State building in Afghanistan: what have we learned?

September 28, 2021

SweDev talked with Helene Lackenbauer to discuss the results of Swedish development work in Afghanistan.

Photo: Kabul Jalalabad road, Unsplash / Sohaib Ghyasi

The fast Taliban takeover took the world by surprise in August and has since been high on the global agenda. The international community has now evacuated, and governments have been compelled to rethink their development cooperation strategies. SweDev met with Helene Lackenbauer, Afghan expert at the Swedish Defence Research Agency (FOI) and former Political Advisor to the Swedish Armed Forces in Afghanistan, to learn more about the current developments and the history of Sweden’s engagements in the country.

Amid the happenings in Afghanistan, the Expert Group for Aid Studies (EBA) released a new report about the Swedish development cooperation in Afghanistan which states that the efforts have shown weak results. Furthermore, the report shows that there has been a general lack of understanding of the Afghan culture, society and overall, its people, something that has led to misguided solutions to assumed problems. This is a critique targeting both international, as well as Swedish, assistance.

Afghanistan has been the largest recipient of Swedish development assistance since 2013. Lackenbauer explains how this is connected to the withdrawal of NATOs combat troops that started in 2014, as well as the decrease of American financial support. This created a financial gap in the international community’s aid to Afghanistan. A gap that, to some extent, was covered by US’ allies, such as Sweden. “In the Swedish case, the increase in development aid is to be understood as part of the foreign policy to nurture the transnational link. Or in other words, good relations to US”, says Lackenbauer.

However, as the EBA report concludes, Swedish development cooperation with Afghanistan lacked a full understanding of the context. Lackenbauer agrees with the EBA analysis, highlighting how the international community did not fully comprehend the Afghan society at its core. Therefore, the increased efforts did not always give the expected results.

“We haven’t understood the relations between different groups in Afghanistan – we haven’t understood the societal structures. Or more accurately: we have ignored the fact that there hasn’t been a contract between the previous government and its citizens”, says Lackenbauer. She further explains how the previous government has been like an interest group of power holders that look after its own interests instead of those of the entire society. This, in combination with severe corruption, has led to a lack of public support and trust. Something that has further complicated the international community’s support to Afghanistan.  

Gender relations in Afghanistan – one of the contextual misunderstandings

There are many aspects that have failed in the cooperation with Afghanistan. Lackenbauer raises the relationship between women and men as one of the crucial issues.

“The situation for women is extremely complex – and is connected to the autonomy of tribes and ethnic groups. As soon as the government has tried to interfere in the tribes’ and families’ control over women’s chastity, the efforts have generated strong resistance”, says Lackenbauer.

She also emphasizes that there is a difference in women’s freedom and rights depending on their ethnic belonging and if they live in an urban centre or in an agrarian community. Although there are some common cultural norms running through the entire society.  

“Women carry the honour of families, which demands women’s modesty and chastity. This is why it is shameful, in some groups, for women to leave one’s home without a male family member and why they have to be covered from head to toe. Meanwhile, the role of women in the cities has of course changed. In Kabul, young girls could walk around with their veil hanging loosely on the side of their ponytail”, says Lackenbauer. The Afghan gender relations are complex and not easily comprehended by Westerners, which further complicate development assistance to Afghanistan.

Furthermore, women are not allowed to relate to unknown men within traditional Afghan culture. Lackenbauer explains how this is an issue that has complicated efforts for the international armed forces in the past. Afghans’ security concerns have not necessary been identical to those of NATO troops. For example, girls’ security is connected to gender norms, such as not mixing with unknown men and boys, while international troops’ threats have been the insurgency. This has not always been understood which created a misleading understanding of the population’s security concerns. A deeper understanding of the Afghan society could have decreased such misunderstandings.

Bringing back tradition

The Talibans want to re-establish the traditional and more conservative way of life for all Afghans. The new Taliban regime has enabled these forces to come into power again, aiming to bring forward their interpretation of the Islamic law. “It is deeply related to beliefs around one’s obligations towards God”, says Lackenbauer. The new government contains an all-male regime with a majority from the same ethnic group. So far, they have announced that all universities are to be segregated by gender and have a mandatory Islamic dress code.

Finally, we ask Lackenbauer about the future prospects of the new Taliban regime in relation to Swedish development assistance. She emphasises how nobody knows how to deal with the new situation or knows what will happen next. “The international community is trying to figure out how to support the people of Afghanistan without supporting the Taliban government. This is like being between a hard rock and a stone”, says Lackenbauer and indicates that there is a long road ahead and many uncertainties to deal with.

Second photo: Private, Helene Lackenbauer, Afghan expert at FOI.

Written by Daniela Torstensson, Intern, SweDev