A Whole Government Effort
Ambassador Gerald Feierstein, 68, retired from the State Department in 2016 as the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs. His knowledge of the Middle East and North Africa is extensive, having served with distinction in Saudi Arabia, Oman, Lebanon, Israel, Tunisia, and finally in Yemen from 2010 to 2013, where he was the United States ambassador.
In Feierstein’s forty-one-year career, he played a leading role as one of the State Department’s top anti-terrorism authorities. The strategies and programs to combat violent extremism that Feierstein created have since been replicated in a number of conflict zones. In these policies, Feierstein has sought to construct groups of local and regional leaders to liaise with American forces and political leaders in order to stem the spread of terrorist networks both militarily and financially.
Yet, Feierstein’s message focuses on the need to address the root causes of terrorism in an effort to understand why people join the ranks of terror organizations. He believes it is the collective responsibility of the United States, other global powers, and Middle Eastern policymakers to support long-term social programs that further those ends.
Cairo Review Senior Editor Sean David Hobbs spoke with Feierstein on June 4, 2019.
CR: In 2012, when you were the United States ambassador to Yemen, Al-Qaeda put a ransom on your head. From what I understand, this is a rare thing to happen to any U.S. public servant, let alone one as high ranking as you were.
GF: It was two kilos of gold.
CR: Yes. So, how did that ransom come about and affect your life at the time? And since then has it ever been resolved?
GF: I think that the offer to kill me was really a reflection of the success that we were having in combating Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula [AQAP]. We had a number of successes. Of course, Al-Qaeda had tried to establish its caliphate in the Abyan governorate; we were working with the Yemenis and we were able to push them out of Zinjibar and the other territories that they were trying to control. We had successfully targeted and eliminated a number of senior AQAP officials in Yemen, including Anwar Al-Awlaki, who was a major figure, as well as a number of others.
So we were, you know, having a good deal of success in the fight against Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and violent extremism in Yemen, and I think that I was identified with U.S. government policies and the programs that we were pursuing. I was fortunate as I had a great security team, both American and Yemeni, and I never felt that my security was under any threat. And no, today it does not affect my life.
CR: In your career as a diplomat, you were a leader in counterterrorism, which goes to a deeper question. That is, what is terrorism in its essence? What is the definition that you use?
GF: That is something that many people have tried to address over the years without a great deal of success. There is no agreed definition of what terrorism is. I think, broadly speaking, the consensus would be that terrorism would be the use of violence against civilian populations or civilian targets in order to achieve a political objective.
CR: So, these violent actions are primarily perpetrated by anti-state or non-statist organizations? is terrorism affiliated with the state, or not?
GF: Historically, of course, terrorism would not be [affiliated with the state], that is, terrorists are non-state actors. Now, however, we seem to be in the process of changing that narrative a little bit. With the Trump administration’s designation of the IRGC [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps] as a terrorist organization, that, you know, kind of blurs the line about whether or not you’re going to start identifying state-owned or controlled organizations also as terrorists. But historically, the line has been drawn at terrorists being non-state actors.
CR: What are the effective ways, in your experience, to counter terrorists?
GF: It takes concerted work—what we would call a whole government effort. For the most part, when people talk about counterterrorism and counter-extremism, they’re really talking primarily about kinetic action. They’re talking about the use of military force, special operations, drones, whatever, as a way of defeating terrorism. But while there is a rationale for the use of kinetic force to combat terrorism, that in and of itself won’t succeed in achieving that objective. Really what you need is a more comprehensive effort that addresses what historically have been called the root causes [of terrorism]. We have to deal not only with the violent extremist groups, eliminating the leadership—and to be perfectly clear, I have no problem with the operations that we’ve conducted over the years to basically take out that senior tier of extremist groups, which diminishes the capabilities of terrorist organizations to mount operations—but also address the social, economic, and political frustrations that drive people to join terrorist organizations in the first place.
It is important to help states that house terrorist groups such as Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the states of the Sahel [the area of central Africa from Mauritania through Sudan], so that they can build institutions and take on the responsibility of combating and defeating terrorist groups.
CR: Do you believe that although Barack Obama’s use of drone attacks was effective, there needs to be a careful study of discontent on the ground and its root causes. Is this a correct assessment of your view?
GF: Yeah, that’s correct. However, it was not Obama who started the drone campaign. Particularly in Afghanistan and Pakistan, it started with Bush. Obama continued it and in some ways expanded it, and of course, Trump has also expanded it. So [the use of drones] with the use of special ops to target extremist groups has gone across three administrations now.
Anyhow, fundamentally you are correct. In my view, kinetic force will only take us so far. It will only help states limit the capacity of extremist groups to target, to plan, to train, to do all of those things. But unless we address the legitimate grievances of populations, there is no way to defeat an ideology that leads people to associate with extremism.
CR: What programs are effective at mitigating and dealing with the underlying causes of terrorism? Are these underlying causes shared across the region?
GF: One of the problems that we’ve encountered is that implementing the kind of programs that can address deeper social issues is a long-term process that is generally connected with the concept of nation-building. But nation-building has become a dirty word in the United States, and many in America have decided that we don’t want to be a part of politics and make long-term investments in other countries.
Yet, if we are not in that business, then we will not be able to achieve our aims. It is only by helping foreign governments build their security capacity, both in law enforcement and in the military, and also supporting foreign countries in reforming their education and health care systems, and even more importantly, perhaps, ensuring that new generations have jobs, that we can confront the social issues behind terrorism.
Eighteen to twenty-five-year-old young men who have no hope, no future, nothing to look forward to, and are angry and frustrated will ultimately be motivated to take on violent roles— to see that as a solution. When I was in Pakistan in 2009–10, the Pakistani Taliban were able to take over the Swat Valley, which is just north of Islamabad.
How did these guys succeed? How did they build a following? How did they get people to associate with them? Because Swat was not historically a place that had been a hotbed of Sunni fundamentalism or extremism. It was because the Pakistani Taliban instituted sharia justice in Swat, which was a quick justice to address the people’s legal issues. The Taliban also provided young men with the money that they needed in order to pay the dowry to get married. They addressed issues of rents for shopkeepers who had been priced out by greedy landlords and got rent reduced. The Taliban in Pakistan did things that actually made people’s lives better, even though they [the people of Swat] did not associate with the Taliban cause. Some of the extreme notions that the Pakistani Taliban had about gender issues, about women’s education, were alien to the people in Swat. But the locals liked the fact that the Taliban were doing things that addressed their grievances. And for that reason, they were willing to accept things with which they did not agree.
CR: What are the direct programs that Americans could be doing in these countries?
GF: Through our own programming, whether it is through USAID or through the World Bank or UN programs, we can certainly help build institutions that allow these governments to address these issues. I think tackling corruption is an important point.
The question is whether we’re willing to put the resources into solving the problem that requires them. Unfortunately, the dynamic that you have in the United States right now is that we’re not willing to make this investment. We would much rather invest in guns. What we’re doing is a short-term band-aid approach to what is actually a long-term problem. We are not doing anything that builds credibility or capacity or legitimacy to solve the long-term problem.
CR: If we imagine that you are a doctor and Yemen is your patient, what would you recommend in terms of creating a more effective roadmap toward peace?
GF: I was there in Yemen during the Arab Spring, and one of the things that we worked on quite aggressively with other partners in the international community as well as the Yemenis themselves was to try to build a more coherent, more capable military force in Yemen that could provide security for the country, a security force that could address some of the ungoverned space issues. The other component was that we tried to help the political transition. We worked to assist the Yemenis in building a more open, more tolerant, and more democratic society where the government would address some of the divisions between the north and the south, between the Houthis and the rest of society.
During this process, of course, we had our own programs, as did many others—the UNDP [United Nations Development Programme], the World Bank, and many of the European donors—trying to address issues related to education and health care. The goal was to build up [national] capability and to provide young Yemenis with the skills that they needed in order to compete in a modern global economy.
CR: From the far left of the American political spectrum, people have said we shouldn’t be involved abroad at all, because everything we do will create a power dynamic based on U.S. corporate power and wealth. From the far right, however, there is the Rand Paul libertarian group, who say that any kind of investment will ultimately hurt the people of the United States. What is your response to these critiques?
GF: Of course, the United States has done good around the world. Look at how Southeast Asian nations are now stable, prosperous societies. This owes a lot to the engagement of the United States over a period of decades. So clearly, the idea that we make things worse simply is not true. It is not to say that we are perfect. It is not to say that everything that we have done is absolutely wonderful and that we have been successful everywhere. No, we have failed. We have made mistakes.
However, overall, I would say that we have been a force for good, and more importantly, we have been, over the years, the country that brings the international community together. And even today, even with all of the uncertainty, chaos, and unhappiness with many U.S. policies, the fact of the matter is that the international community still waits for the United States to move and still looks to the United States for leadership. And often, even though other governments have the capability and the interest, they do not have that same convening power that the United States has.
In response to the Rand Paul libertarian far-right view, the United States does well when the world does well. And if we’re not engaged in making the world a better place, if we’re not trying to help find solutions to some world problems, then those problems will be allowed to fester and come back and hurt the United States.
CR: What would be the elements of a successful peacebuilding strategy in the region?
GF: If you’re looking for what elements are going to stabilize these societies and allow them to move away from violence, then I would say one needs to address the demographics. These are young societies, that is, the youth population is very high. Young societies by definition are unstable and are more prone to chaos. How do you engage the youth? How do you give them positive horizons, a positive sense of themselves and their futures and what they can accomplish? All of these are issues that are feeding instability into the region.
I would say that the governance issue and the Arab Spring didn’t resolve the deeper conflicts in many of these societies. The Arab Spring itself did not answer the questions of young people. People like to think that the Arab Spring had a particular starting point and a particular ending point. But my view is that the Arab Spring is an event in a continuum. We have not seen the end of the Arab Spring. It’s going to continue to come back; it’s going to continue to press societies for change, and we need to try to channel those demands for change into peaceful political routes and not allow them to become violent and destabilizing.
CR: If we pivot toward the issue of economic development, and actually reconstruction, what are the main bodies that are going to be active in the economic reconstruction of, for example, Syria, Libya, and Yemen?
GF: Each of them brings different challenges to the table. Libya, based on its oil economy, has the potential to be very prosperous. What Libya needs is stability and reasonable governance that would allow people to come and develop and rebuild what has been damaged and move forward from there. The Libyan model, the Libya challenge, is relatively straightforward. They need help building institutions because when [Muammar] Qaddafi fell and the band aid of the Qaddafi state was ripped away from Libya, there was nothing there. He had never invested in or built institutions. There was no capacity within Libyan society to become self-governing. And that is a big reason why you have the conflict now. Libyans also have to have the wherewithal to be able to take on a lot of the responsibility themselves.
Syria is a different set of issues. In Syria there is a government that, even if it succeeds in ending this current conflict and putting down the insurrection, the reality is that the [Bashar] Al-Assad regime has no legitimacy. It will never have legitimacy. And so, the challenge
in Syria is that even though there are institutions of state, these are no longer credible institutions. What is needed in Syria then is an attempt to change the governance in order to allow those institutions to come forward again and to work again, and to allow the international community to come in.
Western European countries have an interest in helping to stabilize Syria because they have a huge Syrian refugee population that they’d like to see go home. The IFIs, the international financial institutions—the World Bank, the IMF, the UNDP—will have a role to play as well in trying to reconstruct, but all of it is contingent on there being some kind of change in Damascus that would allow a government with legitimacy in the eyes of the Syrian people, as well as the international community, to come forward and again organize that kind of reconstruction project.
In Yemen, frankly speaking, the reality is that the international community is not going to step forward and help. In Yemen, primarily the neighbors—the Saudis, the Emiratis, and the Kuwaitis—will take the lead on reconstruction. And there are two components to what the Gulf states can do to help Yemen. One is to help with reconstruction, that is, repairing what’s been damaged over these last few years, and then to try to help build new infrastructure that would allow Yemen to build a prosperous economy.
The other part of what the Gulf states can do is allow Yemen to participate more fully in what is fundamentally a prosperous region. Yemen’s neighbors are among the wealthiest states per capita in the world. There is a capacity within the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] states to really help bring Yemen into their regional economic zone and integrate Yemen’s economy [into it] more fully. This would allow the kind of investment and development in Yemen that would address many of these economic challenges.
Where the international community can play an important role, again, is helping Yemen build the institutions that can sustain the kind of development investment that can provide the assurance to foreign investors that their investment in Yemen is going to be safe and secure. That will build the legal infrastructure that allows these developments to take place, and that more broadly helps to build a trade-capable workforce in Yemen that can take on many of these investment opportunities.
CR: Can you discuss what roles the European Union, China, and Russia play in the region, and the ways in which the United States can pair with, or contend with, these different powers? What are the larger diplomatic maneuverings that go into geopolitical decisions made by Moscow, Beijing, Washington, or Brussels?
GF: China is going to have a big role. There is no question that in terms of economic foreign investment in this part of the world, the Chinese are going to be major players. You look at the Belt and Road Initiative that goes up the Red Sea and certainly affects Yemen. The Chinese are already involved in looking at investments in Syria. Libya may not play such a large role in Chinese planning in the region, but nonetheless, the Chinese are going to be major players in any kind of economic development in the Middle East for many years to come. And therefore, it is important for the United States to have some kind of capability to maintain a dialogue with the Chinese and to find areas where they can work together and cooperate with one another in order to achieve those objectives.
Politically, the Chinese are less significant. The Chinese until now have been reluctant to really get involved in the political issues of the Middle East. They did work with us, just as an aside, closely in Yemen as part of the P5 [China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States] approach.
So, we had the P5 working very well together. The Chinese were a full partner in that. But generally speaking, historically they have not been as deeply involved in the political or the security components of the region.
The Russians, in my view, are basically opportunistic. The Russians are looking for places where they can be involved, where they can demonstrate that they’re still a great power and that they still need to be given a seat at the table whenever issues are being discussed. They’re more of a negative force than a positive force, frankly. Economically, they’re not serious players in the way that the Chinese or the European Union [EU] certainly are. You know, they look for places where they [can] insert themselves, but they do not have the capacity to maintain a sustained regional impact the way the United States, the EU, or the Chinese might be able to.
The EU definitely is going to be our major partner in terms of many of our peace activities in the Middle East and North Africa. They are going to be particularly interested in what happens in Syria, precisely because of this huge Syrian refugee issue that they have. They’re going to be interested in what happens in Libya because of its proximity and the fact that Libya has acted as a funnel for economic migration from Africa into the EU. And of course, historically the EU states have been the main customers for Libyan energy, and so they are going to be important players in Libya as well.
CR: In your former role as Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, did you see the so-called Obama pivot to the East? Was that real? Is it happening under President Trump? Was, and is, such a pivot necessary in terms of American engagement in the Middle East and North Africa and in East Asia?
GF: Barack Obama articulated this idea that U.S. political and economic interests were shifting toward East Asia. The Trans-Pacific Partnership that the Obama administration negotiated was a fundamental example of this change in the nature of U.S. economic and political ties with our key partners in the Asian region.
I think that the desire of the Obama administration to make that pivot was real, yet the pivot was less significant because the fact of the matter is that, no matter how much the Obama administration and the Trump administration today want to reduce
U.S. engagement in the Middle East, the reality is that the Middle East remains a critically important region for U.S. national security and foreign policy concerns.
Therefore, we will remain engaged at an important and major level for many years to come. Now what I would say though is that there are repercussions in the region from Obama’s statement, and across the region, particularly in the Gulf, many policymakers concluded that the United States’ interest was declining and that U.S. engagement was declining.
These same policymakers saw American commitment to the region within the context of the JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action], and saw that the United States was no longer the guarantor of their political and security interests, that we were leaving and that what we wanted to accomplish before we left was to change the nature of our relationship with Iran at their expense.
That’s one reason why we saw the Gulf states react to the JCPOA so negatively and to the Obama administration negatively. This is also why Gulf state leaders welcomed the Trump administration. But the reality is that the Trump administration—even though Donald Trump articulates a strong U.S. commitment to remain engaged in the region—would like to reduce the U.S. profile and withdraw the U.S. military from the region, and ultimately do a lot of things that will make the United States a less reliable partner.
Therefore, what we’ve seen, again particularly from Saudi Arabia and the UAE, is their decision that they need to take on more of the responsibility themselves for safeguarding their own political interests, their own security interests, and to become much less responsive to the United States.
We see now that leaders in the Gulf have become much more self-assertive in saying these are our interests; these are our policies; and these are the things that we are going to do. They are also asserting more of their own autonomy in Yemen, in Libya, in the Horn of Africa, and in the Red Sea. Gulf leaders and policymakers are strengthening relations with Egypt and Sudan. Basically, now with this rhetoric of a pivot away from the region, the region’s most wealthy Persian Gulf nations are much less inclined to accept American leadership, and more inclined to say this is our policy; this is what our interests are; this is the direction that we’re going to go in.
CR: So, were Obama and John Kerry wrong for pushing the nuclear agreement with Iran, as it has hurt U.S. standing with the United States’ traditional allies?
GF: Barack Obama was correct in identifying the nuclear issue as the primary threat to the region and making the decision, along with the other P5 colleagues and the Germans, that we should negotiate an agreement to take that nuclear issue off the table. But the reality is that for the Gulf states, their number one concern about Iranian behavior was not even around the Iranians getting a nuclear bomb. What concerned our Gulf allies was the Iranian ballistic missile program, Tehran’s intervention in internal affairs of neighbors, and the Iranians’ support for terrorism.
And those were areas where Barack Obama said we’re not going to change our position. Obama was clear that the United States would only negotiate regarding the nuclear portfolio, the nuclear file, and that we would not negotiate on these other things.
Obama stressed that we will maintain our strong sanctions regime against the Iranians as long as the Iranians do not address these other issues. But after the JCPOA was signed, what the Gulf states saw instead was that there were a number of players in the Obama administration who really did not agree with Obama’s approach and wanted to see whether the JCPOA might be a vehicle that would allow policymakers in the U.S. to open a new door with the Iranians and restore diplomatic relations—at least to have the capacity to work with Iranians on areas where we had mutual interests.
The Gulf states saw this development as a betrayal of what the Obama administration had promised them when it was negotiating the JCPOA. Gulf leaders also believed that the Obama administration was going to negotiate with the Iranians at their expense, and that the United States was going to achieve some kind of a reconciliation with Iran that would harm the interests of the Gulf states. So, in this context, I think the Obama administration is legitimately criticized.
CR: To what extent do President Obama and his administration deserve criticism for us not getting involved in Syria, specifically because of the experience of Iraq? Was this a correct decision?
GF: Both Barack Obama and Donald Trump came to the same conclusion: the American people do not want to see U.S. military forces involved in another conflict in the Middle East. Both Obama and Trump have pursued a policy, which is basically that we are not going to get drawn into another conflict.
Now personally, I think that the Obama administration is justifiably criticized for the way they managed the Syrian conflict. I think that they could have done more to support the moderate Sunni forces. They could have done more to try to press for regime change in Damascus. And of course, the main critique of Obama is his statement about chemical weapons being a red line, and then when the red line was clearly crossed, not doing anything. Obama’s inaction opened the door for the Russians to come in and basically protect Al-Assad and prevent the regime change that would have potentially resolved the Syrian conflict.
But the reality is that Obama probably correctly read the American public. At the time, we did not want to get involved in another ground war in the Middle East. And I think that Trump is probably correctly reading the American public in saying now that we still do not want to see another war in the Middle East.
The future of the Middle East and North Africa, a region of some 350 million people, is very much defined by what comes after the devastating conflicts which have brought Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen to ruin. The phrase post-conflict reconstruction is at once lofty and foreboding because of the great hopes, expectations, and risks it carries.
While the Marshall Plan and the American occupation helped to resuscitate the economies of Germany and Japan in the aftermath of the Second World War, the parameters which govern peacemaking and nation-(re)building have today drastically changed. For example, in Syria’s prolonged conflict, which has not fully ended, any efforts must overcome religious, political, and social fragmentation under the shadow of a government which itself was a party to the conflict and has consolidated its power to be in control of much of the process of reconstruction and rebuilding. The significant presence and role of outside parties—such as Iran, Russia, the European Union, and the United States—in Syria further complicates efforts of rehabilitation in the country.
The situation in neighboring Iraq, meanwhile, offers an excellent example of what to avoid when applying traditional approaches of reconstruction and rebuilding. Despite the United States and its allies defeating and removing the Baathist regime in 2003, very little has been done to improve the country’s power and water supplies. With basic infrastructure, healthcare, security, and humanitarian assistance underfunded and in disarray, Iraq has been a case of mismanagement of billions in revenue and political capital intended to foster economic and political cohesion to allow effective reconstruction.
With the horrifying bloodshed and devastation unleashed in these conflict zones, international donors, organizations, and national initiatives are desperately looking for a playbook to make the wholescale transformation toward more democratic institutions less daunting. No such playbook exists.
In this issue of the Cairo Review titled “Under Reconstruction,” global experts and scholars invested in the reconstruction and rehabilitation offer their perspectives on what lies ahead after the last bullet has been fired and the smoke has cleared. The consensus is that there needs to be information-driven collaboration between national and international actors—including those who were parties to the conflicts. There is also consensus that conventional notions of economic inclusiveness may no longer be enough given the ethnic, sectarian, and tribal factors which often are significant to the point of disrupting any serious reconstruction efforts. Participation by all sectors of society, including political enfranchisement of minorities and women, in a holistic approach is now more needed than ever to ensure post-conflict stability which allows for the right conditions for reconstruction. Chaos and conflict continue unabated in some parts of MENA which is why for this issue we chose to do things a little differently and capture the reconstruction amid ruin as depicted by Syrian architect/artist Mohamad Hafez who has witnessed first hand the ravages of war tearing his nation apart.
Firas Al-Atraqchi & Karim Haggag
Cairo Review Managing Editors
A Disaster of the Political Class
A week before the 2016 referendum vote on UK membership in the European Union—at the height of a campaign characterized by racist demagoguery from the pro-Brexit side—a member of Parliament (MP) named Jo Cox, who was known for standing up for refugees, was assassinated in broad daylight by a neo-Nazi. When later asked to give his name in court, the assassin, Thomas Mair, replied, “Death to traitors, freedom for Britain”. According to a Guardian report following Mair’s conviction for murder, “prosecutors acknowledge privately that the febrile atmosphere in which the EU referendum campaign was waged appears certain to have contributed to Mair’s decision to murder his MP”.
Chillingly, the murder of Jo Cox and the context in which it happened did not give a sufficient number of voters pause about the dark path that British “Euroscepticism” had taken. On June 23, 2016, the Leave campaign—with its paranoid vision of a UK overrun by dehumanized brown people—was rewarded with victory, its toxic repertoire imbued with a new swagger and sense of vindication that has poisoned British politics ever since. The referendum result prompted what the chief of London’s Metropolitan Police described as a horrible spike in hate crimes against visible minorities and Eastern Europeans in the following weeks and months, another predictable consequence of the demagogic turn.
Cox’s murder and the wave of hate crimes after the referendum have essentially become invisible in the political discourse around Brexit in the subsequent two-and-a-half years, their causes and meanings scarcely acknowledged, let alone discussed and confronted. Instead, that discourse sails serenely on, following a course plotted by the chauvinistic right. The Daily Mail carries front page headlines such as “Crush the Saboteurs” and “Enemies of the People,” aimed at anyone perceived to be frustrating the referendum result, while cries of “betrayal” from Brexiteers greet any attempt to contemplate a future relationship with Europe that fails to conform precisely to their own extreme demands.
Meanwhile, centrist politicians maintain their longstanding policy of appeasement and victim-blaming, with MP Chuka Umunna demanding a “muscular approach to immigration” and singling out the Somali community for failing to, in his terminology, integrate. Umunna, ironically, is himself of migrant background.
Race is next to nowhere in Britain’s Brexit conversation, partly because migrants and people of color are largely excluded from British politics, save for those who can be trusted to conform. A conceited sense of national innocence prevails, disciplining dissenting voices and stifling the honest and self-critical conversations that are urgently required. Additionally, a specific right-wing narrative of class has become pervasive, obscuring the issue of race and distorting the national understanding of what Brexit really means.
The popular story now goes that the Leave vote was a rebellion of the left-behind working class against a privileged metropolitan elite. This has proved a highly effective rhetorical cudgel since, naturally, the suggestion that one is an elitist patronizing the downtrodden can have a chastening effect on progressives who might otherwise have sought to articulate a confident anti-racist and pro-migrant argument. Yet, this is a selective characterization of the Leave-Remain divide, one which obscures one of the key features of Britain’s socio-political discourse: the bigotry directed at migrants and minority ethnic communities by the white middle and upper classes. Confronting the realities of British racism and xenophobia is an indispensable first step toward a better understanding of the causes and nature of the Brexit crisis. Here, analysts with heritage in the former British colonies and upbringing in the heartlands of white British conservatism have an important voice to add to the discussion, one that can compensate for the biases currently dominating the discourse.
Percentages and Facts about Racism in Britain
Taking the major post-referendum exit poll alongside other relevant data, socio-cultural attitudes appear to have been a more important factor in the Brexit vote than social class. It is true that class correlated with voting preference—64 percent of working-class voters chose Leave, but it is simultaneously true that 59 percent of Leave voters were middle-class (the British middle-class is much larger than the working-class). Danny Dorling, professor of geography at the University of Oxford, notes that, “the vote to leave Europe was largely a middle-class English vote,” and dismisses as fantasy the idea that working-class voters from the north of England were the decisive group in the referendum result.
The Leave vote correlated much more strongly with social attitudes than with social class; 81 percent of those expressing opposition to multiculturalism—a strong proxy for racist and xenophobic views—voted to leave. Interestingly, 80 percent of those seeing social liberalism as a force for ill and 74 percent of those seeing feminism as a force for ill also voted Leave. Plenty of middle and upper class Britons hold these views, and plenty of working class people do not. Clearly the politics of Brexit had some attachment to a wider backlash against the erosion of conservative social hierarchies and values.
It is particularly revealing that ethnicity correlated with referendum voter preference as much as, or more strongly than, class: 67 percent of Asians voted to remain, along with 73 percent of those of African and Afro-Caribbean descent. The most vindictively racialized “other” in British society today, 70 percent of Muslims, also voted to remain. These groups are disproportionately likely to be working class. What therefore does it mean to describe Brexit voters as the “left behind” when a black working-class voter is less likely to vote Brexit than an affluent white property owner, or when multi-ethnic working-class areas of British cities voted to remain in the EU whereas the richer and more ethnically homogenous Tory heartlands of England voted to leave?
Attempts to discuss the role of racism and xenophobia in the referendum result are almost invariably met with aggressive incomprehension, born of the widespread sense that British racism is a fringe pathology that cannot substantively account for over 17 million Brexit votes. The lack of black and minority ethnic voices in Britain’s media and politics allows this naivety about the extent and nature of British racism to go undisturbed. However, many of those who have experienced it first-hand recognize racism as a problem that goes far beyond Brexit voters. Nevertheless, the specific degree of overlap between racist or xenophobic attitudes and the choice to vote for Brexit is a question that needs to be faced.
In the 2016 referendum, 37 percent of the UK’s registered voters (which does not include all adults since many remain unregistered) voted for the United Kingdom to leave the EU. A similar-sized group—29 percent of the public— admit to some level of racial prejudice, a number which stood as high as 38 percent in 2011. This self-reported prejudice will, naturally, understate the true extent of the problem since there will inevitably be many more people who are prejudiced but are unprepared to admit it. A poll in 2014 showed 26 percent of the British public agreeing with the statement that “the government should encourage immigrants and their families to leave Britain (including family members who were born in Britain),” while only 43 percent of those polled disagreed. That is to say that a majority of the British public either regard their British-born compatriots with foreign-born parents as an illegitimate or undesirable presence, or cannot decide whether or not those people have the right to live in the country of their birth. It is inescapable that racialized “othering” is playing a significant role here.
Another poll from shortly after the referendum indicates the depth of this prejudice, as well as its close association with the Brexit vote. When asked if the government should allow a group of fourteen refugee children, stranded in the French port of Calais, to join their families already in Britain, 32 percent said no, and only 50 percent said yes. The responses differed according to social class to a degree, but the correlation with the Brexit vote was far more striking. Only 34 percent of Leave voters thought the refugee kids should be allowed to join their families. Fifty-two percent said they should stay out of Britain, and 14 percent could not decide.
Cozying Up to the British Empire and the Leave Vote
The standard (now clichéd) line from politicians across the spectrum who seek to win the anti-immigrant vote is that the public has “legitimate concerns” about immigration that must not be dismissed as racist or xenophobic. The false association of the Leave vote with the working class has now given that admonition—that whitewashing of British racism—a veneer of moral force. Plainly, however, there can be no “legitimate concern” about, for example, the right of a refugee child to be with their family, and yet two-thirds of Brexit voters (alongside many in the wider public) are incapable of recognizing this child’s rights. The question is not whether racism and xenophobia played a role in the Brexit vote, but what the precise nature of that role was.
No useful account of voter motivation and preference can be reduced to questions of narrow economic self-interest. We must bear in mind that people’s individual and collective sense of who they are, their status and self-worth, also matters to them, and at a sometimes visceral level. Moreover, these senses are relative. A collective sense of self acquires the quality of a status through juxtaposition with an “other,” often one that is denigrated in a racialized way. Of course, this is particularly true when the relevant questions are ones of nationhood and relations with the rest of the world.
These questions are not abstract but based in concrete, historical, and material circumstances. For a three-and-a-half-century period—ending around the same time that the UK joined what has now become the European Union—Britain’s economy, society, and international power developed in close symbiosis with Empire, a system of violent domination and exploitation of people of color all over the world. That racism, whether articulated with reference to biology or culture, was the key ideological ingredient that allowed the British elite of the liberal Enlightenment to reconcile its claimed values with the violence and iniquities of empire. In terms of how Britain understood itself relative to others, racism and nationalistic chauvinism were two sides of a coin that was standard currency at all levels of the national culture through the imperial centuries preceding the modern era.
One could not reasonably expect the cultural and ideological legacies of that long period to simply disappear, not least given the quasi-imperial nature of the UK’s ongoing relations with the global south, including but not limited to the Middle East. It should be no surprise that the imperial mindset (and its racist counterpart) remains strong across British society. Today, 59 percent of the public believe the British Empire is something to be proud of, a view perhaps rooted in the ignorance displayed by the 49 percent who believe that colonized countries were better off for the experience.
Naturally this chauvinism is particularly strong on the political right (though by no means limited to it), where anxiety over the loss of empire and Britain’s steadily diminishing status as a world power has been palpable for decades. To some degree, these feelings attached themselves to a right-wing view of the European Union. Britain’s political and economic integration with Europe came to symbolize its loss of self-sufficiency as a major power in its own right, and the extent of the integrationist project driven from Brussels elicited a fear of further loss of status and virility. The majority of the UK’s political class took a more pragmatic approach to their own sense of Britain’s entitlement to international power and influence, seeing the EU as a useful avenue to achieving that aim. Theirs was a more considered form of nationalistic chauvinism. Conservative Eurosceptics, however, remained irreconcilable.
The Collusion of the Tories and Labour for Euroscepticism
Euroscepticism struggled for a long time to turn itself into a serious political force. It remained a fringe of the Conservative parliamentary party for many years, and a smaller fringe of the Labour Party amongst socialists who opposed the neoliberalism that increasingly characterized the economic dimensions of the European project. A significant proportion of the public preferred to leave the EU, given the choice, but doing so was never high on voters’ list of priorities. What changed was the ability of the Eurosceptics to exploit a growing set of tensions within twenty-first century British conservatism, and to attach their cause to issues that a sufficient proportion of the British public care about.
The partial and uneven relaxation of immigration laws across the EU in the 2000s was seized upon by British Eurosceptics as a way to tie this widespread public grievance to their own specific aims. The UK Independence Party (UKIP) managed to pitch itself rather astutely as a semi-respectable proponent of the preoccupations of traditional far-right voters, and as a home for those alienated by the Conservative leadership’s attempts to modernize and liberalize its image. Some right-wing voters who had been attracted by Labour’s rightward shift under Prime Ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown (especially on immigration) also came to prefer UKIP’s full-throated offer of the real thing.
The presence of racialized others in Britain, their efforts to secure their rightful place in a gradually diversifying and liberalizing society, and Britain’s place in a fast-integrating Europe were all woven into a narrative of a country losing its way, of a rightful order of things being upended. With its leader Nigel Farage wielding the niche charisma of an English golf club bore, UKIP began to siphon votes from both main parties, and from the Conservatives in particular.
It was Prime Minister David Cameron’s hubristic decision to call a national referendum on EU membership, assuming he would win the vote and kill off UKIP in the process, that plunged the country into its current socio-political crisis. Furthermore, it was the choice by his successor Theresa May to pursue a Brexit negotiation strategy that prioritized (to no avail) the unity of her own party over the wider public interest which guaranteed that the entire process would descend into farce. However, while Brexit is above all a disaster of the Conservative Party’s making, it is one born of deeper problems in British society and politics.
In 2000, after a judicial inquiry found London’s Metropolitan Police to be institutionally racist following its mishandling of an investigation into the murder of an Afro-Caribbean youth, the Commission on the Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain produced a report surveying the wider social context in which the murder had taken place. The report argued that the country stood at a crossroads. It could attempt to reimagine itself as a pluralistic nation with a welcoming approach to its minority ethnic communities and an open and honest view of its history, or it could cling harder to familiar forms of exclusionary, chauvinistic jingoism, and reap increasingly grim consequences as a result. Two decades on, the report makes for grimly prescient reading.
The Blair administration of the time was inherently incapable of taking on board these recommendations, characterized as it was by deep political conformism and a conviction that it was governing a resolutely right-wing country. Labour under Blair and Brown never missed an opportunity to broadcast their “toughness” on immigration—particularly on asylum seekers—passing a series of draconian immigration acts, repeatedly portraying racialized others as social problems requiring unsentimental solutions, and turning the language of “legitimate concerns” into the hegemonic political discourse. Unfortunately, it continues to be these same politicians or their successors that lead much of the present Remain movement in the Labour Party and outside it.
In doing so, the Labour government played a key role in the legitimization and mainstreaming of twenty-first century British racism and xenophobia. Reported racist attitudes soared and fresh racist discourses thrived, with particularly severe consequences for Muslims in the context of the “War on Terror”. The extent to which this helped prepare the ground for Brexit should not be underestimated, given the central role that Islamophobia played in the Leave campaigners’ demagoguery. Blair’s claim in April this year that the way to combat the far right is to get tougher on migrants and their supposed failure to “integrate” is striking for a level of dogmatism that borders on eccentricity. It was precisely this approach that laid the ground for the 2016 referendum result that Blair and his New Labour colleagues now lament, apparently incapable of recognizing their own culpability.
Two Divides and the Reimagining of Britain
From surveying the chaotic state of British politics in the summer of 2019, and the dark forces within it that continue to stir, it is clear that the task of reimagining Britain as a pluralistic, open, and welcoming national community has never been more urgent.
Had this task been taken up in a serious way in the years before the Brexit vote, the vote’s result would likely have been different. It might even have changed the minds of those who did vote Leave for primarily economic reasons. Had this sort of project been pursued, it might even have been possible to effect a major and sustained shift in public opinion against Brexit in the years after the vote. That this has not happened is down to the failings of the Conservatives’ opponents.
If an embrace of multiculturalism occurs, Britain will first need to reinvent itself. This reimagining will need to be actively pursued at all levels of British society. The goal would be to transform the dominant sense of who fully belongs in the UK, of who is included as us rather than othered as them. A long overdue confrontation with the realities and historical legacies of Empire would play a central role, in the interest of promoting understanding rather than collective shame, and as an antidote to the nationalistic chauvinism that continues to toxify the socio-political discourse. Migrants and people of minority ethnic background could and should play a leading role in this endeavor, staking our claim as a legitimate part of society, not to create a new multicultural basis for British self-satisfaction, but simply to establish a more healthy, inclusive, and egalitarian collective sense of self.
The main political voices dedicated to preventing Brexit hail almost entirely from the political center, and are deeply implicated in the politics of recent decades which created the conditions that made Brexit possible to begin with. There is no acknowledgement from the veterans of the Blair and Brown governments that their own record in office might have contributed to the problem. Only an incessant demand for a second referendum without any convincing idea of how to shift public opinion to the extent required to make a re-run worthwhile.
Centrist Remain politics has its own chauvinistic view of Britain’s rightful role in the world, articulated through liberal rather than conservative language, but sharing the same fundamental sense of patriotic self-satisfaction that has helped bring the country to this point. This mentality was exemplified two months before the Brexit vote by the former New Labour Foreign Secretary David Miliband, when he said that:
“If the world is increasingly divided between firefighters and arsonists, then Britain has for centuries been a firefighter. This is no time for Britain to join the ranks of arsonists and there should be no doubt that Brexit would be an act of arson on the international order.”
This whitewashing of centuries of Britain’s destructive imperial past, and presenting of British power as a leading force for good in the world (being a firefighter), is no less ahistorical or chauvinistic coming as it does from a centrist liberal than it would be if articulated by a Conservative Brexiteer.
Miliband’s remark is entirely representative of the centrist politicians who continue to dominate the politics of Remain. His former boss, Prime Minister Gordon Brown, told a newspaper during a 2005 trip to Africa that “The days of Britain having to apologize for its colonial history are over”.
Brown’s Conservative successor, David Cameron, who effectively led the Remain campaign, once said, “I think there is an enormous amount to be proud of in what the British empire did and was responsible for” (adding the empty platitude, “But of course there were bad events as well as good events”). For the centrist politicians who have pushed themselves to the fore of Remain politics, British greatness is axiomatic and best situated within the parameters of the European project. For the Brexiteers, British greatness is no less axiomatic, but best situated outside of that project. These shared delusions of grandeur have drowned out the possibility of a frank and honest conversation about the real roots of the current crisis.
Meanwhile, although the Labour Party has changed significantly since the days of Blair and Brown, and while it is now led by figures known for their vigorous and vocal opposition to their predecessors’ policies on asylum and immigration, those expecting an aggressively proactive anti-racist and pro-migrant agenda from Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership have been left disappointed. Corbyn does not actively court the racist and xenophobic vote, but he appears to share the somewhat simplistic view of many on the left that these prejudices are merely misdirected economic concerns which can be addressed through a more egalitarian economic policy. Labour’s reluctance even to argue for the sort of open immigration policies that would make a softer and less economically damaging Brexit possible is testament to its timidity and confusion on the issue.
Yet, while the immediate future looks bleak, it is also true that the reimagining of Britain is, to a large degree, already taking place beyond the realm of politics. In many communities up and down the country, multiculturalism is experienced not as a policy imposed by a metropolitan elite, but increasingly as an unremarkable fact of everyday life. Anti-immigrant sentiment and the electoral success of racist and xenophobic political projects like UKIP and the Brexit campaign fare best precisely in the areas that have experienced the least immigration. The largest Remain votes, and the lowest votes for parties like UKIP and the Conservatives, by contrast, come in areas (including some of the most deprived in Britain) where immigrants are not an unknown, demonized other, but one’s neighbors, colleagues, friends, and family.
This emerging Britain remains sidelined from mainstream politics, not substantively represented by the leading politicians of Remain, and finding limited expression mostly through grassroots activism in defense of socioeconomic rights. Yet, its presence is growing. The Brexit vote can in many ways be read as a backlash against both this change and the challenges to familiar social values and hierarchies that emanate from it. In an optimistic view of the future, Brexit might come to be seen as the last, dying spasm of the old imperial mentalities, before a new post-colonial Britain, shaped in no small part by formerly colonized subjects and their descendants, finally came into being. That future might still happen, but it may require a new generation of political leadership to ensure that it is fully realized.
A Man for All Ages
The Back Channel: A Memoir of American Diplomacy and the Case for Its Renewal. By William Burns, Penguin Random House, New York, 2019, 512 pp.
Ambassador Bill Burns retired in 2014 as the most accomplished U.S. diplomat of his generation. In the early part of this century, no diplomat—and perhaps no American—had a closer view of the inner workings of both the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations’ foreign policies. Burns began his close associations with the power elite in Washington with his 2001 appointment as the State Department’s Assistant Secretary for Near East Affairs and retired as only the second foreign service officer to become deputy secretary. His 33-year career corresponded with the apex of American power in the early 1990s and the denouement that followed. Burns’s rise through the diplomatic ranks would be of interest to any foreign service recruit. Just a decade into the foreign service, Burns had already served as senior director at the National Security Council and led the policy planning staff at the State Department. However, two-thirds of his book, The Back Channel: A Memoir of American Diplomacy and the Case for Its Renewal, is dedicated to the latter half of his career and this will be of most interest to students of American foreign policy. Burns tells his story with grace and aplomb. In so doing, he explains America’s foreign policy during the beginning of the twenty-first century— from September 11 to the 2003 war in Iraq to the initial 2013 Iran nuclear agreement, and much in between.
Three months into his tenure as Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, the United States and the world were turned upside down: just hours after the World Trade Center towers and Pentagon were hit by airliners on 9/11, Burns wrote a hand-written memo to Secretary of State Colin Powell on a yellow legal pad calling for a calibrated and measured response that built on partnerships with Europe and the Middle East. This was advice the Bush II White House would not heed. In the year-anda-half between the September 11 attacks and the March 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, Burns worked with increasing urgency to highlight the risks of invasion and to support Powell’s internal efforts to counter the drums of war coming from Vice-President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Burns’s efforts culminated in an internal memorandum co-written with two colleagues entitled the “Perfect Storm.” Seventeen years later, the “Perfect Storm” is a fascinating document in which Burns warns of the major dangers a U.S. invasion of Iraq would entail. Unfortunately, the second Bush administration treated diplomacy as a sideshow. By Burns’ own account, his efforts had no effect in halting the rush to war.
Eight years later, Barack Obama entered the White House as a realist with a cautious temperament, like Burns himself. Burns sympathizes with Obama’s efforts to manage and preserve American power in a competitive world. He expresses admiration for Obama’s political courage to enter diplomatic negotiations with Iran that eventually culminated in the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement. Of the Obama administration’s operation that killed Osama Bin Laden, Burns writes: “Never have I been prouder of the U.S. military, or of a president who had so coolly taken such a big risk.”
However, Burns laments that Obama’s deliberative approach could also could lead to inaction. Putting his strategic long game into practice proved difficult. Surveying the aftermath of the 2011 Arab uprisings, Burns’s judgment is harsh. Washington’s internal deliberations after the ouster of President Mohammed Morsi in Egypt antagonized the Egyptian military, Islamists, and liberal revolutionaries alike. Syria’s misery was “an American policy failure”.
However, if Obama’s policy failures in the Middle East were sins of omission— the failure to act—Burns sees the second Bush administration as committing the far graver sin of commission. The second Iraq war was a disaster from which neither the United States nor the Middle East have yet recovered, writes Burns.
The “Perfect Storm” was a brilliant memo. However, Burns now acknowledges he did not take a direct enough stand against the war. He admits to pulling punches in hopes of getting a better hearing. Burns’s extended self-reflections on the episode highlight the complicated personal, political, and professional tradeoffs that come with public service. The ambassador laments, in a meditation that should be required reading for any public servants languishing in the Donald Trump administration, that his failure to more forcefully oppose the Iraq war remains his biggest professional regret.
Burns is concerned about the devaluation of diplomacy among the public and policymakers alike. This exacerbates the militarization of U.S. foreign policy and short-circuits strategic thinking about American interests. Burns is also disdainful of the fads that permeate much of the analysis around foreign policy— from counterinsurgency in the mid2000s to countering violent extremism today. He worries about the steady growth of National Security Council and executive branch micromanagement of foreign policy.
Unlike most diplomats, Burns spent two-thirds of his career in Washington. He managed the repeated transitions between parties with great dexterity, even as he rose to higher positions of authority. Readers looking for the insider score-settling that populates most D.C. memoirs will be disappointed. Washington insiders will discern that a few of the secretaries of state Burns served under are gently ribbed with faint praise. Spoiler alert: James Baker, Colin Powell, and John Kerry come in for the highest approval. The first Bush administration sets the foreign policy example for its successors.
This genteel attitude toward Washington decision-makers of both parties is refreshing. However, this same courtesy may also deprive readers of a fuller understanding of just how the American foreign policy machinery—and the decisions that emanate from it—arrived, step by step, at such a distressed state in 2019. Burns clearly sees President George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq as the original sin. Yet, the decline of the American-led global order began long before 2003, and the rise of Trump is as much a result of this order’s collapse as it is a contributing factor now to America’s decline.
When Burns’s criticism finally comes, it comes as a shock to the reader. He describes Trump’s presidency as narcissistic, foolish, untethered to history, and unconnected to strategy. When the courteous Bill Burns uses this kind of language to describe an American president, Americans should listen.
The Back Channel ends with thoughtful recommendations for restoring America’s diplomatic capacity. Burns’s broad idea is to reinvest in the State Department and to pursue a diplomatic approach which pairs Obama’s more restrained strategic focus with renewed attention on pressing transnational issues such as technology, economics, energy, and climate.
Anyone interested in American foreign policy should ponder these ideas. A great deal of their appeal derives from Burns’s sterling record as a public servant. Yet, in a political climate, and indeed popular culture defined by the American president’s unfathomable personal insecurity and grotesque self-absorption, it is worth hoping that a new generation of American diplomats will find inspiration in this more modest model of public service.
The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund or its trustees.
Welcome to the Second Industrial Revolution!
Looking for a job? Join the maker movement, a new trend sweeping North Africa and particularly Egypt, which takes a different approach to finding jobs. Dubbed a “second industrial revolution,” makerspaces allow members to develop their skills in an innovative space, with the potential of creating business and employment opportunities.
Makerspaces are collaborative environments where would-be creators and inventors find access to technological resources that would often otherwise be prohibitively expensive, as well as membership in a community of other makers. Egypt’s growing maker movement focuses on giving entrepreneurs opportunities to build up their technical knowledge and products rather than ameliorating the employment market. For example, Fab Lab Egypt—the Middle East’s first makerspace founded in 2012 and an accredited member of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Fab Lab global network (Fab coming from the word “fabrication”)—began as an educational space that offered workshops and programs to people interested in digital fabrication. It later developed into a broad organization that, in addition to serving local makers, hosts three resident start-ups, provides consultations and trainings for businesses, and seeks to spread the maker culture across Egypt.
For more experienced entrepreneurs, Qafeer Makerspace in Cairo aids hardware start-ups in creating prototypes for their products. In Alexandria, Karakeeb Makerspace aims to spread knowledge to people without engineering backgrounds, particularly targeting underprivileged youth.
The American University in Cairo itself hosts a makerspace that prides itself on being the first fully educational Fab Lab, which follows a hands-on model. There is no shortage of creations when using the lab’s machines. Students have used the Ultimaker 3D to print items ranging from a model airplane to a lamp composed of three-dimensional prisms of various sizes. A sleek, functional fidget spinner was created with a simple laser cutter. By educating students on how to make their own products, AUC’s FabLab is taking “a step forward toward making more makers,” say its lab managers—an essential component of the movement, which values peer-to-peer learning and idea sharing.
The impact of the makerspace scene on the Egyptian economic ecosystem has been noticeable. Emerging after the 2011 uprising, makerspaces in Egypt boomed to twenty-one spaces spanning six governorates by December 2017. This is a considerable achievement compared to nine and five makerspaces in Morocco and Tunisia, respectively. According to Nagham El Houssamy, a senior researcher for AUC’s Access to Knowledge for Development Center (A2K4D), there is a definitive link between the makerspace and the skills that people gain there, which could help them launch a career or land a job. Furthermore, the movement seeks to spread its benefits beyond the confines of Egypt’s major cities. Innovations such as Fab Lab on Wheels, a mobile makerspace that brings tools and expertise to governorates outside of Cairo and Alexandria, seek to make the movement and its potential for job creation inclusive.
The movement is not without its limitations, however. One significant challenge is a lack of governmental support. Simple fixes have the potential to make a difference in the nascent movement, but as of yet, policies supporting the movement are not in place. High customs can make the cost of heavy machinery such as 3D printers and computer numerical control milling machines exorbitant. Furthermore, obtaining licensing and registration for makerspaces is difficult because there is currently no legal category for makerspaces.
This lack of governmental buy-in is not the case elsewhere, especially in developing countries in sub-Saharan Africa, where the maker movement has found relative success. In South Africa, for example, makerspaces enjoy high levels of government support and investment. The Open African Innovation Research Partnership found that, of sixteen makerspaces in South Africa, five derived at least some of their funding from government sources, and two were completely governed and managed by the government.
El Houssamy’s goal is that makerspaces reach policymakers, but one prerequisite is the growth of the movement itself. “The more the labor,” she told the Cairo Review, “the more we reap the fruits of the labor, and the more policymakers will see its benefits more clearly and shift policies to better serve it.” The best way to actualize this, El Houssamy noted, is for people to get involved, visit makerspaces, and learn a new skill. After all, she added: “You never leave with less than what you went in with.”
Sister of the Rebels
Photographer Asmaa Waguih has repeatedly found herself at the center of the Middle East’s most violent conflicts. After the outbreak of the 2010–11 Arab Spring, she begged her editor to send her to Bahrain or Yemen, but ended up in Tripoli, the birthplace of the Libyan revolt. She was in Libya only twenty-four hours after Qaddafi’s men deserted the Libya– Egypt borders. She visited northern Syria to photograph female Kurdish fighters and was assigned to the Sinjar region of Iraqi Kurdistan, the site of Yezidi persecution. She even documented the collapse of the Islamic State’s caliphate in cities across Libya, Iraq, and Syria. She was also on assignment in Helmand province in south Afghanistan but after every project, Waguih was eager to move on to the next untold story.
Waguih, a longtime freelancer and photographer for Reuters, has made it her lifelong project to give voice to unheard narratives from the Middle East. Far from thinking of herself as a war reporter following trails of conflict, Waguih is rather driven by curiosity about other cultures and people. “I just wanted to discover the areas close [to] me. I wanted to go to Gaza. Libya you can go over land; it’s also not costly. Jordan, I also went, just took the ferry from Nuweiba, from Sinai,” she said in an interview with the Cairo Review.
There was no lack of stories on which to report in Libya. She stayed with the Eastern Rebels, who were not used to seeing women journalists. Waguih would accompany them to the frontlines in their pickup trucks so often that they gave her the nickname, “sister of the rebels”.
Waguih’s most recent project in 2014 uncovered the impact of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in Kurdish territories. She photographed Kurdish, Arab, and Yazidi women living under ISIS occupation and their efforts to fight for freedom. She exhibited her photographs at the American University in Cairo. Hanging on the walls of the exhibition, which her sister helped title “On the Road to Freedom,” are pictures of female fighters from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ). (The PKK is a Kurdish political and military organization operating in the Kurdish territory of Turkey and Iraq. The YPJ is an exclusively female militia based in northern Syria.) These groups, along with others, are the reason that one-third of fighters in Kurdish territory are women. Her photographs of the Kurdish women fighters are meant to depict their political struggle, as seen in a photo of a woman security officer awaiting the female former co-president of Manbij, a city in northeast Syria. Other photographs display women pushing social boundaries, such as the one of a woman smoking a cigarette— an act previously forbidden under ISIS control.
Reporting on these stories was far from easy. Freedom of the press is not guaranteed in Kurdistan, meaning that at any moment, Waguih could have been denied a story. Since Kurdish areas have been a hotbed for intelligence gathering and spying, many residents were often suspicious of a hidden agenda behind reporters’ questions. Waguih was sometimes denied interviews because she herself was a woman navigating a relatively conservative area, especially when she tried to talk to members of the Islamic State.
Nonetheless, Waguih says she does not let clickbait journalism dictate how she reports. She is cognizant of the fact that mainstream media often picks the “center point” for a story and then forgets about the peripheral stories. For example, in Yemen, the media chose to focus on the famine caused by the war. But Waguih found an even more pressing story in the landmines laid by Houthi forces that disproportionately affected civilian lives. She notes that, especially in the West, the media writes stories based on “what will break your heart more”. Her goal is not to maximize her viewership, but rather share the human experiences she feels are important.
Waguih is currently on assignment in Sudan, covering how people have been affected by the protests following the ouster of Omar Al-Bashir. The real power she wields lies in not letting the mainstream media or powerful players define her stories, and by maintaining her individual voice, she is able to access the stories of communities which would otherwise be forgotten.
When the Shooting Stops
The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) was set up at the end of the Cold War to facilitate progress toward “market-oriented economies and the promotion of private and entrepreneurial initiative”. Its theater of operations would be, it was assumed at the time, the former communist states of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.
The actual reconstruction and development our founders had in mind when they chose our name was supposed to remedy the legacy of decades of inefficient and environmentally harmful central planning. The EBRD was never going to get involved in post-conflict work, either when the shooting stopped or even considerably later. Or so the founders thought.
Yet, before we knew it, that was exactly the territory the bank found itself in, in the Western Balkans, dealing with the aftermath of not one, but several conflicts. More recently, our shareholders—among them sixty-nine countries from five different continents—have instructed us to expand into new regions, most notably the Middle East and North Africa.
Overview of Post-Conflict Challenges in the Middle East
As of the summer of 2019, the EBRD has invested almost 10 billion euros ($11 billion) in Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Tunisia, Lebanon, and the West Bank. Other countries from the neighborhood are interested in joining us as members and recipients of our investments (most recently, Libya became an EBRD shareholder this July with a view to becoming a country where we work in the future). Some of them have been wracked by war and destruction in recent years but are now in sight of potential ceasefires and, we hope, compromise, agreement, and just possibly reconciliation.
I have no desire to be a twenty-first century version of Voltaire’s Doctor Pangloss, convinced that all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds. I realize that bloodshed on the scale we have witnessed over the past few years makes any inching toward transition, let alone wholescale transformation, difficult. However, given the horrifying slaughter, the displacement of millions of people, and the colossal economic costs these wars have inflicted, the region and the international community need to seize the moment. Allowing nascent chances for peace to sputter and then die would be to condemn these countries to more years of disaster. I accept that today many of the factors required to secure peace, security, and stability simply do not exist in different parts of the region. Yet, at the same time, I believe that we need to eye the horizon and prepare to deliver reconstruction and development when the shooting stops and the conflicts end.
What follows is not the EBRD playbook for any specific country. Nor is it my attempt to pen a comprehensive or rigorously academic treatise on the political science of post-conflict rebuilding of nations or economies. It is instead a series of personal observations, glimpsed from the sidelines of current conflicts. It is important to discuss the way forward for countries emerging from strife. We need to build an internal framework so that these nations in the Middle East and beyond can succeed, and we must secure long-term external support for peace while recognizing the balancing acts that are part of this complex rebuilding process.
The Need for Inclusivity
Internally, conflicts typically end either when one party or faction is victorious or thanks to mediation. In either case, it is imperative to ensure that the political process is inclusive. This is not merely a question of values. Conflict resolution transcends the need to establish political legitimacy on the ground. For one thing, an inclusive process—even one that proceeds via incremental steps— reduces the risk of conflict breaking out anew. Yet, such a big-tent strategy is often put at risk by the winner-takes-all attitude in which the victors impose a punitive peace on the vanquished. Here is one area where a balancing act is so important: the trade-off between peace and justice. The paradox is that, while we all want justice, its pursuit above all else can make securing lasting peace more difficult. At the same time, without justice in the mid- to long-term, peace just cannot be sustained. Reconciling peace and justice in the interests of all is thus a constant challenge.
Successful post-conflict leaders—one might even call them statesmen or stateswomen—strive to understand their opponents and include them in the political process. They thereby reduce tension and enhance their own legitimacy as well as increase overall levels of trust. These leaders succeed domestically but also have to be aware of the global context. Any serious post-conflict reconstruction and development campaign needs to build momentum not just nationally, but internationally as well. Every post-conflict country has to be aware of the confluence of interests and values in international stakeholders’ decision-making, indeed to leverage or even exploit the opportunities therein.
In the Western Balkans: An Investor Driven Post-Conflict Plan
The EBRD and other multilateral development banks can help by ensuring that the economic benefits of peace bear fruit—and that they are shared as equitably as possible across society. The Marshall Plan, albeit in a different context and age, was an excellent example of such success. A more recent one is the way the Western Balkans have, to a certain extent, freed themselves of the burden of their history, even though its ghosts still occasionally return to haunt the region. As they have done in the Western Balkans, international financial institutions must act in concert and help make life better for locals on the ground. The Western Balkan nations have worked closely with the European Union (EU). All post-conflict nations ought to be working jointly with at least one powerful external actor—and if possible with more than one. These external actors must then collaborate rather than compete in the post-conflict countries.
The Western Balkans region was unique in that it benefitted from a strategic anchor: the relationship with the EU and, for many of its countries, the prospect of EU enlargement. The opportunity to join the EU and share in its success, as well as the international security that comes with this, has helped stabilize the region and relaunch cooperation between Western Balkan nations. This is not the case in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, or for that matter, most conflict zones around the world. However, one key point remains valid: those countries emerging from war and seeking the support of the international community will interact with the latter more smoothly if their objectives and trajectories are compatible with those of major international stakeholders.
The Three Pillars of Sustainable Peace
Beyond the juggling of interests of different domestic players to guarantee an inclusive political process and working with the international community in a coordinated way, there are three more areas worth highlighting as we seek to accelerate post-conflict reconstruction and development.
The first is strengthening the legal system. In the vast majority of cases, countries cannot deliver significant levels of sustainable development without first laying the foundations of an independent, properly functioning judiciary. This might sound idealistic for countries emerging from civil wars, especially since victors often attempt to concentrate as much power as possible in their hands. However, such an approach generally backfires, just as foregoing justice ends up perpetuating struggles. This is why taking significant steps toward developing the legal system and laying the foundation of a genuine rule of law is crucial.
The second area is setting the country on the path toward private sector participation in the development process. Private sector actors do not need central planning to guide, steer, or direct their activities. What they need—after the violence has ended—is an open commercial climate conducive to investment where the risk-return calculus is clear and fair. This touches on many areas of the economy and politics.
The authorities must commit to improving standards of governance within government and state institutions and must ensure that the private sector can operate free of cronyism. This means credible efforts to combat corruption and the abuse of power. There are several international institutions, including the EBRD, with much experience in supporting countries in different parts of the world, provided the right commitment and political will are there.
The third and last area is inclusiveness. Earlier I referred to inclusion in the context of the immediate aftermath of conflict. However, inclusion here is relevant to the long-term view of post-war societies. Besides lacking access to international investment, several MENA countries suffer major inequalities regarding the status of infrastructure, the provisioning of basic services, and the availability of jobs, not to mention access to finance. These differences are often acute in the hinterlands, where the greater the distance from major urban centers, the less opportunity people have to participate in their national, let alone the global, market.
Effective economic inclusiveness transcends geography. The authorities in post-conflict nations must have workable plans for the inclusivity of women and young people in the domestic market with quick wins. This is particularly important in societies emerging from war and strife where the percentage of households in which women are the sole breadwinner tends to be high.
Without serious work in these three areas, a country risks marginalizing its potential private sector actors. It also risks becoming a long-term recipient of aid, rather than investment. Until a post-conflict country genuinely incentivizes its private sector and appeals to foreign investors—thus attracting the significant volumes of investment only they can provide—the country will be hard pressed to travel the path of sustainable development.
For us at the EBRD, respect for the rule of law, the commitment to improving standards of governance, and genuine efforts toward inclusiveness are part of a bigger package. The EBRD is unique in that its mandate is also political. It works only in countries that are moving in the direction of multi-party-based democracy. So, for us, no successful transition of this kind is ever just a matter of mapping a route away from the horrors of war to the promised land of economic development. Domestic politics and values are crucial here, as is momentum to strengthen genuine democratic representation, proper checks and balances, and respect for human rights.
Past Multilateral Successes, Future Bilateral Challenges
Given our experience of long and sometimes fraught exchanges with partner governments, we at the EBRD appreciate that definitions and points of view differ. We cannot see eye to eye on everything. That holds true for politically stable countries and for those emerging from bloody conflict. However, the onus to create change rests, largely, on the governments of those countries seeking to put war and destruction behind them and take the path of growth and development. It is up to them to demonstrate that their efforts to improve the legal system, the investment climate, and inclusivity in their nations are anchored in an equal commitment to the journey toward democracy.
The experience of the Western Balkans is of particular relevance here. I am not arguing that the EBRD’s record in the region offers the only template for post-conflict reconstruction and development. However, I am convinced that we can learn much from the region that gave the world the expression “Balkanization,” which used to be a byword for intractable hatred but is now, sometimes stutteringly, a symbol of reconciliation and cooperation. I am proud of the role the EBRD, as a multilateral development bank, has played in this process of peace and growth across the Western Balkans. It was, for example, the EBRD that first organized—and hosted at our headquarters in London only five years ago—a meeting of the region’s six prime ministers.
Yes, the region’s physical proximity to the European Union has been a major factor in this success story, but I believe that many of the lessons we have learned from the Western Balkans are applicable elsewhere—and could deliver similar results. Not that this will be easy. The sort of multilateralism that helped bring about such progress in the Western Balkans is under strain. New tensions divide the world’s great powers. Alliances in general are increasingly ad hoc rather than long-term. Countries are more and more asserting their needs and defending their interests through bilateral relationships.
Our commitment to multilateralism remains strong, as does our readiness to join forces with other international organizations. A world without stable multilateral frameworks is more erratic, less predictable, and hence less likely to help countries enjoy sustainable and inclusive growth and heal the wounds suffered in conflicts. Indeed, such a world is, I am afraid, more likely to start such conflicts and will be less equipped to stop them once they break out. Increasing bilateralism in the world makes post-conflict reconstruction and development all the more important. We at the EBRD have carried out such post-conflict work before. We can do so again.
Reinventing Peace in Syria
After eight years of war, there is undoubtedly a peace to build in Syria but the what, how, who, and when of this endeavor are far from obvious. What is clear, however, is that building a peace in Syria will not be business as usual for Western policymakers because so-called “liberal peacebuilding”—comprehensive programs that aim to achieve order, prosperity, and participatory political systems after civil wars—has little prospect for traction. This is because policymakers are facing a “fierce state,” in which the government prioritizes only its own survival and designs its institutions accordingly, as well as a region driven by actors who maintain peace via illiberal and authoritarian practices. The challenge of these conditions is, as political scientist Steven Heydemann wrote in a 2018 Brookings report, “the near impossibility of pursuing any form of reconstruction support that will not contribute to the regime’s project of authoritarian stabilization and demographic change, or avoid channelling funds into the pockets of regime cronies and warlords”. Any hope that the current period is merely transitory and that the international community can go back to building liberal states and economies in the near future, he adds, is deeply misguided.
What should Western policymakers do? Their patients no longer respond to the standard treatments, and instead look to other doctors who offer treatments to keep them alive, but do not have answers for their chronic conditions.
To begin, they must place the challenge of reconstruction in Syria within the broader context of building peace in an era of “third wave of autocratization,” described by scholars Anna Lührmann and Staffan Lindberg as the gradual erosion of the democratic attributes of states and societies. A focus on Syria’s reconstruction can help assess the opportunities and limits for reinventing peacebuilding practice. Such a focus speaks to those interested in reconstructing Syria by exploring what a peacebuilding perspective on reconstruction can look like; on the other hand, it speaks to peacebuilders by challenging them to reinvent peacebuilding in the face of ever more autocratic governance in many parts of the world.
Peacebuilding is possible in Syria as reconstruction is starting, and it is possible under conditions of a fierce state or authoritarian peace. Yet, to recognize the opportunities for peacebuilding, policymakers need to begin seeing it as a form of software, rather than as a comprehensive program. They need to lay to rest an understanding of liberal peacebuilding that was part of the post-Cold War era. They also need to recognize the operational challenges that accompanied liberal peacebuilding, and that it has been overtaken by stabilization and counterterror policies as of the mid-2000s, when the war on terror became a predominant policy framework.
The importance of peacebuilding in this era should be understood as one based on the use of dialogue, trust-building, and consensus-seeking processes to resolve, transform, or manage conflict through nonviolent means. If understood as a software—or an operating system that makes things work—peacebuilding is versatile and can be applied not only to how reconstruction packages are negotiated or ultimately implemented in Syria, but may also be relevant for other challenges, such as reforming Syria’s security sector, or exiting local war economies. Understanding peacebuilding in this way means going forward in a more piecemeal fashion, solving problems where possible and through iterative processes, and addressing conflict systems rather than events.
A Changing Global Landscape
Over the last three decades, international peacebuilding practice has been dominated by a set of assumptions that put countries on the path to a so-called liberal peace. The UN and other international actors concentrated their efforts to end armed conflict through peace agreements, to be implemented through a cocktail of peacekeeping operations, state-building, and peacebuilding programs. Such international assistance became guided by the aim to establish an array of functional components including constitutions, elections, institutions, and reconciliation mechanisms. Many peace agreements defined the terms for the trajectory toward these elements and provided for the requisite international support. Over time, an increasingly professionalized set of actors emerged to serve the different phases of peace processes.
Yet, the liberal project to rebuild states and societies after armed conflict is becoming increasingly orphaned, cashless, and dysfunctional. The United States supported liberal peacebuilding as a normative, global policy agenda after the Cold War, having previously used a liberal agenda to construct an international order to expand its imperial reach after the Second World War. But in recent years, Washington has been retreating from globalism and from being a supporter of liberal values. Furthermore, major European countries— such as Germany, the UK, and Sweden—as well as the European Union (EU), are or likely will be stepping away from financing peacebuilding programs in the face of more proximate interests and threats associated with extremism or unregulated migration.
Such developments illustrate that transformation toward a multipolar order is well under way, heralding a period of turbulence driven by power politics and fights for zones of influence. In such a new order, the United States, the EU, and individual European countries have limited leeway to set post-conflict agendas, as illustrated in Syria, Yemen, Libya, and Afghanistan. After a series of ill-fated military interventions, many Western states may also have lost legitimacy to act as credible peacebuilders in the eyes of conflict-affected populations.
The End of Liberal Peacebuilding
The changing global landscape for peacebuilding underlines a new reality for Western policymakers that may not have fully sunk in yet: liberal peacebuilding is dying because the historic period which shaped it—the early 1990s through the mid-2000s—is over. This timeline began after the Cold War when Western states needed a standard treatment to exit civil wars and the United States dominated global politics; it ended with the beginning of the war on terror, which emphasized state-centered security and stabilization designs instead of liberal peacebuilding within the Western policy community. The war on terror also became a bridge-builder with non-liberal states to confront common enemies, especially in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria.
This waning of liberal peacebuilding is further illustrated by the changing assumptions driving post-conflict exits. The dominant, post-Cold War consensus involved a theory of change by which a functioning state and society produce order, prosperity, and political participation all at once. Over the last decade, however, this approach has been challenged by an alternative theory that prioritizes state-centered and driven order and prosperity with political participation being phased in later in the process (if at all). Many Western governments and international organizations have also shifted their narratives from “peacebuilding” to “resilience” or “stabilization,” thereby emphasizing the need for order and control over the transformative change of underlying drivers of conflict.
The prioritization of stability—and the elite bargains necessary to achieve it— has increasingly undermined liberal peacebuilding. New research emphasizes how the tension between order and change produces trade-offs, challenging the assumption that elite bargains will necessarily promote stability, economic growth, and equitable development simultaneously. In reality, stability is often predicated upon rent-sharing arrangements that are problematic in terms of providing foundations for other policy goals such as poverty reduction and good governance.
These findings are significant in showing that the progressive normalizing of stabilization or counterterror policies by Western governments has come to undermine value-based foreign policies—such as those of the EU—and expose the practical limits of narratives about post-conflict economic revival and inclusive politics.
Recognizing these tendencies, some scholars observe that liberal peacebuilding is headed for the dustbin. This may be correct but it does not mean that peacebuilding—in general—is dead. From this perspective, liberal peacebuilding has only been a (small) part of a much broader spectrum of practices that aim to prevent and reduce violent conflict and build peace. This is particularly the case when thinking about the myriad of community-based initiatives in many places that build peace on a daily basis without calling what they do “peacebuilding”.
Yet, policymakers may ask what’s next if liberal peacebuilding—the standard treatment over the last three decades—is no longer a policy option. The following sections set out to reimagine peacebuilding practice, using Syria as a test case.
Over the last four years, Syria has moved from stalemate to authoritarian peace, with the regime of President Bashar Al-Assad slowly regaining control of the field. Yet, what is left beyond the security sector or the immediate interest of the regime appears to be a shell state with little functional capacity to deliver services. The fracture of Syria’s political and economic space has shaped the rise of new elites that act as gatekeepers for access to local sources of wealth and to local populations. Outside actors keep their respective levers of influence over this mix of constituents at national and local levels and remain engaged in Syria in pursuit of their own agendas. At the same time, the Syrian regime seems to establish a new balance between core institutions and different local constituencies by bartering loyalty against the continuation of wealth accumulation.
Some of these new configurations are shaping facts on the ground in terms of post-conflict economic recovery and reconstruction. Russia and Iran are believed to be securing a foothold in economic and reconstruction opportunities in efforts also portrayed as payback for support during the war. They benefit from a first-mover advantage to access some of the most profitable opportunities, exploiting the inability of the government and the limits of European and U.S. entities to become more systematically involved due to the sanctions regime.
These developments are accompanied by an international discourse on reconstruction. The first is a discourse on the cost of war, which emphasizes that significant resources will be needed for post-conflict rebuilding. In the context of these needs, neither the government of Syria, nor Russia or Iran, are in a position to provide tangible prospects and a sustainable vision for post-conflict reconstruction beyond highly localized efforts in zones in which they have privileged access. Some actors believe it is for Western states and institutions to shoulder this burden. Yet, these have made clear—as expressed by an EU commission on Syria—that they “will be ready to assist in the reconstruction of Syria only when a comprehensive, genuine, and inclusive political transition, negotiated by the Syrian parties in the conflict on the basis of UN Security Council Resolution 2254 and the Geneva Communique, is firmly under way”. Such statements stand in contrast to the reality on the ground, which is characterized by increasing control of territory by the Syrian regime.
Given the current patchwork of “pacified” areas on the one hand, and zone of active warfighting on the other, the Syrian government as well as local warlords have little incentive to push for and commit to a formal political resolution to the war. To start with, the preservation of power will become more difficult once the war is over. In part this is due to the sheer necessity to deliver vital services such as education, jobs, transportation, and so on, but also to the operational challenge of delivering them, including the needed institutional capacity, human resources, and budgetary resources. If the war is over, the population will judge the government, warlords, or opposition groups based on their ability to deliver and perform, which in consequence builds legitimacy. Yet, it also means that the war can no longer be used as an excuse for things not working or moving forward.
These constellations suggest that Syria’s reconstruction in the coming years may take place under a “no-war, no-peace” scenario. This scenario offers enough flexibility to advance many reconciliation realities that have their own local logics, interests, and particularities. It also keeps open the possibility for the government to regain control of territory and control access to economic spaces and flows, especially remittances, aid, and investment. As the war status is formally upheld, a no-war, no-peace scenario also opens the opportunity to assure international assistance for reconstruction under a “humanitarian” umbrella including those promised at the Third Conference on Supporting the Future of Syria and the Region in March 2019, also known as Brussels III. Such tactical manipulation of humanitarian aid expands the international resources available for reconstruction and the strengthening of state-related entities, while at the same time enabling a normalization for the government of Syria in the coming years. It also allows Western governments to save face diplomatically in the short term and keep to a narrative of value-driven foreign policies, while progressively opening opportunities for their private sectors to enter a prospective reconstruction market. In the long term, however, this contradiction may be exposed as counterproductive, as humanitarian aid targeted for the survival of people during war and humanitarian-disguised reconstruction targeted to rebuild the country strengthens a political system that has little to offer in terms of lasting solutions for Syria’s many fault lines of conflict.
Thus, without systematically integrating a peacebuilding logic into humanitarian assistance and reconstruction, policymakers will either perpetuate a no-war, no-peace situation or plant the seeds of a new violent conflict.
Peacebuilding in Three Steps
In the face of the strategic landscape of reconstruction in Syria charted above, how can we conceive entry points for peacebuilding at a time of post-conflict reconstruction in Syria? This question is analyzed in three steps: (1) Go back to basics, (2) change your pair of glasses, and (3) start in your own backyard.
Step 1: Go back to basics
Many professional peacebuilders share an understanding that peacebuilding involves several key principles. These include, for instance, relentless prioritization of the prevention and reduction of violence and conflict; engagement of the conflict parties on their partisan interests; working within the de facto political economy; and targeting international support for locally-led processes. Professional peacebuilders would also agree that peacebuilding has grown out of aligning several strategic building blocks. These include, for instance, trustworthy data, collaborative analysis, progressively expanded coalitions for change, targeted interventions that address the most acute risk factors of conflict and violence, and sustained institutional support by an honest broker.
Within this sequence, the generation of trustworthy data is an important entry point for peacebuilding. Making sense of the local context and conflict dynamics and separating information from dis-information is challenging in rumor-rich and information-poor environments, yet they are challenges all actors face. Generating and communicating trustworthy data is the bread and butter of peacebuilders.
Trustworthy data and analysis are also an entry-point for the new peacebuilding software for reconstruction in Syria. It means generating enough granular data so that it can contribute to localized reconstruction and trust-building processes. Such data generation is especially important to keep in check partisan or biased analysis emanating from inside and outside Syria.
Syria’s housing and land management systems—muddied by generations of overlapping and contradictory policies—may illustrate this point. Much of the debate has focused on Law 10, passed by the Syrian government in April 2018. The law allows the creation by decree of redevelopment zones across Syria, but its lawfulness has been questioned because it would provide the government a free hand to confiscate and redevelop residents’ properties without due process. Yet, Law 10 may be only a minor amendment in a series of fifty new laws enacted since 2011 on land and housing management. The task for independent analysis would be to deconstruct complex issues and generate understandings across divided communities. Key areas relevant for housing and land management systems could include, for instance, independent research on Syria’s tenure system and inheritance laws, the growth of Syrian cities and the impact of the war, existing efforts by government-related actors to clear heavily bombarded districts and gentrify them, or the availability (or lack) of public funds to cover local reconstruction costs. In concrete terms, such efforts could entail creating a capacity for reconstruction-relevant legal analysis.
From a peacebuilding perspective, independent analysis and the generation of trustworthy data on Syria’s housing and land management practices are important for several reasons. Data and analysis can keep in check efforts on all sides to inflate topics (like Law 10) for advocacy purposes or to deflect attention from more difficult but more important issues such as housing, land and property rights for women, gentrification, or dysfunctional governance and justice systems. Independent analysis also contributes to evidence generation about the key grievances of many Syrians who have lost property or titles due to the war. Requiring such evidence is a protection against forgetting injustices. In Syria’s highly politicized and securitized environment, it means creating political space for sustained institutional support by an honest broker.
Finally, ensuring granularity and independence of data and analysis means strengthening new leadership at the international level that stands up for these principles. With respect to reconstruction, such leadership may come from financial markets that could make such data conditional for reconstruction packages. In this way, peacebuilding software could become part of these packages, each of which may require its own negotiation toward an investment coalition.
Overall, the strategic value of independent data and analysis lies in asserting checks and balances, generating common ground, and building confidence across different actors.
Step 2: Change your pair of glasses
Changing the pair of glasses means questioning existing beliefs about how social change happens. With such new glasses, policymakers may identify new agents and spaces for peacebuilding. Many policymakers in government and international organizations are accustomed to taking a macro view and see change as a top-down, government, or leader-driven process.
Equipped with this pair of glasses, however, they may not be able to see how people address violence and exclusion on a daily basis in their neighborhoods, with or without the help of formal authorities. They need to be cognizant of nuance and pursue a granular understanding of different contexts to grasp how change can happen in even the most difficult places, and through “problem¬driven iterative adaptation”. Public policy scholar Matt Andrews defines this as “a process of experimentation and trial and error, with multiple agents playing different leadership roles, producing a mixed form of hybrid that is fitted [to] a peculiar context”. While international actors discuss and ponder the leadership necessary to find solutions, many local actors wriggle their way out of destruction and dysfunction by solving one problem after the other in the best possible way.
The new pair of glasses may help identify the “who” of peacebuilding at a time of reconstruction in Syria. Reconstruction takes place at a micro level in many different spaces, involving limited self-help reconstruction or reconstruction packages as noted above. Within these processes of reconstruction, the key is to identify the people managing coexistence and disagreements. Such individuals are called different names by different constituencies, including insider mediators (in peace mediation circles), interrupters (in violence reduction circles), or transpublics (in community management circles). What these actors have in common is that they are connected to, and trusted by, important local constituencies and that they can build trust in processes and outcomes where formal authorities or other power holders are too weak or do not have the legitimacy to do so. They also speak the languages of different constituencies and therefore enable understanding and dialogue across divided communities or enemy groups. Finding and working with those actors in politically charged environments is not always easy. External support can undermine their efforts to play those critical bridge-building roles or even place their security at risk. This is why knowhow by external actors about how to advance independent, neutral, or non-partisan support in discrete ways is particularly important.
A new pair of glasses might also enable a vision on the spatial priorities for reconstruction. This spatial optic underlines the importance of trusted spaces in which local reconstruction processes can be conceived and negotiated and conflict addressed. This includes “safe houses” or “safe spaces”—physical environments for trusted exchanges—as well as “political space” or “political oxygen” that enable discreet work across social, religious, or political divisions. From this perspective, prioritizing spaces that matter to people’s daily lives— such as hospitals, markets, and schools—is important not just to deliver services, but also because they are places for weaving a new social fabric after war.
Step 3: Start in your own backyard
Western policymakers should increase their efforts to build peace in Syria by focusing on efforts in their own jurisdictions and organizations that they can directly affect. This means shifting the mindset from contributing to peace “out there” through efforts that are taking place inside Syria—or in its vicinity or in the capitals of countries with major interests in the war—to contributing to peace in Syria “right here” through efforts in the policymaker’s own country.
One perspective on this point can be illustrated by the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism (IIIM) established by the UN General Assembly to assist in the investigation and prosecution of persons responsible for the most serious crimes under international law committed in Syria since 2011. The IIIM’s mandate is “to collect, consolidate, preserve and analyze evidence of violations of international humanitarian law and human rights violations and abuses and to prepare files in order to facilitate and expedite fair and independent criminal proceedings”. A lot of the work to prepare the files is done through justice institutions outside Syria, which have stronger capacities to process evidence that may at one point be used to prosecute war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Another entry point is stronger Western leadership to bolster the accountability of UN agencies and programs, bilateral donors, and businesses involved in humanitarian or reconstruction efforts in Syria. With key industrial, infrastructure, and natural resource assets given to its international backers, the regime has extended its grip on economic activities. The clientelistic relationships the government has developed over the last few years with international and local actors operating in its territory allows it to take a cut on most activities. This extractive component of the fierce state is a significant challenge and risk for all actors engaged in humanitarian, reconstruction, or commercial ventures in Syria. This is especially the case for UN agencies or other humanitarian actors who may be some of the regime’s biggest cash cows.
There are two dimensions to this resource capture by the regime which should be kept in mind when adopting the third step of the peacebuilding software. First, Western governments could press for increased accountability of the UN’s engagement in Syria. Such efforts are sensitive but are technically and legally not impossible. A promising avenue for future work, for instance, could be the application of blockchains to increase the transparency of how Western funding is used in humanitarian operations. This would be a way to “follow the money” and account for flows that reach the Syrian government directly or indirectly.
A similar approach could be applied to business investments and a greater emphasis on sharing information about the legal and reputational risk for firms and banks to participate in economic reconstruction projects in Syria. Such efforts have already started, such as through the Human Rights and Business Unit of the Syrian Legal Development Programme. The trend of de-risking in the finance sector has already made investors much more sensitive to the risk of war-affected countries, especially as long as sanctions remain in place.
But merely monitoring and assuring accountability for humanitarian actors in Syria may not be enough. A second dimension would address the limitations of the humanitarian lens, which is ill equipped to deal with complex interactions between manipulated humanitarian aid, strengthened and normalized autocratic governance in Syria, and the risk of either a perpetuated no-war, no-peace situation, or renewed violence. The basis of structuring post-war assistance under a humanitarian umbrella has deeper roots according to Peter Maurer, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross. He highlighted that over the last decade there was a “lack of political will to engage on conflict prevention” and a tendency to make every political question a humanitarian issue. “The UN system [is] at the core a political system which needs to think and work towards peace, preventing conflict and respecting human rights [yet] because this . . . was difficult to achieve, the [UN] system has easily moved into delivering humanitarian assistance and pretending it is neutral, impartial, and independent while it is a state-driven system.”
Building on this understanding of humanitarian politics, a starting point for Western policymakers may be to recognize that the focus on a humanitarian assistance umbrella will not necessarily build peace in Syria. Other narratives and approaches are necessary and the notion of “peacebuilding as software” may be a good place to start.
The steps noted above may provide an entry point for peacebuilding and reconstruction under the condition of Syria’s fierce state and authoritarian peace. The era of liberal peacebuilding is over, but that does not mean that a peace in Syria cannot be built. Syria could stand as a test case for a new type of peacebuilding, envisioned here as an adaptable software. By returning to the foundations of effective peacebuilding, looking with fresh eyes to the actors and spaces that can drive this endeavor, and focusing on what international policymakers can do in their own countries to help, those willing to lead may be able to reboot a peace process for Syria.
This article is a short version of the chapter “Reconstructing Syria, Reinventing Peacebuilding?” in a forthcoming book titled Fractured Stability: War Economies and Reconstruction in the MENA.
In Syria, Reconstruction Brings Little Hope for Peace
Over the last two years, experts and policymakers have discussed the prospects for reconstruction in a Syria that, against all odds and efforts to oust him, is still ruled by Bashar Al-Assad. The discussion has largely centered around the role of external actors in reconstructing “Al-Assad’s Syria” to include the role of humanitarian organizations, with some recommending a “decentralized reconstruction” approach while others warn that, without major behavioral change on the part of Al-Assad’s government, even well-meaning, humanitarian-focused efforts will likely bolster the regime and harm ordinary Syrians. Some argue that the West should stay away completely while others still predict that Western reconstruction funds will merely serve to shift the discussion from one of political transition to how the regime will manage its own survival. The debate, however contentious, clearly highlights the paucity of options that exist today to enable long-lasting, genuine peace and stability in Syria.
For now, given the low likelihood of an external effort to remove the Al-Assad regime from power and the lack of coercive options to force him into making any type of concession, countries that wish to maintain a principled stance on Syria have only one viable scenario before them. First, they should focus on bolstering resilience among Syrian communities to lay the groundwork for future peacebuilding efforts and second, plan for a scenario where the regime’s hold on power eventually begins to falter.
Destruction and Consolidation
Beginning in 2016, thanks to assistance from Russia and Iran as well as a reluctance by the West to expend the necessary resources or leverage to secure a different outcome, it was clear that Al-Assad was moving toward a military victory. Today, as the conflict in Syria enters its ugly final stages, we can reasonably expect that Al-Assad will continue to punish dissent, preventing “undesirables” from ever returning or detaining those who do. Ceasefires and so-called “reconciliation agreements” have proven to be little more than part of Al-Assad’s “destroy and consolidate” strategy, in many cases amounting to what human rights organizations have labeled “crimes against humanity”.
While the regime now militarily controls a majority of Syrian territory, any modicum of stability that exists today is based not on a resolution of root causes of the conflict, but rather on fear, trauma, and loss made possible only through immense destruction and displacement. A grim reality has emerged, where the aggressor regime appears to be victorious and is attempting to systematically eliminate any future threat to its dominance. And as the Syrian regime focuses on retaking the last bastions of opposition control, consolidating its gains and preventing future uprisings, Al-Assad is employing reconstruction and humanitarian assistance as a tool to reward loyalty, penalize rebellion, and construct a Syria that is entirely beholden to the regime. Should the current status quo prevail, it is difficult to see a path forward that leads to any kind of healing within communities inside and outside Syria or any semblance of a true rebuilding of a cohesive Syrian state.
In a truly “post-conflict” peacebuilding environment, multiple stakeholders across affected communities are involved in rebuilding the physical and social infrastructure of the state. In the case of Syria, where in many areas the conflict continues to be waged through non-military means, physical reconstruction is being controlled by the regime in a way that rewards loyalists and ensures external allies reap some level of return on investment. The war has bolstered Syria’s elitist politics, including significant increases in corruption and cronyism, by reinforcing regime allies, capitalist cronies, and other wartime supporters by economic means. For example, the regime recently approved a number of luxury developments surrounding Damascus, and reports show blatant favoritism and cronyism in all parts of the construction process. Primary holders include a number of companies established by the regime to dominate the private sector, such as the Damascus Holding Company, the Damascus Joint Stock Security Company, and Ramac Projects, which is owned by Al-Assad’s EU– and U.S.¬sanctioned cousin Rami Makhlouf. Billed by the developers as “the Damascus dream,” these luxury properties are expected to be built by and accessible to a specific class of wealthy Arabs, while the area’s original residents are to be evicted from the neighborhood entirely.
Al-Assad also controls the distribution of external aid to regime territories and will likely continue directing incoming aid flows to achieve his goals. International organizations, including the UN, are forced to work through Syrian organizations run by regime loyalists and members, including the state-owned fuel supplier, Syria’s national food bank, Syria Trust Charity (owned by First Lady Asma Al-Assad), and Al-Bustan Association (run by Makhlouf). Under this system, UN efforts are forcibly aligned with regime goals.
When it comes to the reconstruction of Syrian society, the prospects are similarly bleak because of several factors, not the least of which is that there are simply not many Syrians, relatively speaking, left to do the job. Twelve million Syrians have been displaced through the course of the war, millions tortured and disappeared in Syria’s labyrinth of prisons, and as many as 511,000 killed, according to Human Rights Watch. Of those who escaped a more terminal fate, many have reported extreme trauma due to the war. Calling Al-Assad’s victory a “prize of ruins,” the Economist reported in June 2018 that psychologists in Syria were warning of societal breakdown; years of trauma, broken families, destruction, disease, and death have taken their toll.
Additionally, the man at the top controlling it all is not interested in reconstructing the society which, in his eyes, was the cause of the war. In a defiant and victorious 2017 speech at the Ministry of Foreign and Expatriate Affairs, Al-Assad declared that “we have a better society now” and that the revolution (that is, the opposition) was mistaken to think that “a country like the Syrian Arab Republic could be controlled by traitors and agents of their kind”.
A New Syria?
Al-Assad will continue to keep his enemies far and his allies close, resulting in a much less populated nation as the regime decides which citizens deserve to live in the “new Syria”. To enforce this exclusive attitude, the regime began to pass legislation permitting the physical transformation of spaces to change political outlooks. For example, Law 10 of 2018 permits the creation of redevelopment zones with a limited period of time for landowners in those zones to provide proof of ownership before the land is redeveloped. Syrians living abroad generally don’t have the ability to provide this on site, meaning that many will lose ownership of any assets they left in Syria. According to a 2017 study by the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), just 9 percent of refugees have their property title deeds with them and in good condition, and nearly half of them said that their home had been destroyed or damaged beyond repair by the war.
Future Syria will also undergo a massive demographic shift, as Al-Assad uses state tools such as zoning, construction, and redistribution of resources to privilege select areas, groups, and minorities (namely those that supported him in the war), while those previously associated with the opposition will remain underdeveloped, insecure, and cut off. In the eyes of the regime, punishing the opposition with resource withdrawal will prevent them from rising again.
Finally, Al-Assad’s reliance on his allies will continue into the non-military phase of the conflict. Iranian and other Shia militias intend to maintain a presence in Syria even after the war to ensure their soft influence is enshrined in the post-war landscape. For Iran in particular, the primary goal of such a continued presence is to increase its leverage and presence in Syria as a way to manage wider political goals throughout the region. Given their critical role in supporting the Syrian regime throughout the last eight years in the context of an overarching rivalry with their Sunni neighbors in the region, the Iranians are likely to become a regular presence in everyday Syrian politics, culture, and the economy, contributing to the sectarian fragmentation of the country and preventing genuine peacebuilding efforts from coming to fruition.
Russia will likely remain involved as well, as is evident with its deep involvement in the regime’s efforts to retake the northwestern city of Idlib. But unlike Iran, the Russians have little interest in Syria’s internal sectarian disagreements. Rather, they seek to secure a foothold in the region, continue to equalize their stature to that of the United States as a great power player, and obtain financial benefits for Russian businesses in the reconstruction process.
Fragile Stability, Elusive Peace
The Al-Assad regime, having barely eked out a military victory thanks to assistance from external allies, will find it difficult to retake the remainder of opposition-held territories while also stemming the simmering discontent among its supporters and fending off a jihadist enemy intent on regrouping in Syria. The potential for future instability or security vacuums is therefore high, particularly if Al-Assad maintains his current no-compromise stance and assistance from the broader international community remains inaccessible to the Syrian government.
In addition, Al-Assad’s “destruction and consolidation” approach to the conflict has rendered the potential for imminent, genuine peacebuilding activities slim to none. A regime that has bombed, starved, and tortured its opposition into submission is not one that is likely to compromise or provide any future openings for even the most peaceful means of protest. A truth-and-reconciliation type of process, which would be necessary to help Syrians overcome the trauma of the war, seems out of reach under a regime that labeled both the opposition and innocent civilians under opposition-held areas as “foreign agents” and “terrorists”.
It is clear that, having “won” the war, Al-Assad has no interest in winning the peace and risking a future threat to his dominance. It’s not that the regime is incapable of providing peace; it’s that it just doesn’t want to.
The Way Forward
It is unlikely, then, that there will be a near-term rebuilding effort which considers all elements of society and addresses root causes and grievances, and in which the Al-Assad regime will be a willing partner. Having historically refused to concede under pressure, it seems improbable that Al-Assad will change his behavior now that he considers himself to have “won” the war and is aware that, for much of the international community, coercive military options are no longer on the table. As long as the regime remains the primary and most powerful actor on the ground, Al-Assad is also unlikely to cease his efforts to create a more homogenous Syria that will never again pose an existential challenge to his rule.
Western states, moreover, will likely have little success tying reconstruction or financial assistance to conditions that may threaten the regime’s survival. Al-Assad himself indicated in his 2017 speech that Western economic pressure is unlikely to cause massive behavior change, declaring that “we [Syrians] have to turn politically, economically, and culturally to the East. This East today possesses all that we need”.
As external actors, policymakers should instead define their specific interests in Syria and allocate their resources accordingly, while ensuring that those resources are in line with a sustainable and realistic long-term political strategy. As an example, EU and U.S. interests align when it comes to combatting terrorism, preventing new waves of migration, and ensuring regional stability. As such, those particular actors, given their diplomatic, financial, and military means, should align their efforts to lay the groundwork for future peacebuilding efforts while also preparing for a future scenario of instability. Specifically, external stakeholders should:
Increase Support to NGOs and International NGOs (INGOs) Operating inside Syria
Because the regime cannot be considered an ally in the peacebuilding process, external actors should be prepared to act through pre-existing networks of NGOs and INGOs in order to lay the groundwork for a future peace when conditions are ripe. For donor countries, this means continuing to financially support humanitarian organizations and ensuring they have a voice at the table in an eventual peacebuilding process. It also means vocally supporting humanitarian organizations’ efforts to push back against the regime’s restrictions in public statements as well as in private diplomatic interactions with regime representatives.
Support Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) with Life-Saving and Resilience-Building Assistance
When it comes to refugees and IDPs, the international donor community can do more to ensure that they do not become an entirely lost generation. This includes maintaining critical assistance to host countries in the region; exercising diplomatic pressure on countries that might try to force refugees to return home prematurely; increasing the amount of funds allocated to psycho-social support for those most traumatized by the conflict; and fulfilling resettlement quotas for the most vulnerable.
Address the Fate of Foreign Fighters and Families inside Syria
Former fighters of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and their families held by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) pose a set of moral, legal, and physical challenges that must be immediately addressed. With no clear strategy on the part of Western countries with regard to their citizens who joined ISIS, these foreign fighters, as well as the thousands of family members also being held in Syria, are at risk of becoming a threat whose defeat will once again require a global coalition and billions of dollars. If the last eight years have proven anything, it is that a strategy of “containment” cannot be applied to non-state actors as malleable as ISIS and Al-Qaeda. Maintaining the status quo, while perhaps the easiest option today, is also the worst possible one, with severely detrimental, long-term ramifications for all parties involved.
Reach a Diplomatic Agreement with Turkey Regarding the SDF
Given the role that the SDF played in the territorial defeat of ISIS and their current governance role in the northeast, not to mention the thousands of ISIS families in camps under SDF jurisdiction, it is essential for influential external actors to resolve the Turkey–SDF standoff. A Turkish assault on the SDF that results in a breakdown of the current system would be catastrophic for current northeast residents as well as future prospects for peacebuilding in that region. It would also provide Al-Assad with an opportunity to extend control of his regime over the northeast, hampering essential humanitarian and capacity-building programs currently underway and further minimizing the chances of genuine peace in the future.
Prepare for All Future Scenarios
External actors should also recognize that Al-Assad may not be able to maintain his grip over Syria indefinitely, particularly if more than one scenario simultaneously comes to fruition, such as an uptick of attacks against government entities in regime-controlled areas as well as an all-out assault against the SDF in the northeast by Turkey, which would create a massive security vacuum. Should this occur, actors who have vested interests in regional stability must start planning now to ensure that the alternatives are not once again “Al-Assad or chaos”. A particular focus in future Syria planning should be given to IDPs and former ISIS fighters and their families, as well as currently active jihadists operating in the northwest. Given the international community’s poor record of post-conflict planning that has played out elsewhere in the region, it would be wise to prepare for all options sooner rather than later.
The author would like to thank Leo Hochberg for his assistance with this article.
Rebuilding Iraq: Prospects and Challenges
The deterioration of Iraqi infrastructure predates the U.S. invasion of 2003. The Iran–Iraq War (1980–88) forced the regime to divert most available resources to military-related spending and cut back on new projects. As a result, Iraq emerged from the war a crumbling nation with massive debt. The saturation of global oil markets in the late 1980s drove down prices to levels that made Iraq’s recovery highly improbable.
Instead of dealing with the Iraqi economic crisis creatively, former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein decided to double down on his aggressive behavior and invade Kuwait in August 1990, claiming it as Iraq’s “19th Province”. His miscalculation led to a military confrontation with a coalition of thirty nations led by the United States. The war to liberate Kuwait in 1991 involved severe bombardment that reached all Iraqi infrastructure: power plants, factories, bridges, roads, and many other vital structures. The economic sanctions the United Nations Security Council imposed on Iraq in 1990—the harshest imposed on any nation in history—to force Saddam Hussein’s withdrawal from Kuwait banned Baghdad from importing any materials to rebuild its ruined infrastructure or maintain the deteriorating structures. By 2003, Iraq was a skeleton of a nation.
The U.S. invasion made a bad situation worse. What was not destroyed by the conflict was looted or burned by mobs of unruly crowds. United States officials called this popular frenzy a natural by-product of democratic transition. In the view of some, Iraq was a giant reptile that needed to shed its old undemocratic skin and grow a new, democratic one; in other words, a healthy socio-political metamorphosis needed to occur. For the following eight years, an insurgency exacerbated the rate of infrastructural destruction and halted new construction. More funds were spent on payoffs, security firms, and logistics contractors than were used to rehabilitate the country’s infrastructure. The Iraqi governments that gradually took charge after a brief period of U.S. administration were not any better. Despite $800 billion in revenues since 2003, no serious reconstruction efforts were made anywhere in the country. Aside from what was paid for maintaining a massive public sector and security-related costs, billions of dollars were lost to waste, fraud, and mismanagement under a systematic absence of transparency and accountability.
In June 2014, Iraq faced another security setback that led to the self-proclaimed Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) seizing the provinces of Nineveh, Salahuddin, and Anbar—about one-third of Iraqi territory. Within a span of weeks, ISIS established a presence in six provinces, and its slogan (“Staying and Expanding”) turned into a series of gains that could be measured by square kilometers. The Iraqi military melted away, leaving behind state-of-the-art military equipment to be taken by ISIS or by the Kurdish forces in nearby posts.
Millions of devastated Iraqis ran for their lives to safer areas, while unknown numbers were murdered or enslaved according to an antiquated religiosity that still has its proponents in some corners of the Muslim world. In the next two-and-a-half years, these three Iraqi provinces, as well as other territories from adjacent provinces, turned into bloody battlegrounds. Former Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi declared victory over ISIS and the liberation of all lost territories on December 9, 2017. He also announced the price tag for reconstructing affected territories: $88 billion.
Picking Up the Pieces
Iraqi officials repeated the catchphrase that Iraqis fought ISIS on behalf of the entire world at a heavy cost in lives, and it was therefore the moral duty of the international community to contribute to Iraq’s reconstruction. A reconstruction conference was held in Kuwait in February 2018, drawing potential donors and investors to discuss efforts to rebuild Iraq’s economy and infrastructure as it emerged from a devastating conflict. Despite the attendance of key international donors and corporations, the amount pledged was not what the Iraqis had hoped for. Iraq received pledges of $30 billion, with only a small portion in grants; most of the pledges were investments and credits. To date, many of the pledged funds have not been transferred. Some donors cited concerns about high levels of government corruption and demanded measurable transparency and accountability, while others made their pledges conditional on being allowed to supervise the spending of their funds.
The disappointing outcome of the Kuwait conference left the war-torn areas in a perpetual state of anguish. Mosul, where ISIS announced its now-defunct caliphate, witnessed the most severe fighting and sustained devastating damage—the destruction was up to 80 percent in many areas of the historic western part of the city. As we approach three years after the liberation, the rubble has not been removed in many devastated areas and, in many cases, bodies of victims and ISIS terrorists have not been pulled out from the ruined buildings. To do this and to prepare for the massive reconstruction projects, substantial funds need to be made available and enormous efforts are needed to remove war remnants: unexploded bombs, land mines, and IEDs.
It is highly unlikely we will see any significant reconstruction progress if Iraq’s revenue continues to be barely enough to sustain government operations, leaving nothing to invest in infrastructure reconstruction. The ruins of cities and small towns in six provinces will have to be replaced with new buildings, roads, and parks to consolidate the defeat of ISIS and its caliphate, or they will continue to remind the Iraqis that what they accomplished in battle was a pyrrhic victory.
But reconstruction in Iraq needs to involve more than rebuilding destroyed houses, bridges, and roads. Efforts must include the reconstruction of Iraqi society as well. Among the first casualties of armed conflict and the spread of violence is communal cohesion and peaceful coexistence among various ethno¬sectarian groups.
Comprehensive Reconstruction and Reconciliation
As violence and bloodshed weaponize fears, mistrust, and alienation, it will take more than the passage of time to heal the scars and normalize broken social relations. The Iraqi government, the international community, and non¬governmental organizations can play important roles in overcoming hard post-conflict challenges and pave the way for social reintegration.
Financial challenges are the most pressing issue. Iraq’s current revenues are under $100 billion, drawn from oil sales. This is a risky economic situation, as oil revenues remain unstable and can decrease because of production interruption or a sharp fall in prices. But even if they remain at this level, they are barely enough to pay the cost of operating the state. Economic prosperity brings hope for a better future and gives people something to lose if they engage in self-destructive behavior and a lot to gain if they work together. In order to pay the bill for reconstruction and create a vibrant economy, Iraq needs to increase its annual revenues to $500 billion by 2030. While this is an ambitious goal, it is perfectly doable if several sectors are activated: agriculture, tourism, trade, transportation, and services.
Another challenge is the urgent need to facilitate the return of almost two million internally displaced people (IDPs) to their homes and to restore their communities. Their return requires, in addition to rebuilding homes, the rehabilitation of their cities; restoration of basic services; removal of unexploded ordnance; and restoration of communal trust. In many cases, tribes have split along pro-ISIS and anti-ISIS lines, causing deep cleavages within Iraq’s entrenched tribal system. Local customs are so far-reaching that not only are ISIS members banned from return to their homes, but their close family members are banned as well.
The cases of sectarian and ethnicity-based injuries run deeper. Nobel Peace Prize winner Nadia Murad, a member of the Yazidi community in northern Iraq, told an audience in Doha, Qatar, in December 2018: “The surrounding villages supported ISIS and said we were infidels and were a stain on our village and were not to be in Iraq.”
These words were echoed by IDPs from the town of Tal Afar in Nineveh, whom I met in Najaf and Karbala. They recounted positive stories about their pre-ISIS life with their neighbors and were unable to explain why everything fell apart upon the arrival of this terrorist group, and why their neighbors turned against them. These relations do not automatically return to the pre-conflict status quo. These communities need comprehensive reconciliation efforts to heal and to regain their mutual tolerance and coexistence.
Any peacebuilding roadmap must show a feasible program of national reconciliation. So far, Iraqi leaders have understood reconciliation in its political form, but neglected the urgent need to accomplish social reconciliation. Political deals among the elite and the distribution of high-level appointments may appease disenchanted political elites and their constituents, but they cannot constitute a long-term strategy for a lasting intercommunal peace.
As long as wide segments of the population live in poverty and lack hope for a prosperous future, there will always be an opportunity for someone to exploit their fear and resentment to navigate the political corridors of government. The government simply does not have enough perks and positions to offer to appease every rabble-rouser. True reconciliation must begin by alleviating the grievances of Iraqi communities and winning them over by good governance, abundance of economic opportunities, and the rule of law. To accomplish these goals, Iraq does not need to re-invent the reconciliation wheel.
Not Just Rebuilding … Transformation
There are many successful cases from Latin America, Africa, and Europe where communities turned painful chapters in their past into cohesive futures. Needless to say, reconciliation is not a fully transferable template that can work for every society, but each experience has certain lessons that can be taken into consideration when drafting a localized reconciliation program. Iraq also needs to learn from the extensive literature on reconciliation and the various methodologies of reconciling communities in post-conflict areas.
Among the salient aspects of Iraq’s development in the next decade will be the demographic distribution and growth patterns of its population. Out of forty million Iraqis, sixteen million (40 percent) are under the age of 14, and eight million (20 percent) are in the 15-24 age bracket. The Iraqi government, with as much help as it can receive from the international community, must invest in converting this population challenge into an opportunity. To accomplish this goal, a massive investment in education must be made, along with serious education reform to divert the graduates from working for the oversaturated public sector to employment in the private sector and entrepreneurial initiatives.
Failing to absorb this young population into a robust schooling system and, eventually, a prosperous economy will drive them to a life of despair, violence, and criminality—or maybe terrorism. But education alone is not enough. There must be after-school programs to let the youth express their talents and acquire skills. A good measure of investment in the promotion of sports, arts, and other forms of creative expression would augment education and direct the energy of young men and women to healthy pursuits.
In the meantime, it is important for Iraq to give all its communities a credible reason to believe in the rule of law. Although Iraq has a good measure of judicial independence, public confidence in the universal enforcement of the laws is not high. Reconciliation or peacemaking pacts may require the government to dismiss pending cases against certain individual leaders and reintegrate them in the political process.
Leading politicians and high-level bureaucrats have been getting away with grand theft of public funds and a large assortment of high crimes, while petty criminals receive harsh sentences. The rule of law must also be applicable to influential figures in Iraqi society. Tribal leaders and their henchmen who stockpile heavy weapons and conduct military-style conflicts in pursuit of their private interests must be reined in and held accountable like the rest of society.
This also includes armed groups and militias who are serving their own interests, or the interests of their foreign patrons, under the cover of fighting terrorism or keeping security. They too must be subject to the same rules that apply to all Iraqis. Equal opportunity and equal accountability go together to solidify popular confidence in the government and the entire political system.
Unlike other war-torn countries in the Middle East, and despite being in some form of conflict or another for four consecutive decades, Iraq has proven to be remarkably resilient. It is also a country with significant financial and human resources and strong potential for recovery and development. However, to accomplish a successful post-conflict transition and reconstruction, the Iraqi leadership must demonstrate a strong will to pull together and face the mounting challenges head on. They must also turn to the international community for guidance and assistance. The latter move means that Iraq must adhere to the best standards in political and economic practices, achieve positive rates of transparency and accountability, and ensure inclusive governance.
Most importantly, Iraq needs to adopt a robust strategy to depart from being a rentier state, with an economy fully tied to one commodity, oil, and become a nation which has activated all possible means of productivity. It is not enough to rebuild what the past conflicts have destroyed. There must be a path for socioeconomic success and a well-structured strategy to eliminate the grievances that caused past conflicts and to deny terrorism and violence fertile ground to operate and thrive.
Keeping Afghanistan in Afghanistan
From the early days of their independence in late 1991, the five Central Asian states that emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Union were acutely aware of its instability. Refugees, weapons, narcotics, and eventually militants crossed Central Asia’s more than 2,000-kilometer-long border with Afghanistan. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan were no longer Soviet republics and no longer had the security guarantees which the suddenly defunct state had provided for decades. Though the governments of the five countries were united in their concerns about spillover from Afghanistan, they were divided over how to respond. Outside help from almost any quarter was welcome, but the only interested party was Russia, still tied to the region from Tsarist times.
The military campaign launched by the United States and its allies in Afghanistan after the terrorist attacks of September 2001 provided Central Asia with a respite. The Central Asian governments cooperated with the U.S.¬led campaign, allowing international coalition forces to use airbases and land routes into Afghanistan. Uzbekistan granted the United States permission to use the airbase at Khanabad, a base that Soviet troops had used for their Afghan campaign. In April 2002, Uzbek President Islam Karimov told his country’s parliament, “the decisive role in removing the threat on Uzbekistan’s southern border was played by the U.S.”
In January 2014, with international coalition forces implementing the announced “drawdown” of troops in Afghanistan, Karimov addressed the country on the Day of the Defenders of the Homeland, telling Uzbekistan’s people, “The withdrawal of the ISAF peacekeeping forces from Afghanistan could be a serious test for all countries in Central Asia”. Karimov called on citizens “to be on high alert,” and to be “ready to repel aggressive acts against our country”. Leaders in the other Central Asian countries were giving their people the same message.
The rapid deterioration that occurred in Iraq shortly after the departure of U.S.-led forces there led Western policymakers to suspend the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan. Today, however, the current U.S. administration is signaling that the time to withdraw foreign forces is coming soon. The situation in northern Afghanistan now is more unstable than it has been at any time since 2001. The fear of Afghan spillover is again a priority for governments in Ashgabat, Bishkek, Dushanbe, Nur-Sultan (formerly Astana), and Tashkent. They have come full circle, again trying to act as peacemakers for warring Afghan factions, while simultaneously seeking allies to prop up their security if peace efforts fail. This time, however, their list of potential allies is longer than it was two decades ago.
Nearby states such as Russia, China, India, Pakistan, and Iran, as well as those farther afield in the West, see the potential threat Afghanistan represents. Many worry that the nation’s stability may crumble and Afghanistan may become a safe haven for international terrorist organizations, as it was in the 1990s when groups like Al-Qaeda found shelter there. Moreover, many countries see that by helping the Central Asian states contend with Afghanistan’s uncertain future, they can also expand their influence into the region.
Russia’s Central Asian Role
Russia remains the dominant military power in Central Asia. The Russian military entered the territory of what is now Kazakhstan in the first half of the eighteenth century, and by the end of the nineteenth century, Russian rule extended south to what is now Central Asia’s border with Afghanistan. After the Soviet Union fell apart, Russia maintained control over the 201st Division, a unit stationed in Tajikistan since shortly after the end of World War II.
Civil war broke out in Tajikistan in the spring of 1992, less than a year after it gained its independence. Tajikistan had three different leaders before the end of November that year. The government was losing control over huge areas in the southern and eastern regions of the country to its opponent, the United Tajik Opposition (UTO), and it was beyond the ability of officials in Dushanbe to keep watch on the border with Afghanistan. The UTO—an interesting coalition of Islamist, democratic, and regional groups—was able to exploit this and find a safe haven in Afghanistan, where they could also procure weapons before returning to Tajikistan.
To stem this instability, Russia left its border guards along the more than 1,200-kilometer Tajik-Afghan frontier that follows the winding Pyanj River through remotely inhabited high mountain areas. In the west, the Pyanj becomes the Amu-Darya as it flows through the relatively flatter lands of southwestern Tajikistan. The Kazakh, Kyrgyz, and Uzbek governments feared that the Tajik and Afghan civil wars were merging and would eventually spread further into Central Asia. In 1993, the three neighboring countries agreed to contribute troops to a peacekeeping force that joined Russian troops along Tajikistan’s border with Afghanistan, freeing up Tajik government forces to participate in fighting in Tajikistan’s interior. It was the only time Central Asian troops served together in a conflict zone.
The warring factions in Tajikistan signed a peace accord on June 27, 1997, and shortly after Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan withdrew their units, but not Russia. Russian border guards stayed along the Afghan frontier until 2005. The 201st Division is still stationed there. Both the Russian and Tajik governments agree that the Russian division helps guarantee Tajikistan’s security from potential threats emanating from Afghanistan. An agreement signed by Moscow and Dushanbe in 2012 provides for the 201st Division to stay in Tajikistan until at least 2042.
By 2003, the U.S.-led coalition was using air bases in every Central Asian country to support operations in Afghanistan. Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan only allowed coalition aircraft rights for refueling and emergency landings, but airfields in Khanabad and Termez in Uzbekistan, the Dushanbe airport in Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan’s Manas airport outside Bishkek hosted coalition bases. Russia supported U.S. efforts in Afghanistan after the 2001 attacks and signaled to the Central Asian governments that Moscow had no objections to a limited
and temporary presence of NATO troops and military planes on Central Asian territory. But by 2003, Russian President Vladimir Putin was encouraging Kyrgyzstan to allow the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), an alliance of former-Soviet states, to use the Soviet-era airbase at Kant, some forty kilometers from the base American forces were using at Manas. The Russian-led CSTO claims to be under the auspices of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), but only Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan are members. The base at Kant appears to be, in fact, not only under Russian control but also manned almost entirely by Russian forces.
Kant and the 201st Division in Tajikistan are Russia’s footholds in Central Asia. In recent years, the Russian military has strengthened both forces in anticipation of the drastic reduction of foreign forces in Afghanistan.
Russia has also been working to persuade Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, the two other Central Asian countries bordering Afghanistan, to cooperate more closely on regional security, with some Russian officials referring to Central Asia’s border with Afghanistan as the “CIS border” with Afghanistan. Uzbekistan has joined and withdrawn from the CSTO twice and is currently not a member. Karimov was always suspicious of Russian intentions in Central Asia and only turned to Moscow for help when he was in dire need. Karimov died in 2016 and his successor, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, has already proven amenable to better ties with Moscow, especially military cooperation.
Turkmenistan: An Uneasy Neighbor
Turkmenistan proclaimed itself a neutral nation not long after its independence, a status the United Nations confirmed in December 1995. Turkmenistan’s government has used this status to avoid participation in any military alliances. The Turkmen government’s policy toward Afghanistan has always been that Ashgabat would do business with whoever was in power, especially since it wanted to export its natural gas and electricity to, and through, Afghanistan. The Turkmen government did not officially recognize the Taliban when it ruled most of Afghanistan, but it did allow the Taliban to open a representative office in Ashgabat, hoping it could lead to construction of the Turkmenistan–Afghanistan–Pakistan–India (TAPI) natural gas pipeline, a project that represents billions of dollars in revenue for Turkmen state coffers. However, nowhere has the recent deterioration in security in northern Afghanistan been as pronounced as the areas along the approximately 750-kilometer border with Turkmenistan. Tajikistan’s border with Afghanistan has always been restive since its independence; shoot-outs between border guards and narcotics smugglers happen regularly. But not along Turkmenistan’s border with Afghanistan, which was relatively calm until February 2014 when three Turkmen border guards were killed by armed men crossing from Afghanistan. In May 2014, another group of armed men crossed at a different part of the border, killed three Turkmen soldiers, and took their weapons back to Afghanistan. There have been other reports of casualties among Turkmen forces along the Afghan border, but through it all, Turkmen officials have denied that there is any problem along that frontier, while portraying unprecedented snap military exercises, call-ups of reserves, and sudden sharp increases in purchases of military equipment as nothing out of the ordinary.
Turkmenistan’s publicly nonchalant attitude toward its Afghan frontier has exasperated those trying to shore up security along the Central Asia–Afghan border, foremost among them Russia, which has several million Central Asian migrant laborers working on its territory. In January 2016, Aleksandr Sternik, the director of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Third CIS Department, said Russia stood ready to help Turkmenistan ensure border security. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov visited at the end of that month and repeated the offer. When Ashgabat shrugged off the proposals as unnecessary, the Kremlin finally sent Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu in June 2016. According to Russian media, it was the first visit by a Russian defense minister to Turkmenistan since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Turkmen media reported on the “equal, strategic” partnership Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov and Defense Minister Yaylym Berdiyev discussed with Shoygu, omitting any mention of Afghanistan. Russian media reported that Turkmenistan had agreed to greater Russian cooperation in strengthening Turkmenistan’s military capabilities, including weapons sales and training.
Russia, the traditional power in Central Asia, has clearly signaled it is prepared to step up its role there again as the United States and its allies leave the matter of security in Afghanistan to Afghan government forces. But there are other interested parties.
China Positions Itself
China has rapidly expanded its influence in Central Asia since the start of the twenty-first century, and Beijing now also has security concerns involving Afghanistan. China had no presence in Central Asia when the Soviet Union broke up, but when it established the Shanghai Five economic bloc in 1996, this became a vehicle to engage in Central Asia. The Shanghai Five included China and the newly independent states that had once been the Soviet republics on its border—Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. The initial purpose for the group was the reduction of military forces along the CIS– Chinese frontier. This proved so successful that the group decided to use the organization to boost economic and security cooperation. In 2001, the group added Uzbekistan and became the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, (SCO); Pakistan and India joined in 2015. Now China is a leading investor in every one of the Central Asian states, particularly in their energy and mining sectors, and Beijing is the leading creditor to some of them. China has a multibillion-dollar stake in preserving the status quo in Central Asia since oil, natural gas, and uranium from Central Asia help fuel its economic progress.
More recently, Beijing has developed concerns about small groups of Chinese nationals, the Uyghurs, who have been found in the ranks of Islamist militants in the Middle East and Afghanistan. The Uyghurs inhabit the lands of what is now western China, once referred to as East Turkestan and currently called Xinjiang by Beijing. The Uyghurs became Muslims about one thousand years ago, but their often-turbulent relationship with China goes back hundreds of years before that. The Uyghurs are ethnically and culturally related to Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Uzbeks, and Turkmen.
In early 2017, a group of Uyghurs released a video filmed at a training camp somewhere in the Middle East; one Uyghur made threats against China in the video. It was not the first time Uyghurs who joined militant groups in the Middle East posted a video threatening China, but this one struck a chord in Beijing. In March 2017, Chinese President Xi Jinping vowed to build a “great wall of iron” to defend Xinjiang. The crackdown on Uyghurs in Xinjiang that had been slowly proceeding for years intensified so that by the start of 2019, bans prohibited Uyghurs from practicing almost any of the rituals required by Islam, including observance of Ramadan, and according to some international rights groups, one million or more Uyghurs (along with some ethnic Kazakhs and Kyrgyz in Xinjiang) have been sent to re-education camps where they are immersed in communist doctrine and constantly reminded of their duties as citizens of the People’s Republic of China.
There were Uyghurs in the ranks of the Taliban when the U.S-led operation started in Afghanistan, but judging from reports about the Afghan conflict, their numbers are considered to be small. Yet, since 2001, every year Afghan government forces have reported capturing or killing handfuls of Uyghurs in battles with militants. Afghan and Russian officials have been warning that as extremist groups in the Middle East lose ground, some militants are moving to Afghanistan, where the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has a foothold. It is against the Uyghurs who have gone, or are considering going, to Afghanistan that Xi Jinping wants a wall of iron.
China is well able to watch its small border with Afghanistan, which in any case is located in inhospitable country high in the mountains. However, Beijing has shown concern about Tajikistan’s long border with Afghanistan. Tajikistan’s eastern Gorno-Badakhshan region covers roughly the same area as Latvia. It is high in the mountains, has a population of just over two hundred thousand, and is where Tajikistan’s 480-kilometer border with China is located. China has been helping provide Tajikistan’s border guards with uniforms, surveillance equipment, and building material for barracks for two decades. For most of the last decade, China has also been conducting cross-border counter-narcotics operations with Tajik forces from Gorno-Badakhshan into areas of Afghanistan, sometimes more than one hundred kilometers away from the Chinese border.
The SCO could be a vehicle for China to boost security cooperation with Tajikistan, and with Afghanistan, which has observer status in the SCO, but Russia signaled more than a decade ago that it regards the CSTO as sufficient to protect security in Central Asia. So, China moved around the SCO. In 2016, China, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan formed an alliance to fight terrorism. As Reuters noted at the time, the announcement of the agreement came shortly after China’s defense minister had thanked Afghan government forces for their efforts fighting militants from the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, a Uyghur group seeking to free the Xinjiang area from Beijing’s rule.
China has funded construction of a base for Afghan troops in Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor, just south of Tajikistan’s Gorno-Badakhshan region. Chinese troops which Beijing said were members of China’s People’s Armed Police have been seen in the area where the Afghan base is being built. Earlier this year, there were reports about China building a military base for Chinese forces inside Tajikistan and less than twenty kilometers from the border with Afghanistan. Tajik authorities have not commented on the issue.
China has also increasingly become an arms supplier to Central Asian countries, and Turkmenistan in particular, while also supplying military uniforms and construction materials to all the Central Asian states since the late 1990s. Despite the presence of Chinese troops in far eastern Tajikistan, there is little indication presently that China would or could play a bigger role in security in Central Asia. In July 2018, Russia staged a large military exercise in Tajikistan which included advanced warplanes, missile systems, and drones in what many saw as a message to China about who was in charge of Central Asian security.
Moves Toward Peace
Officials from India have also been meeting with Central Asian officials to offer help with security concerns, and have even raised the possibility of stationing troops at Tajikistan’s Ayni military air base, which New Delhi helped renovate. The United States and NATO have also stated that they would continue to help the Central Asian states after foreign forces complete the drawdown from Afghanistan. The United States has already provided surveillance systems for the countries that border Afghanistan, as well as quad bikes for Tajik border guards, mine-resistant vehicles for Uzbek border guards, and military trucks to Kyrgyzstan.
Ideally, a peace deal will be reached in Afghanistan in which the Central Asian states stand to benefit greatly. The continued fighting in Afghanistan has held up scores of projects that would better connect Central Asia to world markets. The TAPI pipeline is one example, but there is also the Central Asia–South Asia power transmission line, CASA-1000, that aims to export electricity from hydropower plants in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to Afghanistan and Pakistan, earning Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan sorely-needed revenue and providing Afghanistan and Pakistan with a welcome new source of energy. There are several proposed railway lines that would connect Central Asia to the subcontinent and warm water ports there. There would therefore be less need for, and spending on, security along the Afghan border.
Therefore, the Central Asian governments are acting to promote peace in Afghanistan. In March 2018, Tashkent hosted an international conference to this end, which was attended by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, and also by the foreign ministers of China, Russia, and Turkey, as well as European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini. Uzbekistan hosted an international conference called “Central Asia: One Past and a Common Future, Cooperation for Sustainable Development and Mutual Prosperity” in Samarkand in November 2017 that included a special focus on Afghanistan. The Uzbek government has also offered to host Afghan peace talks and called on the Taliban to send representatives, as has the Turkmen government, several times. Russia has supported these efforts by the Central Asian states, even while it pursued its own attempts to bring warring Afghan factions to the peace table.
A History of Peace and Security Concerns
What the Central Asian governments are doing now does not differ much from their approach twenty-five years ago, but today the stakes are higher. The Afghan civil war in the early 1990s was a concern for the Central Asian governments. There were incidents, such as the one in April 1992, when some two hundred Afghan Turkmen armed with automatic weapons crossed into Turkmenistan and set up a camp five kilometers from the border. In October 1993, Turkmenistan’s government complained that Afghan warplanes dropped bombs near the Turkmen town of Tagtabazar. Refugees occasionally crossed from Afghanistan, but were sent back when fighting subsided. With the exception of the civil war in Tajikistan, spillover from Afghanistan remained close to the border.
The rapid advance of the Taliban was far more alarming to the Central Asian governments, however, who feared that the Taliban’s radical ideology might take root in their own countries. Turkmenistan made it clear it was staying neutral, though here it is worth mentioning that Russian border guards also helped keep watch on Turkmenistan’s Afghan frontier until 1999. The other Central Asian governments were irritated by Turkmenistan’s refusal to join their condemnations of Taliban actions in Afghanistan and unite to present a common front against the threat to security that was so quickly approaching their borders.
The Taliban captured Kabul toward the end of September 1996. In early October, the presidents of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, as well as Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, met in Almaty, Kazakhstan to weigh their options. Uzbek President Karimov urged support for Abdul Rashid Dostum, the ethnic Uzbek commander of forces in northern Afghanistan who had become a general in Afghanistan’s military during the Soviet occupation, but Kyrgyzstan’s president at that time, Askar Akayev, warned against repeating the Soviet experience by interfering directly in Afghanistan’s internal affairs. The nations chose to confine themselves to conducting combined military drills in Central Asia in areas close to the Afghan border as a demonstration of power.
All the same, Karimov gave support to Dostum, who controlled Mazar-i-Sharif, the gateway to Uzbekistan’s border. The Taliban several times accused Uzbekistan of sending its warplanes over Afghan territory to support Dostum’s forces—charges Tashkent always denied. There were also unconfirmed reports that Ahmad Shah Massoud (the defense chief of the beleaguered government of then-president of Afghanistan Burhanuddin Rabbani) was keeping four of his warplanes at a base in southern Tajikistan. In July 1998, Taliban leader Mullah Omar warned Tajik and Uzbek authorities against becoming involved in Afghan affairs.
When the Taliban finally reached the Uzbek border after chasing General Dostum from Mazar-i-Sharif at the start of August 1998, and the Tajik border shortly afterwards, there was little chance Dushanbe and Tashkent could reach any accord with these unwanted new neighbors. Tajikistan and Uzbekistan strengthened their border defenses with help from Russia. Taliban complaints about Uzbekistan and Tajikistan’s interference in Afghan affairs continued. Ashgabat, viewing Afghanistan primarily as a transit country for Turkmen exports, had ties with both the Rabanni government, which Turkmenistan officially continued to recognize, and the Taliban, which as mentioned, was allowed to open a representative office in the Turkmen capital. A Taliban delegation visited Ashgabat in May 1999 to sign agreements that included commercial flights and supplies of gas to Afghanistan with the TAPI pipeline project in mind.
The Taliban never themselves seemed to present a threat to Central Asia. They were occupied with the fighting still going on inside Afghanistan. However, among their guests were a group called the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), a group with origins in Tajikistan’s civil war that also controlled some of the lucrative drug routes from northeastern Afghanistan into Central Asia. The IMU first appeared in southern Kyrgyzstan in August 1999. They seized some mountain villages and captured four unfortunate Japanese geologists working in the area, along with several Kyrgyz military officials later sent as negotiators. It was evident that the IMU had come from the mountains of neighboring Tajikistan, where the UTO allies they fought alongside during the 1992–1997 civil war were honoring the last stage of a disarmament deal. The IMU released a statement saying their goal was the overthrow of Uzbekistan’s government, and calling on Kyrgyzstan to allow them clear passage to Uzbekistan. Uzbekistan’s government urged Kyrgyzstan to fight, and Uzbek warplanes bombed areas in Kyrgyzstan with the Kyrgyz government’s permission, and areas in Tajikistan without the Tajik government’s permission.
Eventually, after Kyrgyzstan’s government paid a ransom for the hostages, the IMU withdrew and Tajik border guards ferried them in helicopters into Afghanistan. The IMU returned to southern Kyrgyzstan the next summer, and this time they also came out of Tajikistan’s mountains into southeastern Uzbekistan before they were repelled again. As the summer of 2001 began, there were signs that the militants were making their way back into southern Kyrgyzstan, but the expected third summer of attacks never materialized. The Taliban had asked their IMU guests to join in operations to capture the remaining areas of Afghanistan where groups such as Ahmad Shah Masoud’s forces were still holding out. IMU forces were in Afghanistan’s Takhar and Kunduz in November 2001 when U.S. warplanes bombed, decimating the group and scattering the remnants, who fled to Pakistan’s tribal areas.
Today, A Complex Web
Not much has changed since the 1990s. The Turkmen government is dealing with the Ghani government, but many Afghan districts in the area by the border with Turkmenistan, as local Afghan officials concede, are under Taliban control and these areas continue to receive electricity from Turkmenistan. Since the border incidents in February and May 2014, there have been reports of other casualties among Turkmen forces along the Afghan border, such as reports in Russian media that twenty-five soldiers were killed in the Serhetabat area in late June 2018. Turkmenistan denied that there had been any incidents.
Tajikistan and Uzbekistan’s governments support the Ghani government, but there have been reports since 2014 that Tashkent and Dushanbe also are connected to activities in Afghanistan that are not coordinated with Kabul. There were reports in the last years before the Uzbek president’s death in late summer of 2016 that Uzbek security forces were crossing the border to apprehend suspects, some of whom were Afghan nationals. Since President Shavkat Mirziyoyev came to power in Uzbekistan, there have not been any further reports about this.
Afghan officials have accused Tajikistan of helping the Taliban. In August 2018, Afghan Member of Parliament Kamol Sapai claimed the Taliban had connections “on the other side of the Amu-Darya” and that wounded Taliban fighters were receiving medical treatment in Tajikistan. In January 2017, the Tajik government denied Kabul’s allegations that equipment belonging to the Taliban was being repaired in Tajikistan.
U.S. military officials and Afghan government and military officials have claimed Russia is funneling weapons to the Taliban through Tajikistan, accusations both Moscow and Dushanbe deny. In March 2018, then-head of U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan General John Nicholson echoed this assertion.
In December 2015, Russia’s ambassador to Afghanistan at the time, Zamir Kabulov, confirmed that senior Russian military officials had met several times with a Taliban commander from the Darqaq district of Badakhshan Province, Qari Din Muhammad Hanif, during the summer of 2015. The meetings took place at a Russian base in Tajikistan, apparently without the knowledge of the Tajik government. Afghan military officials in Badakhshan pointed to the ample supplies of arms to which Hanif’s forces seemed to have access as proof that Russia was supplying the Taliban commander.
The Effects of Afghanistan
Currently, the Central Asian governments, Moscow, and Beijing all regard militants from the Islamic State-Khorasan (ISK) as the primary concern in Afghanistan. ISK is mainly active in eastern Afghanistan, but at least one group, led by a mutinous Taliban commander in the Darzab district of Jowzjan Province, which borders Turkmenistan, declared itself to be part of ISK. Government forces and the Taliban attacked the group, killing its leader, ethnic Uzbek Qari Hikmatullah, in April 2018. According to many reports and statements from governments in Central Asia, Russia, and China, the ISIS wing in Afghanistan includes in its ranks citizens from all of the Central Asian countries and Uyghurs from China, and more continue to come to Afghanistan from Iraq and Syria as ISIS territory is retaken there. IMU fighters attacked the Jinnah airport in Karachi in June 2014, and a subsequent Pakistani military offensive in the tribal areas pushed the IMU back into Afghanistan. In August 2015, IMU leader Usman Ghazi announced the group had taken the oath of allegiance to ISIS. Not all IMU militants accepted this but of those that did, some were sent to the Middle East, and others to Zabol and Faryab provinces in Afghanistan, where they and other fighters were nearly wiped out as they fled to join up with other ISK groups. The presence of ISK is given as a possible explanation for why Russia, or other outside parties, would help the Taliban. Taliban troops have been waging the fiercest campaigns against ISK.
Foreign forces can withdraw from Afghanistan, but the Central Asian states cannot move their borders. What happens in Afghanistan has always had an effect on how leaders in Ashgabat, Bishkek, Dushanbe, Nur-Sultan, and Tashkent could govern their countries. Presently an uncertain future awaits the region, and because the outbreak of problems in Central Asia could affect areas farther away, there are outside governments that are ready to offer, or force, their help to keep Afghanistan’s problems inside Afghanistan.
Prioritizing Peace Ahead of Economic Growth
The war in Afghanistan is considered the longest in U.S. history, the longest mission in NATO history, and the longest peacebuilding mission in UN history. Since 2014, when President Barack Obama transferred domestic security duties to the Afghan government, the country has been experiencing its most difficult transition period. However, continued violence and the rise of Islamist militancy have considerably delayed a complete withdrawal (American troops are still actively deployed in the country) and pushed Afghanistan into deeper turmoil. Ongoing peace talks between the United States and the Taliban in Qatar aim to pave the way for the remaining 14,000-strong U.S. force to cease military operations. Setting aside that the talks are generally focused on opening a dialogue between the Taliban and Afghan stakeholders and negotiating withdrawal, the peace process has called for parallel efforts on the development side and for the need to reconstruct a new Afghanistan around issues of long-term sustainability and economic development—an oft-ignored element in peace negotiations.
In November 2018, President Ashraf Ghani presented a roadmap for peace which he called the “next chapter of the peace process”. Components of the roadmap announced at the international UN conference in Geneva not only included an offer to the Taliban to hold talks without preconditions, a serious step that could resolve the country’s longstanding conflict with the Taliban, but also reaffirmed that the Afghan government and its international and regional partners were committed to the idea that peace must be underpinned by economic reform. According to the roadmap, security and stability were vital for sustainable private sector-led economic growth including investment and the reversal of capital outflows, which have long been deemed necessary for the country to achieve self-reliance.
This plan was unveiled following several meetings, events, and conferences which formed around ideas of peace, security, and development throughout 2018. These included the second meeting of the Kabul Process for Peace and Security Cooperation on February 28, 2018, the three-day ceasefire between the Taliban and the Afghan government in June, the mid-year launch of U.S.– Taliban peace talks, and finally the Geneva conference on Afghanistan.
Peace can shape and be shaped by the economy in Afghanistan; that is, peace without economic development is not possible, and economic development alone cannot build peace. Peacebuilding experts and practitioners argue that developing a plan for economic development, with a focus on decent livelihood, the accumulation of assets and capital, investment of revenue in public services, and the development of environmental and social sustainability, can create economic conditions that are conducive to sustainable peace.
Unfortunately, Afghanistan is neither capable nor ready to set the conditions for peace and economic prosperity. As a result, it is improbable that the peace process will be able to give way to economic development, even if some form of positive peace arises at the end of negotiations. A degree of development is needed for peace to be pursued sustainably. Even worse, if peace efforts have a negative outcome, this will not only prevent future growth but will also reverse economic gains made to this point.
New Ideas in Peacebuilding
Balancing the books
To exemplify the numerous achievements that have taken place in Afghanistan since the United States led a military coalition which toppled the Taliban regime, local policymakers and civil society actors often reiterate the phrase, “the Afghanistan of today is not the Afghanistan of 2001”. Since 2001, economic growth has been volatile but rapid, with construction and agriculture becoming key contributors to economic expansion. Billions of dollars for security and aid were poured into supporting this growing economy.
However, this artificial bubble burst following the sharp decline in international military expenditure during the 2011–14 international troop drawdown which, followed by a decrease in donor aid, caused Afghanistan to increase its own military and security spending. Furthermore, the continued violence, insecurity, and political uncertainty following the 2014 presidential elections, which swore in the current president, began to erode growth. The country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP), which stood at 12 percent in 2012, dropped almost 10 points by 2017. Between 2015 and 2018, the GDP, which was 1.5 percent in 2015, made a modest increase to 2.7 percent in 2017 and then went down to an estimated 2.4 percent in 2018.
While government revenue increased at double-digit rates through 2017 and recorded exports increased by 28 percent in 2017, these trends have been modest at best. As such, domestic revenue is currently only sufficient enough to cover approximately half of on-budget expenditure and is less than a quarter of total public expenditure. Moreover, Afghanistan’s high levels of dependence on aid are unsustainable, especially as it competes with other aid recipients over available development assistance and security resources.
According to an Oxfam and Swedish Committee for Afghanistan report published in 2018, approximately 66 percent of the country’s financial budget between March 2017 and February 2018 was funded by international donor support. This means that only 33 percent of the country’s budget was derived from domestic revenues. Afghanistan might not be prepared to address this high level of aid dependency in the near term, let alone throughout the process of peace negotiations or in the immediate post-peace environment.
The current prospects around the peace process serve as a backdrop to the challenging economic climate in the country. William Byrd, a senior expert on Afghanistan at the United States Institute of Peace, believes that the current momentum built around the peace process could present opportunities that could boost the Afghan economy. However, a plausible peace scenario can only translate to economic growth if the peace that is produced is durable, comprehensive, and accepted by all stakeholders. Such a peace would help reduce violence if not bring an end to all hostilities, which in return would allow the Afghan government and its international partners to reduce its security expenditures, which currently remain over one-fifth of GDP. Without a reduction in security spending, Byrd argues that even the most ambitious plausible increases in government revenue will “not make much of a dent in the fiscal gap”.
Tying in economic development
With these challenges in mind, the Afghan government has made considerable efforts to link together political and economic processes. In 2015, months after taking office, President Ghani put the reduction of unemployment and poverty high on his administration’s agenda—something he has since used to associate economic development with prospects for peace. Following the 2018 Geneva conference, the Afghan government released an economic growth strategy, officially known as the “Afghanistan Growth Agenda for Transformative Change and Self-Reliance”.
The conditions paving the way for the strategy were described by international actors as favorable. It followed reports of American diplomats holding the very first face-to-face talks with Taliban representatives in Qatar since their regime was toppled in 2001, marking a reversal in the longstanding U.S. policy of refusing to negotiate with the group. This was then followed by Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, holding his first meeting with Taliban officials in November 2018—days before the Geneva Conference. Under pressure from the international community, the Afghan government felt obligated to produce an economic growth strategy that reflected its intentions for development efforts to move in parallel with these recent developments in the peace process.
The growth strategy aiming for transformative change and self-reliance set realistic targets to be achieved in the medium term, and more aspirational targets for the long term. In the immediate term, several potential areas have received focus: the intensive development of agriculture and horticulture, the strengthening of extractive industries such as mining, the implementation of major regional connectivity projects, and the advancement of sectors such as information technology to supply domestic markets. The strategy’s aspirational targets include increasing revenues to $8 billion by 2025, exports to $2 billion by 2024, and GDP growth to 8 percent by 2024.
However, the challenges to achieving these goals are daunting to say the least. For the strategy to work, the Afghan government will have to plug the gap in government revenues which presently account for less than one-quarter of public expenditures, narrow the trade deficit which currently relies on grants and exceeds 40 percent of GDP, and reduce poverty levels, which affect half of the Afghan population. To address these challenges, the government would rely on a strategy of securing development through sustainable peace. It has assessed that by introducing reforms to build confidence and improve the business environment, more foreign investment would flow into the country.
This would build human capital in existing and new areas such as Afghanistan’s extractive industries, which would therefore support export growth at levels that could significantly reduce aid inflows. And by mobilizing finance and optimizing expenditures, it aims to meet the exorbitant upfront costs of transformation and thereby secure the conditions necessary to bring about peace and in return economic growth. While this sounds plausible on paper, the challenges of meeting these economic goals go far beyond just plugging a few economic gaps. Such a strategy would need flexibility to maneuver and simultaneously address deep and complex sociopolitical challenges, the culture of corruption that has set roots in Afghan society, the serious capacity shortages, and a general lack of good governance across national and subnational levels.
A member of the diplomatic community in Kabul told me in an interview that there are two contexts in which the growth strategy could potentially be applied and for which the international community in Afghanistan is preparing. The first is within the “peace context” and the second is within an “ongoing conflict” context.
Two Possible Scenarios
Two important events will determine two possible scenarios for the future of Afghanistan: the U.S.–Taliban peace talks, and the Afghan presidential election slated for September 2019. The peace talks, hosted in Qatar over the summer, have resulted in a draft agreement over an imminent U.S. withdrawal of troops and guarantees from the Taliban that they will not harbor or support foreign terrorist organizations. But the talks have been bogged down by the Taliban’s refusal to negotiate with the Afghan government. In the second event, the outcome of the presidential election—so far twice delayed—can determine the posture and success of the talks and forecast better economic conditions for the country.
The “peace” scenario revolves around the premise that growth is made possible following credible progress in securing a peaceful resolution to the conflict, a presidential election that can produce some degree of political stability, and considerable alleviation of poverty and unemployment. At the current juncture, the evolution of the economic growth strategy will depend on how peace talks unfold and whether the outcome of the election is accepted by the vast majority of Afghans. Moreover, “the peace scenario will depend on what Afghans agree on during talks,” the diplomatic source said, “unless what is agreed is the return of the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate.”
Currently, among the members of the international community in Afghanistan, there seems to be little understanding of what type of administration would emerge following a peace agreement between the Taliban and the Afghans. This in return has complicated the possibilities for implementing a growth strategy that has already been called too ambitious. There are concerns over what peace will mean in terms of governance if the Taliban join the next administration. These include how the Taliban’s lack of an economic policy or strategy—with the exception of a few statements announcing their desire for cooperation with the international community and willingness to allow aid flows into the country—gives little insight into their intentions or capacity to continue the various bilateral and regional initiatives toward the country’s self-reliance. There is room for optimism if the Taliban demonstrate that they would not want to alienate neighboring countries should they assume leadership positions in the next administration. Even in this peace scenario, implementing the growth strategy will be immensely difficult. It will require continued financial support from the international community to match, if not exceed, its current contributions through to the end of Afghanistan’s Decade of Transformation, an international initiative to support the country’s growth from 2015 to 2024. Under Article 15 of the Geneva Conference on Afghanistan Joint Communique, international and regional countries have agreed to “collaborate on the socioeconomic requirements for peace”. This means that donors have been requested to develop and implement a specific action plan which would advance a post-settlement return of Afghan capital, increase Afghan and foreign investment and job creation, and enhance regional economic integration. This, essentially, offers a stimulus plan in which the donor community would be merely “pumping money into the economy to keep it going” as has been the case since 2001.
Additionally, the outcome of the presidential election will be yet another determining factor in this context. Some in the international community feel that regardless of who wins elections, they will most likely not deviate from the current growth strategy, or will continue its broad strokes. Nonetheless, if election results are not accepted by all sectors of Afghan society—a possibility— violence could erupt.
In this case, how long or sustained the violence is could indicate whether Afghans are moving toward the positive or negative scenario. It is speculated that even with a few months of violence reaching manageable levels, the international community could continue the path dictated in the strategy. However, if violence continues beyond this point, then heading toward the negative situation will be the more likely projection.
In the context of ongoing conflict in which peace talks result in the deterioration of security, the Taliban would likely expand their control of territory, election results would not be accepted, and violence would continue. The growth strategy, in this case, would then not be implementable and further deterioration of the current economy would be expected.
This brings us to the possible outcomes of the peace process under the “ongoing conflict” scenario. The United States and the Taliban entered the seventh round of talks on June 29, focusing on four key issues, including securing assurances that the Taliban will not allow international and regional fighters to use Afghanistan to launch attacks outside of the country, negotiating the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces, starting intra-Afghan dialogues, and enforcing a permanent ceasefire. Some analysts believe that the country is on the verge of a peace agreement since the United States initiated talks with the Taliban, while others have argued that repeated refusals by the Taliban to sit with the Afghan government, the lack of political unity in Kabul, and the absence of a national consensus make for difficult conditions to establish an agreement in the near future.
On June 25, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Kabul and announced that the United States hoped to have a peace deal before September 1. With Afghan presidential elections slated for September 28, this statement raises alarms in the country as it questions the need for elections if intra-Afghan dialogues give positive results, in which case fresh elections would be held to integrate the Taliban into the political system. On the other hand, if the deal does not result in dialogue, then it would jeopardize the results of the election
itself, as the Taliban have long demanded the creation of an interim government and have refused to sit down with any presidential incumbent.
Another impediment is that although the Taliban do not want to lose an opportunity to enter talks with the Afghan government, they remain unwilling to come to the negotiating table before a deal on troop withdrawal is reached with the United States. The Taliban have demonstrated that they are serious about reaching an agreement with the United States and consequently with Afghans as the current environment gives them the upper hand in any potential peace agreement. The Taliban have been far more consistent, homogenous, and clear than anyone else about the conditions needed for them to enter talks. These conditions include the official reopening of their political office in Qatar, the submission of a U.S. timeline for withdrawal, and the removal of international sanctions and travel bans placed on them by the United States.
Upon meeting these demands, the Taliban have stated they will in exchange call for a ceasefire across Afghanistan. On the other hand, a ceasefire, in light of a full U.S. and NATO troop withdrawal, will remove significant leverage Afghans could use to pressure the Taliban to commit to accepting essential conditions, such as protecting the political and social advances made over the last eighteen years, especially on issues of women’s rights, upholding the current democratic system, and preserving the Afghan constitution.
Even after a ceasefire, the Taliban could press for more conditions for entering negotiations such as the dismantling of the current Afghan government and the creation of an interim one. More worrying would be other demands the Taliban might propose, as they have in the past, including the creation of a council of religious clerics to review the constitution and amend any laws that do not abide by their interpretation of Sharia or Fiqh, or perhaps even draw a new constitution, and set the conditions for new elections. This is in spite of the fact that it is still unclear under what type of political system such elections would be held, or whether it would happen after or before the demobilization of Taliban fighters.
On the other hand, while the Afghan government has not remained consistent on its position toward the Taliban and the framework for a peace agreement, it has in fact been clearer on the above questions from its perspective than the Taliban. Ghani has stated that discussion of the Taliban’s demands will ensue only once all sides sit at the negotiating table and after the Taliban recognize the Afghan government as a legitimate party to the talks. However, the current government has already made more concessions to the Taliban while the Taliban have not yet provided guarantees or made overtures to signal that it has changed its position on maintaining the gains of post-2001 or in protecting all citizens’ rights, especially those of women.
In this climate of uncertainty, any rushed peace effort by the United States or the Afghan government will not create the conditions needed for stability or to pursue economic growth in the immediate or long term. To complicate matters further, the peace process has been lodged in the middle of two elections: a parliamentary election that deepened ethnic divisions, fragmented society, eroded public trust, and reinforced the practices of bad governance, and an upcoming presidential election that is two months away and has already been declared illegitimate by the majority of presidential candidates who criticized Ghani for extending the timeline of his presidency beyond its constitutional deadline.
The fate of Afghans rests on the outcomes of both the presidential election and the U.S.–Taliban deal, if a deal is reached before elections. Should elections still be held and produce an outcome that is accepted by the majority of the population, then an inclusive intra-Afghan dialogue could take place afterwards with a new administration in power. Under this scenario, the new administration could continue setting the foundation for the economic growth strategy, but still with considerable funding from the international community in the immediate future. However, any other scenario apart from this could result in the dismantling of the state, a rise in ethnic violence, and the creation of new spaces and pockets for the Taliban to deepen their presence, thereby eroding any possibility to implement the economic growth vision of the state, and thus the conditions for sustainable peace.
Cohesion through Decentralization
Before Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar and his Libyan National Army launched the ongoing military offensive on Tripoli, which began on April 4, many policymakers and outside observers saw Libya getting back on track. They hoped that the country—despite setbacks, obstinate actors, and entangled foreign interests—was making some progress on the UN-led peace process and emerging from its civil war. In the months to come, this Libya, they hoped, would hold general elections to paper over the split parliament and resume its post-2011 reconstruction that has been delayed for the past five years. Now the ongoing conflict in Tripoli, they fear, has jeopardized this progress.
The fighting in Tripoli has been highly destructive, causing more than a thousand deaths and displacing over a hundred thousand people, and it undermines recent progress made toward peace and reconciliation. Focused and consolidated international efforts are needed to convince warring parties to lay down their arms and come to new cooperative, if tense, arrangements. However, regardless of the outcome, this fight will not change the core features that underpin Libya. If the violent standoff breaks in Haftar’s favor, it will not give way to a Libya that is unified and stabilized under his authority. Likewise, if Haftar falters, or if he and his rivals negotiate a ceasefire or the formation of a new interim government, these too will not result in a strong, unified Libyan state.
Efforts to consolidate Libya’s political apparatus into a competent central authority have foundered since the Arab Spring. Despite Libyans holding multiple elections, forming governments, and taking the helm of ministries and institutions after Muammar Qaddafi’s fall, real power has predominantly remained in the hands of geographically oriented militias—not civilian-led governments in Tripoli. And since 2014, attempts to resolve Libya’s ongoing civil war, while lauded by the United Nations and policymakers, have done little if anything to limit the power of rival militias. Despite agreements signed, a constitution drafted, and new elections planned, unaccountable local militias
have grown stronger over the past eight years.
Actors that engage in meaningful reconstruction—be they governments, donors, international non-government organizations (INGOs), or financial institutions—must see Libya as it exists rather than as the state they want it to be. Instead of a country moving forward or backward along a trajectory that leads to a strong, unified, and centralized state, Libya has been, and will likely continue to be, a collection of geographically oriented and well-armed city-states whose factions unite with, disrupt, or ignore one another depending on their proximate interests.
If external actors want to build a more stable and prosperous Libya with more regularized patterns of interaction between these localities, they must tailor their reconstruction to local dynamics instead of major political milestones. Success or failure in the latter may result from, and reflect improvements in, the nature of interactions between Libya’s localities and factions, but more often than not they do not override conditions on the ground.
Major donors—the United States Agency for International Development, the United Nations Development Programme, and European donor agencies— already engage in local support that encourages decentralization to some degree, but these efforts need to be expanded and reinforced.
A stronger decentralized approach will be challenging. It will require donors and implementers to understand in greater detail how local actors’ interests align and diverge, their capacities and inclinations cooperate with or disrupt one another, and how their proximate objectives can be linked to broader success and stability in Libya. Such an approach is difficult to actualize in any environment, let alone one as fluid as Libya.
This track will also require a new legal framework—which Libya’s existing governments could either facilitate or hinder—and assent from competing foreign powers who could disrupt such efforts. Yet, overcoming these challenges can make possible the kind of reconstruction that will help Libyans in both the short and long term. Such efforts will help localities in Libya meet their immediate needs and lessen their dependence on Tripoli, in turn reducing inter-locality and inter-factional conflicts over the capital. This would also allow and encourage these localities to invest in themselves and, in order to expand their capacity and opportunities, build positive, consensual relationships with one another and with Tripoli.
However challenging, a decentralized approach is more feasible than one that waits until a comprehensive solution to Libya’s conflict produces a strong central government. A fully implemented political settlement between
competing factions, widely recognized elections, and security sector reform are all desirable outcomes worth pursuing. However, if donors insist on such results before meaningfully re-engaging in Libya’s reconstruction, such reconstruction may never begin. Security and economic conditions will deteriorate further, and Libyans will languish as the international community waits on solutions that may never come.
The Early Years: Functionality Amid Fragmentation
In the first few years following the 2011 civil war, Libya’s external supporters lauded the country’s early political successes. With Western assistance, the National Transitional Council (NTC) was able to take the reins of weak institutions left in Qaddafi’s wake and agree on a draft constitution that would serve as a temporary basis for governance. Libya was able to hold its first parliamentary elections since Qaddafi’s downfall, replacing the NTC with the General National Congress (GNC), which in turn was able to form a government and hold elections for a Constitutional Drafting Assembly. Hopeful outsiders and Libyans alike believed that, after four decades of strongman rule, a new democratic state was emerging.
Despite these apparent successes, Libya was not on a meaningful trajectory toward a centralized and civilian-led state. As promising as the steps to reform and rejuvenate ministries and establish a central authority in Tripoli may have seemed, neither the NTC, nor the GNC, nor elections, nor fledgling institutions ever made real progress in shifting power from these localities and their affiliated militias. Amid the post-revolution disorder and violence, Libya’s localities had to wed themselves to powerful militias and use, or at least threaten, violence against one another or Tripoli in order to promote and protect their interests and ensure they received their share of state revenues. These militias only grew stronger in the first few years of Libya’s transition.
In this period, Libya’s attempts at security sector reform meant that institutions in the capital would contract out security, thereby contorting themselves to accommodate militias on the ground rather than reshaping them to accommodate civilian governance. In efforts to incorporate the most powerful militias, the Ministry of Interior formed the Supreme Security Committee while the Ministry of Defense formed the Libya Shield Force. Other entities were formed as well, including the Petroleum Facilities Guard (PFG), the Vital Installations Guard, the Border Guard, and the Libyan Revolutionaries’ Operations Room.
These official umbrellas put Libya’s local militias on the payroll but, by and large, allowed them to maintain their local structures. With the central government lacking the capacity for meaningful oversight, most of these units remained effectively unaccountable. These militias grew more powerful with funding and a veneer of legitimacy from the state, and, fearing one another, disarmament was
hardly an option.
Despite militia proliferation and the failure to form a strong central government, somewhat normal patterns of interaction emerged, including ones operating at the national level. Though low-level violence continued, the major clashes of 2011 had subsided and, for a time, most armed factions permitted or facilitated state functioning and service provision as long as they were able to draw revenues or otherwise meet their and their localities’ proximate interests. If it allowed them to meet these objectives, factions were willing to engage in semi-cohesive partnerships with one another—or at least refrain from disrupting one another’s operations—and would cooperate to varying degrees with central authority.
The oil sector provides perhaps the best example of how these dynamics worked. A disparate array of local militias, all contracted by Tripoli, protected fields and infrastructure such that Libya could extract, refine, and export oil. Despite interruptions, the country was able to resume production and reach 1.4 million barrels per day in exports in March 2013, nearly 90 percent of pre-2011 levels. In turn, Libya was able to fill the coffers of the central bank, restore some economic activity, repair some infrastructure, and provide some services. This all took place in a limited, uneven, and non-transparent fashion—contributing to many of the grievances and tensions that still beleaguer the country—but some key institutions were able to function and deliver minimal services.
Though they refused to disband, militias and well-armed localities saw value in the arrangement with Tripoli and the National Oil Corporation (NOC) and, up until summer 2013, most did not want to jeopardize it. These otherwise disparate actors were, for a time, able to establish and maintain semi-regular patterns of interaction. Considering how fragmented and unaccountable Libya’s authority structures were and the number of militias and factions Tripoli needed to navigate, the fact that the oil sector and revenue distribution remained functional at any level speaks to the kind of cooperation that can exist among Libya’s localities.
Disruption Overtakes Central Authority
Amid the limited cohesion seen in the first few years after the revolution, Libya saw considerable disruptive activity by local militias and their associated political factions. Taking the form of attacks, kidnapping, political isolation, clashes, and prolonged military campaigns, disruption was in part a byproduct of efforts to centralize the state. With the capital’s ministries acting as a choke point for salaries, benefits, and public spending, militias and factions found themselves in violent competition with one another and with policies made in Tripoli.
Despite the surprising level of cohesion, disruption was also rampant in the oil sector, coming to a head in the summer of 2013. As a 2015 Crisis Group report details, militias from the northwestern town of Zintan, through their connection to the minister of defense, had been able to gain significant overrepresentation in the PFG, which was contracted to defend oil sector facilities. Zintani gains came under threat in May 2013 when the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated oil ministry withheld its fighters’ salaries. In response, Zintani PFG fighters shut down the Sharara-Zawiya pipeline that carried roughly 400,000 barrels per day from the southwestern oil fields.
That June, when the oil ministry still refused to pay, Zintani fighters entered Tripoli and seized ministries, clashing with rival militias in the city, and leaving ten dead. Only then did they receive their salaries. The next month saw even more disruption in the oil sector. After his benefactor, Colonel Ali Al-Ahrash, was sidelined in Tripoli, PFG central regional commander Ibrahim Jadhran shut down the eastern oil crescent, taking 60 percent of Libya’s oil offline.
Despite the GNC’s attempts to negotiate with him, Jadhran maintained this blockade for nearly a year, demanding greater benefits and later attempting, unsuccessfully, to sell oil independently through the port of Sidra. In mid-2014, Jadhran finally acquiesced and allowed the NOC access to the infrastructure, but only after the GNC provided him 270 million Libyan dinars (roughly $220 million). With hydrocarbon exports representing the mid- to upper-ninetieth percentile of Libya’s revenues, oil infrastructure has been, and will continue to be, a major tool of political leverage that militias can use to extort and exploit the central government.
The Political Isolation Law (PIL) also caused significant disruption and was a key factor that led to the 2014 civil war. In early 2013, armed groups from the northwestern town of Misrata and Islamist politicians and militias pushed for the isolation law, a controversial measure that would prevent members of Qaddafi’s regime from holding official positions. Though the law would also target some of Misrata’s and the Islamists’ own figures—most notably GNC President Mohammed Magariaf, who would later need to resign when the law was implemented—it mainly targeted their rivals in the National Forces Alliance. In April 2013, militias from Tripoli and Misrata took control of ministerial buildings in the capital at gunpoint, demanding the law be passed, and refusing to relinquish control even after it was enacted.
This would set the stage for Haftar’s Operation Dignity. In May 2014, Haftar’s coalition of militias, tribal forces, Madkhali Salafist fighters, and former army units—many of whose political benefactors had been sidelined by the PIL or who felt otherwise neglected by the GNC—launched their offensives on Benghazi and Tripoli. Haftar’s Zintani allies attacked the parliament building, forcing the suspension of the GNC. Under threat, the GNC agreed to hold elections the following month.
The contested June 2014 elections resulted in the parliament splitting into rival bodies—the new House of Representatives (HoR) in Tobruk and the would-be outgoing GNC in Tripoli. Both bodies appointed their own governments, and loose alliances of competing militias formed around each. The central state that the international community had tried to build up for the past three years had failed spectacularly.
Cooperation Across the Divide
Despite a thus far intractable political divide and continued fighting across the country, competing Libyan factions have been able to establish some normal patterns of interaction in the past few years. Cooperation is particularly apparent in the oil sector and central bank distribution of salaries, which together continue to serve as the backbone of the country. Though militias have competed for control of oil infrastructure, the international community refused to allow the export of oil from any entity other than the NOC, thus forcing cooperation. As the Tripoli-based NOC alone is authorized to sanction oil sales, and as the militias on the ground have the ability to shut down production, each of these parties has some degree of veto power.
Together, these parties have been forced to come to mutually beneficial arrangements across Libya’s political divide. They were able to raise oil production to 1.1 million barrels per day in early 2018—up from a sharp plummet when the war broke out in 2014. This enabled the central bank to draw revenues and continue paying salaries to both governments—as it has over the course of the conflict.
This cooperation, however, has not been without significant interruption. Like Jadhran before him, Haftar shut down the eastern oil basin from June to July 2018, demanding concessions from the GNA, and only relenting when he was unsuccessful in selling oil via the rival Benghazi-based NOC. Later, in early 2019, Haftar captured the Sharara and El Feel fields in the southwest. With his new gains, Haftar now has the ability to take the overwhelming majority of Libya’s oil production offline—giving him significantly more leverage over the NOC.
Although this new balance of power threatens previous arrangements, the oil sector has, thus far, proven mostly resilient. Even with Haftar’s ongoing assault on Tripoli, Libya was able to increase oil revenues in April and May by 22 and 24 percent respectively. In late July, the NOC was forced to declare a brief force majeure after the Sharara field was disrupted on site by unknown actors, but authorities were able to re-open the field and resume production just days later. With these revenues, the central bank has continued to pay salaries to employees hired before 2014—even to Haftar’s forces as they actively fight GNA militias in Tripoli.
On a smaller scale, Libya has seen numerous local ceasefires brokered and peace deals signed between longstanding rivals despite the macro-level cleavages remaining unresolved. These have included an agreement between Tebu and Tuareg tribes in November 2015, an accord reached by the South Reconciliation Forum in Tunis with local representatives from across the Fezzan region in December 2017, an agreement between Tebu and Zway tribes in Kufra in February 2018, an agreement between Misratan and Zintani municipal and military councils in March 2018, and a deal between Misratan and Tawerghan (Tuareg) councils in June 2018. These and other local rivalries are surmountable, and they can give way to inter-locality cooperation if they are not heightened by competitions over ministries and patronage in Tripoli.
Fighting Over the Center Continues
While some semblance of normal functioning has persisted throughout the ongoing conflict, efforts to bridge the political divide have still been too focused on the center, undermining the prospects for peace and creating further disruption. Though it would eventually turn to focus on local dynamics— supporting many of the aforementioned local reconciliations—the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) and its international backers seem to have placed greater priority on rejoining the HoR and the GNC and, failing that, holding national elections to form a new central government.
In December 2015, after much foot-dragging, parties signed the Libya Political Agreement (LPA), forming the General National Authority (GNA). The UNSMIL then facilitated efforts to corral factions and localities into supporting this new unity government—but this proved to be polarizing rather than unifying.
The GNA made concessions and was more accessible to key western militias at the expense of other powerful factions. Most notably, prominent Tripoli militias capitalized on and expanded their control over the capital to bend the GNA to their interests. These Tripoli militias threatened the central bank and other institutions, extracting letters of credit to obtain scarce foreign currency at a low rate and then sell at a significantly higher rate on the black market. Though the GNA would take steps to curtail this activity, neglected factions and communities outside of Tripoli became more and more amenable to anti-GNA actors. Among them, Haftar remains the elephant in the room—or, rather, outside the room.
While there has been talk of the GNA potentially offering Haftar a role as the minister of defense or head of armed forces under the GNA, he has long refused to negotiate or share power with western opponents he views as terrorists. Haftar also likely fears his opponents would be inclined to exclude him. Article 8 of the LPA gives GNA President Fayez Al-Sarraj and his Presidency Council authority over hiring and firing top security officials, which directly threatens Haftar’s position.
Instead of cooperation, Haftar’s other options are more reliable and more appealing to him. With military and diplomatic support from the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, France, Russia, and others—and the ability to gather an array of local fighters from communities neglected by the GNA—Haftar has been able to expand his Operation Dignity. If his ongoing campaign fails to take Tripoli, he will likely prioritize maintaining forces near the capital such that he can prevent the establishment or consolidation of any central government that he cannot control.
Any new push for national elections amid this distrust will exacerbate the fight for the center. Such elections will entrench divisions, pitting actors in existential competition for control of ministries, oil revenues, and state benefits. Local factions will likely use force to prevent elections or manipulate voting if they fear they may lose. And if elections are held and the results favor a narrow set of factions and actors, as was the case in 2014, losers may again refuse to recognize newly elected bodies and block a consolidated central government from forming.
If elections lead to another crisis, it could further divide the country. With the repeated failures of central governments in representing Libya’s localities and meeting their needs, the very concept of central governance could lose more traction. Rather than acting as a set of institutions which serve the Libyan populace, central governments would weaken to the point that the capital becomes a battleground for control. All the while, ordinary Libyans would suffer even more than they already have.
Avoiding Reconstruction Choke Points
Today, substantive and comprehensive international efforts to rebuild Libya are on hold as governments, donors, INGOs, and financial institutions wait for partners in a central, cohesive Libyan government that may emerge from the peace process. This approach is misguided. For one, Libya cannot wait for an overarching and comprehensive political settlement to begin rebuilding. Libyans are hard-pressed to invest in such a settlement at this stage. For many factions, adhering to agreements, respecting national elections, putting down arms, and making the requisite compromises to form a unified government— all in the hopes that such a government could represent them and meet their immediate interests—simply does not make sense.
Alternate options—including drawing salaries from the still-functional oil sector, foreign support, and illicit schemes—are immediately available to these players, and they are more realistic and attainable than an inclusive central government.
Even if such a government could form, any model of reconstruction that puts Tripoli firmly at the center would be flawed. Today, localities’ interactions with the capital do not reflect a desire to invest in and build a broader, more inclusive Libya with one another. Instead, their interactions are often based on distrust or are actively hostile. Factions would then have three choices to force the capital to consistently meet their needs: either become an integral part of Tripoli’s security apparatus, constitute a threat to that apparatus, or a mixture of both. Substantial reconstruction assistance that is disbursed primarily through Tripoli will likely exacerbate these dynamics.
This is not to eschew the import of a central government. Even with a decentralized approach to reconstruction, Tripoli will still need to play a leading role in the country, as vital components of the Libyan state must remain centralized—namely oil and water. These resources naturally form what are perhaps unavoidable choke points: all Libyans rely on them, yet they are concentrated in a handful of areas and thus more prone to contestation.
Were these resources not centrally managed, militias that control them on the ground would attempt to sell them directly, circumventing the central bank and thus evading attempts to make their benefits more broadly available to localities across the country. The infrastructure around these resources would be even more violently contested, contributing to greater insecurity. Indeed, even with central authorities managing them, competition over these choke points has already been, and will likely continue to be, a major driver of conflict in Libya. To address the ongoing challenge, donors supporting Libya’s reconstruction must pressure Tripoli to distribute revenues and resources more evenly— starting first and foremost with greater transparency in the central bank. Yet, pressure on Tripoli is not enough. To both comport with the realities on the ground in Libya, and to foster more productive and peaceful relations among localities, donors should adopt a greater decentralized approach to reconstruction. Their efforts should facilitate and encourage localities to invest in and develop themselves such that they do not need to use or threaten force against one another or Tripoli to meet their needs and interests.
This should come by way of empowering local authorities to take the lead on revenue accrual and management, planning and implementing infrastructure projects, engaging in service provision, conducting their own economic planning, and fostering local and cross-locality economic activity. Rather than relying on Tripoli to micromanage responses to their pressing needs, communities should
be enabled to spend money—from national oil revenues, external aid and investment, and local taxes and projects—in their own communities and invest in their own success. With this, localities can begin to establish locally owned assets and wealth—building new and lasting value rather than fighting with one another over fleeting benefits from Tripoli.
A decentralized approach will require updates or changes to the 2012 Local Administration Law 59, which divided Libya into administrative municipalities and set the legal foundation for decentralization, but failed to articulate these municipalities’ mandates. With Libya’s legislative bodies split into the HoR and the GNA’s High Council of State (HCS), amending the existing legal framework will be a challenge.
Yet, donor countries may be able to pressure these bodies into forming an HoR–HCS joint committee to come to an agreement on necessary amendments. These bodies may be resistant, as a decentralized approach to reconstruction could diminish their influence and relevance in Libya, and so donors will need to ensure that reconstruction and projects are designed in such a manner that does not favor one national-level faction over another.
Lack of technical capacity on the local level presents another challenge to decentralized reconstruction. Donors can and should undertake programming to enhance local capacity, but concurrently they can use this gap as an opportunity to foster a positive relationship among localities and Tripoli. Donors can work with Tripoli’s ministries to better equip them to work alongside and support localities across the country—hosting trainings and multilocality projects and cooperation. Small cities and rural localities that lack capacity on their own—as well as larger cities that would also benefit— can turn to Tripoli on a voluntary basis.
At least in the realms of reconstruction and economic activity, donors can encourage Libyans to recast Tripoli institutions as forums for cooperation rather than as a mandatory bureaucracy that forces localities into its vision (or lack thereof) for the country. If Libya’s localities can benefit on their own terms from cooperative dynamics fostered in Tripoli, they may be more amenable to national-level political reconciliation and nationally coordinated policies.
Finally, as is the case with reconstruction in any post-conflict environment, donors will face challenges in ensuring that their support does not bolster spoilers and disruptive actors who will still be inclined to attack one another and Tripoli. With complex and overlapping networks of actors, factions, and localities, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to condition assistance on a set of universally applicable rules and to structure exactly what behavior would be grounds for terminating support. A municipal council, for example, may adhere to some set of rules to maintain international support while unofficially aligned militias that benefit from this assistance also continue their own illicit and disruptive activities. Whether municipal councils and agreeable factions have sufficient clout to confront and curtail spoilers varies from locality to locality.
To mitigate this problem, donors and implementers must make clear that the purpose of their programming is not only to build value in localities across the country but also to foster more regular patterns of interaction and reduce spoilage and disruptive activity. They must demonstrate that they will terminate, suspend, or put on hold projects and support if localities are trending toward more disruption in their relationships with Tripoli and with one another.
Those supporting reconstruction must develop (and demonstrate) greater visibility of dynamics on the ground by way of detailed, close, and continuous network mapping—assessing and reassessing how specific actors and factions are connected to their localities and to one another, and the mechanisms they use to pursue their interests. This will allow donors and implementers to pressure local partners to use what clout they have to prevent spoiling and disruption, and foster inclusive growth.
Moreover, and perhaps most important, donors need to work to dramatically improve international coordination on Libya. Groups on the ground in Libya will push the limits with donors, implementers, and one another if they know that they can secure alternative support from outside sponsors in the Gulf, Europe, Russia, or the United States.
A Better State for Libyans
International efforts to rebuild the Libyan state and resolve the ongoing conflict have, thus far, been primarily focused on building a strong and cohesive central authority. While this is an understandable goal given the difficulty of state-building in an environment as complex and fragmented as Libya, it ignores the realities on the ground—and it does so to deleterious consequences.
The most relevant organization in Libya has long been, and will continue to be, locally oriented. Localities took up arms and defended themselves during the revolution. They held these arms and built up militias, relying on them to make Tripoli—by force or threat of force—incorporate rather than neglect them. These localities and militias will be hard-pressed to give up their arms and power in favor of the idea of a central state—simply in the hope that such a state would meet their needs.
Without something short-term and tangible in which these localities can invest, the political divide may become intractable. As such, donors cannot wait for a comprehensive national solution to begin rebuilding Libya. If they do, Libyans will suffer and the factors that obviate a political solution may well grow stronger. Not only will the state degrade further, the concept of statehood and central governance will become more and more irrelevant.
Reconstruction efforts alone will not save Libya. They will not be sufficient to solve all political divisions, eradicate competing foreign influence, or erase the actions of players who have already established themselves as spoilers—those who demand a far larger share of Libya’s wealth than is commensurate with their localities and purported constituencies.
Yet, if donors and implementers approach reconstruction in a way that comports with the decentralized reality of Libya on the ground, their efforts can have impact beyond the physical repair of broken buildings and infrastructure. If reconstruction enables localities to invest in themselves and develop on their own terms, these localities may become more invested in further growth in a decentralized model. If successful, such a model will motivate localities to defend and expand their wealth and come to more consensual and productive relationships with one another and with Tripoli. The Libya that emerges will be less centralized and more complex than what many had envisioned when Qaddafi fell eight years ago, but it may be one that works much better for Libyans.
The views expressed here are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of the West Asia-North Africa Institute (WANA) Institute.
How Yemen Rises
Previous experiences of post-war reconstruction (PWR) inform us that it will always fall short of the expectations of donors and recipients alike. There is not one experience of such reconstruction where things went according to plan. Experts and writers have to go all the way back to post-WWII reconstruction in Europe and Japan to find successful examples, only to discover that their contexts were fundamentally different from any subsequent post-war scenarios.
Recently, the concept of fragile states has been introduced to the field, not only to encapsulate the differences between post-WWII reconstruction and other subsequent situations, but also to highlight the challenges arising from rebuilding in countries where even peacetime governments were too weak or incompetent to manage the needs of the state. The most recent PWR regional examples in Iraq and Afghanistan did not live up to expectations, to put it mildly. When this happens there is always the pointing of fingers—blame directed at donors for not providing enough resources; at governments for not having absorption or deployment capacities, or for being corrupt; at international and local NGOs for manipulating the situation to acquire wealth at the expense of human tragedy; or at local communities and local political actors for not getting their act together in time to benefit from the short-lived focus of the international community.
Considering the realities of post-war reconstruction, instead of calling out failure, it may be more useful to focus on what was achieved given a catastrophic situation, limited capacities, and meager resources. After all, PWR is supposed to come to a place struck by the tragic destruction of livelihoods, market networks, health, sanitation, and education infrastructures, and turn all of those around. It must do so through processes implemented in an environment of insecurity, instability, fragile negotiated settlements, post-conflict competition between actors, rearrangement of power structures, existing war economies, new reconstruction economies, weak central governments, multiple donor priorities, and local perceptions of favoritism. It is hardly surprising that this usually leads to a limited capacity for implementation, waste of resources due to corruption or lack of coordination, concentration of wealth among those with existing deployment capacity, and most seriously, the sowing of new seeds for future conflict or a breakdown of peace. Yemen, or any other country for that matter, such as Syria, is no different.
The Tragedy of Yemen
It is widely acknowledged that the conflict in Yemen has led to one of the greatest preventable disasters facing humanity. The extent of the tragedy is difficult to measure due to the scarcity of reliable data, but the estimates are staggering. Deaths due to direct violence reach up to seventy thousand and indirect deaths from disease, hunger, or simply lack of medical resources are in the hundreds of thousands, of which some eighty thousand are children. Millions have been either internally displaced from their homes and sources of livelihood, or were lucky enough to find a way to flee the country. The educational system is as good as broken and nearly five years of schooling or university education have simply been wiped out from the futures of millions of children and youths.
Up to fifteen million Yemenis, including millions of malnourished children, are close to famine and most will suffer long-lasting consequences to their health and wellbeing. As a consequence of the breakdown of the country’s health system, Yemen has witnessed the worst cholera outbreak in recent human history. The economic system has also collapsed, leaving about 50 percent of the population living in extreme poverty. The political order has been reduced to a situation where there is no vision or leadership.
The conflict will eventually come to an end. But of course, no one expects that a negotiated settlement will bring immediate security or stability to the country. One may even expect a rise in insecurity due to the transfer of power from local militias to a central government and the transition from a war-based security arrangement to a state-based one. The current security order in Yemen—if one can call it that—is based on militia enforcement under the guise of wartime logic. Once that order is dismantled, there will potentially be a transition period with extreme levels of insecurity, especially in urban areas that lack cohesion and strong community-based security arrangements.
Moreover, a political settlement, even if it is perfectly designed, will not eliminate the deep hostilities between the warring factions and negative memories between communities. This is a given in any conflict. To make matters harder, the war in Yemen was largely due to a total breakdown of a power arrangement, which created a power vacuum that the Houthis tried and failed to exploit for their benefit. After a negotiated settlement is achieved, the attempt to reconfigure a new power structure will resume, and a key tool of that will be control and allocation of resources, especially those for rebuilding. Subsequently, any government that is born out of a Yemeni political settlement will be no more than a collective of officials answering to rival factions—old and new—with competing interests.
Reconstruction will be driven by a systemic favoritism, and it will take a strong president—if Yemen is lucky enough to obtain one in the immediate or near future—at least three years to streamline the government and represent the interests of the country as a whole. The long war has given birth to a thriving war economy that is benefiting the militias, politicians, and some merchants. The war’s conclusion will not bring an abrupt end to this class of merchants of war. Those same actors exploiting the tragedy of Yemen to enrich themselves will change tactics and leverage their financial powers, contacts, and networks to create a new post-war economy. There is already a great deal of experience in exploiting international aid, and that experience will be used to capitalize on vast amounts of donor money and the economic potential of a PWR economy. These merchants’ wealth will put them in a better position to implement large projects that require deep pockets and sustained cash flow, while thousands of professionals and impoverished business men and women will be relegated to spectators who lost during the war and will continue to lose. All of this would occur at the expense of genuine needs, whether of the economy at large or the immediate sustenance of millions of Yemenis barely surviving today.
Add to that the political and security consideration of donor allocations to rebuild. Estimates for Yemen’s reconstruction vary, but, according to recent figures from the country’s planning minister, could reach $28 billion in the short term and $60 billion in the long term. Regardless of the estimates, what matters is how much will actually be given to Yemen. Whatever that number is, it will within a year or two inevitably empower some groups over others, especially those with a large popular base and who depend on their base’s financial support. This alone creates a security challenge for donors keen to support Yemen’s communities in a way that does not translate into more power for factions, especially factions whose interest is a weak Yemeni government in the long run.
Some Dos and Don’ts
Yemen’s post-war reconstruction will not meet donor/recipient expectations and will face colossal challenges to avoid total failure. Based on the above and on the specific nature of Yemen’s politics, a number of steps can be taken to maximize the positive effects and minimize the inevitable negative outcomes.
Centralizing rebuilding efforts would essentially mean creating a single reconstruction authority that works independently of, or at least parallel to, the newly formed Yemeni government. This would most likely lead to a systemic preference for certain PWR models over others. For example, some consider the priority to be the revitalization of the economy through mega infrastructure projects such as roads, airports/ports, and city water and sewage systems. Others prioritize smaller scale issues that have an immediate relief and sustenance impact for affected communities. Since it is given that there is no universally applicable PWR model that provides perfect results, the best rebuilders should opt for is one that facilitates the funding and implementation of multiple models. Decentralizing is better in that regard. Moreover, no one central body could ever be equipped to deal efficiently or effectively with different international, state, and community priorities. Centralizing reconstruction would lead to the dictatorship of that body over the process without any guarantee that it could deliver more than could a variety of government bodies.
One justification for centralization is that the Yemeni government has always had a limited capacity for both absorbing aid and implementing projects, and that the war has only made the situation worse. The assumption is that a newly created body would do better, but there is no evidence to support this, and efforts to do so in Iraq and Afghanistan tell us otherwise. Also, we need to note that government bodies are not equal; some are more efficient than others, and decentralizing allows for those who can fare better to function better. Finally, investing in existing government institutions will strengthen them, and in so doing strengthen the system of checks and balances.
Put Communities First
A second step is to put communities first, and the interests of international NGOs (INGOs) second. As much as we prefer to think otherwise, there exists a relief and reconstruction complex of some local, but mainly international, NGOs who do good, but also make massive amounts of money by acting as intermediaries for much of the funding coming into a country from donors. The final beneficiary in Yemen may only receive a fraction of the original allocated amount, the rest going to a chain of intermediaries for what is dubbed “management costs”. This will certainly continue as it is almost institutionally impossible to manage the transfer of funds from donors to projects without INGOs with the right expertise. That said, local communities should play a role in determining which projects are to be implemented in their area. They should even be empowered to nominate the right INGO for the task.
One way Yemen’s Ministry of Planning could facilitate this is by setting up a portal, with both a website and mobile app, to map the needs of each small locality. This platform would connect each area’s needs with interested donors and relevant INGOs, with a map reflecting where and how existing funds have been allocated. It would also provide users with a way to give publicly accessible feedback, empowering local communities down to the level of the individual to determine their needs and priorities. The technology for such a process is available, and once disseminated, Yemenis would quickly learn how to use it.
Beware Donor Conditionality
Donors normally set conditions on recipients to guarantee that their funds are properly spent. Some require that the recipient country make far-reaching reforms that impact, among other things, the political system (i.e. democratization), the size of government, and taxation and public spending. More often than not, financial support comes with demands for austerity measures which may be destabilizing. Donors are not unaware of the disruptive power of some of their conditions, but tend to brush these off as short-term survivable challenges with long-term economic benefits. Yet, this is not always the case, and in Yemen some conditions enforced by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) had destructive outcomes that could have been avoided.
The IMF unintentionally impeded the transitional process in Yemen following the 2011 uprising, and in the view of some, set the stage for the current conflict by pushing the government in 2014 to lift fuel subsidies. They were of course aware of the fragile context of Yemen’s political environment, and expected short-term unrest, but ultimately decided to accept the risk and move forward. This is a subject of great contention, and one can always find counterarguments that do not place blame on the IMF. Yet, it deserves serious consideration by all who would seek to place conditions on their rebuilding packages for Yemen. While conditions must and will be set, donors must be extremely attentive to the political context of their conditions—they should always question the ability of Yemen’s government to survive the social and political backlash. One war is enough.
Support Start-Ups and SMEs
Post-war reconstruction presents a country with an opportunity to create a new merchant class and diversify the accumulation of wealth. This could be achieved if start-ups and small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are given the opportunity to participate in the effort and benefit from cash injection into the country. The current approach favors contractors who have track records and strong financial capacities. A quick glance into the usual terms of reference for donor-funded projects shows eligibility requirements that exclude almost everyone except well-established firms.
While this makes sense for some of the larger projects, the terms of reference should allow for recent entrants into the market, especially if they provide innovative solutions that compete in cost and quality. This is especially important when we consider that much of the professional and merchant class lost everything they had in Yemen’s civil war. This process can begin by acknowledging start-ups as key actors in the reconstruction process. Existing models recognize government, foreign states, donor organizations, and INGOs as the main actors in the process. Some may add contractors. Recognizing start-ups would be a major step toward giving them a role and facilitating a fair distribution of wealth in the process.
Invest in Wartime Innovation
War pushed Yemenis toward innovation and entrepreneurial initiatives. One important example is in the energy sector. The destruction of the power system forced people to find alternative sources of energy to keep their fridges, irrigation pumps, and communication tools functioning. Luckily, this became such a widespread phenomenon that it has been recognized internationally and received support from some international organizations. It is important to continue supporting this trend after the war ends.
At this point, the solar alternative to fuel-powered electricity is neither efficient nor advanced enough to compete with conventional electric power sources, and thus people may quickly turn back to traditional sources once they are available again. In addition to the environmental benefits of solar power, there are economic and developmental ones. Alternative sources of energy would save the country billions of dollars that can be allocated elsewhere. Moreover, the majority of Yemen’s population—especially in rural areas—has no access to electricity, making alternative sources an opportunity to expand that access.
This is just one example. Throughout the past four years, many young Yemenis have come up with solutions to the war-related problems they are facing: low-cost prosthetics, alternative techniques for dialysis and water purification, among others. Mapping those innovations, validating those that actually work, and supporting them should be one of the mandates of donor funding.
Heal the Environment, Prioritize Health
The environmental footprint of modern warfare is staggering. A bomb is not simply a bomb. Each one of the millions upon millions of bombs used in this war leaves a chemical residue that sticks in the air, seeps into the soil, and is transferred by rain and wind across vast geographies, wreaking havoc in disease for the population at large, and especially children. In a country such as Yemen, where almost two-thirds of the population live in rural areas, this crisis becomes more urgent than ever. In the absence of healthy alternatives, people will resort to the food and water resources available, which are likely to be contaminated by disastrous chemicals. The accumulated impact on individual health and the wellbeing of the economy is beyond anyone’s capacity to measure.
The focus of donor money on this must be a priority. Innovative start-ups can play a special role here by providing low-cost solutions that can be implemented on a wide scale. For example, some start-ups have developed accessible technologies that predict mosquito-related health risks. Others have provided inexpensive solutions for water purification, especially in areas that do not have access to a supply network.
The possibilities are endless, and networks of global innovators with existing solutions, or who can tailor unforeseen ones, are out there. Donors and the Yemeni government should encourage experts who understand the country’s health and environmental challenges to engage with those innovators and to introduce them to Yemen’s challenges.
Weaken, Don’t Strengthen, Sectarianism and Regionalism
Yemen, like any other country, is composed of a complex mosaic of communities with diverse yet overlapping cultures and interests. It is simply impossible to draw borders for such a mosaic. Regrettably, the tendency has been to divide Yemen into neatly defined categories of Southern/Northern, Zaydi/Sunni, and Tribal/Urban. Yemeni political actors in the past four decades found it useful to mobilize based on these categories and weaponize them against their contenders, leading to the explosion of sectarian and regional politics with devastating consequences.
Yet, for many of us today, Yemen’s division along these lines seems ubiquitous, historical, entrenched, and natural. Sectarianism and regionalism are even used to explain the roots of the existing conflict. Some peace initiatives start from the premise that these categories should be recognized and institutionalized. But a closer look reveals sectarianism and regionalism to be local, fleeting, weak, and most importantly, contingent upon political weaponization. They are the tools and façade of the conflict, not the cause of it, and legitimizing them will certainly not enhance prospects for peace or social harmony. On the contrary, legitimizing them will sow the seeds for future conflict.
Yemen’s post-war reconstruction can either aggravate or mitigate sectarian and regional divides. To ensure the latter, funding distribution should firmly honor the fact that Yemen’s mosaic defies neat and clear divisions.
There are Yemeni politicians, consultants, and activists who will demand that funds be divided according to these categories, under the pretext of fairness and equal opportunity for all groups and regions. The greatest risk of post-war reconstruction efforts in Yemen is that it accedes to such demands and thus solidifies sectarianism and regionalism. This agenda, which sounds natural and looks appealing, only requires a closer look to realize that equal opportunity for all groups and regions is not the same as equal opportunity for Southern/ Northern, Zaydi/Sunni, and Tribal/Urban-based binaries. Equal opportunity founded on these divisions is merely another weaponization of difference using international funds. PWR should avoid allowing itself to become a catalyst for further fragmentation in the political identity of Yemen’s communities. If there is anything this author would insist on, it is this.
Finally, it is vital to continuously reflect on how we think when we approach reconstruction. Reconstruction is not an exact science. It is essentially an art whose key tool is a deep, localized understanding of the social fabric, political structure, cultural context, and economy of a country. Being an art, at its heart lie not theories and models (especially economic ones), but rather passion and imagination—a passion for human prosperity and wellbeing, and an imagination for how to achieve this in different localities. The hope now is that artists with imagination and passion as well as reflection and understanding will lead or significantly contribute to the process of Yemen’s reconstruction.
Rethinking Gaza’s Reconstruction
For over a decade now, a crippling Israeli economic blockade, internal Palestinian political division, and three major Israeli military operations against Hamas¬ruled Gaza have all pushed the tiny Palestinian enclave to the edge of collapse. The international response, although vital in providing desperately needed relief aid to meet the most basic human needs of Gaza’s two million inhabitants, has so far been unable to articulate clear policy solutions to address the enclave’s continued economic and humanitarian decline.
Past experience has shown that technical solutions to Gaza’s complex problems, barring a supportive political and security environment, are not enough to lift it out of its dire conditions and put it on a trajectory of sustained recovery and high economic growth. The policy implication is clear: in order for any future intervention to be effective in dealing with Gaza’s mounting socioeconomic difficulties, its political and security conditions have to be firmly stabilized. This implication by its very nature necessitates a strategic shift in the current thinking about Gaza, and calls for the adoption of a new strategic approach to rebuild the embattled Palestinian territory. Such an initiative would look at Gaza as a strategic development project that requires the adoption of a long-term vision, rather than as a humanitarian operation that mostly focuses on immediate and short-term basic needs. This essay proposes such an approach.
A Series of Shocks Causing Gaza’s Predicament
Gaza’s current predicament can be traced back to the largely inauspicious political and security situation in place since the Israeli unilateral disengagement from the Strip in September 2005. In the years that followed, a series of highly disruptive and destructive events came together, over a decade, to produce a dire humanitarian and economic condition that is unprecedented in Gaza’s modern history.
Each one of these events represented a powerful shock to Gaza’s small and largely underdeveloped economy that was barely recovering from three years of sharp decline during the second Palestinian Intifada (2000–2005). Collectively, these adverse shocks, one after the other, created a series of crises, with the size, scope, and complexity of each crisis ramping up over time, impacting economic, social, environmental, institutional, and infrastructure conditions. For a place of Gaza’s size, with a total land area of 365 square kilometers, these adverse developments proved to be very costly for the Strip’s small population at each and every conceivable level.
Gaza’s current troubles started in early 2006 when the Islamic resistance movement, Hamas, emerged victorious in the Palestinian legislative elections held in January of that year. This largely unexpected political development represented the first shock to hit post-disengagement Gaza. The second blow came the following year when Hamas violently took over the entire Strip in June 2007, marking the beginning of a bitter internal political division between Gaza and the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority (PA)—a rift that continues unresolved until today.
In response to Hamas’s control of Gaza, Israel immediately imposed a sweeping blockade on the Strip, the third powerful shock to hit it within an eighteen-month period. A series of other powerful shocks continued to rock Gaza, this time caused by the launching of three major Israeli military operations during the period between 2008 and 2014. The total cost of the direct economic losses of the three wars combined was estimated by UNCTAD to be nearly three times the size of Gaza’s annual Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
The last war was the deadliest and most devastating of all. It lasted fifty-one days on end from July 8 to August 26, 2014, wrought unprecedented carnage on Gaza’s civilian population, and brought down massive devastation on its already weak economy and failing civilian infrastructure. Over 60 percent of Gaza’s housing stock sustained significant damage, with entire neighborhoods along the eastern part of the Strip reduced to rubble or rendered uninhabitable. Damage assessment was estimated at $4.5 billion, with 85 percent of Gaza’s capital stock wiped out by the war. The psychological trauma to those who survived the Israeli onslaught was no less painful. Five years after the war ended, according to a UN report, an estimated 210,000 people in Gaza—over one in ten residents—suffer from severe or moderate mental and psycho-social health disorders as a result of the continued violence.
On the economic front, the negative impact of the twelve-year Israeli blockade and repeated military campaigns against Gaza, along with the internal Palestinian political split, on the performance, size, and structure of Gaza’s economy since 2007, is enormous. During the entire post-2007 period, Gaza’s economic growth was extremely volatile, averaging less than 1 percent annually. This resulted in
a sharp decline in per capita income; a diminishing of Gaza’s contribution to Palestine’s total GDP from 37 percent in 2005 to an estimated low of 24 percent in 2016; and the erosion of Gaza’s economic productive base, with the share of the manufacturing and agriculture sectors in Gaza’s GDP falling to 8 and 5 percent, respectively, in 2018.
Five years after the 2014 war, overall conditions in the Gaza Strip are looking increasingly grim. The underlying factors that brought all aspects of life in Gaza to the brink of collapse on the eve of the last war—mainly the suffocating Israeli blockade from land, air, and sea, and the internal Palestinian political chasm—remain largely unchanged. Isolated and battered by severe restrictions on movement of people and trade, Gaza’s economic troubles are further compounded by chronic and persistent shortages in electricity and potable water that have already reached crisis level, dilapidated civilian infrastructure, and intermittent bouts of cross-border armed violence—all adding to the hardship and suffering of the Strip’s besieged population.
Worse still, post-war attempts to give Gaza much-needed breathing space all fell short. Post-war reconstruction and economic recovery remain an incomplete process, with only half of the $3.5 billion of the pledges made at the 2014 Cairo donor conference on rebuilding Gaza delivered. The Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism—a short-term UN-brokered agreement between Israel and the PA reached in September 2014 to allow for the entry of restricted building materials and other “dual-use items” from Israel—was ineffective and gave Israel near-total control over Gaza’s reconstruction. Reconciliation talks to bridge the Palestinian political division showed no progress despite the signing of the latest agreement between Fatah and Hamas in October 2017 in Cairo. And the Israeli measures to ease stiff restrictions on access and movement in and out of Gaza introduced after each spike in cross-border violence, and subsequent short-term ceasefire agreements, are still grossly inadequate to make a real difference in Gaza’s dire living conditions.
Unlivable by 2020
The latest statistics on Gaza’s socioeconomic conditions are very troubling and reveal a bleak picture. More families are falling below the poverty line (53 percent in 2017, up from 39 percent in 2011), and are increasingly becoming food insecure (68 percent in 2018, compared with 59 percent in 2014, with 47 percent of households becoming severely food insecure). Over 80 percent of Gaza’s population continues to rely on foreign handouts and other forms of social transfers for basic survival. More adults remain out of work, desperately looking for jobs that do not exist. The general unemployment rate at the end of 2018 was estimated at 50 percent—up from 41 percent in 2016, with youth unemployment reaching a staggering 70 percent—and is even higher among women.
Gaza’s private sector is yet to recover from the losses sustained from the war’s extensive and widespread damage to its productive assets. Many of the destroyed economic facilities in the agricultural and manufacturing sectors are still largely standing idle, awaiting repair after reconstruction funds dried up. Continued severe restrictions on Gaza’s imports and exports have driven some local firms out of business and forced others to relocate to neighboring Arab countries, while those that remained open are operating well below their capacity. Isolated and cut off from the supply chain, their struggle to stay in business is exacerbated by the continued acute shortages in electricity, water, and fuel supplies, and by an odd regulatory and governing environment caused by twelve years of internal Palestinian political division.
Gaza’s population, meanwhile, is growing at a fast rate of 3.6 percent a year— one of the highest in the world. With 65 percent of the population under the age of twenty-five, Gaza’s young labor force is growing even faster. New entrants to the labor market are joining the long unemployment lines in a virtually stagnant, if not collapsing, economy. With opportunities for a better future outside of Gaza virtually nonexistent for most people, the only hope for a different future remains within Gaza’s private sector. This sector must become the engine of sustained economic growth in order to absorb the annual increase in labor force and reduce the high unemployment rate.
Five years after the war, Gaza remains a war-torn area, an open-air prison, besieged and isolated from the rest of the world. Its economy is devastated, its people traumatized, and its civilian infrastructure and basic public services are largely dysfunctional. The UN warned in 2012 and 2015 that Gaza’s living conditions are so grave that it could become unlivable by the year 2020. That is only a few months away.
Halfway International Response
Despite continued international assistance to Gaza, little, if anything, has been done on the policy front to address its grave living conditions, with donors’ efforts proving more unlikely to succeed over time. Two post-war international conferences on Gaza’s reconstruction, in March 2009 in Sharm El-Sheikh and in October 2014 in Cairo, have both failed to produce sustained economic recovery beyond the partial reconstruction of the damage caused by the wars.
Moreover, international organizations’ appeals for funds to provide humanitarian relief to Gaza are persistently missing the target. While, for example, 57 percent of the money needed in 2015 to fund the UN “Humanitarian Response Plan for the Palestinian Territories” was secured, this figure dropped to 46 percent in 2018. Additionally, vital international projects to repair, rehabilitate, and upgrade
Gaza’s crumbling infrastructure, and to improve the provision of essential public services, are routinely delayed—or not implemented altogether—either due to the insufficiency of funds or due to Israel’s procrastination in allowing the entry of construction materials, technical experts, essential equipment, and spare parts, all of which require prior Israeli approval.
Under these extremely harsh conditions, Gaza’s recovery remains a distant goal. When such recovery occurs, it is usually short-lived, disrupted by a new round of cross-border violence and the tightening of Israeli restrictions on movement and trade, which has been the hallmark of the post-2014 period. Long-term development under status-quo conditions is not even on the map. And yet, inaction is not an option, and will only lead to more hardships such as higher unemployment, poverty, and food insecurity rates; dwindling basic public services; continued environmental degradation; and deepened institutional decay.
For years, the international community, in addition to providing badly-needed humanitarian aid, has been providing financial and technical support in an attempt to mitigate the impact of the stringent conditions in Gaza. And yet, crucial as foreign assistance has been, donors’ incremental, project-based, ad hoc approach has not succeeded in making a durable, positive difference in Gaza’s rapidly vanishing economy or to save its dying private sector.
What is urgently needed now is a fundamental strategic shift in the way the international community has been dealing with Gaza: a new approach within which short-term relief intervention measures represent only one component of the solution, and not the whole gamut. In this new approach, Gaza needs to be looked at as a strategic development project rather than as a humanitarian operation. This alternative approach should be driven not by the urgent need to mitigate the deteriorating humanitarian conditions that are pushing Gaza fast to the precipice, but by the strong will to prevent the situation there from becoming yet another troubled hotspot in the currently lurching regional political and security order.
Shifting the Debate on Gaza
The future of the Gaza Strip will ultimately depend on building a vibrant and dynamic private sector-led economy, fully integrated with the rest of the Palestinian hinterland, and efficiently operating in an open business environment. It will also depend on having close and mutually rewarding trade relations with the stronger, more developed, and technically advanced Israeli economy. For that to happen, and to unlock Gaza’s potential, the freedom of movement of people and goods in and out of Gaza must be secured. Also, the use of Gaza’s economic resources, including the natural gas fields located off the coast of Gaza, must be unrestricted, and its access to domestic, regional, and international markets unhindered.
The starting point in realizing this vision for Gaza is the focus on its struggling economy in order to prepare it for the crucial task of leading the way beyond post-war reconstruction and short-term recovery, into the medium- and long-term goal of sustained growth and development. This strategic shift is consistent with the “Building Back Better” principle—one of many guiding principles in the literature on post-conflict reconstruction—and intends to take the discussion about Gaza a step further toward the eventual building of a strong, vibrant, and private sector-led economy.
More specifically, the required strategic shift in thinking should take the debate about Gaza from the standard questions of “what happened five years after the war,” and “what has been accomplished so far,” to the more central and challenging question of “what needs, could, and should be done” in order to fundamentally address and ultimately resolve Gaza’s ever-deepening multiple crises: from the staggering rates of unemployment and poverty, to the crumbling state of basic services and physical infrastructure, to the need to reduce, and ultimately end, Gaza’s chronic dependence on foreign handouts. This is the crux of the matter.
Rebuilding Gaza: Toward an Integrated Approach
The proposed new approach to rebuilding Gaza is centered around three key pillars, which are all equally vital, all integrated in one policy package, and should all be pursued concurrently—not independently or in sequence. These three pillars are: the continued provision of short-term financial and technical support to address Gaza’s urgent economic and humanitarian needs; the design of a comprehensive plan for medium- and long-term development of Gaza’s private-sector-led economy; and the stabilization of Gaza’s political and security setting to allow for the return of the PA to Gaza and the removal of the Israeli blockade.
Short-term Intervention Measures
The first pillar of the proposed new approach deals with addressing immediate and short-term issues, and focuses entirely on the critical need for continued delivery of emergency humanitarian assistance to ensure the survival of Gaza’s population. In this regard, it is especially crucial to ease the liquidity crisis currently facing Gaza since the U.S. administration’s 2018 decision to end its funding for UNRWA, the UN agency responsible for Palestinian refugees since 1949, and the suspension of all USAID projects in the Palestinian territories, and also due to the PA’s punitive measures against Hamas-controlled Gaza, which began in March 2017, and the drying up of post-war reconstruction funds.
The first component also calls for enhanced and accelerated support to Gaza’s embattled private sector so as to address the immediate—and so far grossly underfunded—priority needs of Gaza’s strained business community. The list of short-term intervention measures is largely known and has been amply highlighted in the PA’s post-war recovery and reconstruction plan for Gaza, and in World Bank and UN reports presented biannually to the meetings of the Ad Hoc Liaison Committee, AHLC, the international donor group for Palestine. The latest example of such measures is the UN urgent humanitarian and economic package for Gaza presented to, and approved by, the AHLC in September 2018, and endorsed again at the AHLC meeting on April 30, 2019. This package, among other things, includes interventions to alleviate the energy crisis; address the collapsing healthcare system; and increase access to clean water and sanitation.
To be successful, however, short-term intervention measures should not be stand-alone steps, but part of a long-term strategic developmental approach led by a revived and empowered private sector (the second pillar) and implemented in the context of a persistent international drive to stabilize Gaza’s fragile political and security conditions (the third pillar). A 2016 study on spatial development of Gaza titled “Global Palestine, Connected Gaza” has emphasized such a need to link short-term intervention measures with long-term strategic vision. According to the study, “Without a long-term perspective, urgently needed investments can unintentionally be made in ways that are inefficient or compromise longer-term opportunities”.
Long-term Development Plan
The second pillar of the proposed new approach focuses on the need to design a strategic plan for medium- and long-term growth and development for Gaza’s economy. The plan should start with an in-depth survey analysis of Gaza’s current business and investment climate in order to identify existing bottlenecks and key impediments that delay short-term recovery and hinder long-term growth. The outcome of such analysis should help to pinpoint areas of possible policy interventions by policymakers, national or international, independently or jointly in partnership with Gaza’s private sector, in order to address, and ultimately fix, the weak aspects of the business climate conditions.
A careful study of each one of Gaza’s business sectors/subsectors should then follow. The aim here is to assess existing conditions of these sectors, gauge their future potential, and weigh their possible contribution to Gaza’s long-term prosperity. The sectoral strategies produced should be all integrated in one strategic plan that ensures that policy actions taken in each sector are consistent with the overall strategic development vision of Gaza.
Once constructed, the strategic development plan should be used as a basic guide for future national and international interventions that mean to improve Gaza’s business climate, and extend technical and financial support to existing and new enterprises.
Stabilizing the Political and Security Situation
This third pillar of the proposed comprehensive approach to Gaza’s reconstruction addresses the internal (political) and external (security) constraints that are the principal causes of Gaza’s continued humanitarian and economic decline. It calls for a persistent and coordinated drive by the international community to work closely with the immediate parties involved in the Gaza conflict in order to end the internal political division so as to reintegrate Gaza back into the PA’s governing structure, and then stabilize the security front between Gaza and Israel to make possible the complete lifting of the economic blockade and secure the freedom of movement and access to resources and markets. This is a sine qua non component of the proposed approach; without it, nothing of a lasting impact can be achieved.
The logic behind this third pillar is simple: for short-term measures (the first component) to be effective, and for the medium- and long-term strategic development plan (the second component) to have any chance of successful implementation, the political and security context within which these policy interventions should take place must be stabilized. Post-war economic recovery and longer-term growth and development of the Gaza Strip cannot possibly be realized or sustained before the right political and security conditions are in place. Gaza, after all, cannot be rebuilt while key players—Israel, the PA, and most donor countries—refuse to deal with the de facto authority in Gaza. By the same token, donor-funded reconstruction cannot be expected to take place in the presence of tight restrictions on access and movement, and amid continued conflict conditions that will always put rebuilt projects at the risk of destruction again!
The implication of this is clear: without a Palestinian political reconciliation that unifies Gaza and the West Bank under one legitimate, internationally recognized governing authority, and without reaching a permanent and durable ceasefire arrangement between Israel and all Palestinian militant factions in Gaza, not only will Gaza be unable to rebuild and regain its lost ground, but the current conditions will continue to further worsen even amid continued provision of short-term relief aid by the international community.
By contrast, stabilizing the political and security fronts is expected to produce immense economic benefits for Gaza. According to World Bank analysis, the impact of progress toward PA–Hamas reconciliation on real GDP in Gaza is estimated to result in a cumulative growth of about 30 percent by 2025, while the removal of the Israeli blockade would lead to additional cumulative impact of 32 percent by 2025. Over the medium term, the World Bank further shows, progress on the political and security issues will encourage additional foreign direct investment and private capital inflows, along with aid from international donors. Meanwhile, growth in GDP will lead to an increase in private savings and investment, and the whole economy will progress in a virtuous cycle toward sustained growth.
A Prescient Warning
Stabilizing the political and security environment of Gaza is not an easy task. If it were, it would have been done long ago. The process of getting there is complicated, and the impediments are real. Neither the sticking issues that have eluded Palestinian reconciliation for over a decade now (mainly, the question of Hamas representation in the PLO, and the fate of Hamas-affiliated armed militants in Gaza), nor the nature of Israeli coalition politics that has been shifting to the right of the political spectrum—with hardliners and settler leaders increasingly assuming powerful positions in government—will allow political and security stabilization to go far in the short run. This is a bad omen for Gaza’s future.
And yet, there is no other way out. If the root causes of Gaza’s continued economic and humanitarian decline are politically and security driven, then this is where the solution lies, and where it should eventually be found. Recent UN-led efforts to reach interim modus vivendi arrangements that aim to maintain calm between Israel and Hamas in exchange for some form of humanitarian palliatives to Gaza’s already worn down population may buy some time, but they are not, and cannot, by any means, constitute an alternative to a more substantive policy action.
Looking ahead ten years, when the population of Gaza is projected to reach three million by 2030, trying to predict the future of the Gaza Strip under unchanging, or worsening, political and security conditions is certain to be an extremely unpleasant exercise. And when the UN is projecting an implosion in Gaza by the year 2020, we must come to grips with the pressing stakes for the future in the tiny Palestinian coastal enclave.
End of War, but Not of Conflict
Although Arab nation states have been the sites of popular uprisings, civil wars, regime change and state collapse since the turn of the twenty-first century, developments within these states have been subject to a myriad of dynamics, actors and flows that emanated from beyond their borders. These included state and non-state, regional, as well as international forces which intervened militarily, diplomatically and economically with the aim of influencing, if not altogether shaping, the outcomes of processes on the national level. The relevance of this plethora of actors has grown with the typical weakening, if not the complete crippling, of central governments in the context of civil wars and their aftermath.
There is little doubt that long years of civil war, external military intervention and the full or partial collapse of central state apparatuses have created new realities on the ground, which will shape the prospect, extent and scale of any post-conflict recovery and reconstruction. The key question here is how these dynamics will contribute to cementing or altering war-created realities, be they economic, political or social in the war-ridden countries of Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen.
In pursuit of an answer, this essay adopts a geo-economic angle in which geopolitics combines with economics. Geo-economics as an analytical tool has referred either to the use of economic power to achieve geopolitical gains, or to economic consequences of the geopolitical shifts as expressed in global trade, protectionism and neo-mercantilism. This approach views post-conflict reconstruction as an inherently political-economic process that has clear power dynamics and implications rather than the simple physical rebuilding of whatever was destroyed during years of conflict. As an approach to the world economic system, geo-economics can provide an international dimension for ongoing civil wars and regional competition by considering geopolitical rivalries between powers such China and Russia and established powers with hegemonic legacies in the region such as the United States and Europe. We tend to believe that the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region’s geo-economics may lead to ending civil wars but not necessarily the state of conflict. Most likely, there will not be a clear-cut post-conflict phase in any of the war-torn countries but rather conflicts of lower intensity marked by fewer occurrences of violence, but not its complete cessation. In other words, the post-conflict reconstruction in the four cases will be mainly shaped by the struggle over regional dominance and the interactions of the regional and international powers, and this struggle is fueled by the fluidity of the regional and international systems in the post¬hegemonic era.
International Dimensions of Domestic Conflicts
None of the regional and global dynamics that influenced or shaped the post¬2011 trajectories were altogether new. In fact, many of the actors, flows and patterns of interaction could be traced back to decades earlier. Indeed, MENA has historically been characterized by high levels of permeability through extensive intra-regional flows of people, ideas and capital as well as higher levels of penetration by external actors where no autonomous regional system ever existed without continuous confrontation with external actors.
Geo-economic dynamics in MENA have intensified civil conflict in war-torn countries since 2011. They have led to the rise of multiple regional rivalries. These include Saudi Arabia versus Iran; Qatar (allied to the Islamists) vs. the United Arab Emirates (UAE); Turkey vs. Egypt (in Libya); and Israel vs. Iran and Hezbollah in Syria. In turn, the uncertainties associated with a weakened role of the United States in the region have fed (so far) into proxy wars within war-torn countries instead of international conflict. These dynamics have led to the weakening of already fragile and contested national orders. Overall, they created incentives for competing regional and international powers to invest in the further weakening of central governments through direct military intervention, the support of anti- or pro-regime militias, and the promotion of cross-regional ethno-sectarian identities.
The way conflicts have evolved in the past eight years in MENA has led to the enforcement of many of the pre-2011 dynamics on the national level by exacerbating socio-political and economic exclusion and deepening already existing cross-regional senses of grievance. A key observation is the general lack of any functioning political systems nationally, regionally or globally, which raises the stakes and deepens the sense of insecurity and uncertainty.
This itself would feed into new rounds of, most probably less intensive but protracted and prolonged, conflict within these fragile states and the allocation of resources for further undermining of national orders in a myriad of ways.
The Ordeal of State (Re)building
In addition to the obvious socioeconomic damages on physical, human and social capital that ongoing wars have inflicted, there has also been considerable weakening of state institutions in war-torn countries, politically, financially and administratively. This is likely to persist for years after civil wars end. States won’t be capable of restoring their authority over all of their national territory because of the intensive involvement of external forces either directly through military occupation or indirectly through the support of local armed groups. This applies both to external allies as well as rivals. In Syria for instance, a Turkish or NATO presence in the northern parts of the country would detract directly from the administrative and military control of the regime, after the latter has achieved dominance over most of the Syrian territory with the military assistance and direct intervention of Russia and Iran. However, the same applies to the regime’s allies.
The Bashar Al-Assad regime will have to adapt to future plans for permanent and direct Russian and Iranian presence in the country rather than vice versa. De facto military occupation is hardly commensurate with sovereignty or autonomy of nation-states. Additionally, the near absence of any “all-inclusive” political process nationally, regionally or multilaterally will allow the scars of civil war and violence to linger and feed resentment against the re-imposition of state/regime authority.
A sustainable future stabilization of MENA will depend on state-(re)building in war-torn countries. Not only is this an imperative for enduring peace but also for attracting capital for reconstruction and the re-launching of the economy. This, however, requires the reversal of the concurrent intra-regional rivalry where powerful regional players have all the incentives to weaken state structures and institutions in war-torn countries. This exacerbates already troubled and incomplete processes of nation-state building in MENA, and especially in war-torn countries that were already prone to breakdown due to deep societal divisions, having fierce states that are captured by limited closely-knit groups and that have historically lacked successful construction of a national identity.
Part of the challenge in MENA is to change the incentive structure of rival regional (and international) powers so as to invest in state-making rather than unmaking. This, however, is something that goes far beyond the technical and financial focus of typical post-conflict reconstruction projects. Injecting funds into war-torn countries or rebuilding their destroyed physical capital does not make up a state. Funding reconstruction might be a helping, or even necessary, precondition but not a sufficient one.
This is the hard lesson learned from cases like Kosovo, East Timor, South Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of Congo where extensive international engagement in state-building has failed in pulling these societies out of what seems to be a permanent condition of fragility and an exacerbated rent-dependency. State (re)building in war-torn countries can only happen in a conducive political process on all levels ranging from the local to the international, which is exactly what seems lacking in MENA.
A Geo-economics of Recovery and Reconstruction in MENA
There is nothing inevitable, automatic or necessary in post-conflict reconstruction and recovery. It may take place or it may not. It may further consolidate the realities that war had created (e.g. authoritarian stabilization, further exclusion and marginalization of ethnic and religious groups, the de facto split of national territory etc.). Conversely, it may contribute to their altering with economic means pushing for reconciliation, state building and development. Our policy concern is that there are two major obstacles that may undermine how economics can push for a more sustainable reconstruction and recovery that would be conducive for reconciliation and peace in the long term.
On the one hand, international oil prices, the umbilical cord linking MENA to the world economy, are expected to remain below the 2014 range in the medium- to long-term. This would limit the amount of resources available for MENA as a whole and hence preclude or at least restrain future reconstruction and political stabilization. This would apply to both oil-rich as well as oil-poor war-torn countries given the complex and multiple mechanisms of oil-rent recycling that have characterized MENA’s geo-economics since the 1970s.
On the other hand, the absence of macro-security and political arrangements in MENA will likely render attempts at reconstruction and recovery extensions of regional and international rivalry. The way civil wars have either been brought to an end such as in Syria; to a stalemate such as in Yemen and recently Libya, has not involved any political process nationally, regionally or internationally. This situation will have grave consequences for the availability of resources in MENA generally and in war-torn countries more specifically. For instance, the European Union (EU) has made it clear that they won’t pitch in any resources to the reconstruction of Syria unless a political process is launched to integrate the opposition. Similarly, it is unlikely that the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries would offer aid, soft loans or investment from their sovereign funds or even politically-connected businesspeople for reconstruction in countries allied with their archenemy Iran.
It is also noteworthy that none of the post-conflict reconstruction processes will likely have a multilateral dynamic, most prominently through the UN. Contrary to earlier cases like Kosovo, the Democratic Republic of Congo, East Timor, and South Sudan, the UN has no direct presence on the ground in the form of peacekeeping missions in any of the four war-torn countries in MENA. Moreover, international rivalry between the United States and Russia (and to a lesser extent China) has limited the role the Security Council could play with regard to the conflict in Syria.
Moreover, private investment by foreigners or nationals in a post-conflict context will depend on political variables like enduring peace and security, the protection of private property from predation by corrupt officials or local militiamen, and the guarantees and incentives offered by host governments.
The primacy of politics in post-conflict reconstruction shows itself forcefully also in oil-rich war-torn countries such as Iraq that won’t likely rely as extensively on external funding. The case of post-2003 Iraq reveals that access to large oil revenues was by no means enough for either recovery and reconstruction or reconciliation and stabilization. Many depicted a grim picture of how rampant corruption, state capture by powerful political parties—usually affiliated with armed groups—and deep ethno-sectarian divides derailed recovery and could not stop falling prey to an extended insurgency and a devastating civil war (2006–2008). Large oil revenues flowing to the Iraqi central government did not translate into nation-building such as founding a professional army, better public services or more efficient institutions.
Post-Qaddafi’s Libya is another case in point. Once again, access to oil revenue, the control over oil fields and relevant infrastructure for exporting it like ports and roads, have proven to be bones of contention between warring parties rather than an enabling factor for agreement or reconciliation. Additionally, both countries despite their national riches remain heavily penetrated by foreign actors that wield enough power to influence, if not altogether reshape, political processes on the local and national levels.
End of War is Not the End of Conflict
War-torn countries will most likely remain whole but hollow. States will be kept together in one piece, at least formally in the eyes of international law and international organizations. This was demonstrated in the international and regional consensus against Kurdish independence in Iraq following the referendum of September 2017. It was also manifested in the wiping out of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and its self-proclaimed caliphate in those countries. It is equally unlikely that regional or international powers would welcome the formal partition of existing failed states, be it in Southern Yemen or the partitioning of Libya or Syria. Likewise, there won’t be any formalization of de-facto annexation of territory as with Turkish-occupied northern Syria. Post-conflict states will, however, be hollow structures with remarkably diminished administrative capacities to practice sovereignty over their economies (for example, rampant informality, including cross-border smuggling and human trafficking and other remnants of war economy), social relations (for example, widespread violence and crime), or the totality of their territories (for example, organized crime, armed local militias functioning as intermediaries with the central government or foreign occupation forces, sometimes with the government’s consent).
With the continuation of international and regional rivalries amid the absence of political processes in war-torn countries (again with the possible exception of Iraq), economic resources will be flowing according to shorter term considerations of relief, refugee, and internally displaced people’s return. This will likely correspond to the entrenchment and enforcement of unilateral arrangements but not long-term arrangements on the national level, risking the reproduction and perpetuation of the same grievances and roots for possible further rounds of conflict, likely supported by rival powers.
Given the above, it may be safe to state that reconstruction in MENA, or attempts at it at least, will not necessarily happen after the fires of war have been completely extinguished. There is a possibility that they may proceed in less certain contexts with a higher tolerance for low-intensity violence that is short of full-fledged war. Post-ISIS Iraq fits well into this. Cities and towns of northwestern Iraq are expected to be rebuilt and refugees and internally displaced people return regardless of continued terrorist threats or the absence of a grand socio-political pact that would ensure the re-integration of Sunni Arabs. The same may apply to Libya, which has progressively witnessed the consolidation of a de facto partition between the east and the west. With two governments, two parliaments, two central banks and two national oil authorities, there may be partial attempts at reconstruction, especially in the east. Needless to say, this will likely be the case in Syria once the regime and its Russian and Iranian allies regain control over all national territory, or most of it.
Reconstruction attempts may also be used strategically by regional and international powers for the de facto annexation or partition of territories in war-torn countries. There are a number of potential cases in MENA, such as evidence of attempts by the Turkish government to fix some infrastructure and restoring public services in the northern part of Syria where Ankara is maintaining a military presence. In a similar vein, the U.S.-led coalition in Syria may play the reconstruction card with the predominantly Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) for any future plans for a longer-term presence. Southern Yemen also might be the scene for a Saudi- or more probably a UAE-sponsored reconstruction in a de facto partition of the country as a longer-term strategy against a Houthi-dominated north, within the framework of a loosely unified Yemen.
The challenge to post-conflict reconstruction in MENA can only be tackled through politics as we have previously highlighted. Reconstruction in the absence of political processes means a continuation of conflict by other means. It will not contribute to longer-term hopes of stabilization. What the region needs is reconstruction that allows a political reconstitution of war-torn states and societies. This can only happen through pan-regional security and cooperation arrangements which in turn require the presence of political processes on the regional and national levels.
Whereas reconciliation or peacebuilding on the national and local levels are often complex and subject to dynamics that are relatively autonomous of external factors and processes, regional and international actors and flows can exacerbate or mitigate post-conflict domestic circumstances. This applies to all four cases, Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen to varying degrees. The critical linkage is hence reaching some kind of a regional security arrangement between major rivals, namely Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Turkey in the Middle East, and Egypt in the case of Libya. This of course cannot occur without a strong role played by the United States and Russia, given the high levels of external penetration MENA has always exhibited. If the realities created by eight years of war—with a considerable degree of foreign military, economic and diplomatic involvement—form the basis for a sustainable and long-term security arrangement, then a geopolitical base for reconstruction and recovery may actually take root.
Forward… But Where to?
After almost six months, the protest movement (Hirak in Arabic) has managed to radically change Algeria’s political landscape, triggering the collapse of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s authoritarian coalition, reinstating the army as a central player, putting an end to competitive clientelism, bridging old divisions within society, and creating new cleavages within the country. Yet, the current deadlock between the military and the demonstrators appears as just an intermediate stage on the way to a possible democratic transition or a consolidation of power around General Ahmed Gaïd Salah and the army. While the two sides are still struggling to find a common language to move forward, they have so far avoided any serious misunderstandings, leaving Algeria in a political limbo.
To understand the current crisis, it might be useful to take a step back and analyze the complex dynamics that led to President Bouteflika’s rise to power, his ability to stay in power for longer than what many initially expected, and his sudden fall earlier this year. While Bouteflika’s ascent cannot be separated from his success in putting an end to the country’s civil war, his four consecutive presidential terms highlight well the contradictions that eventually led to his downfall and fuelled the current popular movement against the regime. At the same time, his tactics and policies can explain the current dynamics in the relationship between the army and the protest movement, and the likely scenarios for Algeria going forward.
The entire Bouteflika era was centered around the presidential ambition to tame, once and for all, the military and their influence over the presidency. When he seemed able to accomplish this strategic aim—at the beginning of his fourth mandate (2014–2015)—paradoxically, that was the moment that signaled the start of the military’s resurgence in shaping Algeria’s political landscape. This development was characterized by the growing centrality of the Chief of the General Staff and Deputy Minister of Defense General Gaïd Salah, in the informal balance of Algerian power. From this point of view, Algeria is now back to square one: the military keeps running the country, as it has always done since independence, and the Hirak is now constrained within the political and legal limits that Gaïd Salah has set over the past months.
Rise and Fall: Bouteflika’s Authoritarian Coalition
Bouteflika was first elected president in 1999, after the then-military leadership opted for this long-time exile in the United Arab Emirates to replace General Liamine Zéroual. The latter had resigned as head of state at the end of a contentious term, during which his room for maneuver had been severely constrained by the army. In the late 1990s Algeria was still in a state of civil war, although the Islamist insurgency had been losing momentum for a while.
The country’s military leadership saw in Bouteflika someone who could restore Algeria’s international status. Bouteflika enjoyed huge international political capital—and contacts—that he built during his former role as foreign minister in the 1960s and 1970s. However, the constraints around this position were clear from the beginning: the country was de facto run by the military, with the president acting as a mere figurehead. This was an attempt to reintroduce what political scholar Abdelkader Yefsah once described as the “civilian hijab”. This veil was used by the military throughout Algeria’s history to dominate the political system, that is to rule from behind using a civilian leader to hide their power. Bouteflika, in his years in power, tried to resist this dynamic. At some point, he even seemed to be successful.
This civilian veil was temporarily ripped during the 1990s as the military took a more open role in running the country, after military leaders Abdelmalek Guenaïzia, Khaled Nezzar and Larbi Belkheir forced President Chadli Benjedid to resign in January 1992 and took the reins of power.
Bouteflika’s presidency depended on three sources of legitimization, which he carefully cultivated to boost his influence vis-à-vis the security forces and avoid being a “three-quarter president,” as he famously stated soon after his first electoral victory.
First, Bouteflika could claim that he belonged to the revolutionary generation that fought against the French and managed to liberate the country. His involvement in the national independence struggle and his role during the presidency of Houari Boumédiène during the late 1970s afforded him a degree of public credibility. However, this was the only source of ideological legitimacy that Bouteflika could realistically rely on. The other sources were material, highlighting his presidency’s authoritarian/bureaucratic nature. The other two bulwarks of his legitimacy in the eyes of Algerians were his ability to put an end to the civil war and the redistribution of oil wealth in order to craft a new social coalition that would come to support the regime and, in particular, be loyal to Bouteflika.
Much has been said about his initiatives to reconcile a country torn apart by a violent civil war and to conceal the military’s crimes during the 1990s. Consistent with his pragmatic aim to shore up his own legitimacy by materially improving the lives of the Algerians, Bouteflika refused to take into consideration any idea of restorative justice or reconciliation that could expose the army to many accusations. Instead, the Bouteflika administration banked on war fatigue, the military’s desire to exit the civil conflict with a full rehabilitation, and the growing resources at the state’s disposal to accelerate the transition to a new political phase. Coming into power when the military had already regained the upper hand over insurgents, Bouteflika could easily offer to whitewash the military’s reputation and protect it from possible international prosecution while enticing the Islamist guerrillas to drop their weapons and be reabsorbed into Algeria’s expanding economy in exchange for their disengagement from politics.
As mentioned, the key to Bouteflika’s bureaucratic normalization project was access to and redistribution of oil and gas wealth, which coincided with a sustained increase in available energy revenues. The president used this money to end the civil war, build a coalition of constituencies and interests supportive of the state, and increase his leverage over the other factions, in addition to controlling the security forces. From the point of view of the Algerian government, Bouteflika successfully bought the loyalty of several groups, which had previously distanced themselves from what had effectively become a bunker state (that is, a regime isolated from its own population and ruling through an oversized military apparatus) in the 1990s.
Before Bouteflika, several constituencies had only reluctantly given their support to the government because of the increasingly violent crimes committed by the Islamist guerrillas. The devastating impact of the chaotic economic liberalization of the 1980s, the failed democratic transition, the civil war and the harsh austerity measures imposed in the mid-1990s had isolated the Algerian leaders from their population.
The president generously redistributed the vastly increased oil and gas revenues to stitch together a new political settlement and regain the trust of the population. The new social coalition was happy to provide its support to Bouteflika and his normalization project in return for political stability and long-lost economic prosperity. An increase in the number of public sector employees, combined with the reinjection of resources into the private sector through government contracts and infrastructure projects, were instrumental in securing the support of Algeria’s middle and lower classes. In addition, the government bought the support and/or political demobilization of other constituencies such as feminists, Berber speakers (with visible exceptions, such as the 2001 Black Spring), former Islamic Salvation Front militants, informal economy entrepreneurs, religious confraternities, rural notables, religious minorities, mujahideen associations, youth groups, and so on. The redistribution of hydrocarbon revenues was the necessary glue holding together this variegated coalition of interests.
In parallel to this new social contract, Bouteflika used oil and gas money to create his own patronage networks and increase his leverage. The most evident example of this strategy was the creation of a new and politically outspoken business class, in a country where state intervention in the economy and the chaotic liberalization of the 1980s and the 1990s civil war had always pre-empted the rise of a self-confident private sector elite. Bouteflika raised a breed of crony capitalists that became assertive in their support for the presidency and their hunger for opportunities. Along with the country’s General Union of Algerian Workers (UGTA), the religious zawiyas, the rural associations, and many other groups, this class enabled Bouteflika to build his own support base within the country and to compete with the security forces’ own patronage networks.
Lastly, shifting international circumstances allowed Bouteflika to make the most of his international political capital. The September 11 attacks made jihadi terrorism a truly global issue and changed the perception that many capitals had up to that point of the Algerian events of the 1990s. As terrorism increasingly became a European and American problem, Algeria was not only rehabilitated in the eyes of the global public opinion for what it had gone through during the 1990s, but was also increasingly perceived as a useful partner, as its counterterrorism knowhow was considered an asset by many actors who were facing this threat for the first time.
Ahmed Gaïd Salah: from Outsider to Kingmaker
Nevertheless, the epilogue of his presidency showed that Bouteflika never managed to decisively centralize power around himself. When it appeared that the president had managed to tame the military once and for all by dismissing the Department of Intelligence and Security (Département du Renseignement et de la Sécurité, or DRS), he paradoxically created the conditions for a return to greater military influence. The growing centrality of Gaïd Salah within the system, which had been implied in recent years but only emerged over the past few months, was the result of this process. In his attempts to sideline his adversaries, Bouteflika was always forced to strike tactical alliances with other actors, some of whom were within the army itself. From this point of view, Bouteflika adopted—this time in substantial continuity with previous practices—a “divide and rule” strategy.
Throughout his presidency, he looked for allies within the army itself to limit and remove those officers that he perceived to be his immediate enemies. Belkheir, one of the historical heavyweights among the Janvierists and close to Benjedid before ousting him, was the director of the president’s office, and later became Bouteflika’s head of cabinet in 2000. The “Cardinal of Frenda” (one of his nicknames) was actually the person who suggested Bouteflika as a replacement for Zéroual, after the latter called early elections in 1999.
After a relatively low-profile first term, Bouteflika’s reelection in 2004 marked an acceleration in his plan to reduce the army’s influence on politics. In the summer of the same year, the then-Chief of Staff Mohamed Lamari left his position allegedly for health reasons but arguably because he fell out of favor within Bouteflika’s circle. One year later, Bouteflika appointed Belkheir ambassador to Morocco, effectively neutralizing him. A key role in this reshuffle was played by Mohamed Mediène, the powerful head of the DRS. However, in accordance with the playbook of Algerian politics, Bouteflika also struck an alliance with a less powerful actor who was at the same time an enemy of both Lamari and Mediène—Gaïd Salah—and appointed him chief of staff. A Chaoui Berber from Batna province in Algeria’s northeast—often described as a self-effacing man mostly focused on prioritizing the professionalization of the army and keeping it out of politics—Gaïd Salah was initially chosen to take over the role of Lamari for a number of reasons. Both Lamari and Mediène wanted him out, and indeed Gaïd Salah was on a list of officers ready to retire. Since its reestablishment in 1984, the General Staff served the purpose of reducing the president’s authority over the Armed Forces. This was essential in determining the president’s room for maneuver in relations with the Armed Forces.
Gaïd Salah was appointed to this position as Bouteflika needed a dependable outsider with sufficient experience to act as a counterweight to Mediène and the DRS. After ten years of struggle, Bouteflika and Gaïd Salah managed to sideline the DRS and Mediène, who was eventually forced to leave in 2015. However, as the power of the DRS declined, Gaïd Salah became increasingly central to the system. Inevitably, speculation concerning his role within the presidential faction accompanied his rise to power, with rumors concentrating on his rivalry with Saïd Bouteflika, the president’s youngest brother. Meanwhile, Bouteflika’s deteriorating health and the lack of a clear successor within this circle created the space for Gaïd Salah to strengthen his role as the arbiter of the government. The outbreak of the 2019 crisis and Bouteflika’s resignation were therefore the culmination of Gaïd Salah’s ascent. With the benefit of hindsight, the impact of the Oran cocaine-smuggling scandal in mid-2018, which implicated high government officials, led to the sacking of Abdelghani Hamel—the head of the General Directorate for National Security, DGSN, who was considered close to Bouteflika. It also led to a wide reshuffle within the security forces signaling what would happen only a few months later. The end of Bouteflika’s presidency, the return of the Security Services Department (Département de Surveillance et de Sécurité, or DSS) under the control of the minister of defense and the resignation of Athmane “Bachar” Tartag as head of the DSS completed Gaïd Salah’s evolution from outsider to kingmaker.
Gaïd Salah and the Re-centralization of Power
The impact of a well-organized and civic-minded protest movement has now dramatically changed the contours of Algerian politics and led to a broad reshuffle of personnel within the country’s main institutions. With the Bouteflika faction out of the picture, the country is now increasingly divided between the possibility of a civil society-led democratic transition or a quick return to the ballot box to elect a new president under the watchful gaze of an ever more central army, which aims to retain a key role in the decision-making process.
The unified social and political front against Bouteflika that emerged over the second half of February has marked a major shift in the context of Algerian politics. In previous years, protests in Algeria were never part of a coalition with shared national and political aims. They were mostly focused on short-term material gains for specific territories or professional cadres, as protesters abided by the implicit rules of the game set by the regime in the context of the commodities super-cycle; for example, access to and redistribution of government revenues and opportunities was not regulated through elections but through patron–client relations and social unrest. Elections themselves had merely been a tool in the Bouteflika state and the regime before to punish disloyal elements, award loyal politicians, and co-opt civil society or political leaders.
This anti-election position, however, has been gradually eroded by the new generations, who are presumably less acquainted with this political logic and were born and raised in a different cultural environment more open to global trends and external influences. Indeed, it was a vanguard made of young activists and students that took to the streets and injected the necessary momentum that enabled more reluctant actors to get together and become agents for change. Following the success of the first demonstrations, civil society groups, independent trade unions and other organizations, and private citizens decided to join, giving even more strength to the protest movement.
While this dynamic has been successful in changing the relationship between the state and the people, under the leadership of Gaïd Salah the regime has shown a remarkable ability to adapt to the new circumstances. The harsh stance taken by Gaïd Salah toward the Bouteflika faction has been so far functional to his strategy aimed at neutralizing the protest movement and thus riding out the storm. By forcing the president to stand down while ostensibly applying the constitution, Gaïd Salah has worked to guarantee the survival, at least in the short-term, of the political system. As a result, he has now changed the parameters of the confrontation by taking the “constitutional path” and has thus attempted to constrain the opposition.
In doing so, he has reaffirmed not only the centrality of the army within the system, but also in the context of the protest movement, by setting the parameters of what can be lawfully achieved and what cannot, always relying on Algeria’s constitution. Indeed, bypassing the limits set by the country’s fundamental charter would imply that the Hirak is trying to pursue an anti-constitutional path—a development that could potentially foster divisions within the opposition and the protest movement and affect both domestic and international public opinion.
In addition, while there have been cases of intensified repression of protests by Algerian police, the use of violence has not become systemic. If there is one lesson to be learned from the events of the 1990s, it is that government repression can unify a front that is only nominally cohesive but internally heterogeneous and fragmented. From this point of view, the Hirak is even more heterogeneous and internally diversified than the Islamist opposition of the early 1990s, but there is every reason to believe that a harsher security response would likely backfire for the regime. Indeed, it seems that the authorities selectively use repression to deliver a message to the protest movements about the army’s readiness to resort to violence.
Most importantly, starting from March the Algerian justice system suddenly awakened from a long slumber, arresting a series of people on allegations of corruption, abuse of power, and conspiracy against the state. Some Algerians even joked that the prison of El Harrach is the new Club de Pins (the exclusive residence of most of the elite). The list of people in jail includes former heavyweights like Saïd Bouteflika, politicians and former ministers, security officers, and formerly all-powerful businessmen.
The arrests have been arguably Gaïd Salah’s key strategy to achieve a number of different, yet interrelated aims. First, he recentralized power around himself and sidelined any potential competitor. These arrests have effectively destroyed the competing patronage networks linked to Bouteflika and Mediène and have further strengthened Gaïd Salah’s control of the political and economic engine, thus replacing Algeria’s previous system of competitive clientelism with a new centralized clientelist settlement. Second, he issued a message to other political, military, and economic players that confronting him would result in their exclusion from the new system, while a more cooperative approach could allow them to climb up the political–economic ladder.
Finally, these arrests aim to widen cracks within the protest movement. By centralizing patronage and throwing in jail the old elite, Gaïd Salah has presented himself as the only player who can rid the system of corruption and open up new opportunities for those Algerians who have been marginalized for all these years, in effect undermining the anti-co-optation efforts deployed by the protest movement since the beginning. Indeed, a division between pro- and anti-Gaïd Salah demonstrators has already appeared, although it has not yet had any tangible impact on the protest movement.
Civil Society’s Transition Roadmap
This central role played by the army was even more evident in Gaïd Salah’s handling of the constitutional court’s decision to delay the presidential ballot, which was initially supposed to take place on July 4 and has now been indefinitely postponed. This ruling has marked a major setback for the military’s strategy to quickly move to presidential elections. Following the ruling, Gaïd Salah has reiterated that he will not allow a constitutional vacuum to set in, while conceding that there needs to be an orderly dialogue between civil society and the institutions to prepare the terrain for presidential elections.
This invitation to start a dialogue between the institutions and the protest movement has been seized by a coalition of civil society groups, which organized a series of meetings around mid-June to put forward proposals to break the deadlock. While opinions on Gaïd Salah’s management of the transition vary within these groups, these meetings were the first attempt to bridge the representation gap between the protest movement and the elites in Algeria. From the beginning, protesters have shown little regard for opposition parties and leaders that they consider part of the same system they oppose. The mistrust between the protest movement and Algeria’s opposition parties was also mirrored in the demonstrators’ refusal to choose their own leadership structure. The protest movement’s lack of leadership has probably been a strategy to deal with the risk of co-optation by the regime, but it has undermined its ability to formulate a detailed and realistic agenda for change and to negotiate with the opposition as it confronts the ruling authorities.
The June meetings organized by civil society groups, independent trade unions, and religious associations have tried to fill this gap. Five main groups participated in these meetings: two civil society umbrella organizations, the Civil Society Collective and the Forum for Change; a coalition of independent trade unions (mainly representing workers in the education and healthcare sectors); and two religious groupings, Amal and the association of the Algerian Ulama. These organizations have tried to represent the broad spectrum of Algeria’s protest movement and, after discussions, eventually managed to agree on a transition roadmap.
The plan consists of four main points. First, Algeria needs an interim presidential committee or a consensus president and a technocratic government to run the country during the transitional period, which is meant to last six to twelve months. Second, the electoral commission needs to be reformed to guarantee the neutrality of state institutions in the next ballot. Third, a dialogue between civil society groups, the political class, and the protest movement should take place to discuss the country’s main political, social, and economic priorities, culminating in a national conference. Finally, these measures aim to pave the way for a yet-to-be-defined electoral process that should complete the transition to a full-fledged democracy.
While this roadmap marks a significant development and throws the ball back into Gaïd Salah’s court, a closer look at the discussions that preceded this proposal and the reactions it has elicited within society shows a more complex picture. First, the roadmap remains elusive on a key point—the type of elections that are supposed to take place at the end of this transition. The Civil Society Collective and the Forum for Change are divided on this point, with the former advocating the election of a constituent assembly that should lead to a complete overhaul of Algeria’s political system, while the latter supports the idea of moving swiftly to presidential elections—an option that is probably closer to Gaïd Salah’s preferences. This is not simply a matter of procedures, but indicates a much deeper division between supporters of more radical change and advocates of a gradual approach—a cleavage that seems to mirror debates that have taken part in Libya and Tunisia over the past years.
Likewise, the discourse around this roadmap and the visible presence of Islamists in conversations around the roadmap have irked many in Algeria. The use of Arabic and Amazigh as official languages and the exclusion of French has sparked complaints online, while others have focused their attention on the overwhelming presence of middle-aged men in defining the roadmap, some of whom could easily be identified as Islamists and who are in any case hardly representative of the strong presence of women and youth activists in the demonstrations.
Overall, these divisions have so far remained dormant or have been successfully contained, as the protest movement presented a united front against Bouteflika in favor of a democratic transition. They now threaten to become more evident and to play into the hands of the regime, which remains suspicious of any form of radical change. It remains to be seen how Gaïd Salah and the military will respond to this initiative and, most importantly, if the protest movement will still manage to remain united and contain its own divisions now that its posture is inevitably shifting from contestation to proposition.
Presidential Elections or a Political Transformation?
Twenty years of skillful maneuvering were never enough to earn Bouteflika complete control over the Algerian state or rent distribution. Paraphrasing what he said once sworn in, Bouteflika remained a “three-quarter and something” of a president, too busy outmaneuvering his challengers and focusing on his political survival to lay the foundations for the long-term development of the country. This was evident in many sectors, including the numerous and unpredictable regulatory as well as personnel changes in the oil and gas sector, the unstable and ineffective industrialization policies (for example, in the automotive sector), and the spectacular U-turns on monetary or trade policy.
Lacking any strong ideological legitimacy (beyond his independence struggle credentials), Bouteflika gradually lost his ability to provide material improvements to the Algerian population as oil and gas revenues started to shrink from the mid-2010s. The end of the commodity super-cycle and, most importantly, the unsustainable weight of the country’s overstretched social contract meant that the regime became unable to accommodate all the requests coming from Algerian society and in particular the new generations. Depleting foreign reserves, increasing import restrictions, and stagnating incomes for many Algerians signaled the limitations of Bouteflika’s authoritarian/ bureaucratic agenda. In the meantime, the chaotic implementation of pie-in¬the-sky industrialization policies highlighted the challenges of development in a polity characterized by competing patronage networks.
Faced with the president’s illness, the lack of a clear successor within the clan, and the regime factions’ inability to agree on a successor only exacerbated these problems and contributed to the gradual erosion of the regime’s already shrinking legitimacy. Eventually, it was the attrition of the social coalition behind the regime, combined with the political de-mobilization of a large share of the population and the coming of age of a new generation that had not materially benefited from Bouteflika’s normalization project, that gave birth to a largely spontaneous, leaderless protest movement that the authorities have so
far proven unable to control.
Against this backdrop, the president’s declining health and the progressive elimination of a number of heavyweights within the army, such as the dismissal of Mediène in 2015, increased the room for maneuver and the centrality of Gaïd Salah. The changes in the security services in the months before the protests were already proof of this centrality, which became more evident as the protests gained momentum. Gaïd Salah’s call to implement Article 102 of the constitution, which allows a constitutional council to declare the president unfit to rule and the presidency therefore vacant, was itself a result of his consolidation of power. This dynamic was in the making for quite a while, as he moved from being an outsider among the generals-kingmakers to become the sole kingmaker.
After taking a few weeks to adapt to the new political environment crafted by the protests, Gaïd Salah managed to set the parameters of the confrontation by taking the “constitutional path” and thus attempting to constrain the opposition. The arrest of officials and businessmen linked to Bouteflika and Mediène has enabled Gaïd Salah to recentralize power by eliminating competing patronage networks, while making timid overtures to a dialogue with civil society. His plan is now to move as quickly as possible to presidential elections, leaving the army in a key position to continue to influence the decision-making process.
On the other hand, the protest movement has recently managed to overcome its divisions and hesitations to present a transition roadmap centered around the idea of a dialogue between state institutions and civil society groups. This proposal marks a major development, but remains critically unclear regarding the final outcome of this process—whether Algeria should go down the route of a constituent assembly, along the lines of what Tunisia did after 2011, or if the best option is to quickly transition to presidential elections (an option that Gaïd Salah is probably more inclined to push for). However, as the protest movement changes its posture and tries to articulate some proposals to break the current deadlock, divisions are inevitably becoming more apparent, posing the risk of manipulation by the authorities.
Dexterous Movements and the Pole that Confronts
One of the most significant books written on Algeria and its elites is Isabelle Werenfels’s Managing Instability in Algeria. She discussed the challenges that the Algerian state faced in the latter half of the 1990s and its capacity to manage instability. Werenfels argued that the governing elite displayed “a notable aptitude for adapting its strategies to the many challenges posed by an unstable international and domestic environment”.
Twenty years later, the rulers of Algeria continue to be dexterous in how they position themselves. In 2019, the governing elite adapted to instability by sacrificing members of its community to persecution in a bid to ensure the survival of the political governance.
The centrality of Gaïd Salah and his capacity to redraw the boundaries of the confrontation vis-à-vis the opposition are indisputable and represent the lifeblood of this adaptation aptitude. That said, despite the emergence of several cleavages and divisions within the movement, the Hirak managed to impose itself as a pole of dialectic confrontation, a factor that cannot be ignored or bypassed in any way moving forward. While Gaïd Salah’s maneuvers have allowed him to set the boundaries of this confrontation, these boundaries themselves cannot exclude in any way the movement and its desires.
Opportunity of the Century?
When presented with international initiatives, such as the American proposal to resolve the Palestinian–Israeli conflict and the economic incentives announced in Bahrain in late June, reactions should be governed by two paramount principles. Firstly, one must not immediately embrace seemingly attractive international initiatives. On the other hand, one must also not rush to reject new ideas. Learning and considering the details must come before determining positions. If successful, an American solution to the Palestinian–Israeli conflict would indeed become the “deal of the century”.
Many aspects of this American initiative could be welcomed: a comprehensive package rather than endless negotiations is commendable, while placing the deal within a regional framework is also not objectionable. This follows the same model adopted by the Arab Peace Initiative first introduced at the Arab Summit in Beirut in 2002.
Nevertheless, it is most probable that this initiative will be stillborn because it suffers from numerous fundamental flaws: the strident American bias toward Israel exemplified by the transfer of the American embassy to western Jerusalem, the closing of the U.S. consulate in eastern Jerusalem, the withdrawal of American support for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), and the lack of enthusiasm among current administration officials for the two-state solution.
Jared Kushner, President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and political advisor, confirmed these biases in his latest discussion with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. While suggesting that a comprehensive approach is a positive development, he avoided the issue of Palestinian statehood. When the Washington Institute’s director Robert Satloff pressed him about the reason behind his determination not to mention a Palestinian state, Kushner continued to avoid the use of the word “state,” saying it meant one thing to Israelis and another to Palestinians. This approach is, not surprisingly, alarming for Palestinians and Arabs alike.
In the interview, Kushner confirmed the priority status that Israeli security continues to enjoy in American thinking. He stated that the Palestinians do not have faith in their leaders and argued that it is better to focus on economic growth and improving living standards. In doing so, he disregarded that in peacemaking, providing economic incentives alone in the absence of a suitable political framework, is an outdated methodology that had failed ever since it was first introduced in the 1980s by former U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz. The idea was even later floated by Shimon Peres, Israel’s foreign minister during the 1990s, in the context of initiatives and Middle East summits focusing on regional economic cooperation, and yet another time more delicately by former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry during the Barack Obama administration. All of these previous attempts failed because they were not coupled with energetic principled efforts which respected the inalienable rights of the Palestinians, despite the fact that America was committed then to a two-state solution and to resolving the Arab–Israeli conflict based on the June 4, 1967 borders.
Preceding the recent Bahrain Workshop held on June 25 and 26, Kushner rolled out a comprehensive plan on economic stimulus titled “Peace to Prosperity”. American analysts reacted swiftly to the plan—even before Arab reaction—calling it unrealistic and lacking new vision given that the philosophy of putting economics before politics is a proven failure. Moreover, they questioned whether extensive international funding will be available to the Palestinians in the absence of prospects for peace and stability. They also noted that the proposal also failed to address legislation—such as the 1961 Foreign Assistance Act (and its amendments), which bars the United States from participating in these specific types of aid initiatives for the Palestinians.
In that light, the conference in Bahrain was received negatively by the Palestinian Authority. For their part, a number of Arab states which participated in the summit reasserted their official and unified position regarding the need for a two-state solution, and for east Jerusalem to be the capital of the Palestinian state; they see these as prerequisites for peace in the Middle East. Furthermore, they argued that meeting the national aspirations of the Palestinian people and freeing them of oppression would prevent radicals from exploiting the conflict to promote extremism.
Nevertheless, Kushner described the “deal of the century” as “the opportunity of the century,” one that would open the door to more concrete solutions relevant to the demands of the Palestinian people; he did, however, acknowledge that economic prosperity cannot be achieved without peace.
For its part, the Israeli side will in the coming weeks propagate the narrative that the American initiative has opened the door to relations with other Arab states, especially in the Arabian Gulf. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will continue to bullhorn this message to serve him in the September 2019 Israeli legislative elections.
In fact, economic discussions between the Arabs and Israelis are hardly new developments. Multilateral negotiations arose out of the 1991 Madrid Peace Conference, which established an intergovernmental working group specifically on economic cooperation. What is actually new here is that we have an incomplete American initiative— details of which have yet to be fully divulged—and that the future of the Palestinians is being discussed in their absence.
It seems the Trump administration presumes that since the Arabs find themselves in turbulent political waters, this will force them to renounce support for the Palestinian issue, particularly as they court an unconventional, materialistic American leadership whose support they need to face complex threats and dangers to the region.
This analysis is false. The creation of an independent Palestinian state is widely supported in the Arab World and a one-state solution represents a direct threat to Jordan. In addition, Arab and Muslim states will not accept any proposed solution where the Dome of the Rock will continue to be administered by Israel.
Some wonder why Arabs are reluctant to seize the “opportunity of the century” given that the plan could be better than nothing. The answer, simply put, is the fear that the “opportunity of the century” is actually part of the unfathomable “deal of the century,” whereby the United States attempts to convince Palestinians to forgo their national rights in exchange for economic aid, which would be shouldered mostly by wealthy states globally, and Arab states.
Measures taken recently by the Trump administration further exacerbate and heighten these Arab concerns, because they impact the final settlement of the Palestinian–Israeli conflict, especially as it relates to the creation of a Palestinian state, the status of Jerusalem, and the right of return.
If the United States is truly operating in good faith and wants to achieve a deal that commensurately responds to the rights of all, it should unequivocally announce that the end of the Arab–Israeli conflict must be based upon the Arab Peace Initiative, which calls for the end of Israeli occupation based on the 1967 borders, and the creation of a Palestinian state that includes East Jerusalem within those borders. The statement should include a solution to the problem of Palestinian refugees with the establishment of normal relations between Israel and the Arab World leading to peace. On that basis, the United States should also call for intensive negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis to finalize the details toward achieving a two-state solution.
I will continue to await more details on “the deal of the century” before making a final determination albeit with increasingly little optimism. With the 2020 American presidential election campaign coming up, President Trump will avoid even the semblance of putting pressure on Israel as he caters to the right-wing, American Jewish communities and his evangelical supporters who pushed for the relocation of the American embassy from Tel Aviv to occupied Jerusalem even before the announcement of the so-called “deal of the century”.