Thursday, January 12, 2012

Labels Matter: State Failure, History, Intervention

We were walking the dust path curling through the Kabul University campus. My colleagues begin to tell me of the latest news that day: dozens of civilian bodies dead in Farah, western Afghanistan. Result of the latest American offensive against the Taliban. I ask how they feel about this, despite the blood seeping from my blanching face, from anger as much as embarrassment. I’m the only non-Afghan among them. But I would have to invent their frustration with America, the West or any other vented targets.

“Only the villagers know who is who,” one of my colleagues says. He points at my lightly bearded face, “They will know you are not Taliban, and that I,” pointing to his clean shaven look, “I might be a Talib.” They are upset more with the Taliban than NATO. How is America to tell the difference, they ask, when the Taliban hides among clusters of everyday Afghans. How are they to know what labels to apply, when and where?

This talk is part and parcel of the main Afghanistan discourses. The debate on the country centers, on the one hand, on the Taliban, military intervention, drones and civilian deaths. On the other, it focuses on nepotism, a flourishing narco-economy, and the first Hamid Karzai administration’s unfulfilled promises. These twin debates look at the global war on terror and the internal politics of a failing, failed or weak state. The label matters.

With the Barack Obama administration offering the emerging Afghanistan-Pakistan (‘Af-Pak’) strategy, a new wave of pundits busies itself repackaging analysis on the war on terror leg of the debate, filtering through the pluses and minuses of the budding two-state approach. Most welcome the sub-regional mindset appreciating the Al-Qaeda chase as involving both countries.

In proffering a double approach of more military action and civilian reconstruction, the strategy develops with renewed rigor external intervention as the solution to what are fundamentally internal political crises in these two countries. As such, the ‘new’ approach mirrors some of the central thrusts of George W. Bush administration war on terror policy.

Little distinction in the Af-Pak strategy is made between Al-Qaeda and Taliban, and the respective differences driving how each operate within and between the two countries. This ignores how the ideologies, aims and methods differ—and how responses may differ accordingly. It also risks lumping peoples and ideas under an umbrella notion of Evil, under which perpetrators must be killed outright, directly reflective of the Bush policy of bringing ‘Evil-doers to justice.’ That the Obama government supports the Pakistan military offensive in Swat Valley in early May 2009 testifies to this risk.

The notion of justice in the expired Bush government and the nascent Obama one seems to so far be made of the same stuff: an irreconcilably thin, Manichean essence. Thinking remains to be done that goes beyond implicit labels of Good and Evil towards grounding policies in history.

Less talk also occurs on what may be the more important second pillar of the Afghanistan debate: the capacity of the Afghan state. That Afghanistan and Pakistan border state failure as much as they border one another is widely recognized, but little is constructed on what to do about it. Ignoring this is to ignore a root cause of 30 years of war.

Reflecting on the history of the Afghan conflict or looking at conflict hot spots globally, a debatable few cases aside, they involve states today labeled as failing, failed or weak. The Afghan state in 1978 was a weak state: but we didn’t have the label then. Placing state failure in historical context is less-oft done than the ahistorical bandying about of the term, but it helps in identifying why conflicts begin. Understanding this in turn helps in knowing how they can end.

The writ of the state in Afghanistan has never been known for being especially strong. Whatever feats managed since the 1748 formation of centralized government in Kandahar (moved 30 years later to Kabul) were nearly all washed away or reversed by the 1978-2001 conflict. Most characterizations of this period see it as shifting, first, from the Saur (April or Communist) Revolution and Afghan revolt, to Soviet invasion and mujahedeen response, then to phases of further intervention and proxy war. After the February 15, 1989 Soviet withdrawal, the conflict moves into a stage of civil struggle for Kabul, with the Taliban wrestling control of the bulk of the country. American-led invasion to topple the Taliban serves as a further marker in 2001.

The conflict is thus flanked, on the one side, by the Communist Party’s failed social reforms sparking revolt and Soviet intervention; and, on the other, by September 11th and American intervention in the name of the global war on terror. We stand still in this latter phase. As the origins of revolt and the rise of radical Islam in the country took shape as a response, it is worth pursuing what it is that went wrong with the Saur Revolution reforms.

The People’s Democratic Party for Afghanistan (PDPA) unfurled eight reform decrees between April 1978 and the December 1979 Soviet invasion. The first three decrees – establishing the PDPA leader as head of state, abolishing the previous constitution and forming new civilian and military court systems – were met with little notice by most Afghans living outside of Kabul. The fourth decree to establish a red Afghan flag, on the other hand, did spark protest, pointing to some rising resistance to Communist rule. Nevertheless, decree five met with little consequence again, mattering mostly for the 23 people it stripped of citizenship, though the larger repression it signaled would touch many more. The first handful of reforms was either innocuous or useful for the PDPA alone. The three further reforms held much broader and deeper influence on Afghans.

Reform decree number six canceled debts and mortgages owed from small-hold farmers and landless peasants to large landowners. This in principle held potentially positive results for the majority of Afghans. Yet what the reform ill considered was that, in return to debt repayment, the wealthy gave the poor seed, fertilizer and equipment as agricultural inputs. Decree seven gave equal rights to women and abolished the bride-groom price. Similarly, on the surface, this was a positive move for society, but the cost of the reform was to rob brides of reserve cash in case of divorce. Decree number eight was on land reform, though it apparently meant more lands for the PDPA, appropriated without compensation.

These three latter reforms failed to be implemented with the intention to further the country’s development. They instead smacked of an elite garnering favors and blindly applying Marxist-Leninist ideologies. The revolt against them took speed when PDPA activists forced reform into the countryside. The imposition of Kabul’s authority onto Afghan values served as the breaking straw, unleashing a decade of warfare, bearing some resemblance to what ignited the 1950s Mau Mau rebellion leading to African independence movements: British intervention into the cultural affairs of Kenya’s Kikuyu to prohibit female genital cutting and promote land reform.

PDPA’s decrees six, seven and eight held the promise of good for Afghans. Applied properly, debt cancellation, women’s rights and land reform stand to benefit the many. They are, in effect, parts of larger political and social reforms shaping modernization and development in other countries—though clearly, anything done by ‘decree’ is rather a red herring. Social transformation in 1970s Afghanistan failed to produce a government in Kabul by democratic processes. If this had taken a different path, the unfolding of history, possibly as far as the fall of the Soviet State in the 1989-1991 episode, may have gone altogether differently. Little value, however, is held in untestable counterfactuals.

That failing, failed or weak states travel one-way paths to multifarious forms of destabilization is, on the other hand, less controversial. But the labels ‘failing states,’ ‘failed states’ and ‘weak states’ weren’t available in 1978, emerging only in the mid-1990s and early 2000s. It wasn’t though new academic understandings of the Afghan conflict that urged the emergence of this labeling trio. It was instead the fall of the Soviet State and entry into the ‘post-Cold War’ era.

The terms failing, failed and weak states were devolved to understand the rise of civil wars after the ‘end’ of the Cold War. This was a time that saw conflict trends between countries reverse, only to see battle fatalities within countries go on the rise. After years of application of realist thought in the study of international affairs, which generates and continues to generate many of the labels we use, we were better positioned in the late 1990s to study the internal workings of Third World states. State and society debates emerged again, with expanded study into the functionality of ‘states’ overlapping with ‘nations,’ and the drawn lines of borders on a map.

On this, two issues remain under-debated. First is how 1990s discourses failed to grasp the ways in which the Cold War shaped states, politics and conflict in the Third World, setting out effects that linger still in the aftermath of the Americo-Soviet entanglement—effects that seem to be still at play in external intervention today. The ‘post-Cold War’ phrase itself purchases little explanatory power in characterizing the 1992-2001 years anywhere, but especially in Afghanistan, not the least because many power relations limp onwards from the Cold War.

It wasn’t until after September 11th and the onset of war on terror debates that work by Mahmood Mamdani, Ahmed Rashid, Steve Coll and others began to lay the foundations for understanding the effects of Cold War intervention in Afghanistan and elsewhere—interventions performed in the sanguine name of roll-back, from each of their perspectives, of American free marketism and Soviet communism. Responding to inadequate theories devolved to trace why the events of that day occurred, the import of these histories for the study of global affairs, and for the running of foreign policies in areas affected by the hot wars of the Cold War, still demand crystallization.

The second issue eluding sufficient debate is the importance of the demise of the Soviet State for understanding South Asian states. The fall of a significant form of governance embodied in the Soviet State was met only with calls for the clash of civilizations or the triumph of democratic capitalism—a look oriented much more inward than towards understanding the dynamics presiding over Soviet state failure. Yet the key characteristics of the Soviet State as it unfolded over seven decades demand debate, for their meaning to the power structures and shapes of governance in Southwest Asia, as much for the frameworks studying state capacity. While we should not ignore the very real atrocities of repressive disappearances, economic strategies devouring entire seas, or the silencing of freedoms, posing the question remains important.

What results from overlooking these debates is the deployment of labels that mischaracterize the ‘ends’ of the Cold War and of the Soviet State, labels that do little justice to understand the period leading up to the war on terror. With that other global discourse of the first half of 2009 – the financial crisis – we may finally be in a position to massage out the mental cramps inhibiting this debate, allowing us to address issues other than globalization’s influence on GDP.

If we apply the thrust of the failing, failed and weak state labels to the history of the long Afghan war, state failure emerges as the inability to further human development, the choices and freedoms of a people. The post-September 11th administrations should be included into this framework as still symptomatic of state weakness, while ‘international community’ donor policies failed to support the advancement of a capable human development state, sharing in the perpetuation of the root causes of conflict in Afghanistan. Failure to establish conditions for social transformation thus pervade all phases of over 30 years of war: from 1978 to 2009.

Grasping state failure as the root of the Afghan conflict puts us in a position to evaluate how the Cold War limps onwards in South Asia today, in perpetuating cycles of external intervention failing to enhance state-building. The Af-Pak strategy, as defined thus far, seems to only fill the most recent looping of these cycles. Supporting military intervention in Afghanistan and now Pakistan does not signal a significant rupture from war on terror policy. One starting point is to move away from the idea that Resident Evil exists in any part of the world, or that any member of it, be it the Taliban or others, is Inherently Evil. These groups hold interests, unwieldy as some of them may be. But just as differing dynamics shape their rise and persistence, so shall they shape their decline.

If we understand the root causes of Talibanization and of September 11th as immediate consequences of state failure in Afghanistan’s history – and this failure as tightly fastened to pervasive Cold War intervention, now operating under the name of the ‘international community’ – the Swat peace talks ring hollow in the face of the Pakistani military unleashing massacre in NWFP with the argument that ‘no other choices’ are available when dealing with Evil. Moving beyond these discourses, we may be better placed to know what labels to apply, when and where, and what to do about them.

(drafted May 2009; published in South Asia magazine)