Thursday, January 05, 2006

Afghanistan ... And Why We Need To Study Mexico

Newsweek has this somewhat depressing picture of what is going on in Afghanistan.

From the article:

Karzai is in the most difficult of positions. Many of the figures under suspicion were useful to the United States in the overthrow of the Taliban and continue to serve as checks against the old regime's resurgence. The president sometimes reassigns officials who have come under scrutiny, but rarely in a way that would upset the status quo. He's particularly careful with the war-lords who run many of the biggest opium-growing provinces. "His options are limited," says senior presidential adviser Javed Ludin. "These guys have been propped up by and are allied with U.S.-led Coalition forces." Now Karzai depends on the military strength and political influence of his warlord governors. Ludin says: "The same people who are being accused by some in the international community of being drug traffickers... are our most reliable partners in the war against terrorism."

Meanwhile the traffickers are waging a political war of their own—and winning. Diplomats and well-informed Afghans believe that up to a quarter of the new Parliament's 249 elected members are linked to narcotics production and trafficking. One especially controversial figure is Arif Noorzai, who has won the post of deputy speaker of Parliament. (He denies any wrongdoing.) In a study for the independent Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, Afghan expert Andrew Wilder concludes that at least 17 newly elected M.P.s are drug traffickers themselves, 24 others are connected to criminal gangs, 40 are commanders of armed groups and 19 face serious allegations of war crimes and human-rights abuses.


It is a real tragedy that even though Mexico is America's next-door neighbor, a careful study of its political history and development has never been high on our agenda. I've always felt that Mexico's post-Civil War/Revolution reconstruction in the 1920s held a lot of useful lessons for Afghanistan, especially in the co-optation of the warlords and the creation of a stable political system. Yes, there are significant differences between Mexico and Afghanistan, but interesting parallels, too.

Of course, another problem is the utopian belief that there are short-cuts. My colleague Anatol Lieven once noted that, with regard to a country like Afghanistan, it still needs to go through the same stages of state- and nation-building that helped to produce the modern states of the West if it is to ever become a viable country and beyond that a democracy. These stages can be accelerated; no one is suggesting that it take hundreds of years. But the veneer of modernity that comes with technology can be deluding. I've always liked the following quote from the 1990s television series La Femme Nikita:

"The Dark Ages were a thousand years of chaos, war, famine and disease. You think that won't happen again because we have computers and jet planes and cellular

Getting Afghanistan to 1934 Mexico will be a major achievement, just as the immense economic progress that China has undertaken in the past two decades is unparalleled. Sustained development is the key--and appreciating the distance a society has come is just as important as charting how much it still needs to accomplish.

A short while ago you drew an intriguing analogy between present-day Russia and Mexico under the PRI. I would be grateful if you would explain a bit more the parallel you have in mind there and what you now see in Afghanistan.
Sure. The Russia-Mexico PRI analogy relates to the middle and later years of the PRI regime--1960s to 1990s--where you have a regime that mixed democratic and authoritarian features, which permitted a high degree of personal freedom but exercised varying degrees of control over civil society, where the state played a role in the economy and where major economic conglomerates were aligned with the state, where a degree of pluralism was permitted alongside a very strong, vertically-organized executive.

The PRI gave Mexico a much greater degree of political stability and political freedom than most other Latin American countries of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, and some argue has given Mexico a better chance to make the jump to a full-fledged, stable democracy.

The Mexico-Afghanistan analogy, for me, goes back to the 1917-1929 period, of how Mexico put itself together after the civil wars and the revolution, how a central government got regional strongmen, warlords and power brokers to opt into the PRI system but then--and I think this is the important jump--took what had been privately exercised power and made it institutional. Co-optation, benefits, in some cases by use of force.

I do recognize that Mexico is not a perfect analog to either Afghanistan or Russia, and don't argue that it is, I simply point out some similarities that I think deserve further examination.

I think that the PRI strategy for putting Mexico together (under Obregon and Calles and continued under their successors) was also a strategy the U.S. thought might work in Afghanistan, adjusted to Afghan conditions--this is certainly my impression after what Zalmay Khalilzad wrote in the Summer 2005 issue of The National Interest. But the problem is that I think we have seen too much oscillation in Washington in either direction--one that says let the warlords do what they want because we need them (missing out on the success of the PRI strategy which was to incorporate warlords but turn private power into institutional power); the other which puts too much faith in "authority" (e.g. warlords shouldn't matter because they weren't elected and thus they can be dispensed with).

Just stumbled across your blog. It's very topical and poignant. I look forward to viewing it on a frequent basis in the future.

I am public affairs officer for an NGO working inside Afghanistan to promote civil society related issues including anti-corruption, rule of law, public and private sector governance, supporting women's role in business and other attempts to improve the economic climate in that country.

I, too, read the Newsweek article (and others coming out recently) with a great degree of unease and trepidation. I applaud your clarion call to refocus people's attention to the many challenges that still exist there.

On our organization's new blog -- -- I recently raised some of the very same issues as they relate to the opium problem and how it impacts on the many governance issues involved in rebuilding Afghanistan. I would specifically draw your attention to two articles I referenced in my blog entry that might also be of interest to your readers.

I referenced an article in Washington Quarterly that discusses some of the negative repercussions for an aggressive counternarcotics strategy when there are not other viable alternatives for Afghanis to support themselves and their families. There is also a link to a study coming out of the UK that examines the possibilities of licensing opium production in Afghanistan for use in the West and developing world.

The links to these articles can be found at:

After you review our blog and website, please feel free to link to us if you like the work we do. We will do likewise.

Thanks and keep up the good work!
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