The presence of the international community in Kabul is heralded by the intrusive squawk of car horns. Unmarked vehicles, with darkened glass and blazing lights, force their way through the chaos of taxis, handcarts and bicycles. Armed and masked gunmen hang out of the back, waving away other vehicles, cyclists or pedestrians who dare to get too close. The convoys stir up fear – you can feel it – and loathing. Afghans in taxis and buses stop talking and stare resentfully. When the tension subsides and the traffic inches forward again, the talk is of accidents, unprovoked shootings and worse.

Six years after the signing of the Bonn agreement, which was designed to pave the way for political transition after the removal of the Taliban, many Afghans see these sinister convoys as embodying what is going wrong in their country. The impunity with which foreigners and their hired hands strut around Kabul is a clear indication of who is in charge. Civilian casualties resulting from insurgent or Nato activity are routinely denounced by Afghan officials, but reveal only the inability of the state to protect its own citizens. The nervousness with which diplomats and UN staff now emerge from their safe havens suggests that they no longer know who is a friend and who is an enemy. The rolls of razor-wire that surround public buildings across the country, along with the snipers and bodyguards who stake out official events, show that the government, like its sponsors, is protecting itself from those who hold it accountable for what it has promised but failed to deliver. It is a source of growing bitterness that foreigners, returnees from the Afghan diaspora and ex-mujahedin commanders are profiting from the business of reconstruction, while there has been little change in the lives of ordinary people. All the while, schemes are discussed in Kabul for the rescue of a country to which politicians, planners and aid workers have less and less access, and of a people whose respect the government is unable to command, and whose needs it doesn’t hear, let alone understand.

At the heart of the present crisis is the legitimacy of the Afghan state. What that might mean has shifted significantly in the course of the country’s history, but there are four essential considerations: it should be an independent and sovereign territory; maintain a balance of power between clans, tribes and ethnic groups; uphold the defence of Islam; provide security and a degree of access to basic services.

The attachment that most Afghans feel to their nation, an imagined political community that overlaps with their ethnic or tribal identity, remains strong (especially when under threat), but their loyalty to its bureaucratic embodiment, the state, is conditional. The Afghan state has remained remote from most of the population since its formation in 1747. They deal with it largely through representatives, from tribal elders to parliamentarians, who in turn provide – or deny – political legitimacy to its leadership and try to influence its actions. It’s a relationship that has to be taken seriously by anyone who aspires to rule the nation.

Despite the limits to the direct control that Kabul can exercise, the model of the modern state has remained a unitary central authority. Devolution of power has never been a significant part of Afghan political imagining, much less political practice. A strong state is needed to resist interfering neighbours, yet in the past this strength has always been bought with foreign money – at the price of outside interference. And all too often the state has used its strength against its own citizens, rather than against its neighbours. From the ‘Iron Amir’, Abdur Rahman Khan, at the turn of the 20th century, through the autocratic rule of Mohammed Daoud in the 1950s, to the Communists in the 1980s and then the Taliban, regimes that aspired to be strong have also been politically repressive (see box opposite).

The protection of territory has always been a concern for Afghan leaders. Just as the porousness of the country’s borders was essential to the anti-Soviet resistance, the sanctuary that neighbouring states offer today’s insurgents shows how difficult it is to establish the independence of Afghan territory. Despite the myth of the strong state, its leaders have rarely had authority over the entire country even in modern times; those who resisted conscription or the levying of taxes were ruled indirectly through traditional or tribal leaders, or simply left on the margins. In areas of strategic significance, control was often maintained through mercenaries, payments to tribal leaders, or the prospect of loot. For as long as resources were available, a degree of control was possible. From the mid-19th century, British subsidies propped up a succession of Afghan rulers who, in return, refrained from challenging imperial strategy in the region. There had been resistance to perceived intrusions onto Afghan soil before Amanullah’s victory over the British in 1919, but it was arguably at this time that Afghan nationalism emerged as a force.

The loss of independence that came with Soviet occupation in 1979 cost the Communist government whatever legitimacy it might have had. Riding on the international condemnation of the Soviet invasion, the mujahedin were able to portray their resistance to the occupation as the basis of their own legitimacy, while Mohammad Najibullah, the last of the Afghan Communist leaders (he was president from 1986 until 1992), used the presence of foreigners among the mujahedin to justify his defence of the ‘homeland’. Although at the time the US government showed no particular interest in the fact that foreign Muslims were fighting alongside the mujahedin – the US after all used Saudi Arabia and the Pakistani ISI to funnel significant political and material support to the mujahedin throughout the 1980s – by the autumn of 2001 the need to defend Afghan sovereignty from foreign fighters had become part of the US’s justification for toppling the Taliban. Since then, in words that echo the last days of the Najibullah regime, setbacks have routinely been attributed by government spokesmen to ‘foreign hands’. While no one would doubt the very real threat to the regime and its supporters posed by cross-border incursions, Afghans can be forgiven for wondering what they have gained by having forty thousand foreign troops stationed on their soil, nearly two-thirds of which is now effectively outside government control.

A balance of power between tribes and ethnic groups is essential for the maintenance of a strong state. When sources of cash to pay off restless tribes dried up in the mid-19th century, the state’s attempts to raise additional revenue through domestic taxation were resisted, especially in rural areas. The British were at first able to buy off the Afghan elite and tribal leaders by introducing administrative reforms aimed at consolidating the state and creating a centralised army, but they paid the price for upsetting the balance of power. An uprising of the eastern tribes and the clergy led to a massacre of British troops in 1842 as they retreated from Kabul towards Jalalabad. Subsequent rulers managed to retain some of the British reforms, and thereby to exercise more effective territorial control while balancing the power of the tribes, but they still had to pay bribes in the form of ‘subsidies’.

External support also played a critical role in the 1980s as factional fighters, on the one hand, and government militias, on the other, were paid to defend the uneasy balance of power between ‘liberated’ and ‘occupied’ territory. The unsuccessful coup of 1990, in which the hardline Communist General Tanai tried to join forces with members of his tribe who belonged to the fundamentalist Hizbe Islami mujahedin group, showed that blood ties could run deeper than ideology. But it was cash (or an absence of it), not ideology, that in 1992 ushered in an administration made up of mujahedin factions; the trigger was the defection to the mujahedin of General Dostum, a key government ally from an Uzbek militia, because Kabul was unable to keep up its payments.

No single leader was able to rise above the fray and the factional struggle had lethal consequences for tens of thousands of civilians in Kabul and the surrounding area. When, after more than four years of civil war, the Taliban emerged, they were initially welcomed by a weary population. Over time, however, the Afghans overwhelmingly came to believe that the Taliban were seeking to impose on the country an alien, less tolerant identity, unrecognisable even to many of their Pashtun compatriots. With only the fractious former mujahedin to oppose them, it took foreign intervention finally to topple the Taliban.

According to the agreement signed in Bonn in 2001 the transition process was to lead to a ‘broad-based, gender-sensitive, multi-ethnic and fully representative’ government. This was a tall order, and it didn’t help that disaffected Taliban and mujahedin commanders were emboldened by the pay-offs they received for agreeing not to stand in the way of international forces in 2001. Those responsible for the transition clearly believed that it was better to co-opt than to alienate potential spoilers, especially since the transition timetable was so demanding. But the hope that the factional leaders, including those who joined the ‘United Front’ against the Taliban, would in time be marginalised by more democratic forces has proved misplaced: they continue to hold the country to ransom, demanding repayment for the sacrifice they made.

The human cost of the struggle against the Soviet occupation was undoubtedly great, but the investments that former factional leaders – mercenaries such as General Dostum and Baba Jan and their families and camp-followers – have made in real estate in Kabul and Dubai since 2001 suggest that they have reaped rich dividends from their ‘sacrifice’. Far from neutralising the factions, the transition seems to have secured a place in the new power structure for people whom many Afghans have more reason to fear than respect. Ustad Sayyaf, for example, whose Ittihad-i-Islami fighters were responsible for massacring civilians in Kabul in the early 1990s, made sure that a clause was inserted into the draft constitution of early 2004 to the effect that no Afghan law ‘can be contrary to the beliefs and provisions of the sacred religion of Islam’, and forced Hamid Karzai to appoint his close ally Fazil Hadi Shinwari as head of the Supreme Court.

The defence of Islam has served as a rallying-cry for Afghan leaders since long before Ahmad Shah’s attempts to dislodge the Hindu dynasty from Peshawar in the 18th century. It has also provided religious conservatives with a pretext to remove leaders whom they perceive as a threat to their faith or their interests. During the Soviet occupation the mujahedin portrayed the Kabul government as one of godless Communists, and Najibullah responded by appearing regularly on television consulting religious scholars or attending prayers. The men who vied so bitterly for power in the subsequent mujahedin-led administration also used faith to justify their actions, as did the Taliban, whose stated goal was to return Afghanistan to their vision of a ‘pure’ Islam. In late 2001, the disintegrating Taliban administration’s claims to be the true defender of the faith were not taken seriously, but they now sound increasingly plausible to Afghans troubled by mounting civilian casualties and resentful of the clumsy intrusions of foreign troops, especially into the highly conservative communities on the front-line of the conflict. Aware of the potency of the Taliban’s message, the government in Kabul has struggled to portray suicide-bombing as contrary to Islamic teaching, while at the same time making it a priority to invest in madrasas.

The Afghan administration has to retain the loyalty of conservative elements if the lid is to be kept on restive rural areas, but it also needs the support of the powerful business mafia dominated by Dubai and US-based Afghans, including relatives of members of Karzai’s cabinet. This, though, risks alienating both the Afghan technocrats on whom its effectiveness as a modern state relies and the foreign governments that are bankrolling the reconstruction process. It would be a difficult balance for any new administration to maintain, and it doesn’t help that Karzai is widely seen as indecisive and at the mercy of a cabal of self-interested advisers.

Meanwhile, the failure of the government, and of its international allies, to ensure basic security is the single most important cause of public disaffection in Afghanistan. The focus of international attention is the rising number of Nato casualties and the ‘collateral’ loss of civilian lives as a result of aerial bombing; the UN reports that 314 civilians were killed by international and Afghan government forces in the first six months of 2007, while 279 civilians were killed by insurgents. Afghans themselves can be heard saying that everyday life is beginning to resemble the dark, lawless days of the civil war in the early 1990s. They had been accustomed in previous times of conflict to hearing friends casually describe their experience of extortion, kidnapping and robbery, but now such accounts are tinged with anger at the fact that the same crimes are often carried out by men in uniform who drive vehicles and bear arms supplied by the international community. An acquaintance of mine, attending a funeral in Kandahar a few weeks ago, overheard a conversation about the price policemen manning a checkpost outside the city were exacting for supplying, by mobile phone, an hourly log of outgoing vehicles to criminal or anti-government groups, thereby enabling them to intercept ‘high-value assets’ down the road. In the face of growing predation and corruption, Afghans don’t need to be coaxed into joining the Taliban.

Contrary to what is said in the international media, the Afghan ‘badlands’ are not confined to the deserts of Helmand. Even the Ministry of Defence acknowledges that after dusk it loses control of the stretch of highway leading south from Kabul towards Ghazni. A growing number of attacks on government targets in urban areas are thought to be inside jobs, orchestrated by disaffected members of the Northern Alliance trying to demonstrate their indispensability, or settling scores. Some Afghans believe that the occasional improvised explosive device helps elements within the police or the army to make the case for yet more vehicles and yet more weapons with which to keep the peace. Competition to protect the burgeoning narcotics industry is also set to intensify when US-driven plans to eradicate the poppy fields get underway. The UN reports that the number of provinces free of opium cultivation has increased from six to 12 in the past year, but trafficking continues to generate handsome profits. The trade is so lucrative that an appointment as police chief in key border provinces is said to cost several hundred thousand dollars – payable to corrupt officials in the Ministry of the Interior.

Since the 1960s external aid has been an important way for outsiders to gain influence. West and East initially competed with each other by investing in an array of development initiatives until, with the Soviet occupation, Eastern Bloc aid to the Kabul government was pitched against Western and Arab support for the mujahedin. Many international aid agencies joined the Western effort, competing in their turn for the protection of local mujahedin commanders while – often inadvertently – contributing to the fragmentation of the Afghan state. The fractious administration that laid claim to Kabul in 1992 was only too happy for aid agencies to offer humanitarian support, but in the late 1990s, when the provision of aid to the ‘presumptive’ Taliban regime was made conditional on its maintenance of respect for basic rights, offers of increased aid failed to persuade the regime to reconsider its practices.

All notions of conditionality were forgotten in the euphoria that followed the Taliban’s removal. Everything seemed possible, and international agencies took the lead in devising ambitious plans for the country’s reconstruction. Six years later, having received some $15 billion in assistance, with an additional $6 billion or more recently approved by the US House of Representatives, Afghanistan is awash with resources. The government, which hadn’t delivered services on a national scale for thirty years or more, was not at first involved in planning and implementing the majority of rehabilitation projects. Aid agencies scrambled to win contracts from foreign governments anxious to be seen to be assisting the Afghan people. The sheer scale of the aid effort initially helped build public confidence in the transition, and it’s true that there have been significant achievements in parts of the country, but early hopes have given way to widespread disillusion followed by anger at the extent of the corruption and waste.

Access to state-provided goods and services has become a source of political power, as it was under the Soviets, although this power is now held mostly by social networks drawn from the (largely US-based) Afghan diaspora, often acting in league with factional interests. The government, which insists that the state, rather than UN agencies and NGOs, should be seen to deliver services, has in recent years managed to pressure donors into channelling more of their assistance through the national budget. (Civil servants want at least to look as though they are in charge.) Yet the people in Kabul who make decisions about reconstruction – whether foreign advisers or Afghans recently returned from elsewhere – often have little understanding of the realities on the ground, or the priorities of people with whom they have little contact.

As the territory in which the state can function effectively diminishes, aid is increasingly being represented to the Afghan public as part of its defence. For the majority who have had little stake in the reconstruction business, and have seen precious little improvement in their lives, official announcements of yet more pledges of assistance ring hollow. The geography of aid is paramount, just as it was under the Soviets. ‘I have money, lots of money,’ the minister of rural rehabilitation told local leaders after the recapture of Musa Qala in Helmand province. ‘Just ask for as much as you need.’ The logic seems to be that the creation of pockets of relative security will enable development to take root, and persuade the population that the government and its international allies can be a force for good. This is unlikely, however, as long as security is seen as being enforced by foreigners, rather than negotiated by Afghans.

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