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«A Response by Susanne Schmeidl (with Masood Karokhail) 67 1. Introduction 1 The lead article’s question of whether it is ...»

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“Prêt-a-Porter States”:

How the McDonaldization of State-Building Misses

the Mark in Afghanistan

A Response by Susanne Schmeidl (with Masood Karokhail)



1. Introduction 1

The lead article’s question of whether it is states that are failing or those who are trying to (re-)

build them sparked my interest, as I have been trying to understand the utility of a top-down approach to

state-building ever since I got involved in the ‘Afghanistan project’ (Schmeidl 2007a, 2007b). While it may be impossible to eliminate biases completely, I want at least to make my own transparent.

From the onset I would like to highlight that I am commenting on state-building from the perspective of a social worker and sociologist who has spent most of her career working with people at the grass-roots level. Secondly, at least in the Afghan case, I am not at all a detached observer but an involved practitioner, who may have been inadvertently promoting and developing “hybrid state-building” without thinking of it as such. I have been working on peacebuilding in Afghanistan – which, according to Susan Woodward, is essentially state-building2 – since 2002. Between 2002 and 2005 I worked with the Afghan Civil Society Forum on giving civil society a voice and role in the peacebuilding process, among others in the constitution-making process and both elections (presidential and parliamentary). In 2003, I also helped 1 This article has been informed profoundly by my work in Afghanistan, especially with The Liaison Office, which I helped co-found in

2003. I would like to acknowledge in particular that conversations with Masood Karokhail have greatly influenced my own thinking.

In addition, I have greatly benefited from insights gained while conducting research with several TLO researchers, notably Shafiqullah Ziai, TLO’s Head of Research. Most of TLO’s research findings are not yet published, but should become available to the public in 2009.

Nevertheless, the arguments in this article are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of The Liaison Office, other than Box 1 which is based on internal TLO documents and contributions by Masood Karokhail.

2 Statement during a panel she chaired at the International Studies Association, San Francisco (2008). Boege et al. also seem to use state- and peacebuilding interchangeably.

© Berghof Research Center for Constructive Conflict Management First launch April 2009 Susanne Schmeidl (with Masood Karokhail) develop the Tribal Liaison Office (TLO, nowadays The Liaison Office), which I have since worked for in an advisory and development capacity (Karokhail/Schmeidl 2006). The TLO’s mission is somewhat akin to the hybrid state-building proposed by Boege and his colleagues, proclaiming “to differ from state-building that directly or indirectly only emphasizes modernity” by aiming at “facilitating the formal integration of communities and their traditional governance structures within Afghanistan’s newly emerging governance, security and reconstruction framework”.3 In light of the above, this short comment focuses on lessons drawn from Afghan statebuilding from the perspective of a hybrid scholar-practitioner looking at states from the bottom-up, rather than from the top-down. The focus on Afghanistan is not only fitting due to my own experience, especially while working with The Liaison Office. The country also seems to provide some perfect examples of hybrid political orders, albeit ones that have been frequently associated with state failure (i.e. when the communist government fell in 1992 and when the Taliban fell in 2001; see Stahel 2007, 42).

2. The State of Afghanistan According to the “quantifiable” index of state failure tracking the performance of 177 countries – linked to four social, two economic and six political and military indicators – Afghanistan was recently ranked as the seventh-least stable country in the world, coming in high above the warning range for imminent failure (Fund for Peace 2008). A state that actually provides services (and controls the means of violence and territorial integrity) – something that we take very much for granted in the west – does not currently exist in Afghanistan. The average Afghan citizen’s lack of trust in his/her state is most easily illustrated by the reluctance (even resentment) to pay taxes 68 to an entity that seems to be neither representative nor able to provide security or other basic needs (such as electricity, employment, education or health care).

Unlike the Afghan public and some Afghan experts, it took many international actors several years to realize that the Afghan state, which is mostly limited to Kabul and a few other major cities anyway, was not doing so well; something I have previously compared to Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytale of The Emperor’s New Clothes (Schmeidl 2007a). Today, seven years into the Afghan state-building project, everybody seems to agree on one thing: the Emperor has caught the flu, and it might prove to be fatal. Yet, instead of trying to objectively diagnose the causes of the illness and search for a possible cure, the blaming game has started. While successes are readily claimed – even if they are short-lived – failures are always seen as the responsibility of somebody else; be it the neighbours of the Afghan government, the insurgency, poor governance and corruption, ill-advised external state-building efforts or the backwardness of rural Afghanistan, which is presumably simply too pre-modern, wild and unruly to come together into an orderly state project.

One of the conditions (or ailments) of the Afghan state seems to be an ‘infestation’ of what Boege et al. call hybrid political orders, accompanied by a mismatch between de jure and de facto state power (Wilder/Lister 2007). The latter is currently not only exercised by localised strongmen but markedly also by the Taliban insurgency (see Schetter 2007; ICOS 2008). According to Andreas Wimmer and Conrad Schetter (2002, 8-9) this is not a new development, as the Afghan state historically was largely restricted to cities, with the vast rural areas lying under the control of non-state power holders. Amin Saikal (2005) calls the phenomenon “Afghanistan’s weak state and strong society”. Yet it begs the question how the modern state in Afghanistan can be considered to be failing if it historically never really existed outside the country’s cities to begin with.

3 TLO DRAFT Constitution (2008; first drafted in 2003, first revised in 2007 and currently under review).

–  –  –

© Berghof Research Center for Constructive Conflict Management Susanne Schmeidl (with Masood Karokhail) It is here that the lead authors’ argument comes into focus: the source of state failure possibly does not lie within the states (or societies) themselves, but rather in the western-centric Weberian ideal-type model of a state, which hardly exists outside the west (or more narrowly the OECD region), but which the international community nevertheless tries to sell to the Global South with a ‘prêt-a-porter’ mentality.

2.1 State-Builders’ Blindness or Bankruptcy?

Even if there are debates on what to call it, a lot of attention and resources have been spent on the post-2001 international engagement in Afghanistan, which is clearly marred by a conflict of interests (building peace vs. fighting terrorism, cf. Schmeidl 2007a). Both Astri Suhrke (2006) and Andrew Wilder and Sarah Lister (2007, 85) consider it to be state-building, albeit largely top-down and without a coherent overarching strategy. Ashraf Ghani and Clare Lockhart (2008, 12), frequently cited experts on state-building who both worked on the Afghan project between 2001 and 2005, on the other hand, argue that “the international community was resistant to the concept of state building” in Afghanistan, focusing instead on “old approaches […] wrapped in the language of state building”. These old approaches or state-building ‘clothes’, whether invisible or ill-fitting, are what Wilder and Lister (2007, 85) call manageable technocratic solutions rather than coherent strategies.

I would call it a ‘McDonaldization’ of state-building (Schmeidl 2007a).

This McDonaldization emphasizes not so much the quality of the end product but the speed in production (fast vs. slow food). While western states have had decades, if not centuries, to form, new states are expected to shape up essentially overnight. Yet “building state and security takes time, and it is not clear that the wider world is prepared in all cases to make the commitment” (Maley 2007, 12; original emphasis). Lakhdar Brahimi (2007, 17) contends in retrospect that the “‘light 69 footprint’ never meant for us a ‘rushed footprint’. The international community must understand that state-building efforts require long-term commitments of human and financial resources”.

Nevertheless, as Special Representative of the Secretary-General (SRSG) for Afghanistan and Head of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, a post Brahimi held from 3 October 2001 to 31 December 2004, he not only assisted in crafting the Bonn Agreement, but also oversaw the race to complete it: constitution (2003), presidential elections (2004), parliamentary elections (2005) – to mention just a few milestones. Such a speed may not only lead to burn out among some of the hard-working aid workers, but also exhaust the population that has to sprint through a societal formation process.

‘Prêt-a-porter’ state-building also seems to take little pride in exporting the kind of state that those delivering it would likely prefer themselves, rather settling for second or even third best (the fine difference between haute côture and prêt-a-porter). Boege et al. (in this volume, 19) point out that colonial authorities acted by and large in an authoritarian manner abroad, even if they themselves came from democratic states. The constitution-making process in Afghanistan is a fitting currentday example. Those involved judged it as “reasonably successful” in retrospect (Brahimi 2007, 8;

Rubin 2004; Brandt 2005), but had been far more optimistic at the time of involvement. Observers were more critical all along; and one particular Crisis Group report (2003) drew intense criticism by Brahimi, who later on conceded: “in hindsight, I strongly believe that it would have been much better to keep that [i.e. the 1964] constitution for a few more years rather than artificially decide (as it was done under strong external pressure) that a brand new constitution had to be produced barely two years after the adoption of the Bonn Agreement” (Brahimi 2007, 8). In hindsight, Brahimi also argued that “elections are not the ultimate aim of a peace process and must be used as a mechanism

–  –  –

© Berghof Research Center for Constructive Conflict Management Susanne Schmeidl (with Masood Karokhail) to engender deliberation, participation and national reconciliation; they should not be turned into a superficial and hurried public demonstration of doubtful democratization” (Brahimi 2007, 4; original emphasis). Still, while treating elections as a logistics exercise rather than a democratic process only reached its peak after Brahimi had left (during the 2005 parliamentary elections run by Peter Erben), it was Brahimi who oversaw the (hastily called) 2004 presidential elections.

Furthermore, there seems to be some disagreement on the final vision of the ‘ideal state’ to be built, leading to rather diverse assistance models and possible contradictions. The pillar approach adopted for Afghanistan, where “different donor countries were given lead responsibility for reform of different sectors”, has painfully illustrated this point (Nixon 2007, 9). More profoundly, there might even be disagreement within pillars. Thus, Afghanistan was modelled according to the presidential system of the US (organised around the figure-head of President Karzai), when in fact its regional and cultural diversity may perhaps rather have called for a parliamentary system à la federal Germany or canton-orientated Switzerland. Similarly, the European engagement in Afghanistan (EUPOL) has tried to emphasize civilian policing, while the US has been happy to have military and private security contractors train the police force.

Finally, there has also been a strong focus on modernity (Suhrke 2007) and urban centres, arguably creating “one of the most highly centralised states in the world” (Wilder/Lister 2007, 86).

The East Timor case presented in Boege et al. (in this volume, 25/26) as “misguided ‘state-building from scratch’” creates a chilling feeling of déjà vu in Afghanistan, giving the impression of statebuilding as an exercise where lessons seem neither to be observed, learned nor transferred. This gives some merit to the argument that peace and state-building are being McDonaldized: how else can one explain the similarity in misguided approaches between Afghanistan and East Timor? Here

are just a few examples of what could be observed in both countries:

70 • Centralized state-building in the capital cities – the islands of Kabul (and Dili) – ignoring the vast rural areas, which leads to a marginalisation of local culture and rural communities: “the vast majority of Afghans interact with the state institutions at the provincial and district levels, yet the near exclusive focus of state-building efforts from 2002-2005 was to strengthen central government” (Wilder/Lister 2007, 85);

• Crucial misperceptions of external actors and political elites who had spent a long time in (western) exile about issues such as the importance of rural communities, traditional structures, tribal police and sub-national governance;

• Ignoring the existence and functioning of ‘traditional’ governance institutions and assuming that state-building could start from scratch (only because the Taliban system had been toppled).

The outcomes are rather similar as well: in both countries there is now a difficult security situation, leading some to interpret that democracy and the local culture are antagonistic (with a condescending undertone of “they just don’t get it”). Democracy appears imposed, far from what had been promised to the Afghan people (what respectable democracy allows warlords to be elected into parliament?).

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