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After They’re Gone: The Future of a “Networked” Afghan State

“How many of you think that the state in Afghanistan, once the U.S. military forces leave, would collapse?” asked Timor Sharan, Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Exeter (UK) and a visiting researcher at IU’s Vincent and Elinor Ostrom Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis. Of the sixty or so people filling the room, about half raised their hands, some tentatively. “Who thinks that the Afghan state is not going to collapse?” About an equal number of hands were raised. “The picture is quite gloomy, if we read some of the headlines…,” agreed Sharan. But, he continued, “My task is very simple here, to provide you with a rather positive and hopeful answer, that the Afghan state is going nowhere and is not going to collapse.”

In his talk, which was sponsored by the Islamic Studies Program, Center for the Study of the Middle East, Central Eurasian Studies Department, Inner Asian and Uralic National Resource Center, and Center for Languages of the Central Asian Region, Sharan drew upon his own years of experience working in different donor agencies and policy research organizations in Afghanistan as well as his training in Development Studies and Political Science.

He mapped out the complexities of international intervention efforts in Afghanistan with their intended, and many unintended, consequences.

“There are currently more than 45 international countries involved in Afghanistan…. The picture becomes even more complicated when you add the State Department, the military, the CIA,… MI6 in the UK, the Pakistani intelligence forces, the Iranians, and so forth…and the NGOs…. The Afghan state that is being created is being created by all of these forces.”

He argued that out of the complex assemblages of international interventions and the Afghan leadership, a “networked state" has emerged that is mutually reinforced through patron-client relationships, through control of the official and unofficial Afghan economy by the key elite, and by identity politics, all of which has been consolidated under the control of Karzai.

“The point I’m trying to make is that…the international community, specifically the Americans, helped and relied on these key jihadi elites. But above all…these jihadi elites came to constitute the Afghan state, they occupied strategic parts of the Afghan state, and…brought in their own people…so the result was a ‘networked state.'”

This particular convergence of multiple international security interventions and networks of jihadi elites has created a situation in which instability has found an unlikely home—it both legitimizes the presence of the former and drives the interests of the latter.

“These people [jihadi elites] do not want peace and stability because they benefit from insecurity. And this is the fundamental issue.”

Sharan questioned the nature of international intervention in Afghanistan, which, under the rubric of maintaining security, has essentially created a market for security services that provides the jihadi elites with a lucrative source of income which they divert to maintain their own political networks.

“Some of the key warlords in Kandahar, in Nangarhar, in Helmand, and so forth, have made money by providing logistics and providing security provisions to the NATO forces.”

Yet out of this policy failure, Sharan points to a policy solution—the need for international forces to have greater accountability for their own interventions.

 “It is good to highlight this corruption, but I think it tells us half the story. The other half is how the U.S. government itself, the U.S. military, the British, and so forth, have…been helping these people—the lack of accountability and monitoring mechanisms in place have helped these people enrich themselves.”

For those who hold that the Afghan state will collapse in the near future, Sharan argues that their belief is based upon the assumptions that Karzai has lost legitimacy, that ethno-regional factions will divide the Afghan population, and that the Taliban are strong and widely supported. Sharan, for one, strongly doubts those assumptions.

“Contrary to everyone else who has argued that Karzai is quite weak, I argue that Karzai, his network, is quite strong—he has established a strong network, and that network is not going to collapse…. Contrary to everyone else, I believe the Taliban have been weakened, and that is positive.”

As for ethnic and regional divisions, Sharan posits that “…identity politics…has to some extent ethnicized Afghan society, but I will argue that it is not to that level that is threatening people.”

Instead of state collapse, Sharan foresees a transfer of power in the 2014 elections to a pro-Karzai leader and the survival of the Afghan state well into the next decade.

“I think the focus is wrong—we should not talk about 2014, we should talk about 2024.”

Sharan envisions the continued role of international, especially American, forces in the Afghan state but calls on them to be more transparent and accountable in their aid as well as their intentions. He also sees the importance of regional cooperation—to provide incentives for Pakistan and India to be on board—as well as the need to decentralize power in the Afghan state. Perhaps most significantly, Sharan envisions the role of the people in building the Afghan state.

“Instead of focusing on collapse, I think we should focus on the gains that have been achieved so far, particularly in terms of the emergence of an educated Afghan youth, an emerging middle class…the development in different parts of the country, extension of roads, hospitals, and so forth that have been built in the country. I think those, in the long run, are going to make a difference.”