What is state failure? See my conceptualisation of state failure on the right flank below.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Van Loon on southern Afghanistan, Uruzgan, tribes, corruption and all else

Despite my keen interest in following developments in Uruzgan, I've only recently watched a very informative presentation (accessible indirectly through this page) by Major General Ton van Loon of the Netherlands, former commander of ISAF RC-S, delivered at the U.S. Atlantic Council (ACUS). He talked of many issues there that are important in the context of the insurgency both in southern Afghanistan in general, and in Uruzgan specifically.
Picture: Ton van Loon at ACUS, June 5th, 2007.
Things I found interesting, in a random order.
- Van Loon mentioned how the police in Uruzgan is made up largely of Populzais - a retained unit of the Afghan Highway Police, for example, consists exclusively of Populzais - and that almost no Ghilzais have joined the police in the province. One therefore had better be cautious when sending those policemen to some other tribes' areas. (I wonder how much the composition of the police force has changed by now, if it has, at all.)
- No surprise in that illiteracy is something that is a problem at the highest level as well, but it was interesting to hear van Loon reveal concretely that Uruzgan's education minister at the time (June, 2007) was an illiterate person, as well as that ten out of eleven in the agricultural ministry's staff also couldn't read or write. This means you can't just e-mail them to send over that long-term provincial agricultural development plan you would like to see from them. (Re: the use of the word 'ministry,' these are the local, provincial-level offices of the Kabul government organs.)
- Van Loon was a lot more open about the need for fighting decisively at times than the political leadership in the Hague tends to be. He certainly didn't look to create an impression that there is a special Dutch approach that would supposedly set the Dutch contingent aside from other countries' units under ISAF RC-S. (He said: "My country doesn't like to talk about the fighting part of the story. But we do it when we have to. There's no doubt it's a sensibility.")
- Regarding how talking about the need for fighting can be difficult in European countries, even in the Netherlands, it might be indicative how van Loon used the phrase at one point: "I'm going to be clear about it: Afghanistan is a counterinsurgency operation." I guess he must have got accustomed to speaking to politicans and others, e.g. back in the Netherlands, with whom this is no easy issue to raise. Even while it's plain obvious. Some people would still prefer to talk exclusively about reconstruction.
- Jordan is supporting the development of a hospital in Qalat (Zabul province) - they also have a medical team there. I didn't know that.
- Van Loon was very appreciative of the deployment of German Tornados (there since the spring of 2007, flying from Mazar-i-Sharif).
- On the issue of national caveats. Van Loon made the point that he would rather welcome well-trained, well-equipped and experienced troops with many caveats, than poorly trained and poorly equipped forces of any kind as a bunch of shooters without restrictions.
Finally, I'll stop by at what he said about corruption. Many anecdotes about corruption in Afghanistan could be cited here - now here's one from Major General van Loon.
"(Sarah Chayes) introduced this woman (in Kandahar) to me, and the woman had lost her husband. That is already pretty problematic in Afghanistan. But this family had owned a house in Kabul, and a house in Kabul is a pretty big asset. It's worth money. And she wanted to sell this house. And then she found that someone else had a piece of paper, stating that her husband, her deceased husband had signed over the house to the other gentleman. Luckily for her the date on this transfer was after her husband's death. In all our countries that would be easy. But she went to a judge, and the judge said yeah, you're right, this is a forgery, no doubt about that, but you have to pay me a thousand dollars for me to say it."
The judge has his own perspective of course, I'm sure. Officially he gets paid only about a hundred dollars a month. So he's looking to earn some extra. This is a destructive interaction nevertheless.
And it reminds me of this excerpt from a book I've already written of in this blog, African Guerrillas - Raging Against the Machine. It's not readable "into" the Afghan context without reservations, nevertheless it may be relevant.
Morten Bøås writes (in "Marginalised Youth," pp. 39-53.):
"Being exposed to bribery, corruption, mismanagement, and the abuse of power day in and day out can be a very humiliating experience and may help us understand why so many young people have willingly taken up arms in sub-Saharan Africa. To understand the "African guerrillas" we need to consider their experiences with the state, the traumas caused by these experiences, and the meta-narratives constructed around these shared memories, and experiences."

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