Breeding Out Patronage: Beginning with the End in Mind

At the end of April, the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) published its quarterly report to the US Congress on the state of development projects in Afghanistan and critical issues pertaining to those efforts. The process of auditing as a predominant influence over policy abrogates any pretense to strategic logic. By its very nature, auditing assumes a degree of certainty and control that belies the complex nature of human interactions on a large scale.

If auditing as a principal influence upon policy is anti-strategic, the question then becomes: what is the proper place for pursuing accountability? The expectation of the US Congress that its funds should be well-spent is justified. However, prioritizing the accountability of funding frames the international effort in Afghanistan around a contrived set of problems that prioritizes immediate justification over the principal policy outcome — a stable and effective Afghan state that denies refuge for transnational terrorist groups. The US can only achieve that outcome by first understanding its necessity, articulating it in policy, and placing all other considerations as logically equal elements of context. Having framed the issues relative to necessity, policymakers and leaders can begin the pragmatic business of managing the means available for action. Auditing bypasses the step of appraising what is truly necessary. Hence, the work of SIGAR becomes problematic from inception.

If Afghan leaders wish to establish a normative state with sustainable stability, they must first focus on the structural foundation of the state itself, which is to say its social and political culture, through the lens of extant institutions. For its part, the international community must recognize and acquiesce to the continued usage of the patronage system that exists in Afghanistan through the near-term. No other path has any chance of bringing the empowered elites of today’s Afghanistan into a true national system without provoking additional conflict.

In the absence of a given cohesion amongst political elites, new governments can leverage rent-seeking behavior to escape the limitations of the status quo political culture without imposing discipline through bloody purges.

The history of weak states belies the relative effectiveness of strongmen or oligarchies using systems of patronage to establish a new order. In the absence of a given cohesion amongst political elites, new governments can leverage rent-seeking behavior to escape the limitations of the status quo political culture without imposing discipline through bloody purges. Relying upon patronage carries clear liabilities, but it can provide opportunity for political and social evolution that a premature focus on liberal democratic agenda items might otherwise preclude. A range of critics have alleged that the short-term imperatives of the Global War on terror buried more substantive concerns for the long-term development of Afghanistan. While it is true that security-focused operations sometimes ran at cross purposes with civil reconstruction efforts, this was symptomatic of mismanaging the international effort writ large and not a problem of misplaced priorities per se.

As security was necessary for state-building to begin in earnest, political stability and coherence is a prerequisite to rolling back the patronage system. Addressing the issue of corruption in Afghanistan will require a two-phase strategy that pragmatically accounts for the conditions as they are and the means at hand as well as maintaining focus on establishing a stable and effective government. The first phase will focus on imposing and maintaining reasonable boundaries on the patronage system. These external limits must prioritize state stability over liberal democratic outcomes. The first step will focus on fostering the rise of a successor generation of elites with the capability and commitment to lead Afghanistan into a post-patronage era, having witnessed the maturation of state institutions prepared to formally accept roles inherent to maintaining the rule of law. Dictating to the leadership of Afghanistan what liberal agenda items they must embrace will undermine this approach.

Attempting to enforce a liberal reform agenda on Kabul is bound to fail and alienate the elites that are necessary to forming a national unity government. It will reinforce and accelerate the hedging behavior already taking place amongst stakeholders in the patronage system and add to the stress upon Afghan reformers still laboring to find their foothold in a political-social context that is not quite ready to accept their leadership. To reform a state, there must first be a state to be reformed. Only after Afghan leaders achieve such unity can they progressively replace patronage with the mechanisms of transparent bureaucracy and the rule of law.

National unity through a system of patronage, by itself, is a step towards weak statehood. It cannot achieve the necessary aim of stability and effectiveness the international community seeks in Afghanistan. As SIGAR and other observers have noted, the government corruption inherent to patronage has been a significant source of instability and a hindrance to progress in governance. The US and its partners in the international community must therefore plan for the transition to a second phase in Afghan reconstruction, relying upon the reformist generation to cross the threshold toward rule of law and liberal democracy.

Afghanistan’s foreign benefactors could play an essential role in providing a catalyst for escaping the structural barriers to stability and prosperity in the international system.

As the international community is essential for putting limits on the excesses of patronage, foreign donor states will be critical to enabling the rise of a post-patronage ruling elite. Many of the causes for states being weak are structurally embedded in the international system. Thus, weak states tend to be perpetually weak, stumbling from one internal crisis to another and subject to the whims of regional powers. Afghanistan’s foreign benefactors could play an essential role in providing a catalyst for escaping the structural barriers to stability and prosperity in the international system. In addition to opening the right doors in the form of favorable trade agreements, loans, and other forms of assistance, the US and its partners have the wherewithal to offer attractive incentives for Afghan leaders to abandon the patronage system and endorse reforms.

US and partner policymakers should consider the use of so-called “golden parachutes” to assist in political transitions where military coercion would be undesirable, as subsidized retirements for former masters of patronage can be used to support a reform agenda. They are a tangible expression of commitment to the future of sponsored states, bolstering indigenous pioneers for change, and reasonable investments in finishing the work and doing justice to all that will have been sacrificed by the international community and their Afghan partners.

The departure of the principal elites in the patronage system will not instantly transform the political environment of Afghanistan, but it will beget a world of new possibilities where newly elected Afghan leadership builds new rules and relationships for Afghan politics. Advocates for liberal agenda items must keep in mind, however, that reform is only seen as such if it comes from the hearts and minds of indigenous leaders. Otherwise, it is imperialism by another name regardless of its moral compass. In a place so wracked by fear, the assumption of trust and expectation for the future people in prosperous nations take for granted are indeed foreign, and it is those very qualities that Afghanistan needs if it is to nurture and realize the aspiration for transparency and enfranchisement the 2012 Tokyo Framework endorses.

The cost of pursuing the two-phased approach articulated in this article would ultimately be high and, in the end, the approach could ultimately fail. This risk, however, has always been the price for pursuing counterinsurgency and nation-building in Afghanistan. It remains the responsibility of policymakers in Washington and the capitals of NATO to determine whether the future of Afghanistan, as a stable partner against violent extremism, is a necessary aim for their national interests. If it is the bond of the US and NATO to see Afghanistan established on solid ground, harping upon the themes of pervasive corruption and illiberal conditions in Afghanistan do much to hinder the realization of that ambition. It took decades for the Republic of Korea to reform its way to liberal democracy and achieve its prosperity without the imposition of an accountability framework, and it started the process in a far better situation than Afghanistan finds itself in today. The international community should consider carefully what the necessary outcome is before it obsesses over the state of corruption and civil rights and, perhaps, inadvertently subverts the very thing it hopes to achieve.

Robert Mihara is a U.S. Army strategist currently serving in Afghanistan. The views expressed here are the author’s alone and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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Header Image: Asia Society’s Afghanistan 21 Young Leaders Initiative (Asia Society)