What if Afghans had been allowed to rebuild by themselves?

What if there had been no American and allied intervention in Afghanistan? I have been pondering that question, given that the US apparently plans to leave the country on Sept. 11, 2021, 20 years after its forces arrived, and that I was looking at the list of great needs outlined in the Humanitarian Response Plan 2018-2021.

Even in a country that has been torn by conflict, it is possible to work in a way that rebuilds local governance. It is not necessary to add further conflict. That is a choice, and it has been an expensive one for the US, its allies and the people of Afghanistan, in lives and money.

I thought about Somaliland and Somalia in the 1990s. Siad-Barre, the army officer who gained power in a coup and ruled Somalia with an iron hand, had made a practice of destabilizing the clans, manipulating them for his own purposes. His forces devastated Somaliland, turning Hargeisa, which had been its capital before independence and which became its capital again when it took back its independence, into rubble.

The Somaliland National Movement, which fought him from bases in Ethiopia, was a democratically-led movement which relied on elders for advice and the diaspora for financial support. Its members elected their own leaders. As one explained to me when I was doing research in Somaliland, you had to be true to your beliefs, and if you believed in democracy, that meant electing your own leaders – even in war.

After driving Siad-Barre’s forces out, people in Somaliland came together in a participatory process through which they decided to take back their independence (Somaliland had been a British colony that in the 1960s, agreed to join with Italian Somaliland to form Somalia) and decided on the form and substance of their government.

Those were not easy discussions.The clan elders, who have always been honoured in Somali society, played a key role. People met together in small groups, clearing differences and sharing views, that grew into larger groups. As is traditional, the men met, but the women organized the meetings and made sure the men reached agreement before ending a meeting. 

Then, having reached agreement, they chose their leaders from two different clans, and set about creating their state, with the elders forming the Guurti – a Senate of elders, charged with protecting the peace and the culture. Young politicians often could destabilize progress by playing politics; the Guurti’s role was to deflect those kinds of machinations.

Young men could have been a destabilizing force, as they so often are. When the seasoned SNM fighters went back home, these young men at first caused trouble. But local businessmen funded camps that ‘re-humanized’ them, and the government turned them into soldiers and wildlife officers as a transitional step to integrating them back into society.

In rebuilding, everyone did what they could to meet the many needs. There was aid from the diaspora, but not from anywhere else. The women traders in the marketplace paid for uniforms for the police, and that was typical of the ‘can do’ spirit. It led to a different, more equal kind of governance, because the government wasn’t all powerful. In fact, one researcher called it ‘the radical localization of governance.”

The whole story of Somaliland has been a story of people building, and rebuilding, for themselves, finding ways to meet their own needs even as the rest of the world focused almost exclusively on Somalia. Eventually, Somaliland decided that it wasn’t possible to work with the rest of the resistance to form a new Somalia government, as had been originally agreed among the various groups years earlier, and focused on its own governance.

In Somalia, meanwhile, the United Nations had decided to work with the warlords rather than the elders, even inviting them all to a conference and then letting them go back home. Why, asked local people, did you let them go when all they would do is go back and cause more conflict? That was, of course, the predictable result – they continued to fight for territory, influence, and money, rather than governing.

Except in one small part. In Baidoa, Australian soldiers working with UNITAF followed the advice of an Australian NGO with long experience in Somalia. They consulted with the elders, who wanted police and courts re-established, and they worked with the local NGOs that were feeding the local people. Only those guarding the NGOs were allowed to carry arms – everyone else was disarmed block-by-block. The elders reciprocated their trust, advising the lightly-armed Australians when they heard about threats.

The Australians had recognized that even in a destabilized society, local governance could be restored and nurtured. And when researchers have looked at other societies in conflict, they have found the same thing.

In Liberia, for example, researchers found that clan development associations had helped local people survive decades of civil war by serving as social safety nets, resolving conflicts, and providing and maintaining physical infrastructure independent of their state.

A district development association, Selezoway, built and maintained roads, market sheds, community halls and other public facilities within the district. Male clan members maintained roads; women’s clubs helped the sick and disabled, and often increased food production when needed to ensure food security.  

The clan development associations were self-reliant, supported by their members through labour quotas and taxation of individual production and by clan members living in Monrovia and abroad. Clan members living in the US helped rehabilitate and equip schools and clinics.  

This was one of many examples of “social capital” that researchers found once they began to explore how many African communities or community groups had  continued to thrive despite civil conflict or government ineffectiveness.

In most of these situations – Afghanistan, for example, or Somalia – local governance and ‘social capital’ exists. It just doesn’t necessarily look like what international visitors are used to seeing back home.


The Americans were not the only people who went to Afghanistan over the past two decades. So, too, did the Bangladeshis of BRAC, who saw a need to help other Islamic countries once they had rebuilt their own and who now work in 11 other countries across Asia and Africa. 

Founded in Bangladesh in 1972 by the late Sir Fazle Hasan Abed, BRAC specializes in “developing cost-effective, evidence-based poverty innovations in extremely poor, fragile and post-disaster settings.” Its program in Afghanistan, started in 2002, was the first activity it ever undertook outside Bangladesh. 

Its approach is holistic, using microfinance, education, healthcare, legal services and more, to invest in communities’ own human and material resources, with the goal of creating lasting change and giving the poor the chance to take control of their own lives.

“With an annual budget of USD 19 million we provided education to marginalized girls, ensured health services in hard to reach areas, built human capital for social development processes, and ensured citizen’s charter,” acting country representative Md. Siddique Ali said in BRAC Afghanistan’s 2018 annual report. “Our holistic approach to poverty alleviation provided education opportunities to 49,147 girls through community-based schools. As a part of improving the quality of schools in Afghanistan, BRAC developed teaching-learning capacity of 764 teachers from 300 government schools and 788 community based schools. We also provided stipends to 2000 girls living in extreme poverty.”

Zurmot Khan lives in an isolated village in Paktia province and belongs to his village’s Community Development Council created under BRAC Afghanistan’s Citizens’ Charter Afghanistan Project. He spoke of the impact in his area when BRAC began implementing CCAP in June 2017.

“In a CDC meeting, people of our village discussed the difficulties they face for the absence of a proper road connecting to the main road. We discussed the costs and labor we needed; the meeting ended with a decision that the road will be constructed by using our community resources. The following day, our community people started collecting money from the villagers and raised 700,000 AFN (9,933 USD).” 

“Many people also volunteered to provide labor for the construction,” he added. “Community financing and collective efforts resulted in the construction of a 3 kilometers tertiary connecting road, our people also took the responsibility of maintenance.”

The result, he said, was that the road made it easy for NGOs to send food, education supplies, and healthcare support to the village, and it motivated people to do more to develop their community.

This is the kind of low-key community development work that doesn’t often show up in the headlines, and BRAC has been doing it in Afghanistan since 2002.

I am happy indeed that, even if the American forces do leave as planned in the fall, BRAC Afghanistan will remain, doing its quiet, effective rebuilding and capacity building.