Afghanistan is a hopeful country - Interview with Nematullah Bizhan

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Nematullah Bizhan was interviewed by Anne Hoehn of Der Freitag on 19 Sept, 2017. The interview was originally published in German, and is available here.  

Anne Hoehn: If the US never would have started a war in Afghanistan in 2001. How would the situation in the country be today?

Nematullah Bizhan: Well, I was living in Afghanistan before and after 9/11, so to answer your question: If there was no political transition post 9/11, and the Taliban would still rule, the economy would have been collapsed, women would mostly be excluded from education, political life and work. The population would suffer from extreme poverty and Afghanistan would be in a conflict with it´s neighbours because of the Taliban policies. Also, we would have a civil war because the anti-Taliban opposition groups would resist and fight against the Taliban. So without the political transition that took place after the fall of the Taliban regime, all the human development conditions in Afghanistan, I assume, would have been worse. One can predict an alternative, but what is what I see.


What do you think, in general and especially concerning to Afghanistan, about the concept of nation building?

Nation building is a complex and long-term process that takes decades, maybe centuries. I would by the way rather call it here state building, because nation building is what the people on the ground do, but state building means to build government institutions or departments. These departments are responsible for the delivery of public goods, such as security, education and so on. If these institutions don´t function or collapse, the citizens will not be secure, and the government will not be able to provide them with basic public services. This situation threatens not only the citizens of the country but the global community. Afghanistan is a unique example. The country under the Taliban regime has become a safe haven for Al Qaeda and other terrorist organisations. Osama Bin Laden, the mastermind of 9/11 attacks, lived in Afghanistan under the protection of the Taliban regime. The US interfered militarily, and in alliance with the anti-Taliban Afghan armed forces deposed the Taliban regime from power. Since then state building has remained one of the top priorities. But despite significant efforts on the part of Afghans and the support being provided by the international community, yet the state is fragile and less effective. While this requires a more detailed discussion, here I can name a few issues, such as elite fragmentation, politics of patronage, aid and donor fragmentation and the subversion of the state building process to the war on terror and rise of the Taliban insurgency, for this failure. 


What would happen, if the US would stop nation building in Afghanistan and go to "just" „(..) kill terrorists", as President Trump said?

While the US new strategy is based on conditions in Afghanistan and puts more emphasis on the region, I am a little bit worried about this statement. If the engagement of the Americans in Afghanistan is just war on terror, I think that will undermine lots of the gains like education, democratisation process, so all these gains could be at risk because the government or the state is largely depended on the aid that comes from the US government. At some point, Afghanistan should be self-reliant, but that takes time. Think of South Korea as an example. It took the country more than two decades to build up it´s governmental institutions and economy. In Afghanistan it is really complicated, especially, because the most violent armed groups such as Taliban and Haqqani Network are supported by external actors, including states such as Pakistan, and that is why for the foreseeable future Afghanistan needs the support for state building. 


If you were the advisor of, let's say, the Head of the United Nations - which steps would you recommend to strengthen democracy in Afghanistan? 

That is a very difficult question, because there are various factors. Based on my experience, we should not end the process of state building and peaceful negotiations especially now. At the moment the situation is like this: the state is too week to protect citizens and groups like the Taliban might kill you for expressing your thoughts. People have low trust in government and its impartiality. Institutions like the electoral commission of Afghanistan could not deliver up to local and international expectations. My advice to the head of the UN would to help building of political and civilian institutions that are crucial for democracy and ensure the flow of aid to the country to sustain the gains. But the most important one in fact is to empowering citizens, especially women, we need organisations that support civil society initiatives, promote accountability and grassroots movements so that people can participate in the political process and hold to account politicians. Also, it is important that the UN expands its efforts to building consensus among regional actors on peace in Afghanistan.  The UN increased political engagement in Afghanistan can help support these efforts.


Especially which movements?

There are many. One such program is called National Solidarity Program. This program encourages locals to build and use political spaces. Through local democratically elected institutions, where  men and women participate, people come together, they sit together and discuss about their problems, and what they can do to solve those problems, what resources they have and what extra resources they need. Once this process happened they can apply for a grant from the government and this grant is provided by international community through a trust fund. They don´t call this democracy or democratisation, but that´s what it actually is! Another example is local civil society organisations. These organisations encourage political participation, press the government for accountability and are committed to non-violence.  But these movements face many challenges, including lack of fiscally sustainability as well as threats from the Taliban or similar groups who are very violent.


What I hear is that you wouldn't recommend that the US troops leave the country? 

Absolutely! Afghanistan still needs critical military and development support at least for a longer period of time. Another important factor is Pakistan, which provides safe haven for the Taliban and similar groups. Though the US new strategy urges Pakistan to terminate its support to these groups, we yet to see how this strategy works in practice. It is very complicated and it will take a much longer time than we expect.


If they leave – is there going to be a huge collapse?

I don´t think there will be a collapse immediately but the situation would be difficult. The US has a small number of troops (8300) on the ground who provide training and airpower support for the Afghan security forces. The Afghan security forces strength has significantly increased in the past few years.  Also, I worry about two other issues that could be a recipe for further instability. First, the Afghan government security strategy did not work well to reverse the growing insecurity. This has to change. Second, we see the emergence of a parallel state being established by the Taliban in Afghanistan. The Taliban run a very well organised trade with narcotics, they have their own income and taxation system and the Afghan government and the US have allowed them to establish a diplomatic office in Qatar. These issues require immediate attention. 


So all hope is lost?

No. Let me tell you a story: during the presidential election in 2014, the Taliban warned the people: "if you vote, we will cut off your fingers“. So what happens in the east of Afghanistan, 11 people voted and when they went back to their home, the Taliban caught them and cut off their fingers. The guys were taken to the local hospital and later gave an interview. You know what they said? “They cut off our fingers. But we are going to vote again.” Democracy is a value for people, same as education. It is not only a privilege, but a real value. Especially Afghanistan is a very young country; about 63 percent of Afghans are under 25. There are millions of young people who are studying in schools and universities. State weakness, corruption and insecurity are challenges. But also there are reasons to be hopeful about the future and I am very hopeful.