Nation-Building on the Cheap

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Not long after the Taliban fell and Hamid Karzai became president of Afghanistan, Ali Jalali's phone rang at his Glenwood, Md., home. It was his old friend Karzai, inviting Jalali to return to his homeland and work in the new government. Jalali, who had fled Afghanistan 22 years earlier and taken U.S. citizenship, accepted. He served nearly three years as Karzai's interior minister, stepping down in late 2005 to teach at the National Defense University here. Recently, Jalali spoke with Washington Post staff writer Marc Kaufman about the hard lessons he learned nation-building in Afghanistan.

There has been a sharp escalation of violence [in Afghanistan], especially in the south. Why the upsurge?

A combination of foreign support, the militants' use of safe havens across the border, weak government control in the area, poverty, a growing connection between drug traffickers and terrorists, and repression of communities by local thugs and corrupt government officials -- they all contribute to the problem.

The Taliban and other terrorist forces have little support in Afghanistan. Their leadership, ideology and political vision have long been rejected by the people. If, God forbid, the Afghanistan government fails, it will not fail because of the Taliban. . . . It will fail because people do not see significant changes in their lives.

You were a member of the Karzai government for almost three years. What has kept it from doing more?

I have known President Karzai for a long time. He is honest in his efforts and does try to respond to these challenges. But he lacks a strong and cohesive political party, a team to help him formulate good policies and to follow through with implementation. [It's hard] governing through deals with regional networks, warlords and opportunistic wheeler-dealers. No real vision.

The American government and international community have said Afghanistan is at the center of the war on terrorism and have poured in billions of dollars. Do they have a vision?

They all have different visions. You see this clearly in the development of the security sector. The main pillars of reform -- army, police, justice, counternarcotics and disarmament -- are interconnected, but they were each supported by one "lead nation" from the G-7 group, and their approaches can be very different. For example, even if you built a very good police force, the criminal justice sector being developed very weakly by the Italians wouldn't support it. When you arrest a suspect, the police can legally hold him for 24 hours, and then he goes to the judicial sector. Often the suspects buy their way out.

Is the Afghan economy coming alive at all? Are things improving?

During the past four years, Afghanistan made remarkable progress. Still, the recovery is fragile and cannot be sustained without prolonged international assistance. By March 2006, the Afghan economy had grown by more than 80 percent since 2001, but much of that growth comes from foreign assistance and [the] illegal drug economy. Estimates are that only 6 percent of people have access to electricity, and less than 20 percent to clean water.

Has that level of electricity distribution or clean water availability changed much in the last four years?

Not much, I would say.

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