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Can Tajikistan and 'aiming low' be a model for Afghanistan?

Analogies for the conflict in Afghanistan are many - the Vietnam conflict being the most common. But one influential journal says Tajikistan in the 1990s is more accurate, and calls for the strategy of "aiming low."

election in Tajikistan

Tajikistan has been stable, but no beacon of democracy - observers say elections are not free and fair

While the parallels between the US-led conflict in Afghanistan and the Vietnam war of the 1960s and 70s are many - a diffuse army with a sanctuary across the border, a high cost in "blood and treasure," and an American electorate unsure about being there in the first place - a more apt analogy would be right next door in Tajikistan, according to an essay just published in the influential journal Foreign Affairs.

And, the author contends, the international community's strategy there in the 1990s could provide a model to deal with the current quagmire in Afghanistan.

George Gavrilis, an international affairs fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, writes of government forces, Islamists and local warlords battling one another across a remote and mountainous territory while the drug trade flourishes, thousands are killed and even more stranded in grinding poverty.

But he is not referring to Afghanistan, rather, his reference here is Tajikistan in the 1990s, when a civil war broke out soon after the former Soviet satellite state declared its independence from Moscow.

While Afghanistan's conflict grinds on in its eighth year, next door, a small intervention by an unlikely team made up of the UN, Iran and Russia turned Tajikistan around in less time and for much less money, providing a detour from a path that was leading to disintegration.

Staying real

The outside players in Tajikistan dispensed with forcing free and fair elections, throwing out the warlords and flooding the country with foreign soldiers.

Instead, in a burst of realpolitik, it was decided to pursue a more limited set of goals: peace talks, integrating the warlords into the political process, limiting the number of peacekeepers on the ground and eventually bringing opposing parties to the table to sign a peace accord in 1997.

Today, Tajikistan is tolerably stable and acts as a transit nation for US supplies to Afghanistan.

"The Tajik case suggests that in trying to rebuild a failed state, less may be more," Gavrilis wrote.

Tajik President Emomali Rahmon

Tajik President Emomali Rahmon

The architects of the plan had to leave out some features they might have liked - namely, a healthy democracy. Tajikistan is hardly an ideal state in Western eyes; it is authoritarian (Emomali Rahmon has ruled the country since 1992) and corrupt. Its economy is sputtering and the all-important remittances from Tajik workers in Russia are suffering.

But while this "aim-low" strategy disappoints idealists, in Tajikistan's case, it has enabled the country to avoid a return of the chaos of the 1990s - civil war and extremism.

"We shouldn't set our sights too high and we should concentrate on what is realistic," Stefan Meister of the German Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin told Deutsche Welle. "I am skeptical of this form of democracy building that the American have tried in several regions. In my opinion, it works in very few cases."

As in Iraq, the US under George W. Bush envisioned a country running along the lines of a western democracy, with transparent elections, a strong central government and a populace that embraced western values and norms - all accomplished in record time.

But, according to analysts, such a project is almost impossible to pull off, especially using a top-down approach in a country that has little or no history of democratic representation or confidence in government.

"Stabilization is the important thing," said Meister.

Analogy trap

But Meister and others warn that, even while there are similarities between Afghanistan and Tajikistan, making analogies to past conflicts and applying those lessons to current ones is a questionable exercise.

While on the surface there do seem to be similarities between the two neighbors, there are important differences, according to Alanna Shaikh, an international development consultant who lives in the Tajik capital Dushanbe.

A tajik man drinking tea

Tajiks have had experience with a functioning government; Afghans have not

For example, she told Deutsche Welle, being a Soviet satellite changed Tajikistan in a lot of ways, including giving them experience with the kinds of services that a government can provide. Health care and education in the Soviet Tajikistan were fairly good.

"I feel like that experience with a competent government changed Tajik perceptions of government," she said.

Tajiks remembered what real government was like and therefore were more willing to trade their political and military ambitions away for a government that, in effect, looked a lot like what they had during the USSR.

"That is an experience that Afghanistan didn't have," she said. "And I think that generalizing from conflict to conflict is always too easy."

History, closer to home

Stefan Meister thinks that instead of looking across the border to Tajikistan, perhaps western forces in Afghanistan should look at another nation's experience in the country: Russia's.

The nine-year conflict began at the end of 1979 when Soviet troops entered Afghanistan. It ended after nearly 14,000 Soviet soldiers had been killed and thousands more disabled. Over one million Afghans were killed.

"The Soviets made similar mistakes in Afghanistan in certain aspects such as the central state, dealing with groups, trying to introduce modern societal forms too quickly and hitting strong resistance from the society," the Russia expert said. "Learning from that would help more than looking at another country and making big comparisons."

A UN soldier at a checkpoint

'Aim low' and focus on stability or try to remake society?

It appears that is beginning to happen. Richard Holbrooke, the US special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, said on Monday his country is ready to continue dialogue with Russia on Afghanistan-related issues.

Holbrooke's boss, US President Barack Obama, has said he intends to "finish the job" in Afghanistan and it is expected he will announce the deployment of more troops into the country when he reveals his plans to the American public next week.

But that job description is still unclear, and within the Obama administration there has been debate about what the goals in Afghanistan should be: remaking society along a western model or "aiming low," focusing on stabilization and a slower path toward (hopefully) some future democracy.

"The Obama administration can come out of this quagmire if it aims low, targets the bad guys, builds a regional consensus," wrote renowned Pakistan journalist Ahmed Rashid, who has covered Afghanistan for 30 years, "and gives the Afghans what they really want - merely the chance to have a better life."

Author: Kyle James
Editor: Rob Mudge

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