Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Cool astronomy pic o' the day: The U.S. Gulf Coast from space

From Louisiana to Texas. View is from the International Space Station. Click to enlarge.

From Small Wars Journal: we should concentrate on winning Afghan 'civil society organizations' and less on propping up the central government.

That is the (bad neologism alert) Tocquevillean (sp?) gist of this very interesting piece by A.L. Chickering in the latest SWJ.

Governments from Pakistan to Egypt are weak because they do not control—or command allegiance from—their largely independent, tribal societies, and they lack the capacity to provide effective leadership for change. The organizations that have an important role to play in influencing these societies are civil society organizations (CSOs), and they need to become active in order to promote significant change.

This is a point very well taken, and I think provides a distinctive and fleshed out perspective on the notion, being bandied about by many COIN theorists, that the best way forward in Afghanistan is to 'build credible governmental partners from the ground (local) up (national).

The advice: Lessen focus on cleaning up Karzai and the presently existing national government. Focus instead on local civil institutions, or tribal entities, engage them in active governance, turn on the percolator, allowing credible alternative candidates to move from that local level to the larger scale and its responsibilities.

This piece takes this abstract statement of strategy a step further, in offering concrete suggestions as to where we should look for legitimate partners when, locally, there really ain't' no 'government' to speak of.

It suggest we need not focus on governmental organizations as we look local, but on civil organizations, which, although, not governmental, do have the virtues of long standing existence, and (in many cases), practical competence in carrying out functions that are basically 'governmental', thus commanding loyalty and allegiance from the populace. Such organizations would also serve as feeders for credible political leaders, that may make the jump from the civil to the 'public' sector (even if the latter is nascent by western standards). As folks with track records of competence, they would have the desirable feature of being 'credible governmental partners', something we seek as one of the cornerstones of successful COIN.

One of Alexis de Tocqueville's strongest impressions of America was that, though politically engaged, much of an American's day-to-day social engagement was outside the realm of government, taken up with engagement in civil organizations that were geared toward, among other things, religious affiliations, trades and craft guilds, technical and scientific societies, men's and women's clubs, schools and education (at that time a substantial portion of which was not state run), and charitable and humanitarian work.

What is more, he saw that local and national government quite self consciously allowed space for freedom of civil societies or organizations to do these things, with little or no state interference, and at least in some cases, once again, quite deliberately, states chose not to engage in, or rather, take control of some of these activities so as to allow that sector of civil society to continue to engage people in these socially beneficial activities.

It goes without saying that in 18th and 19th century America these organizations were feeders for political leaders, military leaders, and various functionaries of government. If one includes small business as another form of civil society, and I see no reason to refuse, the numbers only increase.

Now, the dark side, so to speak, the challenge in attempting to implement such a scheme in Afghanistan is that presently, there is not enough loyalty up the scale of political organization, and little horizontal loyalty. Chickering on this:

It should have been obvious then, as it is certainly obvious now, that the failure to reform formal democratic institutions was not and is not the real problem in Pakistan. The failure to reform was an effect of the fact that this tribal society, in which 60 percent of people marry their first cousins, lacks the national consensus and cohesion that support Western democracies and are essential to their effective functioning. Western governments pushing democratic reform on Pakistan without addressing the underlying issues of society and culture—especially the challenge of widespread, subgroup loyalties—doomed and doom the democratic project in Pakistan, just as failure to understand these issues and how to address them is undermining COIN in both Afghanistan and Iraq.

Not only are we often giving them bad advice, Western officials and pundits then blame the leaders of these countries for their failure to accomplish in a matter of months changes the Western democracies took centuries to accomplish. How can one exaggerate the brutality of this treatment of people trying to do their best under impossible circumstances? It is all the more troubling when one considers that this kind of thing is built into our “highest idealism”. It would be no surprise to hear people in these countries say: “They [meaning us] not only give us bad advice. When we don‟t follow it because we know it won‟t work, they call us names. Why are they surprised that we hate them?” There is no reason at all to be surprised.

Pretending that weak states are strong and demanding they do things they cannot do is perhaps the single greatest failing in recent efforts to engage especially the Arab and Muslim world from Pakistan to Egypt, which has become the priority region of geopolitical concern...

...There are two essential problems with the current civil society strategy in Afghanistan. One is that it lacks clear guidelines and objectives—some programs promoting empowerment of people and others disempowering them—leaving no clear narrative guiding people‟s perceptions of major issues there. The other problem is that the overall strategy is focused on reforming and marketing the central government, with insufficient attention being given to engagement with and empowerment of local communities—together with a strategy for connecting communities and the government.

Chickering argues that we need to do several things: When we move into areas, we need to go in knowingly, as regards the local traditions of interaction. Call this the "three cups of tea" approach. Secondly, we have to move in, not so much to simply "help" but "empower" the locals.

This is where the challenge lies, I believe, because, essential the the success of the project of empowering locals is that there be genuine opportunity to exercise judgment and, well..power. And, in order for there to be genuine opportunity to exercise power, there must be genuine opportunity to affect laws governing civil life, business, etc., either by being able to join local governmental organizations, or influence their actions. And, this must be something that can be done in an environment that is reliably secure and also allowing of the freedom to exercise such civil/political possibilities.

But, in order for that to be possible, it seems you already need a reliable overarching government, eventually, a national government. If you have all of this, you produce the sort of vertical and horizontal loyalty that serves as the cement that allows us to construct the sort of nation state we wish we had. Problem is, in order to do all this, it looks like a necessary condition of building the very thing you want is that you all ready possess the thing you want.

And, most assuredly, we do not have that thing we want in the present central government of Afghanistan. The central government is weak, and not well regarded by its own citizenry, if accounts of people in the know are indeed accurate.

So, this raises a very big and troubling question: Where do we go from here? Is the project of creating a stable humane, reliable government in Afghanistan doomed? How can we build from the ground up while the presently existing weak state 'stands in the way' or at the very least, takes up the space we'd like to fill with a better model?

Chickering suggests:

After 9/11, things started to change in both ways. The countries that have become the new, priority concerns of foreign policy, such as the Arab and Muslim countries from Egypt to Pakistan, are not strong in the sense that they compete with the U.S. geopolitically, nor do they control their societies as even they did before. States that are now “weak” were strong fifty or even thirty years ago because they did control their societies. Egypt‟s President Mubarak, flying in a private plane over Cairo‟s City of the Dead, explained the difference to a friend as follows: pointing down at the forest of television antennae below, Mubarak said, “That explains why I cannot control this country as I did in the past.” Emerging independent societies had become a force in their own right, and after 9/11 non-state actors became the principal threats to security.

These changes have created the need to develop new institutions and policies for non-state sectors and societies. This is especially true of civil society organizations, some of which have proven records of accomplishment. They can play a variety of important roles to engage these societies, empowering people by allowing them to share ownership—giving them a stake in the system. (When people have a stake, they have a reason to resist forces that are trying to bring the system down.) These roles include, as examples:

 Promoting property rights for the poor (CSO based in Lima, Peru, now operating in about a dozen countries in all global regions);

 Engaging groups in conflict with each other, empowering them to work together, increasing social trust, and reducing conflict (CSOs working in Northern Ireland, South Africa, and India);

 Engaging communities of people around government schools to become active stakeholders in the schools, and empowering the communities to reform the schools and do community projects (CSO based in California operating in India);

 Developing and promoting an agenda for economic and social policy reform (CSO based in Panama, with impacts in more than fifty countries);

The need to engage civil society in these and other ways is a very large, unsolved challenge in Afghanistan. The need is to identify models that are working and then invest at strategic scales in them. The challenge is evident in Afghanistan and in virtually all tribal societies threatened by insurgencies or potential insurgencies, which includes many countries in the world.

We can, if we have the patience, institute such localized strategies in Afghanistan, in effect discovering and recruiting worthy candidates for the central government, while insisting that the present government implement regular free fair and open elections, which will rely on the pool of candidates thus created, and which, over time, will allow these competent folks to percolate up the chain, and eventually to populate the higher positions, replacing the corrupt and incompetent.

As long as the general populace sees progress in this regard, that central government would purchase buy-in, until it reaches the hoped for level of legitimacy.

If and when that level of legitimacy is reached, we will have a society more like de Tocqueville's America, and less like Mubarak's Egypt. It will no longer need our services as a crutch. It will self perpetuate.

This raises related questions: How close is Iraq 2010 to this endpoint?

If you had to predict, back in 2004 how close Iraq would be to that goal today, what would you have said?