The South Asia Channel

Nation Building Is Dirty Business

Nation building has always been messy, but does that mean the United States should stop helping Afghanistan?

Former Afghan drug addicts walk down a dirt road after receiving two moths treatment at an Afghanistan Ministry of Counter Narcotics centre  in Herat on January 28, 2013. Afghan police and health officials collected 350 addicts from the streets of Herat and forced them to stay in a centre to receive treatment for two months. 130 were released after they stopped using and were ready to go back to society, police and health officials said.  AFP PHOTO/ Aref Karimi        (Photo credit should read Aref Karimi/AFP/Getty Images)
Former Afghan drug addicts walk down a dirt road after receiving two moths treatment at an Afghanistan Ministry of Counter Narcotics centre in Herat on January 28, 2013. Afghan police and health officials collected 350 addicts from the streets of Herat and forced them to stay in a centre to receive treatment for two months. 130 were released after they stopped using and were ready to go back to society, police and health officials said. AFP PHOTO/ Aref Karimi (Photo credit should read Aref Karimi/AFP/Getty Images)

The latest Human Rights Watch (HRW) report may be the strongest indictment yet against Afghan strongmen and their security institutions, but does it go too far? The report details a number of human rights violations, charges of war crimes, and institutional predation from figures such as the Kandahar Chief of Police Abdul Raziq, Paktika Afghan Local Police (ALP) Commander Azizullah, and Asadullah Khalid, former NDS intelligence chief.

HRW recommends greater institutional oversight, stronger top-down leadership from Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, disbandment of militias, and U.S. implementation of the Leahy Law, which prohibits U.S. funds being sent to foreign security forces implicated in human rights violations. While the work of HRW is critically important in defending the rights of the powerless and proposing broad institutional improvements, we cannot forget how far along Afghanistan has come in just over a decade. Advancing the cause of human rights, while ideal, is not absolute, and should not be considered absent of repercussions or other compelling interests. Implementing the Leahy Law at this critical juncture in Afghanistan’s nascent stage would be an ineffective policy response to the scourge of predation within Afghanistan’s institutions. Instead, the international community should further empower Afghan institutions to address the problem from within.

It may be hard to recall how far along we have come. In 2001, life expectancy in Afghanistan was just 43 years; infant mortality rate was 26 percent; and access to clean water was only available to 22 percent of the population. Today, the average life span is 64 years; infant mortality has dropped below 10 percent; and 64 percent of Afghans have access to clean water. In 2001, Afghanistan was in ruins — over twenty years of internecine warfare where ten percent of the population perished from the Soviet-Afghan war, an additional 400,000 people killed during the intra-mujahedin war, and over 6.2 million refugees had been dispersed throughout Southwest Asia.

This is not to downplay the misery that followed the collapse of the Taliban regime. Between 30,000 to 45,000 people died as a result of resistance to state building in Afghanistan, some at the hands of state authorities, but most as a result of insurgent violence and criminal networks. The latest UNAMA report on violence in Afghanistan indicates insurgents were responsible for 72 percent of all civilian casualties. While data is hazy regarding improvements in prevention of civilian casualties in war (see examples here, here, and here), most would agree that the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) campaign in Afghanistan has been less dirty than previous Afghan wars.

Is it fair to measure state-initiated predation in relative terms? In terms of justice, violations of human rights, particularly by those party to the Geneva Convention is inexcusable. However, in terms of state formation, violence is an unfortunate part of the process. Efforts to avoid unnecessary and unlawful acts of violence should be commended and supported. Particularly since most attempts at centralization and modernization in Afghanistan have been conditioned by state-led brutality on the civilian population. Abdur Rahman Khan, more commonly known as the Iron Emir during his reign from 1880 to 1901, bragged of executing 120,000 people in the 11 years of his reign — 2,000 of which formed a tower of skulls in Kabul. Khan believed torture, summary execution, and enslavement of enemies were the sovereign right of kings and his internal imperialism extended the writ of the state far and wide.

If state building is a messy business, state collapse is even dirtier. The communist People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan implemented rapid modernization through purges of non-loyalists that resulted in up to 27,000 disappeared citizens, and brutal massacres such as the April 1979, mass execution of nearly 1,200 males in Kerala village. When the Soviets invaded to end the wide scale brutality, they later fully embraced it. U.N. observers found that Soviet forces committed “acts of brutality (…) bombardment and massacre following reprisals,” relied on “anti-personnel mines and [even] booby-trap toys,” as well as “poison gas” and contamination of water resources. In addition, the Soviets and their proxies committed a number of civilian massacres against noncombatants. In 1984, 72 men, women, and children were shot in the village of Kas-i-Aziz. In March 1985, 1,000 civilians were killed under Soviet orders to conduct “reprisal operations” against 12 villages in Laghman province. Executions, rape, and plundering followed, and in one instance, children were locked in a home as it was torched.

After the exit of Soviet troops, the Najibullah government relied almost solely on militia forces funded through foreign aid — the end of which, led to the mass defection of militia and regular forces, and the collapse of the communist government. The ‘Hobbesian playground’ during the intra-mujahedin war entailed mass artillery bombardment on civilian homes in Kabul, summary executions, and brutality towards prisoners — some sent away to labor as slaves on militia commanders’ personal farms. Mid-level commanders orchestrated large-scale pillaging campaigns to profit from the chaos. The Afshar massacre in Kabul resulted in 80 people killed, around 800 others arrested (approximately 700 to 750 persons never returned), and 5,000 homes looted. When the Taliban controlled the country, it was more a façade of security, as they continued to terrorize civilians through summary execution, abduction of women, force labor, and burning of homes and property to suppress Uzbek, Hazara, and Tajik populations north and west of Kabul.

When the United States allied with Northern Alliance militias to overthrow the Taliban and al Qaeda in 2001, the era of reprisals did not end. Abdur Rashid Dostum’s “death convoy” carried up to 2,000 Pashtun prisoners to a desert graveyard in Dasht-e-Leili — an opening salvo of emerging strongmen recapturing the state while orchestrating a brutal anti-Taliban campaign. As state institutions slowly emerged in the post-Bonn process, counterterrorism turned to nation building, and warlords were given opportunity to turn over a new leaf. There were certainly holdouts as the market for violence allowed low to high-level warlords to marginalize opponents for social or material gains. In turn, the United States failed to live up to its own standard of human rights as evidenced in the “Salt Pit,” Nerkh, and through numerous “collateral damage” incidents. The truth is, our “beacon of light upon a hill” started to fade. Engaging in “dirty wars” and nation building will force any nation to reassess its moral compass. Going forward, we have many opportunities to correct the wrongs.

One course correction is a dose of realism regarding Afghanistan’s state building process. Implementing the Leahy Law in Afghanistan, while it may make us feel better, would not have an influential effect on human rights abuses, as the details of the law allow for easy circumvention. The Leahy Law is based in part on the Foreign Assistance Act (FAA) of 1961 that reorganized the structure of foreign aid and prohibits security force assistance to any country engaged in a “consistent pattern of gross violations of internationally recognized human rights.” In the 1990s, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) sponsored the Leahy Law; after passage, it has been amended to address funds distributed through the FAA, the Arms Export Control Act, and the Department of Defense (DOD).

Nathanael Moore, writing for the Cornell International Law Journal (2012), gives four important reasons why the law is limited. First, the executive branch has authority to ignore the law, or evade it through covert funding. Assuming the law is implemented, even if funds were classified as foreign aid, once distributed, Afghanistan may choose not to inform the United States how it was spent; Afghanistan may use its own domestic budget to fund units that have been cut off through the Leahy Law; and the narrow definition of a “unit” (for example, a unit may be an ALP commander, an ALP checkpoint, or all ALP) suspended from funding limits the effect of the law. Changes in 2014, added DOD equipment to the law, but three important distinctions remain in how DOD and FAA handle prohibition: 1) units receiving U.S. support can be remediated, but the standard for such is not defined; 2) the DOD version of the law allows for a waiver by the secretary of defense in extraordinary circumstances; and 3) the secretary of state must inform the foreign government of the basis for withholding aid, giving the government time to bring accused members to justice. Each of these provisions allow for significant flexibility. The Congressional Research Service interviewed advocates of the law in Colombia, who found the law “made a clear contribution to improving the human rights record of the Colombia military,” but that is was not a “perfect system,” noting well-documented information ensures the process works well.

As U.S. and international forces draw down, Afghanistan will face increased demands to internally monitor, audit, and validate Western funding streams. In six months, Ghani will put his country to the test as it takes accountability of the Law and Order Trust Fund, a $500 million annual fund administered by the United Nations Development Program to cover wages, benefits, and other costs for Afghan National Police (ANP). SIGAR has been one of the most thorough and competent auditors of the U.S. nation building effort in Afghanistan, but will they be around to assist the Afghan government? In January 2015, SIGAR found that ANP personnel and payroll data is inaccurate and often undocumented; that “weak controls and limited oversight” plague the Ministry of Interior; and personnel numbers may be inflated by up to 25 percent.

Is Afghanistan ready to police and monitor itself, or should the international mission to train, advise, and assist be extended?  The New York Times believes there is not sufficient evidence to change the withdrawal schedule. I argue there are plenty of valid reasons to remain. First, while human rights abuses in Afghanistan are less rampant than previous Afghan wars, it is still a sign of weakness in the fortress we have created, as is the poor administrative capacity plaguing Afghan government institutions like the Ministry of Interior. If the ministry cannot police its books, how are we to expect it to police its officer corps, particularly given the increased levels of violence as U.S. troops withdraw? Second, we are only adding greater pressure on the Afghan government by implementing threats of funding cuts (however much of a façade those threats may be) through the Leahy Law. As our memory in the West tends to fade and our attention drifts toward new threats around the world, we should not forget the disaster that fell upon Kabul in January 1992 when the Soviets ceased all funding to Najibullah’s government. Within months the state unraveled, ethnic tensions surfaced, and the spiral of violence commenced.  Let’s avoid similar mistakes. Instead of adding more weight to Afghanistan’s shoulders, let’s find ways to help our partner — shona ba shona (shoulder to shoulder) — carry it forward.

Aref Karimi/AFP/Getty Images

Matthew P. Dearing is an assistant professor at the National Defense University. The views expressed are the author’s own.