occupation and state-building in the new afghanistan

by Jessica Anderson

“It is true that the Taliban are the first threat but an illegitimate government would be the second” – Abdullah Abdullah

The deterioration of the situation in Afghanistan over the last eighteen months has seen the gradual reassertion of the Taliban’s territorial presence. The widespread fraud, vote rigging, and ballot stuffing of August’s presidential election led to a run off between Hamid Karzai the incumbent and the other main candidate Abdullah Abdullah. This process was a total flop, an embarrassment for the occupying American forces as Abdullah, disputing the possibility of a fair result devoid of fraud, refused to participate further. Hilary Clinton spoke of Abdullah’s decision as “not affecting in any way the legitimacy” of the process: instead Karzai’s second term in office would supposedly further buttress the strength of the constitutional order of Afghanistan in guiding the Afghan people to a ‘brighter future’.  

The recent upsurge in violence and deaths of UK and US soldiers have led the governments of the occupying powers to further justify their military deployments amid increasing public opposition to troop presence in Afghanistan. Their well-rehearsed arguments explain the need to pursue and eliminate both the Taliban and Al-Qaeda as a key front in the West’s counter terrorism strategy. Most recently Gordon Brown has spoken of the need to suppress the training camps and terrorist plots being mounted against Britain from the area, whilst Obama in solemn tones has warned that if “the Afghan government falls to the Taliban – or allows al-Qaeda to go unchallenged – that country will again be a base for terrorists who want to kill as many of our people as they possibly can”. The aim therefore must be “to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future”.

This description of the aims of the US and its allies’ military presence in the country is accompanied by a grandiose and hyperbolic description of state-building for Afghanistan. The solution to Afghanistan’s woes is a pathway to legitimate government and sovereign statehood. In describing these holy-grail like goals the US and its allies have exercised a whole lexicon of terms intended to describe and articulate principles of legitimate political rule. The establishment of a constitution, a political process of representational democracy and political parties, a justice system, and economic development and prosperity were all essential, we are continually told, to the Afghan people’s future. Added to this is, of course, the need for an unspecified period of military presence and occupation by the US and its allies.

In the midst of this heady mix of counter terrorism and counter insurgency is the process of state building in which Afghans are encouraged to go to the polls to elect leaders to rule over them. This bestowal by the West of the great gift of democracy is the humanitarian and benevolent side of the Obama’s administration’s new foreign policy, but it is of course not remotely new and has been the rhetorical substance of American foreign policy for decades.

If the reconstruction of an Afghan state and the defeat of terrorism within that country are inseparable goals, the emphasis on development as well demolition is becoming increasingly shrill, and more and more absurd. At an empirical level such exhortations of democratic and economic ‘progress’ are highly delusional given the minimal level of public participation in the recent elections, the level of corruption in the political and bureaucratic institutions of Afghan politics relating to the narcotics trade, and increasing evidence that the Taliban have established governmental and judicial structures and makeshift courts in rural areas. Commenting on the electoral process both Brown and Obama have identified the endemic corruption of the Afghan government but this commentary seems intended only to bolster the moral validity of their political visions for the country.

The delusions of the US state in this area extend far and wide. A cursory investigation into various departments of US government charged with the economic development of Afghanistan yields gems such as the Department of Commerce’s Afghanistan ‘Investment and Reconstruction Task Force’. The task force describes itself as providing information and counselling to companies pursuing business opportunities in Afghanistan’. The accompanying pdf document, Doing Business in Afghanistan:  2009 Country Commercial Guide for U.S. Companies, downloadable from its website, describes a whole host of lucrative business opportunities in a country ravaged by conflict and dependent on foreign aid.

The real question is: what is this state building process really intended to achieve? Afghanistan is surrounded by an eclectic mix of states, ranging from Islamic theocracies to secular dictatorships and pseudo-democracies. Right wing foreign policy blogs and media websites in America describe the Afghan project as a long haul and one in which military presence in the country is intended to be enduring if not permanent. The process of state building in Afghanistan will take many years with civil and political institutions being built from very low levels. Meanwhile the total number of Western forces in Afghanistan now number 100,000, including 68,000 US troops. The deployment of more troops is likely and the US has set itself the job of training and equipping an Afghan army whose strength and capacity will depend upon further US investment in the country and the awarding of contracts for US military companies.

The absurdity of the US’s strategy to implant representational democracy in a country which in many areas is devoid of even basic amenities and facing increasingly intense and widespread warfare, is clearly part of a long term strategy to present a media friendly tale of state building and progress towards democracy and self-governance, whilst allowing the US and its allies to establish an enduring military presence. State building as a process of colonial rule obviously contains a rich and complex history. In recent times the Middle East has been the locus of such efforts by the US and allies. However, processes in South America have seen the pattern of events unfold in a similar way, where countries came to be dominated by very small ruling classes with heavy ties to the US and very weak political and civil societies. It is clear Afghanistan is in the process of being transformed into a regime of a similar character.