Defund Afghanistan

The more the West has invested in Afghan governing institutions, the worse they have become

Photo Credit: Wakil Kohsar/Getty Images

As the coronavirus pandemic overwhelmed the Afghan health system in June, doctors rallied in Kabul, calling upon the International Monetary Fund to rescind a recently granted $220 million emergency loan to the Afghan government to help with the COVID-19 crisis. In support, Sayed Ekram Afazali, head of Integrity Watch Afghanistan, a local group fighting corruption, said that such “monopolization in the spending of the aid . . . creates severe vulnerabilities and it removes the trust” in the government owing to embezzlement and mismanagement. The Kabul rally is just one of many protests against government corruption in Afghanistan. Doctors in Herat, for instance, protested against unpaid salaries. In remote Ghor Province, security forces killed six protesters angry at the distribution of food aid.

These and other similar actions acknowledge a counterintuitive but simple truth: Aid to Afghanistan is accelerating state collapse because it is channeled through a government that is dysfunctional and corrupt. John Sopko, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, said the Taliban and other insurgents draw attention to government corruption and use it to “undermine public support for the government, garner recruits to their cause and weaken the government’s bargaining position during future peace negotiations.” We believe that the current system of centralized government is the cause of systemic injustices that drive this current conflict. After 20 years of this system, there are no technical fixes to corruption that could win public trust. Rather, the entire government must be defunded, dismantled, disbanded, and rebuilt anew by the Afghan people. The coming intra-Afghan dialogue will be an opportunity to do just that.

Eliminating Corrupt Institutions

After the killing of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis, massive protests across the United States called attention to racism and police brutality. Many protesters demanded to “defund the police.” decrying a militarized police that was mistrusted and ineffective. According to Minneapolis City Council President Lisa Bender, the “system of policing is not keeping our communities safe. Our efforts at incremental reform have failed, period.” The defund movement means diverting funds away from state institutions into other areas such as social services.

Dismantling and disbanding means reorganizing institutions and building them anew. In recent weeks, the Minneapolis City Council voted to defund and dismantle its police force to help it build trust. There is some precedent for these actions: in 2012, the city of Camden, New Jersey, dismantled a police force citizens viewed as corrupt and ineffective. The city then saw violent crime go down by half.

If we hope to end decades of conflict and systemic injustice in Afghanistan, we must defund the current Afghan state. Today, international donors support 75 percent of the state’s operating budget. After spending 20 years and hundreds of billions of dollars, state capacity remains devastatingly low: the government cannot provide a modicum of security or public services. Citizens have no means to hold the state accountable. Consequently, corruption is the status quo. Coronavirus is wreaking havoc on the country, further revealing the failure of its health system. Responding to crises such as this pandemic requires state capacity that cannot be built without trust in the government. Such trust is almost nonexistent in Afghanistan.

Breaking with the Past

State-building efforts in Afghanistan after 2001 have failed not because donors tried to impose Western-style democracy. Rather, these efforts failed because they resurrected authoritarian institutions from the country’s autocratic past (which were not designed to serve citizens) as the basis for the new state. Democracy, especially at the local level, was never given a chance.

This archaic and centralized system is the source of Afghanistan’s continuing conflict and systemic injustice. Donor support for these corrosive institutions led to a vicious cycle of state failure: donors propped up the very predatory institutions that were responsible for initial state collapse. When many Afghans were hopeful for change, they were forced to submit to rules designed to control and even terrorize them.

US and Afghan leaders missed the opportunity to break with the past as they revived and strengthened an archaic and bloated centralized system that was heavily influenced by the country’s communist legacy. An influential report written right after the fall of the Taliban argued that these old institutions had endured war and that “simplistic assertions that the state collapsed in Afghanistan as a result of several decades of conflict, or that the public sector is an institutional blank slate, are not borne out. . . . The administrative structures of the state have proven to be surprisingly resilient.”

The resilience of the old authoritarian system doomed state-building efforts from the start because they were not designed for participation but for political, economic, and social control. Donors spent trillions propping up a system that was incapable of encouraging participation or gaining popular support. The authoritarian system has a very weak parliament vis-à-vis an extremely strong executive. All officials at the subnational level are not elected but are appointed by the central government. There are elected provincial councils, but they have absolutely no oversight or power over powerful governors who are appointed by Kabul. Furthermore, the country has a heavily centralized system of public finance and budgeting based on Soviet planning models.

Taking a Whole-Government Approach to Reform

Some countries have had some success in dismantling institutions to stimulate change. Georgia and Ukraine both disbanded their police forces after the public toppled their authoritarian regimes. Both saw improvements, but they were limited without wholescale reforms to the justice sector and other parts of the government. These countries’ experience suggests that reforming one sector of government without considering reforms in other arenas will not yield success. Thus, reform efforts should not only focus on technical changes but on a complete systemwide overhaul.

Afghanistan succeeded in dismantling and disbanding some parts of the state after 2001, but as in Georgia and Ukraine, these efforts were incomplete because they were too discrete and did not take into account other parts of the government. The Afghan National Army is a good example of a dismantled and rebuilt institution. It is one of the few major national institutions that has seen a complete institutional overhaul since 2001. When NATO forces came into Afghanistan, they quickly realized that vestiges of the Afghan National Army then in place had Soviet roots. Army recruitment was based on forced conscription. Rather than resurrect this model, the Americans and others supported the creation of a new, all-volunteer army.

Unlike the Afghan National Army, however, the Afghan National Police retained its Soviet-inspired legacy. All police commanders at the provincial and district levels are appointed by the Ministry of Interior in Kabul. Communities have no voice over their own security. With US support, the Afghan authorities tried to create community police forces, but these were simply local militias on the state payroll. There was no community involvement in decisions to build these “local” forces; instead, Kabul managed their creation and support.

By contrast, efforts to defund, dismantle, and fundamentally reorganize the Afghan National Army from the ground up paid off. Although it is far from perfect, it is a source of pride and unity for many Afghans. Sixty percent of Afghans strongly agree that the army is honest and fair, making it one of the most trusted public institutions in the country. Only 41 percent say this about the police.

Moving toward Possible Solutions

Continued government dysfunction has led many Afghans to take positive action to solve their own problems. During the past 20 years, Afghanistan has developed a thriving private sector; an engaged, diverse, and robust civil society; a vibrant independent media; and a resurgence of customary authorities in rural areas who fill governance gaps and serve as a bulwark of protection against predatory officials. Such grassroots local authorities provide one of the only fora for local deliberation.

Government negotiations with the Taliban through intra-Afghan dialogue can create an important opportunity to help reimagine governance in Afghanistan. Greater decentralization, for example, can allow the Taliban to have influence in those areas where it may be popular and allow other regions to self-govern. It will be up to the people of Afghanistan to chart their future course, but they must have a role in these decisions.

Just as the defund movement is not a call to abolish the police or eliminate all police funding in the United States, we are not calling for donor abandonment of Afghanistan. Calling to “defund Afghanistan” does not necessarily mean withdrawal of all foreign troops from the country, either, although we do anticipate the United States and its allies will not be there for much longer. Instead, the challenges outlined here explain why investments to strengthen the state have contributed to systemic injustice: the more the world has invested in these institutions, the worse they have performed.

We believe that defunding the system will not encourage a Taliban takeover but instead prevent it. Pouring money into the current system fosters dysfunction and strengthens insurgent forces. This is not a time for incremental reform but experimentation. Right now, well-intentioned efforts to support the Afghan state generate mistrust. The contours of the current structures undermine opportunities for Afghans to creatively engage with their government and shape their own future.

Afghans have suffered too long, as they face daily violence and untold deaths from COVID-19. Spending more money on the current system of governance will not yield better results. Therefore, it is time to start anew and defund, disband, and dismantle the Afghan state.

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