Politicophobia: How the UN Fails Afghanistan

In a parliamentary democracy with a president at the executive helm, it is one of the former’s most critical prerogatives to review, approve or potentially reject the latter’s cabinet. This is the procedure followed in the U.S. and many other countries in the world. Even the otherwise weak European Parliament in Strasbourg retains the right to vote on cabinet positions. So when the same mechanism was written into the new constitution for Afghanistan, it was conceptually justifiable and indeed, international best practice.

But not if one asks the United Nations. Because the core of democracy, the peaceful settlement of conflicting interests, is way too messy a process for the well-meaning world body. “I think most of us were surprised at how many ministers were not approved by the parliament,” UN head of mission Kai Eide told journalists in Kabul after 70 percent of President Karzai’s nominees had been rejected by the 200 or so delegates. Eide considered this outcome a “setback and it’s a distraction [as it] prolongs the situation without a functioning government, which has lasted since summer. […] It’s particularly worrying in a country in conflict, where you have so many challenges and need to focus attention on urgent reform programmes.”

The UN’s preference for shallow political reforms could not be put more succinctly. “Democracy” (or whatever local politics is officially labeled in a given setting) must not interfere with the real work of “urgent reform programmes.” Development in Afghanistan is thus reinvented as an apolitical enterprise which needs to be protected from political interests expressed by elected representatives of the people. Maybe the UN is embracing a quirky kind of realism: if we cannot even organize free and fair elections, then why worry about the people who get elected? But quite possibly, its position is indicative of something else: that the organization has now completely lost its compass in the country.

In the heyday of Afghanistan’s short-lived recovery, Brynen (2005: 246) warned that it would “be ludicrous, however, if Afghanistan were held to a level of apolitical economic planning that would be alien to most donor countries or UN member states.” But already then, Heffron (2004: 65) could point to the irony of coalitions between “local recidivist forces […] with apolitical, neoliberal” outsiders creating a Central Asian outpost of Home Depots and halal McDonald’s and conveniently forgetting about centuries of tribal conflicts. It seems that the United Nations under Kai Eide’s troubled leadership is still buying into this logic.

The UN’s naive notion of a secular Afghan civil society that balances and checks the power of an internationally propped-up narco-state has completed yet another spin. Not only does politics in Afghanistan have to be free from religious influences; it also needs to be free from politicians. Politicophobia is coming full circle. Once again, we need to rely on Afghans themselves to offer sensible interpretations of the political dynamics. “This outcome was a wake-up call,” said Shukria Barakzai, a parliament member from Kabul. “It means the [parliament members] are thinking differently, and they want real change in the governance of the country.”

The challenge will be to achieve this change despite the UN’s presence.

Brynen, Rex (2005), Donor Assistance: Lessons from Palestine for Afghanistan, in: Junne, Gerd and Willemijn Verkoren (eds.), Postconflict development: meeting new challenges, Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, pp. 223-248.

Heffron, John M. (2004), Between reconstruction and restoration: three historical case studies, in: Montgomery, John D. and Dennis A. Rondinelli (eds.), Beyond reconstruction in Afghanistan: lessons from development experience, New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 53-74.

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