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A late realisation

by Jörn Rossberg
The strategy of western countries in Afghanistan had one weak point from the start, a Heidelberg-based scholar says: they failed to consider the country’s cultural diversity.

Iran, Pakistan and Russia have historically influenced Afghans’ ideas of statehood. According to Ebrahim Afsah of the Max Planck Institute for Comparative Public Law and International Law in Heidelberg, western donors hardly took account of this fact and, all too often, only tasked western experts with drafting reform plans for Afghanistan in recent years.

To transfer ideas and concepts from one country to another is generally problematic, Afsah says, and this is particularly so in Afghanistan, where people do not tend to have much faith in foreign ideas. Accordingly, western concepts are unlikely to work out, Afsah argues. In his view, even the basic assumption of many western experts was wrong, according to which governance had to be re-built from scratch. He says that the ministries of finance and agriculture, for instance, were still operational in the direct aftermath of the fall of the Taliban. Such capacities could have been built upon and used for the reform processes, yet they were not even recognised.

Germany’s Federal Government has, in the mean time, acknowledged the underlying problematic of the cultural diversity. During a conference of the Protestant Academy in Loccum in early April, Thomas Kossendey, parliamentary secretary in the German Defence Ministry, admitted that Afghanistan was too often analysed by people who never even visited the country.

In order to overcome cultural divides, soldiers of the ISAF-forces are now expected to seek more contact with the local population. The so-called partnering initiative is a part of the ISAF’s strategy. It requires the soldiers to leave their barracks more ­often and, if necessary, to spend nights in villages in order to protect the people from the Taliban.

In spite of many problems, some experts argue that progress is being made in Afghanistan. Citha Maass of the German Institute for International and Security ­Affairs (SWP), for instance, says that the Afghan Civil Service Commission ­(IARCSC) has been doing a good job. In her opinion, the Commission is providing a reasonable basis for public-sector reforms. Success, according to her, can only be expected in the long run, however. Asfah is more pessimistic. His forecast is that NATO will fail and the country will fall back into a state of civil war.

(Joern Rossberg)