Distributed January 2002
Copyright ©2002 by Alexander Thier and Jarat Chopra

Op-Ed Editor: Mark Nickel
About 700 Words

Alexander Thier and Jarat Chopra

Rebuild the government and Afghans will rebuild their country

The way to support Afghanistan’s evolution to peaceful representative government is to bind the Afghan people to the government and the government to the people. Money and experts can help, but the majority of the work cannot be done without the people’s support and cooperation.

As the world’s wealthy nations meet in Tokyo January 21 and 22 to discuss Afghanistan’s reconstruction needs, they face a conundrum. In theory, they want to pledge billions to rebuild Afghanistan. In practice, no one knows who should get the money or how it should be spent.

What is certain is that a dual strategy is needed that focuses simultaneously on local villages and the national capital. Rebuilding central institutions at the cost of the countryside would simply exclude the population from the reconstruction effort. The result would be an imbalance of power, multiple economies for the new rich and the old poor, non-sustainability, and then more war.

The Afghan people, the Afghan interim government and the international donor community all agree that the Afghans must be the masters of their political and reconstruction destiny. However, rebuilding Afghanistan requires peace, security, skilled human resources and cash – all things the international community is reluctant to provide to the country’s nascent and unstable political institutions. The key question is: How can the international community foster a new culture of governance while spending money effectively?

The reluctance to throw money at the interim administration is well-founded. Afghanistan is lawless. Security in most parts of the country is not under the control of the central government or any accountable authority. The few trained civil servants remaining in the country are likely to be wooed away to work for international organizations at much higher salaries. As long as armed conflict between opposing factions continues, the leadership will not be so concerned about stopping ministerial minions from commandeering donated cars, pilfering stationery, and more. And with so few resources available in the country, competition to control reconstruction funds between rivals will be fierce. The influx of funds might be not only ineffective, but it could actually exacerbate tensions.

At the same time, the idea of placing the reconstruction effort under international control is also irreconcilably flawed. We have repeatedly learned from past post-conflict reconstruction and development efforts that programs which exclude the people they are intended to help are neither effective nor maintained. Unless indigenous capacity to plan, build and maintain the results is used from the start, everything will crumble when U.N. agencies and NGOs roll on to the next hotspot. And roll on they will.

Afghan control over the reconstruction effort is not only preferable. It is necessary.

Therein lies the solution to the conundrum. The reconstruction effort must sufficiently fund governing functions and rely on local institutions for implementation.

Afghanistan needs a government, and governments aren’t free. No one likes to pay for overhead, but donors must understand that unless they pay for the managers, everything else they pay for will disappear. The government must be composed of small offices – with a presence throughout the country – with training and decent salaries set as priorities.

Secondly, the basic idea of government must be inculcated into this effort. The role of representative government is to harness the collective will and power of the people. We must ensure that the government is able to fulfill that function instead of destroying the power of its people, as has been the case for at least the last 23 years. The only way to develop trust in government in a fractured society like Afghanistan’s is to allow government to flourish at home – in the villages. While successive invaders and warlords have been fighting, local people have been governing themselves. This demonstrated self-reliance must become the engine of reconstruction.

Therefore, the way to support Afghanistan’s evolution to peaceful representative government – while also getting the country back on its feet – is to bind the Afghan people to the government and the government to the people. Afghans will be invested in their government if it proves accountable during reconstruction. They will support it if its institutions and programs belong to them. Similarly, the only way the government will succeed in the political and physical reconstruction effort is with the support of the people. In every village there is back-breaking, bank-breaking work to be done. Money and experts can help, but the majority of this work cannot be done without the cooperation and support of the people.

Alexander Thier was formerly a U.N. official in Afghanistan and is currently an attorney in San Francisco. Jarat Chopra is a faculty member at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies and was formerly a U.N. official in East Timor. Thier and Chopra are coauthors of the recent report, Considerations for Political and Institutional Reconstruction in Afghanistan.

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