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Distorted idea of statehood

As the example of Afghanistan shows, globalisation problems hit societies in crisis particularly hard. Nevertheless, the international community keeps on trying to repair statehood in the conventional sense regardless of global challenges. [ By Hans Dembowski ]

Since 11 September 2001 at the latest, fragile states have been a focus of international policymaking. After terrorists orchestrated attacks in New York and Washington from the rugged terrain and deeply fissured human landscape of Afghanistan, ministers of defence and foreign affairs in rich countries discovered an issue previously only of concern to development ministers: How can living conditions in poor countries be improved and stabilised?

For that purpose, however, traditional notions of statehood are no longer entirely appropriate in our era of globalisation. Sovereignty in the sense of governments exercising sole authority over what goes on in their territory is being eroded. National borders do not block business, communications and other societal relevant activity.

There is accordingly a growing need for international regulation. Governments can no longer decide and implement policy on their own. Increasingly, intergovernmental regimes are being established. National governments can only influence such regimes to some degree. But whether they implement such rules – and if so, how and with what success – has massive consequences for their countries.

It is impossible to create institutions capable of performing such complex tasks in haste. A well-functioning state according to the Western model cannot be established overnight.

The example of Afghanistan shows the special urgency of globalisation in fragile states. It is often said that President Hamid Karzai is “only the mayor of Kabul” because his power does not extend beyond the city limits. What such criticism does not consider, however, is that globalisation tends to network big cities, typically causing urban and rural life to drift apart.
Why should that be any different in Afghanistan than in India? Or Germany? Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh considers Maoist rebels (“Naxalites”) operating deep in the heartland of his country an underestimated threat. And even in Germany, there are provincial areas where the threat of Neonazi violence puts in doubt the Federal Republic’s monopoly of force to an extent inconceivable in multicultural Frankfurt and Hamburg, hubs of globalisation.

Multilateral policymaking also fails to take account of regional dimensions. Pakistan and Afghanistan are two countries and thus treated separately. But Pushtuns – the ethno-linguistic group that produces the most dangerous fundamentalists at present – live on both sides of the border. In the past, these community ties were consciously exploited. First, Washington wanted to strengthen resistance against Soviet occupation, later Islamabad wanted to control the civil war on its border.

During those decades, Afghanistan fell into the clutches of a criminal shadow globalisation. Weapons were financed with opium revenues. Now, however, the drug economy is seen as a national problem, for Karzai to come to grips with – as if heroin was not profitably marketed in Europe and America, where governments have failed for decades to suppress black-market demand. Of all places, crisis state Afghanistan is thus being blamed for a globally unsolved problem.

Meanwhile, the donors like to take credit for any success. The “German” north of Afghanistan is a comparatively peaceful, so Berlin is doing something right. Or is it? In Washington's eyes, Germany is shirking the decisive clash in the south. What Karzai says on the matter carries little weight. And if he talks about negotiating with the Taliban, donor parliaments erupt in storms of indignation. Which does not boost Karzai’s authority at home.

There is no easy path to creating well-functioning institutions at the local, national and international levels in the age of globalisation. Donor governments cannot be expected to produce blueprints and patent solutions.

But they do need to address the issues. Six years after the attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon, it is not a good sign that the international community is still trying to fast establish a supposedly normal state in Afghanistan – in spite of scant success so far.