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Afghanistan in Transition: Beyond 2014? ed. by Shanthie Mariet D’Souza (review)
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What are Afghanistan’s prospects following Barack Obama’s pledge in May 2012 to “responsibly wind down the war in Afghanistan”? By 2014, the US and NATO hope to have in place Afghan security forces numbering 352,000 men and donor pledges to cover their annual expense of $5–7 billion. Beyond this basic scheme, dozens of questions remain. Will Afghan forces prove effective? Will the US maintain bases? What will happen to an economy that depends on aid for 70–90% of its GDP? Will the political system survive, or should Afghans brace for the return of the Taliban and another round of ethnic mobilization and proxy war fueled by Afghanistan’s neighbors?

Amid this uncertainty, Afghanistan in Transition represents a timely challenge to focus the attention of policy-makers on the multifaceted issues at stake. Shanthie Mariet D’Souza has crafted a thoughtful and comprehensive guide to the thorny politics of the American drawdown. This volume makes an important contribution to policy debates by highlighting what she and her contributors identify as “an Afghan perspective,” which, they hope, might inform an “Afghan-led” and “Afghan-owned” process of stabilizing the country. Drawn from a workshop at the Institute of South Asian Studies in Singapore in January 2012, the collection features 13 brief contributions by former officials and advisors, NGO activists, and scholars — nearly all Afghan — on crucial aspects of the transition.

In mapping out the many and varied dangers facing this project, the contributors offer differing perspectives, but share two broad areas of agreement. The first is that the Afghan state is deeply flawed and in urgent need of sweeping reforms. In an incisive chapter surveying the transition process, Ali A. Jalali observes that the Afghan constitutional order accords too much power to the executive branch; it is at once too centralized when it comes to offering services, and too decentralized to make local elites accountable. Corruption and criminality flow from the structure of the state. “The centralisation of power, budget and appointments from Kabul, as well as the weakness of judiciary and legislative institutions,” Ahmad Wali Masoud argues in his chapter, “have led to widespread corruption and the emergence of a powerful economic mafia with [a] nexus with the government” (p. 79). Focusing on communication strategies, Muhammad Sabir Siddiqi contrasts the clumsiness of the Karzai administration with the forceful clarity of the Taliban, a distinction made more pronounced by the former’s propensity to address its audience as “subjects” rather than “citizens” (p. 121).

The second area of consensus at the core of this book relates to the authors’ assessment of the responsibility of the international community. Rather than view corruption as an endemic feature of Afghan culture, as foreign observers are inclined to do, Jalali insists instead that it is a function of an “‘accommodating’ style adopted by the Afghan leadership and its international partners with local power holders and patronage networks” (p. 29). Similarly, in an insightful essay critiquing myths about Afghan governance, Shahmahmood Miakhel faults the international community for undermining democratic processes: the US and its allies not only spent billions of dollars without accountability, but they ignored the democratic will of Afghans and failed to display any interest in institution-building. Najeeb Ur Rahman Manalai and Rangina Hamidi point to the need for greater coordination of development efforts and call for the demilitarization of aid. Noting that some 80% of foreign aid has bypassed government channels, Manalai adds that international support for “parallel institutions” have simultaneously shortchanged the Afghan state by siphoning off local professional staff. Hamidi presents the most damning illustration of mismanagement in the much-celebrated construction, by foreign NGOs, of two dormitories for female students at Kandahar University. Despite increasing female enrollment, none moved into the new facilities. Meanwhile, the university remained without power and water, and students were relegating to studying outside the unoccupied dormitories.

Sharp disagreements among the contributors emerge when they turn to the Taliban, however. Mohammad Masoom Stanekzai sanguinely calls for the acceleration of negotiations as a critical component of the transition process, and Rasul Bakhsh Rais’s chapter on Pakistan depicts Islamabad as a firm backer of a political settlement. Others remain more cautious, with...

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