunctional government undermine NATO's efforts to stabilize the country.

Haroun Mir was an aide to the late Ahmad Shah Massoud, Afghanistan's former defense minister. He works as a consultant in Kabul and is a policy analyst for International Affairs Forum.

Original article posted here.

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