For the last three months, whenever I checked my e-mail at a Nepali town with an Internet cafe, I had received a message from someone just gone to govern Afghanistan. The UN application forms started passing around in October 2001, and then the circulars appeared: “Please don’t expect to write to this e-mail—there is no Internet connection in Kabul.” Finally, messages popped up from new addresses—@pak.id, @afghangov.org, @worldbank.org, @un.org—talking about the sun in the mountains. I now had half a dozen friends working in Afghanistan in embassies, think tanks, international development agencies, the United Nations, and the Afghan government, controlling projects worth millions of dollars. A year before, they had been in Kosovo or East Timor and a year later they would be in Iraq [like the author himself] or offices in New York and Washington.
Their objective was (to quote the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan) “the creation of a centralized, broad-based, multi-ethnic government committed to democracy, human rights, and the rule of law.” They worked twelve- or fourteen-hour days drafting documents for heavily funded initiatives on “democratization,” “enhancing capacity,” “gender,” “sustainable development,” “skills training,” or “protection issues.” They were mostly in their late twenties or early thirties, with at least two degrees—often in international law, economics, or development. They came from middle-class backgrounds in Western countries, and in the evenings, they dined with each other and swapped anecdotes about corruption in the government and the incompetence of the United Nations. They rarely drove their SUVs outside Kabul because their security advisers forbade it.
Some, such as the two political officers in Chaghcharan, were experienced and well informed about conditions in rural Afghanistan. But they were barely fifty out of many thousands. Most of the policy makers knew next to nothing about the villages where 90 percent of the Afghan population lived. They came from postmodern, secular, globalized states with liberal traditions in law and government. It was natural for them to initiate projects on urban design, women’s rights, and fiber-optic cable networks; to talk about transparent, clean, and accountable processes, tolerance, and civil society; and to speak of a people “who desire peace at any cost and understand the need for a centralized multi-ethnic government.”
But what did they understand of the thought processes of Seyyed Kerbalahi’s wife, who had not moved five kilometers from her home in forty years? Or Dr. Habibullah, the vet, who carried an automatic weapon in the way they carried briefcases? The villagers I had met were mostly illiterate, lived far from electricity or television, and knew very little about the outside world. Versions of Islam; views of ethnicity, government, politics, and the proper methods of dispute resolution (including armed conflict); and the experience of twenty-five years of war differed from region to region. The people of Kamenj understood political power in terms of their feudal lord Haji Mohsin Khan. Ismail Khan in Herat wanted a social order based on Iranian political Islam. Hazara such as Ali hated the idea of centralized government because they associated it with subjugation by other ethnic groups and suffering under the Taliban. Even within a week’s walk I had encountered areas where the local Begs had been toppled by Iranian-funded social revolution and others where feudal structures were still in place; areas where the violence had been inflicted by the Taliban and areas where the villagers had inflicted it on one another. These differences between groups were deep, elusive, and difficult to overcome. Village democracy, gender issues, and centralization would be hard-to-sell concepts in some areas.
Policy makers did not have the time, structures, or resources for a serious study of an alien culture. They justified their lack of knowledge and experience by focusing on poverty and implying that dramatic cultural differences did not exist. They acted as though villagers were interested in all the priorities of international organizations, even when those priorities were mutually contradictory.
In a seminar in Kabul, I heard Mary Robinson, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, say, “Afghans have been fighting for their human rights for twenty-five years. We don’t need to tell them what their rights are.” Then the head of a major food agency added privately, “Villagers are not interested in human rights. They are like poor people all over the world. All they think about is where their next meal is coming from.” To which the head of an Afghan NGO providing counseling responded, “The only thing to know about these people is that they are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.”
The differences between the policy makers and a Hazara such as Ali went much deeper than his lack of food. Ali rarely worried about his next meal. He was a peasant farmer and had a better idea than most about where his next meal was coming from. If he defined himself it was chiefly as a Muslim and a Hazara, not as a hungry Afghan. Without the time, imagination, and persistence needed to understand Afghans’ diverse experiences, policy makers would find it impossible to change Afghan society in the way they wished to change it.
Rory Stewart then adds the longest footnote in the book, presaging the topic of his next book, The Prince of Marshes.
Critics have accused this new breed of administrators of neocolonialism. But in fact their approach is not that of a nineteenth-century colonial officer. Colonial administrations may have been racist and exploitative, but they did at least work seriously at the business of understanding the people they were governing. They recruited people prepared to spend their entire careers in dangerous provinces of a single alien nation. They invested in teaching administrators and military officers the local language. They established effective departments of state, trained a local elite, and continued the countless academic studies of their subjects through institutes and museums, royal geographical societies, and royal botanical gardens. They balanced the local budget and generated fiscal revenue because if they didn’t their home government would rarely bail them out. If they failed to govern fairly, the population would mutiny.
Postconflict experts have got the prestige without the effort or stigma of imperialism. Their implicit denial of the difference between cultures is the new mass brand of international intervention. Their policy fails but no one notices. There are no credible monitoring bodies and there is no one to take formal responsibility.
Individual officers are never in any one place and rarely in any one organization long enough to be adequately assessed. The colonial enterprise could be judged by the security or revenue it delivered, but neocolonialists have no such performance criteria. In fact their very uselessness benefits them. By avoiding any serious action or judgment they, unlike their colonial predecessors, are able to escape accusations of racism, exploitation, and oppression.
Perhaps it is because no one requires more than a charming illusion of action in the developing world. If the policy makers know little about the Afghans, the public knows even less, and few care about policy failure when the effects are felt only in Afghanistan.