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.


Comparing Afghan Apples With Vietnamese Oranges, or Why There Is No Solution For Afghanistan

Once upon a time, not too long ago, there would have been a solution for Afghanistan, one that had a realistic chance of success. “Success” would have meant a stabilization of the modest gains made during the first three of the post-war years (2002-2004), and the “solution” would have looked roughly as follows: a highly focused international agenda for development that takes local preferences seriously and prioritizes micro-level economic recovery and public health interventions over laudable but utterly unrealistic “all-in-one” notions of human development, ignorant of inherent tensions between traditional and modern constituencies; basic democratization from below (Roland Paris was right yet even more emphasis needs to be put on the local dimension); and a pragmatic regional strategy of political accommodation of all radical stakeholders, not just those in the Northern Alliance, both within the country and around its borders.

But in a tragic parallel to the botched interventions in Iraq and East Timor, a tiny piece of newly independent soil misunderstood and misgoverned by the United Nations following the aftermath of its secession from Indonesia, it came otherwise. Under pressure to show results of hurried efforts, the development industry kept complicitly silent when Afghanistan, too, was declared a success story early on. “Afghan women shed their burqas” was one among thousands of captions epitomizing the hope of international observers for the country. The acute crisis in Iraq overshadowed a looming crisis in Afghanistan and zapped away critical resources, glossing over “increasing frustration and anger from a population which once saw the international intervention in Afghanistan as a source of hope.” Today, even those few female members of the Afghan Lower House who had been declared role models and examples of a new Afghanistan advocate for a complete and immediate withdrawal of U.S. military forces.

Too late did international strongmen stationed in Kabul realize that the discussion of whether or not the Taliban should be brought into the realm of a political settlement was a smokescreen behind which the sitting Afghan president was crafting his very own patronage politics. Today, “there is no solution for Afghanistan without a solution for Pakistan,” writes Robert Kaplan (hardly the reincarnation of a dove) in The Atlantic. “There is no solution for Afghanistan without Iran,” adds an EU think tank. All the while, Afghans keep dying, and with them an increasing number of foreign soldiers.

In the wake of President Obama’s much-awaited decision to further increase the presence of U.S. troops in the country, we are being assured that Afghanistan is not the new Vietnam [one is tempted to add that in the long run, this would almost amount to a positive scenario]. “Unlike Vietnam, we are joined by a broad coalition of 43 nations that recognizes the legitimacy of our action,” the President points out. “Unlike Vietnam, we are not facing a broad-based popular insurgency. And most importantly, unlike Vietnam, the American people were viciously attacked from Afghanistan, and remain a target for those same extremists who are plotting along its border.” Clearly no one envies Obama’s position, inherited from an incompetent and unwilling previous administration. But his audacity of hope for Afghanistan is tragically misguided.

What matters much more than similarities or differences between the old and new Vietnam scenarios is the West’s overconfidence in the power of policies, which in turn is conditioned on the creation and maintenance of a military ‘safe zone’ for development. This approach of militarily enforced human progress already failed once, just that the United States in that case happened to support stasis against change. Indeed, to suggest that Afghanistan has followed a historical path distinct from Vietnam’s ignores that not even thirty years ago, modernism and socialism in Afghan politics were one and the same. City-based leftist progressive parties were pitted against rural conservative interests which received heavy backing by the Reagan administration, carving out faultlines of conflict that underpin today’s radicalized landscape. The failure of the Afghan communist experiment did not mean the triumph of pseudo-democratic capitalism but the victory of revisionism.

The international mission in Afghanistan will not fail because of a lack of a broad coalition. It will fail, and in the course of its failure many more will fall, because external forces and the international development industry’s policy machinery are too far removed from the history and reality of Afghan lives.  To Afghans in Khost, Kunduz and Kandahar, the fact that “the American people were viciously attacked from Afghanistan” must sound cynical at best. In the short run, it may well serve to justify sending even more troops. But Afghanistan’s domestic problems, created and exacerbated by the international “community” prior, during and after the reign of the Taliban, will outlast any officially declared deadline for peace.

New Article in Critical Planning

The key questions that I am posing in this article are: how can we explain city-level politics in two countries located at the very fringes of global capitalism, and how can a resulting reconfigured theoretical framework be integrated into an international comparative urban research agenda.

Contemporary Sierra Leone and Afghanistan present major structural differences compared to highly industrialized settings, as their main cities have not been sites of capitalist production. At the same time, both countries have recently experienced major international interventions in the context of intra-state wars. I show how these two characteristics render the explanatory power of established theories of urban politics deficient.

I then examine key features of recent political restructuring in Freetown and Kabul. I pay specific attention to the incentive structures that have resulted from recent international interventions and how they shape urban politics. I illustrate how these incentives steer resource flows and forge new poles of accumulation and control—both within the respective settings and outside of them—to the detriment of local policy space.

I thus show that while the starting point for theory reformulation remains the urban context, a crucial conceptual challenge is to capture the alliances between national and international institutions and organizations, and to examine how they influence city-level politics. I ultimately argue that multiscalar governance as a theoretical approach is applicable to cities in conflict zones only if it integrates an analysis of international politics as a major determinant of local urban politics.

Afghanistan Commentary on Swedish Radio

For the Swedish speakers among you, check out Marcus Hansson’s 20-minute feature on Afghanistan’s botched reconstruction, broadcast on September 2, 2009 on Swedish Radio 1.

It includes interviews with several international observers. For instance, Antonio Donini at the Fletcher School comments on the aid industry and the discrepancy between its global mobility and its lack of effectiveness.

In my contribution (16min 52sec – 18min 08sec), I focus on the local dimension, highlighting how supposedly ‘bottom up’ processes of ‘local empowerment’ were in reality almost entirely driven by donors.

Racial Discrimination at the World Bank: New GAP Report

Last week, the Government Accountability Project (GAP) released a report that investigates and finds evidence of racial discrimination against black professional grade employees at the World Bank. The report, which documents the treatment of these employees in recruitment, retention and internal judicial decisions, finds that a race ceiling exists at the institution, and that the Bank’s legal system fails to address racial discrimination adequately.

Specifically, the report details that of over 3,500 professional grade World Bank staff worldwide (more than 1,000 of whom are US Americans), there are only four black US Americans. In addition, the report details how other black bank staff, such as black Caribbean nationals and black African employees, are also underrepresented.

Download the full report here. With thanks to Barika Williams at MIT for sharing.

Afghanistan: A Victory for Women – A Defeat of Democracy?

The Afghan Ministry of Justice has presented a revised version of a new law regulating marital affairs for the country’s Shi’ite minority. Many of its previous medieval provisions have been scrapped. No longer does it prescribe the frequency of sexual activity that Shi’ite women in Afghanistan would have had to observe, thus practically legalizing domestic rape; no longer does it allow men to prevent their wives from leaving the compounds where they live.

This is great news for Afghanistan’s Shi’ite women and for women living under repression, religious or otherwise, more generally. But the process also provides reason for concern.

US-installed Afghan President Karzai had in fact quietly signed the earlier version of the law, apparently hoping that it would win him the support of Shi’ite voters in the forthcoming presidential election in September. With women formally allowed to vote, Karzai did not seem overly concerned that while some Shi’ite men might have found their extended rights to subdue their wives appealing, most Shi’ite women might have retaliated by voting for other candidates.

In fact, at least in theory one could have expected a zero effect of this political move: male votes in favor canceled out by female votes against. This, of course, presumes that Afghan women vote in accordance with their preferences. More realistically, the President’s decision points to the continuing precarity of women in Afghanistan. Most of them illiterate, we must assume that a large percentage follows the political choices of their husbands. The photos depicting Afghan women ridding themselves of their burqas following the US-led invasion may not have been staged; yet they clearly do not represent the dire existence of most women who survived almost three decades of large-scale violence.

Of equal concern is the political dimension of this legislative revision. According to the BBC, Afghan “Justice Minister Sarwar Danesh said the changes had been made following complaints by human-rights groups.” The truth is that is was the international ‘community’ that reacted with outrage to the content of the initial version. US President Obama expressed deep concerns; NATO threatened with serious consequences, and numerous European heads of state intervened personally to prevent the law’s ratification and application.

This political pressure was surely justified on human rights-grounds. At the same time, it has added momentum to the widely held perception among Afghans that democracy is a system of government that opens the door for values and rules alien to what local traditions dictate. One might argue that in times of globalization, global norms and values must inform national laws and codes. Yet the Afghan President’s initial support of the repressive law as well as the angry demonstrations of conservative Shi’ites following the international protest seem to indicate that friction is unavoidable. In this case, Afghanistan’s dependence on international aid clearly overpowered local political deliberation. Put simply, the internationally induced revision of the law is a prime example of external social reengineering against the backdrop of a shallow democracy.

A new law governing family affairs for the Afghanistan’s Sunni majority is also in the making. It will be instructive to observe whose political motives and social values will prevail this time: Afghan or foreign.

Becoming a Diplomat: A Choice Unbecoming of a Critical Mind?

I recently gave a keynote speech at a high school in the Bronx, NY for which I had been asked to offer some reflections on the career choice of becoming a diplomat. Note that becoming a diplomat was in fact one of my professional aspirations. Upon joining the UN however, I found the reality of bureaucratic routine rather sobering. I am sketching some of the systemic reasons below. Ultimately [years down the road, that is] these soundbites are supposed to feed into a book-length manuscript on organizational theory in international affairs, using the UN as a rich case study. Therefore, comments are not only welcome (as usual) but strongly encouraged.

One of the most striking inherent contradictions of the profession of diplomacy as I came to see it is that it tends to attract the brightest young people [I exclude myself here] who then volunteer to become muted and streamlined into ideologies and goals they rarely admired in the first place. International diplomacy in general and multilateral diplomacy in colorful conferences in particular tends to attract idealists, even though realists fare much better in the windowless world of meeting rooms, dispatches, and backroom deals.

At the same time, bureaucracies require specialization to manage complexity; this is in fact one of their defining features. Yet most international diplomats are decidedly generalist, and new recruits are screened accordingly. This mismatch lies at the core of what could be called a system of ‘meritocratic mediocrity’.  Diplomats are chosen for breadth, not depth, and therefore rarely understand local contexts well enough to justify their agenda-setting role in international politics.

Moreover, the context in which conventional diplomacy is taking place renders it highly anachronistic. Global diplomacy is firmly dependent on upward accountability (see also the ‘Independent Diplomat‘ by Carne Ross). Reports, memos, case scenarios are sent ‘up’ for decision-making, not down, even though most stakeholders are located ‘down here’. The core problem is thus the definition of stakeholder. When the UN holds its umpteenth global conference, genuinely poor people are flown in to represent ‘the poor’ everywhere. The Voices of the Poor are collected in massive primary research exercises. But decision-making power is rarely shared. Participation is, in reality, consultation at best. So how can diplomacy play a positive role for change if it merely listens on occasion?

In sum, becoming a diplomat today is probably best compared to being ordained as a priest: preaching values that are widely shared but regularly broken; defending positions that are strategically compelling but increasingly seldom in tune with ordinary lives; and bathing in public respect and recognition while coping with personal realities of seduction and sin. The key difference is that one profession serves the divine; the other serves the profane. Surely there are alternative ways, and professions, to do more good in this world.

‘Let me tell you what to think’: Discourse and the Limits of Democracy

The German pollster agency TNS Emnid recently broke the news that the majority (57%) of East German respondents among the total 1,208 Germans in all 16 federal states asked about their views of the bygone German Democratic Republic (GDR) agreed with the statement that the GDR ‘had more positive than negative aspects’ and that although ‘there were some problems, one could live there rather well.’

8% of East Germans even agreed that ‘the GDR had predominantly positive aspects’ and that ‘one lived a happier and better life there than in reunified Germany.’ Thus almost two thirds of East Germans polled for this survey indicated mildly or strongly favorable views of what in official political language is commonly termed the ‘Unrechtsstaat’ (State of Injustice).

The reaction followed promptly. This “misty-eyed view” among East Germans of the GDR had to be countered with more effective public education and awareness campaigns, a member of the German federal cabinet argued, agreeing with a state-level minister who posited that the results demonstrated an “emotional anti-position to the present.”

This outrage at yet another indicator of a strong ‘Ostalgie‘ (nostalgia for the East) may not be surprising to those who have been following the persistent social and economic divisions between the ‘new’ and the ‘old Laender’. Yet to me it came as a strange reminder of a series of assertions that another prominent regime change was, in fact, justified.

Think Iraq. Former Foreign Secretary Rice is notorious for defending the second US-led invasion. Former President Bush never moved an inch from this position either. His deputy even bothered to air his unrelenting view of the matter after the administration that he co-led had already imploded amid the weight of botched political decision-making.

Another telling example of a discourse designed to mute alternative views comes straight from the European Union. Here, a machinery of well-heeled bureaucrats in Brussels promotes a vision of an intertwined and de-facto united Europe – never mind persistent public skepticism against a European Constitution in important EU member states such as France or The Netherlands. Fearing similar public rejection, German politicians cowardly opted for a closed parliamentary process rather than a referendum.

Why is it that in democratic systems, which supposedly encourage public participation and rule of a consensual majority, politicians see a need to claim sovereignty over interpretive airspace? Why do we so easily replace the complexities of individual realities and experiences with a monochromatic message of good or bad?

I have three preliminary thoughts to offer on this observation. While not answers to the questions posed above, they help me recognize the relevance of such discursive discrepancies for international politics more broadly.

First, I believe that they are strongly indicative of a class conflict that many have thought to be a thing of the past. Be it the economically excluded in East Germany, the target(ed) population in Iraq or those with a strong sense of national self-defense amid the recent history of European warfare, they are pitted against the more affluent movers and shakers of the global political economy.

We are also witnessing a case of media schizophrenia which is central to the processes of opinion formation in modern societies. The potential to discover and report complex realities clashes with an increasing demand for–and, as a result, supply of–simple ‘truths’.  And finally, the development of such simple mechanisms as an inherent feature of our so-called ‘modern’ democracies does not bode well for the agenda of democracy promotion in areas of the world where, as we often choose to portray it, the public is excluded from policy-making. Far from it: the challenge posed by discursive hegemonies is as real right here as it may be ‘over there’.

UN: The Tragic Triviality of Dilettantism

In the most recent issue of Foreign Policy, Jacob Heilbrunn writes that Ban Ki-moon is ‘the Nowhere Man’ since he is nowhere to be seen on the global stage. He even calls Mr. Ban the ‘most dangerous Korean’, thus elevating him above Kim Jong Il, the little-understood ruler of the northern part of the divided Korean peninsula.

Heilbrunn’s frontal attack against the current UN General Secretary is not really surprising for someone who is a senior editor at the right-wing National Interest. His likening of Mr. Ban to a dictator is just plain tasteless. His text is beaming with factual inaccuracies and presumably deliberate distortions of facts.

Yet what left me truly troubled is that despite its acidity and baseness, Heilbrunn’s op-ed is a truly refreshing read.

“Even in [the] unimpressive company [of the late former Nazi Kurt Waldheim, Boutros Boutros Ghali and most recently Kofi Annan who led the UN Peacekeeping branch when the Rwanda genocide took place],” Heilbrunn cauterizes,

Ban Ki-moon appears to have set the standard for failure. It’s not that Ban has committed any particularly egregious mistakes in his 2½ years on the job. But at a time when global leadership is urgently needed, when climate change and international terrorism and the biggest financial crisis in 60 years might seem to require some—any!—response, the former South Korean foreign minister has instead been trotting the globe collecting honorary degrees, issuing utterly forgettable statements, and generally frittering away any influence he might command. He has become a kind of accidental tourist, a dilettante on the international stage.

What is so remarkable about this assessment is that it was to be expected when Mr. Ban was appointed. Heilbrunn mentions how former Secretary of State Rice championed his candidacy, but he conveniently omits the main reason – namely that the Administration of Bush junior considered Annan’s succession a major opportunity to paralyze the UN. Looking at the role of the organization in the most recent global crisis, it seems that this plan is working rather well. Even The Economist agrees that Mr. Ban’s performance at mid-point is wanting.

This sobering stocktaking exercise does of course beg the question whether or not a new Secretary General can turn the UN around. Heilbrunn seems to suggest that charismatic and passionate leaders wield the power to steer the blue bureaucracy down the right routes. Republicans have always been sympathetic with the idea of a strong leader, so this argument, too, should not surprise anyone. (That Heilbrunn has retained this faith in spite of recent political developments in the United States may be more astonishing.)

Skepticism is indeed warranted. The UN reform towards ‘delivering as one’ is stalling (it never got very far in the first place); the organization’s recruitment practices remain muddled and its internal decision-making and priority setting highly obscure. The rise of less-than-democratic countries such as China and Russia to the round table of global economic politics is curtailing the UN’s influence further.

So, will things improve significantly with a new bureaucrat at the helm of the global diplomatic apparatus? Probably not.

The good news is: it can hardly get worse.