The South Asia Channel

Afghanistan’s need for reform: We have seen the enemy, and it is our anecdotes

As the United States’ 2014 transition in Afghanistan approaches, American policymakers have underscored that President Hamid Karzai’s government must undertake urgently needed institutional reforms. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton noted after this summer’s Tokyo Conference that President Karzai had presented a "clear vision" for these reforms, which "must include fighting corruption, improving governance, strengthening the ...


As the United States’ 2014 transition in Afghanistan approaches, American policymakers have underscored that President Hamid Karzai’s government must undertake urgently needed institutional reforms. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton noted after this summer’s Tokyo Conference that President Karzai had presented a "clear vision" for these reforms, which "must include fighting corruption, improving governance, strengthening the rule of law." Under the principle of mutual accountability, the United States will continue to support Afghanistan through and beyond transition.

For the U.S. to accurately gauge and support this process, we need an honest, robust grasp of Afghanistan’s commitment to governance reform. But instead, since the U.S. surge began in late 2009, a few recurrent anecdotes have disproportionately driven the picture of Afghan governance that we see, thereby enabling the Afghan government’s continuing reluctance to reform.  A combination of bureaucratic pressures, journalistic factors, and data scarcity has led U.S. public discourse on Afghanistan to over-rely on "ground truthed" subjective narratives and personal testimonials.  Proportionate, objective assessments of metrics relevant to governance reform have lost out in the noise.

"Anecdotalization" doesn’t yet appear in the Oxford English Dictionary, but if it does, it will likely be because of the U.S. efforts in Afghanistan. To truly ensure much-needed Afghan government reform, we must finally suppress it.

How have a few recurrent anecdotes come to distort our understanding of Afghanistan’s governance reform process?

First, predominant anecdotes have allowed us to mistake localized, distinct successes for replicable progress and reforms. Consider Nawa, which after years as one of Helmand’s most dangerous districts demonstrated dramatically improved security and governance during the surge. Facilitated by American military leadership, helicopter-loads of high-ranking government officials, journalists, and think tankers visited the district for a few hours each, and produced personal testimonials like this one in a New York Times op-ed: "Nawa is flourishing. Seventy stores are open…and the streets are full of trucks and pedestrians. Security is so good we were able to walk around without body armor."

The author’s bottom line echoed a Marine officer he quoted in his piece: "I hope people who say this war is unwinnable see stories like this." In contrast, observers with lengthier stays in Nawa noted its turnaround stemmed from a particular combination of tribal politics, local officials’ calculations, and vast American inputs relative to the population-not any systematic action on the part of the Afghan government. Afghanistan comprises roughly 400 districts, but a vastly disproportionate number of eyewitness reports flowed in from Nawa and a handful of other districts like Arghandab and Baraki Barak. Colorful anecdotal successes drowned out more objective, broader assessments of governance reform.

Second, the pervasiveness of certain anecdotes has allowed us to confuse specific Afghan individuals’ achievements for broader Afghan progress in institution building. American assistance to local Afghan government typically is focused on few key local officials. Many of these individuals demonstrated great strides or deep potential: behold the numerous accounts of Kandahar City’s indefatigable mayor Ghulam Haider Hamidi, Helmand’s reliable governor Ghulab Mangal, or Marja’s promising district "governor in a box" Haji Zahir.  Naturally, with transport facilitated by U.S. military leadership, the most impressive local officials were the ones who received frequent visits from high-level officials and influential correspondents, who could report they had seen local governance firsthand, and it was blooming. But judging overall governance progress on the basis of a few individuals is especially deceptive in Afghanistan, where officials are frequently reshuffled by the authorities in Kabul (as with Mangal), prove locally unpopular (Zahir), or are assassinated (Hamidi). Vivid testimonials don’t equal a commitment to institutional reform.

Third, from a Kabul-based angle, a few persistent anecdotes have repeatedly allowed us to believe Afghan-led government reform is occurring where little actually is. For years, the international community pressured Kabul to clarify the scattered, confusing local governance picture. In 2010, the government responded with finalizing a 415-page Subnational Governance Policy: internally inconsistent yet enormously redundant, vast in ambit yet not enforceable in specifics. Before it could actually affect governance on the ground, the document needed significant legislative and administrative follow-up- which two and a half years later largely has not happened. But still, Afghan (and some American) officials alike frequently noted that they were pleased to see the policy had been drafted. A colorful testimonial counted as progress.

If this prevalence of anecdotes has allowed the Afghan government to substitute paper outputs for genuine reform, this pattern seems likely to repeat.  After the Tokyo Conference described above, where the international community pressured the Karzai administration to launch serious reform and anti-corruption measures, Karzai responded with the lengthy decree: 167 articles along, divided among 33 government entities. As William Byrd and Attaullah Nasib have pointed out, the document lacked prioritization, action items, and benchmarks that can be evaluated. But it achieved its anecdotal point: as the Karzai administration has repeated frequently, it had "launched" a reform package. 

How do we suppress the anecdotalization that has colored our understanding of Afghanistan’s reform process? First, we must recognize that one cause is our own organizational incentives. In an era of budget constraints, military and civilian organizations in Afghanistan are pressured to demonstrate results quickly-and so they direct the unremitting stream of high-level visitors and influential thinkers to Afghanistan’s most impressive cases. As a second explanation, our sound-bite culture places a premium on personal testimonials, and so peppering public communication with colorful narratives rather than tedious data is often viewed as more authentic or engaging. A third explanation lies in our unwitting mirror-imaging of the way the US government operates onto the way we believe the Afghan government does. In Washington, releasing an executive order has real consequences: it automatically triggers follow up and monitoring mechanisms from government agencies, Congress, and the media. Not so in Afghanistan, where glossy documents such as Karzai’s presidential decree are often intended more to placate donors than to galvanize actions.

But the biggest reason of all for the rise of anecdotal noise is that alternatives are scarce. Measuring governance and reform-a nebulous, challenging task anywhere– seems almost impossible in a data-poor, opaque context like Afghanistan. Data-driven evaluations do exist at the classified level, and unclassified information like The Asia Foundation’s annual survey, the World Bank’s indicators, International Crisis Group reports, and the Defense Department’s bi-annual Section 1230 Reports  add important insights or overviews. But the conversation about Afghanistan’s progress resides heavily in the public domain, where opinion-makers gravitate toward the tactile, colorful personal story.

As U.S. policymakers turn toward 2014, they must suppress these recurrent anecdotes and focus on objectively measuring Afghanistan’s governance reform against one central criterion: whether Afghan government institutions are prepared to "hold" the country after the U.S. drawdown.  Instead of celebrating the unusual triumphs of districts like Nawa, we must look at indicators for how many provinces will be able to achieve relative success: ministry budget execution and service distribution to the local level.  Instead of hoping that all local Afghan officials are as good as "our guy", we can measure whether Karzai’s administration has truly made the subnational appointment system more merit based or locally accountable. Rather than check the box of "reform" with the release of a presidential anti-corruption decree, we can focus on the tedious work of prioritizing and following up on those 167 articles.

Shifting the narrative from one where a thousand vivid success stories bloom to one of objective assessment of reform won’t be pleasant: it represents a move from the colorful to the colorless. But it is the only way to achieve our minimal objective in Afghanistan: an Afghan government that can endure after we depart.

Frances Z. Brown, at time of writing, was an International Affairs Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and an Afghanistan Fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

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