Afghanistan, Five Years and Counting

Despite its conflicts, Afghanistan appears unlikely to break apart or dissolve—it is not the former Yugoslavia or Iraq. But when things start to go bad in Afghanistan, they do so quickly.

This month marks the fifth anniversary of American boots on the ground in Afghanistan. The first US insertions quickly gained momentum, especially after the city of Mazar-e-Sharif was taken. The Taliban's legitimacy and resources had so diminished that few Afghans were willing to fight to the death to maintain them in power.  It was the foreign fighters of Al Qaeda that continued to resist in desperation or, more often, flee across the Durand Line into Pakistan.

What is left today of the victory that began five years ago?

Despite its conflicts, Afghanistan appears unlikely to break apart or dissolve. No region wants to secede or join kin on the other side of the border. There remains a shared sense of nationhood. Afghanistan is not the former Yugoslavia or Iraq: It has never sustained colonial or totalitarian domination. This has led to a continued societal, cultural and political viability rooted in traditional and indigenous political and cultural development that is not present in Iraq (or many countries at a higher level of development).

But when things start to go bad in Afghanistan, they do so quickly.  There are few leaders, institutions or organizations that can serve as firebreaks. Conflict in Afghanistan will inevitably have an impact beyond its borders, as the events of 2001 demonstrated. If Afghanistan fails again, it will mean more than the failure of the policies of a U.S. administration (and its coalition allies). It will also reflect the world community's inability to improve the Afghan situation in the face high stakes: a transnational terrorist threat.

Afghanistan has seen many successes in the past five years that Afghans and their foreign supporters may point to with pride. But threatening these achievements are, internally, the inability to create security and a functioning national civil-sector economy and, externally, the failure to have Pakistan crack down on the cross-border insurgency and undertake the slow and painful process of rebuilding civil society to counter the "Taliban society" from which the insurgency is drawn.

Lack of development, more than ideology, provides manpower for the insurgency. Some 80 percent of the prisoners captured in a recent coalition operation claimed they were there because of economic motivations. And an insurgency with a cross-border sanctuary is hard to defeat even for governments with strong capabilities and long-term foreign commitments.

A Study in What Not To Do

Afghans are unfortunately familiar with seeing great victories turn to ashes. The retreat of the Soviet Army in 1989 was followed by a series of civil conflicts that only ended in 2001. The ongoing war has expanded in size and scope-1,250 Afghans killed in the three months of summer 2006-and the trends are not encouraging.

Afghanistan is the world's largest producer of opium. Drug money as well as cross-border Islamic radicalism funds the insurgency. But Afghanistan has not yet become Colombia. Still, the potential for the emergence of a narco-kleptocracy, compounded by the challenges posed by the insurgency, remains real. Even when leaders are not directly involved in the drug trade, they feel compelled to turn a blind eye to their political clients. Kabul and its foreign supporters are under pressure to cut back on the international traffic but have so far created no effective alternative way of bringing income to rural Afghanistan.

Post-2001 reconstruction has been undercut by the unwillingness of donor countries to expend political resources for the sake of a potentially costly commitment to a distant country. Aid per-capita is far below the levels provided to other, much more developed countries in conflict situations, such as in the Balkans or Central America.

Much of the post-2001 track record in Afghanistan is a study in what not to do, with projects and priorities too often geared towards maximizing the convenience and ego-boost of the donors, rather than what Afghanistan requires. Indeed, the Afghan government does not set the priorities of development nor control the process; nor does the US military, NATO, or any embassy-even though development is a critical part of effective counter-insurgency.

Afghanistan's Indispensable Man

Karzai is Afghanistan's "indispensable man." An ethnic Pushtun, he is uniquely acceptable to the Northern Alliance, especially the Panjsheris, due to his support for their lost leader, Ahmad Shah Massoud, assassinated by Al Qaeda in 2001-not to mention Afghanistan's foreign supporters. It remains uncertain whether he will stand for re-election and, barring that possibility, who might effectively replace him without widening the ethnolinguistic and political fault lines. Karzai's suspicion of the divisive nature of a party system has made it difficult to institutionalize his political achievement and hand it on to a successor.

Still, while the Afghans have not been able to exploit the opportunities presented by the 2001 victory, their enemies have not been able to take advantage of this. The Taliban, Al Qaeda and their supporters within Pakistan have not gotten smarter or broadened their base since 2001.  The U.S. and coalition military presence remains accepted by most Afghans as a necessarily part of preventing a return to a widespread conflict. While the government has not met many of its people's hopes and needs, it still possesses greater legitimacy and capability than any Afghan government has for a generation and possesses a goal-albeit largely unrealized-of making life better for the average Afghan. The people, while impatient with their own government and its foreign supporters, show little enthusiasm of turning against them and reverting to the Taliban-overthrown five years ago.