May 20th 2008
From The Economist print edition
The lessons of earlier Asian nation-building efforts
A big tent would be better
NEARLY seven years after the toppling of the Taliban, Afghanistan’s future is still up for grabs. Despite tens of thousands of foreign troops, and billions of dollars in aid, the country remains stricken by poverty and insurgency.
Kabul seems like the capital of an occupied country. Foreign diplomats and United Nations (UN) officials are forbidden to walk the streets alone, because of the risk of kidnap; so they cruise behind the tinted windows of their four-wheel-drives. Many big roads are concrete anti-terrorist obstacle courses. After recent suicide-bombings in the capital, it too is a front line.
Afghanistan’s troubles are, of course, unique, especially in the viciousness and extent of its continuing insurgency, most often compared with Iraq’s. But this is in fact only one of four foreign interventions in conflict-ridden states in Asia in recent years. The others—in Cambodia, Timor-Leste and Nepal—offer revealing parallels with Afghanistan.
Perhaps the clearest of all is that, despite the huge difficulties it presents—in Afghanistan above all—holding an election is the easy part.
Voters have consistently surprised observers with their enthusiasm, their maturity and their refusal to be cowed by the threat of violence. This was movingly so in a parliamentary election in Cambodia in 1993; in a referendum on independence in the then East Timor in 1999 and in its constituent-assembly and presidential elections in 2001-02; and in this year’s constituent-assembly election in Nepal.
But the losing party in Cambodia’s election responded by threatening the future of the peace process and then muscled its way back into government, where it still sits. The referendum in East Timor was followed by an orgy of Indonesia-inspired arson, looting and violence. The elections there led to an unstable government and to renewed violence in 2006. Following Nepal’s election, to the surprise and alarm of many observers, the Maoists have emerged as the biggest single party.
但 是在柬埔寨选举中失败的政党以破坏和平进程相威胁，然后依靠武力强行进入政府，并且至今还留在那里。东帝汶的公投伴随着受印尼唆使的纵火，抢劫和暴力事 件。通过这次选举产生的政府也不稳固，而且在2006年再次爆发骚乱。在尼泊尔选举中，马列主义（毛派）出人意料地一举成为国会最大党，这让许多观察人员 深感不安。
In Afghanistan, parliament houses many of the warlords who have wreaked such havoc in the country. As one veteran observer laments, a crucial mistake was made at the outset: not allowing the government and its foreign supporters a monopoly on the means of violence.
Another point in common to all four places is made by a senior UN official: that, in these rebuilding exercises, the outside world always tends to neglect the importance of “justice”. Understandably, in the interests of reconciliation and peace, there is a reluctance to countenance a confrontational settling of accounts.
In Cambodia it was only last year, after most of the Khmer Rouge leaders had died, that trials began of those who survived. In Timor-Leste, enquiries into past atrocities have not been allowed for fear of jeopardising relations with Indonesia; it has been deemed better to forget than to forgive. In Nepal, both the Maoists and the former royal army have strong reason to want to avoid any probe into their past behaviour.
Similarly in Afghanistan, there has been no accountability for past crimes. Nor can there be: the government relies on the support of some of those who stand accused of war crimes.
That is in part a consequence of the government’s most glaring weakness: the shortage of literate, capable, honest people to staff an administration. The lament repeated by every section of the foreign community is about the lack of “human capital”, or, if the speaker is feeling self-accusatory, about the failure of “capacity-building”.
This too is a problem familiar from, for example, Cambodia and East Timor—warfare and hardship wreck education systems and send millions into exile. If they come back at all, after peace returns, there is little financial or other incentive for the talented ones to work for the government.
Most find it more attractive to work for the UN, or foreign governments and charities—and so it is easier for the foreigners to do the jobs themselves. But they risk leaving behind them a dangerous vacuum, or perhaps worse: never being able to leave at all.