The South Asia Channel

All together now: Afghanistan is not Switzerland

Let me be frank: I can’t hear it anymore*. Did ever anyone say that Afghanistan should or would become Switzerland? Afghans definitely didn’t. Afghans I had spoken to during my stay in the last Taliban years, wanted their country to become ‘a country like all others’ again and to elect their leaders themselves. I am not ...


Let me be frank: I can’t hear it anymore*.

Did ever anyone say that Afghanistan should or would become Switzerland? Afghans definitely didn’t.

Afghans I had spoken to during my stay in the last Taliban years, wanted their country to become ‘a country like all others’ again and to elect their leaders themselves. I am not talking about the ‘small circle of urban intellectuals’ (the usual counter-arguments when you say something like this). No, I heard it from tailors, bakers and other people in the Kabul bazaar. And if you look carefully into the 2001 Bonn agreement on Afghanistan, the document on which the post-2001 political process is based, it becomes obvious that the maltreated country was supposed to become Afghanistan again.

Since after almost 25 years of war not much was left, Afghans’ institutional memory, most of the 1964 constitution, the first with some democratic features in the country’s history, was re-installed. Why not, even if it smacked a bit of nostalgia? It included the traditional institution of the Loya Jirga and a parliamentary system with a two houses as it had existed for two decades until it was scrapped after Sardar Daud’s coup d’etat. New was after 2001 that the right to form political parties was implemented for the first time. (The King had refused to sign a party law in 1965) but very unwillingly (see my latest blog ‘Political Parties at the Fringes Again’ here). What is so particularly Swiss about this?

Furthermore, Switzerland is a confederation, and Afghanistan a unitary state. Most people here say they want a central government. And it should stay like this because this is one of the few ideas on which most Afghans agree. (Yes, there is a minority of federalists, but this is mainly warlord-federalism.) Afghans also do not want their country split into two, as a former U.S. national security advisor just proposed. With all respect, this can only come from people who really don’t know Afghanistan. The last time I saw almost all Afghans united was when Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, sometime in the late 1980s, proposed a confederation between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Everyone, communist and mujahed, still entangled in an extremely bloody fight, were up in anger.

But why then is this Switzerland mantra so popular nowadays?

This is because the West (which has replaced the much broader international community that started the Bonn process) is mentally on its way out of Afghanistan already — a year before the first U.S. troops are supposed to leave. Saturday’s parliamentary elections are its farewell performance, and it has decided to play a role in the wings only. The U.N. political mission has adopted a hands off approach. UNDP ELECT gives technical support; there is no political role any more. The U.N. has locked down its personnel in the country for four days, starting today, and sent ‘non-essential staff’ abroad. This means that it will not observe the elections and only report and assess internally.

The drastic decrease in the number of international observers present in Afghanistan tomorrow is another sign of Western disengagement. Only very few will be present in very few provincial centers. The districts will be virtually invisible; on this also Afghan observers agree. The mandate of this year’s EU and OSCE missions has been further downgraded in comparison with 2009 — they are only assessment teams now. (Not that they do not perform useful functions that ensures some transparency.) But they won’t give any statements. And this is the real political signal in it which will be well understood in Kabul, after President Karzai has reportedly declared last year’s EU mission chief, General Philippe Morillon, who openly spoke about the mass fraud, an unwanted guest and called the international community the real election manipulators.

Also, these missions’ public reports will be out many months after the election, when the rest of the world has long forgotten about it. (And there is already not much interest, as many journalists will tell you.) It must be feared that their recommendations will share the fate of the former ones: gathering dust on shelves in New York and Brussels — unless there is a mysterious turn around one day and the UN member-governments decide to give their mission in Afghanistan a full political mandate again.

These elections – "at the worst possible time," as UN envoy Staffan de Mistura just said on the BBC — is part of a larger exercise called ‘Afghanization‘ and ‘transfer of responsibility‘ to the Afghans. Who, by the way, are supposed to be in the lead already. In principle, transferring responsibility makes a lot of sense. Of course, the Afghans need to be in charge of their own affairs. But institutions are still lacking through which they can develop a genuine national consensus on major political issues. In contrast, the Taliban line about a foreign occupation and a necessary fight for independence already resonates with people who otherwise abhor them.

Most importantly, timing for the transfer is bad. It is too early. The transfer and withdrawal decision has only to do with ‘our,’ i.e. mainly the U.S., agenda, not with realities in Afghanistan changing for the better which would allow such a transfer. This hasty withdrawal is very dangerous. Herati MP Ahmad Behzad warns when talking to us: "Many people proclaim themselves opposed to the presence of foreign troops, but in reality most of them see the necessity for those troops to stay. Otherwise, there are high probabilities of a new civil war raging." Or Bawar Hotak, head of the Afghanistan Body Builders Association who also runs as a candidate: "If the foreign forces were absent even for two days, these people [who fought each other earlier] would start again fighting each other."

Both candidates reflect the mood outside the HESCO walls where not too many foreigners venture to anymore, and if then only heavily armored and armed which is not really an invitation to honest dialogue: the fear of an outbreak of yet another round of civil war.

The ‘see no evil, speak no evil,’ as Scott Worden, the ECC deputy chairman in 2009, recently called it in his article, shows Western governments’ only interest in this election: that there are not too many reports about fraud which would allow them to project progress in the transfer process to their own angry electorates — even if a Potemkin village needs to be erected. Here, the ‘Switzerland statements’ fit in.

They also obscure the fact that better elections could have been organized even under Afghan circumstances. "The time between the 2005 and 2009 elections was squandered," Grant Kippen, head of the 2009 ECC, said in an interview earlier this year. All the reports and recommendations of the EU, the OSCE, NDI, ANFREL, FEFA and other organizations — handily summarized by Democracy International’s ‘Consensus Recommendations for Electoral Reform’ to make it easier to digest for the diplomats — were just ignored. Everyone was exhausted after the first election cycle 2004/05 and after the next turn-over of staff everyone seems to have forgotten about them. And it has been the duty of UNAMA in the first and Western U.N.-member governments in the second place to urge Karzai to implement them, Afghan-led and all.

Just look at the result of this neglect: indepen
dent election institutions only in the name; no usable voters’ register; 17 million voter cards in circulation with only 12.6 million voters — i.e. almost five million ghost voters used for ballot stuffing; changed regulations for the ECC and the IEC that decrease transparency (the IEC is even not obliged anymore to store all election documents ‘permanently‘) — a blatant invitation for new fraud; abysmally bad outreach and voter education. Even a partial implementation of some of these recommendations would not have created a second Switzerland but improved the 2010 election’s quality considerably.

Finally, I cannot resist using the punchline a friend as recently used — and I apologize for its unauthorized use:

‘Afghanistan also is not Switzerland because it doesn’t ban minarets.’


*Here a short genealogy of the Switzerland comparison:

It seems as if NATO spokesman James Appathurai used the phrase for the first time in February 2006, a little bit unmotivated, in an answer to a question about an reassessment of security risks in Afghanistan after violent demonstrations when a Norwegian newspaper reprinted the controversial Muhammad caricatures:

‘Afghanistan is not Switzerland, so of course we have to take into account the security environment.’

The next one was former UN envoy Tom Koenigs on June 10, 2006 – but the context was completely different:

‘One policeman on every 1,500 is not enough. In Switzerland they have three times more. Unfortunately the south of Afghanistan is not Switzerland,’

Then came John Bolton — of all people — on Fox News, March 4, 2010:

‘That’s what some people complain about in bringing some of these warlords over to the government’s side. And all I would say is Afghanistan is not Switzerland. The American strategic objective is defeating the Taliban. And to me if that means doing it in connection with some people you wouldn’t go out on a blind date with, I think we’re going to have to live with that.’

… and a whole barrage by current U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura:

‘Let’s be frank, we are not in Switzerland, we are in Afghanistan.’ (press conference, March 23, 2010)

‘They will not be Swiss elections, they are going to be Afghan elections’ (July 1, 2010, quoted here).

‘We know it’s not Switzerland.’ (August 12, 2010, quoted here)

‘Let’s remember we are not in Switzerland, we are in Afghanistan at the most critical period of the conflict.’ (September 14, 2010, quoted on the Unama website)

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle followed with the more general remark on September 15 in the Bundestag in Berlin that:

‘We should not spread the illusion that we could expect elections there [in Afghanistan] according to a central European yardstick.’

which he repeated on N24 TV four days later.

Finally, General Petraeus picked it up also (quoted in USA Today, August 16, 2010):

‘This isn’t to say that there’s any kind of objective of turning Afghanistan into Switzerland in three to five years or less. Afghan good enough is good enough.’

But what really is ‘Afghan good enough’ is already another story.

Thomas Ruttig is the co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, where this was originally published.