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Afghanistan: the natural State

November 12, 2009

by Alex de Waal
from The Times

The hard-bought election in Afghanistan was a reality check for the United States and its allies, compelling them to look again at their promise of building a modern state in that country. After overthrowing the Taliban, Afghan exiles and their foreign backers assumed that they would put the aberration of the past thirty years behind them and resume the natural ascent towards democracy and development. Building a state was the key. The rule of law and institutions would replace the disorder of the past; reconstruction and prosperity would supplant the underground economy that had flourished during the years of war and misrule. Eight years on, it’s not happening. Concern over the military resurgence of the Taliban has obscured a bigger failure: Afghanistan is not sticking to the reconstruction script.

Graciana del Castillo is not surprised. A former senior economist in the UN Secretary General’s office and expert on crisis and post-conflict countries, she is deeply frustrated at the failure of the UN, World Bank and the leading governments to take the challenge of building peace with sufficient seriousness – not just in Afghanistan but around the world. The root of the failure is intellectual. “Unfortunately”, del Castillo writes, “contrary to what happened following the two world wars, no serious debate among policymakers, scholars, and practitioners has taken place since the end of the Cold War concerning post-conflict economic reconstruction. As a result, efforts to prepare these countries to become more competitive in a globalized world economy have followed a misplaced ‘business as usual’ approach, as if economic development were not constrained by the consequences of war”. Del Castillo’s fundamental point is that post-conflict reconstruction is first and foremost a political exercise, and that post-war economic policies should be subordinated to that goal. A successful recovery from war entails multiple simultaneous transitions: from conflict to peace, from authoritarianism to democracy, from bitter social division to reconciliation, and from war economies dominated by rent-seeking to economic growth that is driven by the productive sector. Any one of these transitions on its own would be challenging enough for a well-run government: doing them all while also building the mechanisms of governance at the same time is a near-impossible challenge, which becomes unrealizable if the dimensions of the task are not recognized to begin with. The idea that a country could achieve all these goals in just two or three years – the typical attention span of the international community – is wishful thinking. more

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