Features | Security | Central Asia

How to Solve Afghanistan

The best way to ensure stability and make the Taliban irrelevant is to legitimize the Afghan state, argues Masood Aziz.

By Masood Aziz for

Osama bin Laden’s death, although important, will not stabilize Afghanistan. Nor will it eliminate factors supporting the existence of sanctuaries in Pakistan.

The protection that bin Laden and the Taliban leadership have enjoyed in Pakistan should surprise no one. It is widely understood that the Pakistani Army has long supported extremist groups as justification for maintaining an asymmetric warfare capability against the perceived threat posed by India. Despite the existence of a secular strand and an elected government in Pakistan, the Army has convinced the Pakistani people that without its overwhelming dominance of all levers of national power, the country will be overrun by external forces any day.

However, with bin Laden dead, declaring a quick victory on global terrorism and pushing for a rushed exit from Afghanistan are recipes for failure. In addition, any haste in either cutting aid or doubling-down on unilateral covert operations will create untenable tensions inside Pakistan, endangering the state and further empowering the military at the expense of democratic institutions.

In Afghanistan, al-Qaeda has never been a significant military force. But the Taliban have mobilized tens of thousands of fighters and are growing increasingly strong. Barely three weeks since bin Laden’s demise, the Taliban have launched a series of audacious attacks, both in Afghanistan and Pakistan, killing over 120 people and raiding the naval base in Karachi. This latest show of strength and organization is a testimony to the fact that the Taliban are here to stay.

This presents policymakers with an urgent dilemma. Calls for sudden troop withdrawals will lead to a swift but certain collapse of the Afghan government, a takeover by the Taliban within weeks and a return of new terrorist sanctuaries. As an accelerated withdrawal is now high on the agenda, what can be done to prevent chaos in Afghanistan and its knock on effects in Pakistan? Is there an effective alternative to a straightforward military strategy, and could securing stability in Afghanistan actually inspire progress in neighboring Pakistan?

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Reconciliation with the Taliban won’t be sufficient to both reduce instability in Afghanistan and also eliminate the nefarious networks of extremist groups in Pakistan. Instead, the only sure path may be to redirect our efforts in helping strengthen and legitimize the Afghan state so that it can stand on its own. Injustice and the exercise of illegitimate power are now key reasons for a disaffected and disenchanted population. This is precisely where the Taliban find the space within which they thrive and where they seek and obtain support. Closing this gap by restoring a sense of justice and legitimacy will not only make the Taliban an irrelevant entity in Afghanistan, but will also serve as a model for Pakistan where their use as a geopolitical instrument of asymmetric warfare would no longer be viable or justifiable. 

In its current state, the Afghan state is exceedingly weak, rampant with corruption and lacks legitimacy. How did we ever get to this? The Afghan authorities bear much of the responsibility, but international donors must bear an even larger burden of the blame. Beginning in 2001, an massively uncoordinated model of international intervention was followed by massive inflows of foreign aid relative to domestic sources of capital, creating a textbook case of a rentier state. Instead of helping to craft institutions capable of establishing the legitimacy of the state via internal revenues and locally accepted governance, donors made the state entirely dependent on outside forces. This engendered a national leadership with no incentives to undertake any significant effort in being accountable to its citizenry. And in the rush to seek quick military solutions, and sub-contracting the war, donors empowered warlords and their cliques, further weakening the state and exacerbating the perception of injustice. The corollary was that Afghanistan became an extreme case of a state-building enterprise imposed from the outside, resulting in the inevitable failure to deliver stability and with ominous regional consequences.

What now? The first step towards redressing the mistakes of the past decade is to help legitimatize the Afghan state. This begins by reducing the inflows of aid going outside of the government structure, curbing the massive spending on a large security force not sustainable by the country and helping local authorities establish their legitimacy in the eyes of their citizens by becoming dependent on endogenous sources of revenues.

Contrary to common belief, Afghanistan is not entirely poor. In 2007, the US Geological Survey announced the discovery of large amounts of minerals. Suddenly, a country once seen without a future is now recognized as endowed with significant natural resources. Afghanistan is poised to be one of the world’s largest producers of copper and iron. Also discovered were rare earth minerals, such as lithium, which are essential for the high-tech industry. Bamyan’s Hajigak iron ore deposit is now estimated to be one of the largest in the world. These newly discovered minerals could potentially be worth hundreds of millions per year—some estimates put the annual value of the Mes Aynak copper mines alone at $1.2 billion. Such revenues could lead to a renaissance of the ‘real’ Afghan economy, and help create thousands of jobs, attract investment in infrastructure and enable further growth of trade and commerce. This is a game-changer not only for Afghanistan, but for the entire region.

Of course, the discovery of these resources raises the possibility of Afghanistan becoming a victim of the so-called resource curse, when overdependence can fuel corruption, conflict and even greater levels of poverty. This is a real danger in Afghanistan, as it is certain to deepen the corrosion of the social contract between state and society, creating even more space for the Taliban to exploit.

Preventing this from happening won’t be easy. Traditional approaches to managing new natural resources, such as standardizing the bidding process for mine exploration and developing transparent institutions to administer resources and revenues, may take too long to be implemented effectively in Afghanistan.

Instead, an alternative two-pronged strategy should be considered. The first step would entail the establishment of a cash transfer of natural resource revenues directly to the citizens of Afghanistan. Direct cash transfer programmes are currently operated in about 45 countries and have had a significant impact on development; they’ve been adopted by organizations including the World Bank. In Mexico, for example, a cash transfer programme that reached a quarter of the population in exchange for school attendance and health clinic visits has been successful. Studies of this programme found that (a) children participating had a 12 percent lower incidence of illness, (b) were 33 percent more likely to be enrolled in school, and (c) were 23 percent more likely to finish 9th grade. A programme for schoolgirls in Punjab, Pakistan, meanwhile, increased enrolment by 11 percent. In addition, Bolivia and Mongolia have both established programs to link their natural resource revenues to finance cash transfer programmes, including copper and gold mines funding Mongolia’s ‘Child Money Programme.’

Under this structure, the distributed cash would be taxed as normal income. This is vital in Afghanistan as it would not only draw in resources to the state, but would also entice it to build its own tax collection capacity to recover part of these funds. In such a way, the government will be forced to depend on citizens for revenues, creating greater accountability. And because one of the key problems facing Afghanistan is a loss of trust in the authority of the state, and because this will be an important source of income for Afghans, such a programme would give citizens a direct stake in their country’s future and an incentive to ensure that management of the country’s resources is carefully monitored.

The second pillar of this strategy is tied to the National Solidarity Program (NSP). When first established in 2003, the NSP sought to empower Afghans in rural areas and at the grassroots by establishing local governance bodies called Community Development Councils in villages across the country. Cash grants were then given directly to these elected bodies to help them carry out small-scale rural projects. Over 20,000 communities across the country benefited from the programme, which is now recognized as one of the most successful efforts in rural in South Asia. Importantly, the NSP engaged the citizenry by helping them make decisions for themselves and to date it’s still the only significant development programme affecting over two-thirds of the rural population, and in all 34 provinces of the country.

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What I am proposing is to link the cash transfer structure described above with the National Solidarity Program. This is a natural link. The NSP requires cash grants to function in the implementation of its community-based development projects. It is also by definition a governance programme, assuring transparency at the village level and helping link state and local efforts together. Ultimately, because decisions are made within the local community and projects are conceived and then run by community members, the programme was successful in combining development and security together—a goal still eluding most programmes attempted in Afghanistan.

At the same time, directly allocating a significant portion of the mineral revenues via cash transfers allows Afghans to decide how to spend the income. One of the fallacies of development aid is the belief that outside donors know better where and how funds need to be spent. Instead, allowing people to choose how to spend their allocated funds actually leads to better economic and social outcomes. As the Nobel laureate Amartya Sen has reminded us, development is about freeing people from the yoke of poverty, not dictating to them how they should behave. In fact, most spending by those receiving cash transfers are for education, health and sanitation, so they go well beyond mere consumption and are investments in both economic and social capital formation.

In today’s Afghanistan, the Taliban’s strength is directly proportional to the weakness and inability of the government and its international partners. The insurgency is not gaining ground because it can articulate a better vision for the future; it is doing so because the absence of a legitimate state creates strategic space the militants are adept at exploiting. Despite bin Laden’s death, as long as that space exists, we cannot win against the insurgency.

It is still not too late for Afghanistan. In light of extremists looking to gain new ground having been emboldened by uprisings in the Middle East, Afghanistan now represents a new security architecture and a buffer between Iran and Pakistan. The endgame in Afghanistan can only be achieved if the state is able to develop both the narrative and the means of ensuring the future of its people.

Seeking to connect the NSP with cash transfer programmes would establish a powerful set of strategies to help secure an effective transition to Afghans. It will restore a sense of justice, which is foundational to Afghan society and will offer its leadership one final opportunity. As the Taliban will no longer be able to offer a viable alternative to the population, this will also serve as a model making the patronage of extremist groups in Pakistan neither acceptable nor feasible.

Post-Osama bin Laden, assuring the legitimacy of the Afghan state will render the Taliban irrelevant and make it possible to pave the way for stability in an increasingly precarious region. 

Masood Aziz is a senior diplomat, author and corporate executive. He was the senior advisor to the mission at the Embassy of Afghanistan in Washington DC, and played leading roles on the Afghanistan Compact, the Afghanistan National Development Strategy (ANDS) and the UN’s Joint Coordination and Monitoring Board (JCMB). Aziz is also the author of the recently published book The New Silk Roads: Transport and Trade in Greater Central Asia, and has contributed to Foreign Policy, The Daily Beastand Forbes, among other publications.