Western forces went into Afghanistan to fight Bin Laden and al-Qaeda. Thereafter, the Americans and Europeans announced that Afghanistan should become a Western-style democracy. But Bin Laden was never caught, and al-Qaeda escaped into other countries. Karzai continues as "Mayor of Kabulistan." Afghanistan's constitution will not replace Pashtunwali.
What went wrong? The aims initially proclaimed were soon forgotten or proved to be too ambitious. Bin Laden's case in particular demonstrates Western politicians' inability to keep focused. Al-Qaida remains a threat, but today it is considered a minor topic. The situation in Afghanistan has not improved. The equality of men and women is laid down in Article 22 of the Afghan Constitution; however, gender equality and other 'Western' values cannot work in a country where 90 percent of adults are illiterate. That amounts to putting the cart in front of the horse. Western countries have five lessons to learn from Afghanistan.
The first lesson: pursue long-term agendas. Stabilizing Afghanistan and defeating global terrorism takes more than a few years. Democracy has to grow slowly. Only when the first generation, which has grown up in freedom, takes over will democracy have been established successfully.
Secondly, persistency is needed in the fight against terrorism. Al-Qaeda is an ideology. Hence, it cannot be defeated by bombs, but needs to be discredited by its own actions for all time.
Lesson number three: get informed! One reason for the failure in Afghanistan is a lack of knowledge. Intelligence services failed, as very few specialists showed an interest in the country after 1989. In the twenty-first century, countries low on today's agenda can be of paramount importance tomorrow.
Fourth on the list, don't do what's politically correct! Do what's necessary. Tribal societies with cultural ideas that have grown over hundreds of years will not change overnight into the Swedish model. Decision making should not follow fads, but instead be based on the insights of professionals. Afghanistan will not become a stable country by Western standards any time soon. Solutions for Afghanistan have to be found by Afghans.
These questions will become particularly virulent after 2014. Once Afghans are on their own, we will see to what extent they have adapted to our system. Nobody can guarantee that the Afghan Constitution will survive until 2020. From a short-term perspective, the democratization of Afghanistan looks like a delightful idea. However, a system imposed by foreigners is not a stabilizing factor in the long run. Nation building has to focus strictly on pushing local elements. This cannot succeed if Afghan citizens perceive their own country as 'Westernistan.'
Politicians tend to espouse the short-term view. Informed elites have to continue pressuring them to maintain focus. This advice continues to be necessary because it is becoming increasingly difficult to set an intelligent agenda in a rapidly globalizing world. In contrast to non-state actors, the critical disadvantage of Western politicians is that they continue to be in a 'reactive' mode. Westerners reacted to 9/11 and the insurgency in Afghanistan. Developing an active decision making capability requires flat hierarchies with fast intelligence and analysis units. NATO's new 'Emerging Security Challenges Division' is a step in the right direction.
Finally, the last lesson: keep your aims realistic. Policy cannot be achieved by writing wish lists, rather by executing 'to do' lists. The motivation behind NATO's withdrawal is political expediency. After all these years, Western societies are simply exhausted. However, long-term success demands that NATO stays longer. None of its original goals will be achieved by 2014. Furthermore, the geopolitical competition in Afghanistan's neighborhood is a long-term factor that favors destabilization. What should be at the top of this Western 'to do' list? Stay and get the job done!
The crucial job for NATO in Aghanistan is to create conditions for Afghan citizens to build up their country in their own way. If this mission fails, old issues will reemerge that the West will no longer be able to solve. Western politicians need to stay focused and committed, or else they risk losing their influence over the region to Afghanistan's neighbors.
Felix Seidler is a student of political science, law and history at Wuerzburg University.
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- Exclusive Q&A with Ambassador Mark Sedwill
- Q&A with Ambassador Mark Sedwill: Part II