Snapshots From Kabul, Take 2

The overwhelming vibe one gets from serious Afghan civil society and government stakeholders is that Afghanistan doesn't have the tools and will, as of yet, to control and direct its own destiny.  .

Kabul marketplace.JPG

My impressions of Kabul, I'm sure, are not original.  As one gets beyond a veneer of chaos common to any developing country, there is a tension I keep running into here between those who are earnestly, desperately working to build systems that work in their country and those who are entirely self-motivated, often corruptly, and fake their support of the national project in order to siphon cash or to act as agents for powerful political manipulators to whom they are beholden.

The lines of tension here are not necessarily between the Taliban and the rest; they are regional, ethnic, sub-regional, sub-ethnic.  There is a complex, subtle struggle going on in the institutions I have seen thus far between fragments of Afghan society that must be included in government, in decisions, in anything big, lest those factions become spoilers, vetoing progress -- sometimes through violence.

Add to this the consistent view among those I have spoken to here that Pakistan's ISI is the control box for what moves forward and what gets sabotaged.  Many think Pakistan has a vision and strategy for what it wants out of Afghanistan that is far broader and larger in scope than anything the Afghan government has about itself.  Some of those who have shared their views with me here the last couple of days see efforts at peace and reconciliation in the country undermined from the start by ISI spies and agents who have become key politicians in the provinces and within the various ethnic groups -- not just the Pashtun. 

kabul 3.JPGThe overwhelming vibe one gets from serious Afghan civil society and government stakeholders is that Afghanistan doesn't have the tools and will, as of yet, to control and direct its own destiny.  Yet these same people say that they must try to improve things, try to be less the victim of Pakistani and Iranian intrigue; some would broaden the intrigue roster to include the Americans, Indians, British, French, Chinese and Russians.

I am only seeing Kabul on this trip and don't have the time to get to other provinces but hope to be back.  The currents here are powerful and its hard to convey the intensity of Afghanistan without experiencing it first hand.  There is a complex mix of roll up the sleeves optimism from some people among many others who feel that social doom lies ahead, particularly when the US draws down forces substantially in 2014.  Many feel a civil war is inevitable; some think it can be avoided -- but that faster efforts in local economic development are virtually the only thing that will hold the place together. 

Many resent the size and scale of US and allied troop deployments -- as they see their country's government constantly cash-strapped.  Many Afghans have recited to me that they are aware that the US is spending $1 million per soldier per year here -- and that a small portion of that overall budget in development aid could revolutionize their government's ability to deliver services and get buy-in from locals.  Today, only about 30% of aid and development revenues coming into the country go through government channels; with the rest going through international NGOs.  Three years ago, this number was 19%, so there has been some progress.

The members of a group I am traveling with are under collective agreement not to mention specific meetings we have had until everyone leaves the country, so I have to remain general for the time being in my commentary. 

This has been a fascinating listening and learning trip thus far.  I see some hopeful signs and think that everything is not gloom and doom -- but the lament so many Afghan government and former government officials have about their very thin bench of public policy and governance competence is palpable.

More soon.

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Steve Clemons is Washington editor at large for The Atlantic and editor of Atlantic Live. He writes frequently about politics and foreign affairs. More

Clemons is a senior fellow and the founder of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation, a centrist think tank in Washington, D.C., where he previously served as executive vice president. He writes and speaks frequently about the D.C. political scene, foreign policy, and national security issues, as well as domestic and global economic-policy challenges.

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