Afghanistan: You cannot lead a war and build the nation at the same time

An Interview with Tobias Debiel and Herbert Wulf

The KHK speaks with Centre Co-Director Prof. Dr. Tobias Debiel and former fellow Prof. Dr. Herbert Wulf about the Afghanistan withdrawal and its consequences for development cooperation.

Andrew Costigan: US president Biden has claimed that the US mission was never supposed to have been nation building, which prompts reflection on a kind of identity crisis in how the long intervention has been styled. What began as reaction to 9/11, has retroactively been variously described as development, stabilization, and war. Can you make sense of this confusion of purpose? How did the military alliance in Afghanistan defend the values that we are so proud of? 

Prof. Dr. Tobias Debiel: In hindsight, one can get the impression that the whole Afghanistan intervention was a big experiment in which external actors adapted the purposes continually. But one has to take into account that right from the start, the legitimation of the intervention differed among the Western actors. For the US the intervention was a ‘War on Terror’, but on the European side, particularly in Germany, it was stressed that for mid-term or long-term perspectives, nation and peacebuilding had to get to the forefront. I would say that nation building indeed was a major purpose in the first decade of the intervention. When it became clear, however, that success was limited, the intervention tended to be a stabilization mission. For a long time, the German Federal Government deliberately avoided the term war – which made an open and transparent debate even more difficult. Actually, I would not blame the intervenors to have adapted the purposes. But the underlying hybris was highly problematic in that top-down social engineering might have success in Afghanistan and that local circumstances could be neglected and not adequately taken into account.

Prof. Dr. Herbert Wulf: We have to remind ourselves that in the beginning there were actually two parallel missions one was called ‘Enduring Freedom’, which was clearly associated with the War on Terror, and the second one was the UN-mandated ISAF (International Security Assistance Force). So right from the beginning, you could clearly see that there were two missions and different governments had different ideas about what conditions were supposed to be.


Prof. Dr. Tobias Debiel: That’s a crucial point. At the same time, the more civilian-focused ISAF mission was always under the shadow of Enduring Freedom and many Afghans perceived the external engagement as being one intervention.


Prof. Dr. Herbert Wulf: Regarding second part of the question addressing the values that you mentioned, it was very laudable from the Western side to try to get control over the terrorists, to intend nation building, democracy, to fight corruption etc., but the difficult part is when you start doing this in a society that is very different from the values that we ourselves consider important – human rights, democracy, education for girls, anti-corruption etc. It is important that we ask ourselves first of all whether we abide to these values ourselves. In Afghanistan certainly that has not always been the case. For example, the civilian casualties resulting from indiscriminate air bombing attacks, the treatment of prisoners in secret CIA prisons, the legality or illegality of torture (including waterboarding) were all big discussions during the Bush administration. I think we have to rigorously observe our own values before we try to transfer them into a society where these kinds of values might be alien. Therefore, I think it is important to keep up these values, but we should not expect to be able to export them to the whole world. While a rules-based order is an important goal, the world is much more disorderly than our ‘beautiful Western order’.


Andrew Costigan: Has the opportunity for nation building and peace building in Afghanistan elapsed? What is the prognosis from a global cooperation standpoint?


Prof. Dr. Tobias Debiel: I do not think that the opportunity for peacebuilding has completely evaporated. The paradigms have changed over time, and Afghanistan will lead to another adaptation. Peacebuilding started in the 1990s with the maybe naive liberal paradigm that promoted rule of law, democracy and market economy. Soon, it became clear that some of the missions needed a more robust mandate. Later on, many scholars stressed that you have to take local mechanisms into account. This insight, however, has in practice often been ignored. I would argue that we can draw lessons and formulate at least three imperatives for future peacebuilding missions: First, you cannot lead a war and build the nation at the same time. If violence is still prevalent in a country, stabilization might be the most realistic purpose. The second imperative is to be modest and reflective; peacebuilding is not a social engineering exercise but rather an interaction between international and local actors. Thirdly, money can help to end a war because you can sometimes buy off conflict parties. But it also contributes to corruption and self-enrichment. Thus, a sustainable peace can never be achieved by channeling huge amounts of money into a country.


Prof. Dr. Herbert Wulf: I was just reading through the Obama biography, and he had already mentioned during his first four years of his administration that American money in Afghanistan would contribute to corruption. The US government was aware of what they were doing but they continued to do so. And the West was aware that they were assisting a corrupt government in Afghanistan, a government with very little legitimate authority.


Andrew Costigan: Professor Wulf, in your recent article, 'Afghanistan: Can We Learn from the Mistakes and Chaos?’, you stated that, ‘they wanted to form a democratic nation in Afghanistan, a society in which there is no legitimate central power, and which is characterised by tribes and tribal feuds, by village and religious structures. This approach has failed thoroughly because it was unrealistic from the start’. What should a ‘proper’ (more effective) intervention have looked like? How do intervening nations act with accountability, with regard to positive intervention over imposition, or integration which signals real understanding in development cooperation?


Herbert Wulf: I can build very much on what Tobias just said: it's unrealistic to fight a war and to build a nation in one society at the same time. This is definitely not going to work. In military interventions we should listen more to what has been a mantra in development cooperation for the last three four decades, that is, local ownership. Without local ownership you cannot achieve anything. If we ask how an intervention should be more proper or more effective, first of all, the basis should be: let's ask the people what they need – what kind of assistance they want – and not try to impose our frame of reference onto these people. As I said I think the world is disorderly and we cannot expect to fall into our own liking, but Western societies always tend to do that. We have to accept that there are sometimes situations where you have to face the dilemma that you cannot really assist or help. Therefore, I would be much more hesitant than we have been in the past two decades in Afghanistan to intervene in such a society.


Andrew Costigan: The right-wing media in the US has styled the US departure from Afghanistan as an immigration emergency: ‘First we invade, then we get invaded’. Can you comment on the implications for international immigration and foreign policy, specifically in reference to the political right?


Prof. Dr. Tobias Debiel: First of all, I find it a bit repellent to equate military invasion with the forced movement of people in danger. Sure enough, we have to face the fact that many Afghans want to leave the country, particularly those from urban areas and those with a middle-class background. As in most cases, the neighboring countries will be most seriously affected and not the West; thus, I think it's very important to support these countries. It will be very difficult for many Afghans to take the risky routes to Europe or even to the US, but still, some will be successful. I would argue that there is an international obligation to welcome and integrate these refugees. We do not speak, for example with regard to Germany, about many hundreds of thousands but it's probably rather many tens of thousands. Since the West bears responsibility for the situation in Afghanistan, there's a moral duty to react accordingly. Internationally it would mean that we have to agree on quota and contingencies because otherwise some countries would take an unproportionate burden and some might take a free rider position.


Prof. Dr. Herbert Wulf: I'd like to underline what Tobias said – that a lot of the neighboring countries from Pakistan to Turkey are much more affected by refugees then we are. I find our discussion here in Europe about a couple thousand refugees (or even a couple tens of thousands) arriving rather phony and therefore I don't think that's a relevant discussion, although I am aware of the fact that, similar to the US, right-wing groups in Europe try to profit from raising the immigration issue.


Andrew Costigan: In the German media, there is a fierce debate regarding the treatment of Afghan Ortskräfte and their efforts to obtain German ‘rescue visas’ (my term) to escape threats on the ground. Some say that Germany is failing these people. Can you comment on the role of the German Federal Government in this matter?


Prof. Dr. Tobias Debiel: The late German reaction really is a moral debacle, and it needs further investigation to figure out who is responsible for that. Apparently, the intelligence services mostly failed to foresee the rapid success of the Taliban. Still, politicians, in my view, always have to think in alternative scenarios. In such a volatile situation, you also must take into account that less probable scenarios might take hold. Furthermore, I would argue that there were many signals the Afghan National Army would not really be able to fight the Taliban effectively because their loyalty to a corrupt government was always limited. The motivations behind the hesitant German reaction were presumably twofold. One was conceded by Chancellor Merkel in the Bundestag, namely that the German government didn't want to signal that a quick failure mission was on the horizon. I think a second point is also important; we have elections at the end of September and one can suspect that the government also wanted to avoid another discussion about refugees.


Prof. Dr. Herbert Wulf: Tobias, to what extent do you think it's also organizational incompetence and bureaucratic red tape that has led to this catastrophic situation regarding the Ortskräfte? My impression is that the four ministries that are involved (the Foreign Office the Interior Ministry, the Economic Cooperation Ministry, and Defense) all have their own task and they tried to do it properly, but they don't really cooperate among each other. That's what I what I call a silo mentality, and it ends with what I called in my article ‘organized irresponsibility’. It's well organized but the end result is really irresponsible. Don't you think that has a lot to do with the present situation?


Prof. Dr. Tobias Debiel: I do agree that this is a factor, but from my point not the decisive one. In this bureaucratic rivalry, the ministry of the interior obviously took a very restrictive position. Until the beginning of August, many argued that that it's possible to deport Afghans to their home country because there were allegedly locations where they could find refuge. I think it's partly the bureaucratic problems but behind these problems also lie interests and for me this is the major factor.


Andrew Costigan: Professor Wulf, in your recent article for the Toda Peace Institute, you often default to metaphor and literary references in an effort to illuminate the psychological implications of the largely incomprehensible situation in Afghanistan. In your opinion, what role does narrative (the stories we tell ourselves) play in understanding and moving forward?


Prof. Dr. Herbert Wulf: The actors involved have of course their narratives and, in general, we like to stick to our narrative. We avoid learning from our mistakes because it's a very painful process to admit that one has done something which has gone wrong. That's why I referred to these stories that highlight very much that we see what we like to see. Therefore, I referred to the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes, about the king who had no clothes, and nobody admitted it except for a little boy who shouted it out loud. The Afghanistan situation, to me at least, looks very much like that; we wanted to believe that we were doing good work with good intentions – we do the nation building but we did not see the mistakes that we were making and therefore we could not draw the proper conclusions. We believed more money, more material, more personnel would do the trick. Secondly if we are in the process, we like to evaluate our process so that the end result is positive. We are enforcing the same process again and again and therefore we don't realize how we end up in this disaster. I do believe that some of the old stories can actually help us reflect our actions. And since these stories are well-known in the public, they might tell us very graphically what went wrong. If I mention ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’, everybody knows what is meant and I think it's very fitting for the Afghanistan situation.


Prof. Dr. Tobias Debiel: For many German politicians, until recently, it was almost impossible to admit that the Afghanistan intervention is an example of failure. Too much had already been invested and too many German soldiers had died so that it was difficult to acknowledge that the Afghanistan war was in a dead end – a term actually that Herbert used for a book he co-edited ten years ago (‘Afghanistan: Ein Krieg in der Sackgasse’).


Andrew Costigan: The Taliban has made dubious agreements to protect women and vulnerable populations during its current regime. To what extent can these claims be taken seriously? How can violence prevention and peacebuilding address imminent or already occurring human rights abuses linked to the resurgence of Taliban rule in the country?


Prof. Dr. Tobias Debiel: The Taliban are not a homogeneous bloc. Already in Afghanistan they differ with regard to regions and tribes. From a more general perspective, we observe at least three wings: the more moderate political leadership in Doha, the radical and ideological faction in Pakistan, and the fighters in Afghanistan. I think they have a common purpose, and this is to establish an Emirate based on a fundamentalist extremist interpretation of Islam. Given their track record regarding human rights violations, I doubt that the moderate tone is very credible. Since we have only few neutral observers and journalists on the ground, we lack reliable sources of what is and will be going on in Afghanistan. I think the West faces real dilemma how to react to the Taliban. This is not about negotiations which are unavoidable and necessary. But it’s about assistance: From a human rights perspective, you could simply stop aid and even humanitarian assistance because it could be instrumentalized, but this would also mean suffering by the common people and also even more refugees. Plus, that you have no political leverage. Alternatively, you could offer a conditional aid program in which you asked for a minimum recognition of human rights and the rule of law in order to support the state building process under the leadership of the Taliban. This, however, would raise the Taliban’s legitimacy. I'm personally very skeptical that the requirements for effective aid exist. Thus, I would recommend to wait and see whether the moderate announcements of the Taliban are really trustworthy and to insist on international human rights monitoring. But I am aware that there is a geopolitical factor which comes in: Russia and China are trying to make arrangements with the Taliban and I'm a bit afraid that this will also influence the Western position.


Prof. Dr. Herbert Wulf: One could add to that that there are a number of regional powers that are interested – India, Pakistan, Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Uzbekistan. It's going to be quite a conundrum; we don’t really know what's going to happen in the next few months because there are lots of countervailing interests in Afghanistan. It's also true that amongst the Taliban themselves there have been difficulties finding the correct approach to government.

Prof. Dr. Tobias Debiel is Professor of International Relations and Development Policy at the University of Duisburg-Essen (UDE), Deputy Director of the Institute for Development and Peace (INEF) as well as Co-Director of the Käte Hamburger Kolleg / Centre for Global Cooperation Research. His research interests are: State Fragility and Violent Conflict, Post-Conflict Peacebuilding, Global Governance and International Intervention, Development Policy in War-Torn Societies.

Selected Publications:
'Pluralisation of Authority in Post-Conflict Peacebuilding: The Re-Assignment of Responsibility in Polycentric Governance Arrangements', in Ulbert, Cornelia, Finkenbusch, Peter, Sondermann, Elena, Debiel, Tobias (eds.). 
Moral Agency and the Politics of Responsibility. London/New York: Routledge 2017, 135-150; (editor with Thomas Held and Ulrich Schneckener)
Peacebuilding in Crisis: Rethinking Paradigms and Practices of Transnational Cooperation. London/New York: Routledge 2016.

Prof. Dr. Herbert Wulf is a Professor of International Relations and former Director of the Bonn International Center for Conversion (BICC). He is presently a Senior Fellow at BICC, an Adjunct Senior Researcher at the Institute for Development and Peace, University of Duisburg/Essen, Germany, and a Research Affiliate at the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, University of Otago, New Zealand. He serves on the Scientific Councils of SIPRI and the Centre for Conflict Studies of the University of Marburg, Germany.


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