Wednesday, January 15, 2003

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WHAT'S GOING ON IN AFGHANISTAN?: One of the best things about teaching international relations at the University of Chicago is the plethora of seminars that go on around here. The Program on International Security Policy does a particularly good job of bringing in "policy-relevant" types to talk about current foreign affairs.

Yesterday's speaker was Barnett Rubin, America's leading Afghan expert and late 2001's must-have commentator. Rubin's talk on the current situation in Afghanistan -- compared to my casual perusal of press clippings on the subject -- actually cheered me up in several ways. Here are the conclusions I came away with:

1) Given the degree of difficulty, peacebuilding has been pretty successful. Pundits who talk about "reconstructing" Afghanistan automatically stack the deck in their appraisals, since that term implies a desirable, stable, and pre-existing status quo. However, the prior status quo in Afghanistan has been 20 years of violence with considerable interference from its neighboring states. The mere absence of large-scale violence -- as well as the low level of neighboring country mischief-making -- is significant.

2) There is a conception of statehood in Afghanistan. For all of the discussion about different ethnicities in the country, Rubin noted that "Afghans insist they are Afghan" -- meaning that all tribes want to see a strong central government and possess some sense of nationhood. They might disagree about the allocation of resources from that government, but that's hardly unique to Afghanistan. (They might be saying those things just to please Westerners, but Rubin seems pretty plugged in).

3) Neither the Taliban nor Al Qaeda are coming back. Critics of the war often posit that reconstruction will eventually falter, paving the way for the Taliban to re-emerge. However, this is unlikely for three reasons. First, Al Qaeda now has little interest in Afghanistan. They liked it as a base -- beyond that, it holds no value for them. Second, the remaining remnants of the Taliban are weak in number and lack natural allies even among the Pashtuns. Third, those Taliban remnants have no illusions about being able to displace U.S. forces.

4) Afghanistan will not be a fully functioning democracy -- but that's too much to expect. Look at Afghanistan's neighbors -- when Pakistan and Iran are the most liberal states in your region, you know that Lockean democracy has yet to flourish. It is unlikely that democratic institutions will function as expected -- but even if they function at some basic level, it's an improvement over what Afghans have endured for the past two decades.

UPDATE: Here's more on the latest efforts at statebuilding in Afghanistan (link via Oxblog)

posted by Dan on 01.15.03 at 11:52 AM