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IWP hosts panel on building peace after war in Afghanistan

The Center for Culture and Security at The Institute of World Politics hosted a panel on “Building Peace After War in Afghanistan: The Hard Job of Soft Power” on Wednesday, April 11th.

Dr. Juliana Pilon, Director of the Center for Culture and Security, introduced the topic. She started out by describing the allure of the phrase “building the peace,” saying it’s like “apple pie:” something that is self-evidently good and worthy of doing. On the other hand, the responsibility for undertaking this task is somewhat ambiguous. Additionally, the phrase “building the peace” can sound uncomfortably close to “nation building,” which carries an unpleasant connotation. With this in mind, Dr. Pilon introduced the three panelists, who represented three different perspectives on the issue of “soft power.” Dorothy Taft, a Past Director, Office of Democracy and Governance at US Agency for International Development, represented the government aid community; Vasu Mohan, a Deputy Director at IFES, gave his perspective from the NGO sector; and COL Mike Eastman gave his view based on his military experience.

Speaking first, Dorothy Taft decided to give a broader picture of the development community, as opposed to just focusing on Afghanistan. She started by saying that building the peace is incredibly hard, but experience has provided valuable lessons learned. How does one rebuild a society disrupted by an armed conflict? And what are the building blocks of a peaceful society? And who, what, and how does one promote a functioning government, economy, civil society, and institutions? And how do we assess and monitor the programs in place?

Taft then focused on the lessons learned from the previous decade of experience. Good governance was essential to successful, broad-based change. If governance is not established, corruption and disorder will undermine any other projects or progress. Unity of effort between government agencies, and between the government and other donors, is key to any progress. Building the peace requires a “whole government” approach, with all the instruments of state power integrated towards one goal. At the same time, government must realize that its aid is not the sole driver of economic growth and embrace a “whole-of-society” approach that includes private philanthropy and economic capital flows.

Taft returned to the issue of inter-agency coordination, particularly when it came to organizational learning. How does the experience of one sector of the effort impact programs backed by another part? Taft stressed the need for more sharing between those working to rebuild. She used as an example several development tools that were internal to USAID. These tools, including the Interagency Conflict Framework, the Democracy and Governance Strategic Framework, and the Democratic Decentralization Handbook, are not widely shared or used. Concluding her remarks, Taft reiterated that new, fragile democracies that do not develop their economy, civil societies, and institutions do not survive.  

Please click here for her full remarks: Download file Building Peace after War in Afghanistan: The Hard Job of Soft Power, Dorothy Douglas Taft 

Vasu Mohan spoke next on the panel to give perspective from his experience in the International Foundation for Electoral Systems, or IFES. After showing a brief video about a program engaging young leaders in Afghanistan, Mohan stated that he wished to focus on what efforts work, as the challenges of exerting soft power in Afghanistan were well-known. He noted several aspects of successful programs. Involving Afghan women tends to give a positive result, as they are often supportive of development efforts and have a history of being the community’s conflict resolvers. It is important to balance respecting the local culture while adhering to universal principles. Cultures are not static entities, and it is possible to draw on existing strains to effect change. For example, anti-corruption efforts in Afghanistan could argue that corruption is un-Islamic (and, therefore, un-Afghan). In a similar vein, it helps to draw on treaties and covenants Afghanistan is party to. Mohan said that rather then create whole new institutions, it is often more effective to find reforms and institutions that are working, and help support them. He also said that the international community can make gains when it ‘walks the talk,’ but tends to fail when it is not transparent or participatory. With all this in mind, Mohan addressed some opportunities for improvement in Afghanistan. The first was that people working in Afghanistan tend to have high turnover or short rotations; this can short circuit longer-term strategic thinking. Additionally, Afghanistan has several powerful religious communities which are potential allies for the development effort. The West’s secularized culture, however, sometimes prevents this fact from being recognized.

The last speaker was COL Mike Eastman, who gave comments based on his experience (though, he noted, these were his personal views, and not those of the US Government, Department of Defense, or US Army). Eastman said that he felt that the Army had realized the importance of soft power. He had guarded optimism for Afghanistan, but still felt there were some challenges ahead. First, interagency cooperation has improved, but still has a lot of room for growth. Second, it continues to be difficult to coordinate local governments with the Afghanistan national government. Third, the army tended to treat Afghanistan as analogous to Iraq, but they found that the infrastructure was very different and the tribal structures didn’t apply as anticipated. In spite of these challenges, there were some real gains. Interagency coordination is improving, and there is a clear desire for the military to support State and USAID through Provincial Reconstruction Teams and other programs. There is a new focus on low cost, local projects that will have a sustainable impact, like training programs. There is realization of the importance of incorporating civil society, particularly up front, to make sure the projects are properly maintained and continue to generate employment.

Dorothy Taft
Principal at The Tantallon Group, LLC; Past Director, Office of Democracy and Governance at US Agency for International Development; Former Chief of Staff/Deputy Chief of Staff at Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe; Former Professional Staff Member at US House of Representatives, Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere.

Vasu Mohan
Deputy Director, Europe and Asia Program, The International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES). While at IFES, he has supervised programs and field offices in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, Solomon Islands, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Timor Leste.  He is fluent in Tamil and Hindi and conversant in Sinhala and Urdu.

COL Mike Eastman
COL Eastman has served in Afghanistan as Special Assistant to the Commanding General, focusing on disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration policy. He next deployed to Iraq, serving as Operations Officer for the 1st Infantry Division Artillery during the early stages of the war, with duty in Bayji and Tikrit. Upon return, he was selected as Aide-de-Camp to the Deputy Commanding General of United States Army Europe, a position he held for 27 months. His most recent deployment was as commander of the 2nd Battalion, 29th Field Artillery of the 1stArmored Division. With forces spread across the four southern provinces of Iraq, he was responsible for military support to three Provincial Reconstruction Teams, managing more than 240 different projects, ranging from micro-business initiatives and women’s literacy classes to major road and bridge construction.