The concept of human security unifies fields of policy and analysis that have conventionally been kept separate: humanitarianism and development on the one hand, and international security on the other. For years, those concerned with the suffering and ordeals of the people of Afghanistan found it hard to gain a hearing in the precincts of so-called “high politics,” where security dominated. Afghanistan was defined largely as a “humanitarian emergency” to be treated with charity. Regional states, especially some Central Asian leaders, argued repeatedly that the failure to rebuild Afghanistan and provide its people with security and livelihoods threatened its neighbors. Since 1998, an increase in what we may, in retrospect, call relatively small acts of terror traced to the al-Qa’ida organization, did place Afghanistan on the global security agenda. But the means chosen to address that threat — sanctions against the Taliban, combined with humanitarian exceptions, with no reference to the reconstruction of the country — showed that those setting the international security agenda had not drawn the connection between the terrorist threats to their own security and the threats to human security faced daily by the people of Afghanistan.
The people of Afghanistan have for twenty years faced violence, lawlessness, torture, killing, rape, expulsions, displacement, looting, and every other part of the litany of suffering that characterizes today’s transnational wars. Groups one after another, aided by foreign powers, have destroyed the irrigation systems, mined the pastures, leveled the cities, cratered the roads, blasted the schools, and arrested, tortured, killed, and expelled the educated. Statistics are few and far between, but one study estimated that “excess mortality,” in the demographer’s phrase, had amounted to nearly one tenth of Afghanistan’s population between 1979 and 1987.
Some of the results of this destruction are summarized in the table reproduced here (see end) from a previous publication. It shows that whatever measure of human welfare or security one chooses — life expectancy, the mortality of women and children, health, literacy, access to clean water, nutrition — Afghanistan ranks near the bottom of the human family. But this table shows something else as well. The figures in it are all rough guesses compiled by international organizations. Afghanistan is no longer even listed in the tables of the World Development Report published yearly by the UN Development Program, because it has no national institutions capable of compiling such data.
In a lecture published years ago, Professor Amartya Sen compared the records of China and India in food security, particularly in the prevention of famine, and he demonstrated a fundamental result: access to information is one of the chief guarantors of human security. Professor Sen showed that the restrictions placed on freedom of expression by the Chinese government allowed famine to rage unchecked during the Great Leap Forward, whereas India’s freer system more easily halted such disasters.
Afghanistan also faces a challenge of information, but an even more fundamental one than China: it has no institutions capable even of generating information about the society that could be used to govern it. Over the past two decades Afghanistan has been ruled, in whole or in part, at times badly and at times atrociously, but it has not been governed. Above all, the crisis of human security in Afghanistan is due to the destruction of institutions of legitimate governance. It is as much an institutional emergency as a humanitarian emergency. Accountable institutions of governance that use information to design policies to build the human capital of their citizens and support their citizens’ economic and social efforts, and that allow others to monitor them through free exchange of information, are the keys to human security.
The insecurity due to the absence of such institutions and the effect on the population accounts for many of the threats that Afghanistan has posed. The rise and fall of one warlord or armed group after another is largely accounted for by the ease with which a leader can raise an army in such an impoverished, ungoverned society. One meal a day can recruit a soldier. No authorities impede arms trafficking, and no one with power has enough stake in the international order to pay it heed.
The expansion of the cultivation and trafficking of opium poppy constituted a survival strategy for the peasantry in this high-risk environment. Opium cultivation supplied not only income and employment, but cash for food security. Afghanistan used to be self-sufficient in food production, but it now produces less than two thirds of its needs. Futures contracts for poppy constituted the only source of rural credit, and only the cash derived from these futures contracts enabled many rural families to buy food and other necessities through the winter.
The lack of border control, legitimate economic activity, and normal legal relations with neighbors, combined with disparities in trade policy between the free port of Dubai and the protectionist regimes elsewhere in the region, made Afghanistan into a center of contraband in all sorts of goods. This smuggling economy provided livelihoods to a sector of the population while undermining institutions in Afghanistan’s neighbors.
The lack of any transparency or accountability in monetary policy since the mid-1980s has both resulted from and intensified the crisis of institutions. Governments or factions posing as governments received — and continue to receive — containers of newly printed currency, which they transfer to militia leaders or other clients to buy their loyalty. They need not bother with the inconvenience of taxation or nurturing productive economic activity. The resultant hyperinflation has driven wealth out of the country and contributed to the already bleak prospects for investment. It has virtually wiped out the value of salaries paid to government workers, including teachers, undermining the last vestiges of administration and public service, except where international organizations pay incentives to keep people on the job.
This is the context in which Afghanistan became a haven for international terrorism. The origins of the problem go back to the creation of armed Islamic groups to fight the Soviet troops and the government they had installed. Islamist radicals, mainly from the Arab world, were recruited to join the ranks of the mujahidin. But the Afghans, by and large, did not want these fighters to stay after the Soviet troops left. If the people of Afghanistan had been able to rebuild their country and establish institutions of governance, they would have expelled the terrorists, as they are doing today. But in the atmosphere of anarchy and lawlessness, the armed militants were useful to both some Afghan groups and their foreign supporters.
The money that could be mobilized by Usama bin Ladin and his networks also played a role. As the Taliban, in particular, became increasingly alienated from the official international aid community, with its various strictures and demands about women and other matters, they increasingly turned to this alternative, unofficial international community. The financial and military support they received helped cement the ideological and personal ties that grew between the top leadership of the Taliban and al-Qa’ida. In an impoverished, unpoliced, ungoverned state, with no stake in international society, al-Qa’ida could establish bases from which it strengthened and trained its global networks.
That network’s most spectacular act of terrorism, on September 11, finally revealed how dangerous it can be, not only to neighboring countries but also to the whole world, to allow so-called humanitarian emergencies or failed states to fester. A US administration that came to power denouncing efforts at “nation-building” and criticizing reliance on international organizations and agreements, has now proclaimed that it needs to assure a “stable Afghanistan” to prevent that country from ever again becoming a haven for terrorists. The US, along with every other major country, has committed itself to supporting the reconstruction of Afghanistan within a framework designed by the United Nations.
The recent Agreement on provisional arrangements in Afghanistan pending the re-establishment of permanent government institutions — to give the Bonn Agreement its full and accurate title — resulted directly from this new level of commitment and political will by both Afghans and major powers. Most reports on this agreement treat it as a peace agreement, like those that have ended armed conflicts elsewhere. But in Bonn the UN did not bring together warring parties to make peace. The international community has defined one side of the ongoing war in Afghanistan — the alliance of al-Qa’ida and the Taliban — as an outlaw formation that must be defeated. In Bonn the UN brought together Afghan groups opposed to the Taliban and al-Qa’ida, some possessing power and others various forms of legitimacy, notably through the person of the former king of Afghanistan. The task they set themselves was the central one of protecting human security: starting the process of establishing — or, as the Afghans insisted, in recognition of their long history, re-establishing — permanent government institutions.
This agreement thus differs from many others, which, as critics have noted, sometimes amounted to the codification of de facto power relations, no matter how illegitimate. This agreement does recognize power, especially in the allocation of key ministries to the relatively small group that already controls them in Kabul. In most respects, however, this agreement attempts to lay a foundation for transcending the current rather fragile power relations through building institutions.
The Interim Authority of Afghanistan established by this agreement will include three elements: an administration, a supreme court, and a special commission to convene the Emergency Loya Jirga at the end of the six-month interim period. It also provides for an international security force, one of whose major purposes is to ensure the independence of the administration from military pressure by power-holding factions.
The Bonn Agreement does not contain a Supreme or Leadership Council composed of prominent persons. Such institutions in past Afghan agreements gave legitimacy to de facto power holders, including those whom some call warlords, as well as leaders of organizations supported by foreign countries. Some of the discontent with the agreement derives from the fact that it does not give recognition to such leaders. Many Afghans seem to consider this a positive step.
Instead the agreement emphasizes the administration. The term “administration” rather than “government” indicates its temporary and limited nature, but it also emphasizes that the role of this institution is actually to administer — to provide services. The presence of the supreme court as well as measures defining an interim legal system, require this administration is to work according to law, and the incoming chair of this administration, Hamid Karzai, has also emphasized this in his public statements. Some had hoped that this administration would be largely professional and technocratic in character, and that is certainly true at least of its women members. In Afghanistan as elsewhere women can usually obtain high positions only by being qualified, whereas men have other options for advancement.
Some little noticed elements in the agreement are designed to strengthen the ability of this administration to govern through laws and rules and provide for transitions to successively more institutionalized and representative arrangements. The international security force should insulate the administration from pressure by factional armed forces. At the insistence of the participants, the judicial power is described as “independent.” The Special Commission for the Preparation of the Loya Jirga has a number of features to protect it from pressure by the administration, including a prohibition on membership in both. The SRSG is also given special responsibility for insuring its independence.
The agreement confronts the country’s monetary crisis by authorizing the establishment of a new central bank and requiring transparent and accountable procedures for the issuance of currency. This measure is partly aimed at ensuring that the authorities will be able to pay meaningful salaries to officials throughout the country, thus re-establishing the administrative structure that has been overwhelmed by warlordism. Appointments to the administration are to be monitored by an independent Civil Service Commission. While this body will face severe constraints, it is aimed at curtailing arbitrary appointments, whether for personal corruption or to assure factional power. The Civil Service Commission will be supplemented with a formal Code of Conduct, with sanctions against those who violate it. For the first time, the Afghan authorities will establish a human rights commission, which will not only monitor current practice but also become the focal point for the extremely sensitive discussion about accountability for past wrongs. The SRSG also has the right to investigate human rights violations and recommend corrective actions.
The Agreement provides for the integration of all armed groups into official security forces. Though this is not what specialists refer to as a “self-executing provision,” a number of other measures will reinforce it. The international security force will assist in the formation of all-Afghan security forces. Monetary reforms and foreign assistance to the authorities will enable the latter to pay meaningful salaries to soldiers and police, providing an incentive for them to shift their loyalties from warlords. The latter may become generals, governors, politicians, or businessman, as institutions are built and the economy revives.
Building these Afghan institutions will constitute the core task of protecting human security in Afghanistan. The Agreement provides a framework. But implementation in such a war-torn and devastated society will largely depend on how the international donors and the UN system approach the task of reconstruction.
As donors, agencies, and NGOs rush in, they risk losing sight of the central task: building Afghan institutions owned by and accountable to the people of Afghanistan. The Bonn Agreement states that the SRSG “shall monitor and assist in the implementation” of the agreement, but it does not establish a UN transitional administration in Afghanistan. It vests sovereignty in the Interim Authority. The Afghan participants at the meeting scrutinized every provision that provided for international monitoring or involvement to assure that the new authority would be fully sovereign. The lessons of the past two decades in Afghanistan and elsewhere are that only accountable and legitimate national institutions, though open to the outside world and subject to international standards, can protect human security.
There is a real risk that, as the actors in the reconstruction market bid for locations in the bazaar that is opening in Afghanistan, they may harm, hinder, or even destroy the effort to build Afghan institutions. Donors and agencies seeking to establish programs need to find clients, and it is often easier to do so by linking up directly with a de facto power on the ground. Such uncoordinated efforts have reinforced clientelism and warlordism in Afghanistan for years in the absence of a legitimate authority, but they will now have to come to an end. Programs will have to be coordinated to assure that they work together to reinforce the capacities and priorities of Afghan institutions.
Establishing a large international presence, with more white Toyota Land Cruisers than staff, with high salaries and big houses, will overwhelm the new administration and distort the economy. When the mujahidin took power in Herat in 1992, I was told, the city had ten qualified Afghan engineers working in the municipality. Before long it had only one, as the other nine went to work as drivers for UN agencies, where they earned much higher salaries. This is just one example of how the normal operation of the international aid system can actually deprive countries of the capacities they need.
If the vast sums that seem to be flowing toward Afghanistan are to help reinforce rather than undermine the fragile institutions established in the Bonn Agreement, international actors must also establish new institutions, to monitor and control the disbursements in partnership with the Afghan authorities. The expenditures must follow the priorities they set in consultation with the SRSG, not the multiple priorities set by the agendas of various countries or agencies. We in the international community may have to sacrifice some of our immediate interests, but as we have learned only too bitterly, it is worth paying a modest price to protect the self-determination and human security of the people of Afghanistan. Our own security depends on it.
This essay was adapted from a speech delivered in Tokyo on December 15, 2001, at the International Symposium on Human Security: “Human Security and Terrorism – Diversifying Threats under Globalization”—from Afghanistan to the Future of the World.