Money, Lots of Money

Jolyon Leslie

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).

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