GENERAL JOHN McColl is a rare military officer. In 2002, without firing a bullet, he led a British brigade into Afghanistan, established the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and received Afghan public acclaim for bringing security to the capital city of Kabul. His success reflected an Afghan consensus that international forces were central to building an effective state. They trusted the intentions and capability of the international community-trusted that their presence would catalyze the creation of a legitimate government and a just order. And under this umbrella of security, Afghans began the hard work of rebuilding destroyed homes and mending the social fabric of our homeland.
ISAF's reception today, as General McChrystal acknowledges, is of a very different kind. The mission now faces the twin threats of an assertive insurgency and the predatory, corrupt behavior of the Afghan state. With these threats reinforcing one another, the Afghan public has lost confidence not only in their own government, but also in the international community. This decline in legitimacy has led to an ever-increasing death toll-both of Afghans and international military personnel. The Orientalist image of Afghanistan as the graveyard of empires is alive and well.
Regaining legitimacy now requires the creation of a stock and flow of trust: trust between Afghan civilians and their government, as well as trust between the civilians, their government and the international community. Building this trust will require placing the needs and aspirations of the Afghan people at the center of a focused strategy, which delivers sustained results through the kind of burden sharing so evident from 2002 to 2005.
I witnessed the degradation of the burgeoning democratic state, and the increasingly pervasive corruption and violence firsthand, not only living in Afghanistan, but also participating in the political system when running for president. The country is now awash in a loss of confidence, and Afghans wonder whether the international community can buttress the people's own efforts to create stability. As troop numbers ratchet up to one hundred thousand boots on the ground, it is evident that without a concomitant effort in counterinsurgency economics, there is little hope of reestablishing a vibrant Afghan state.
THE CURRENT political quagmire should in many ways come as no surprise, for a proper political plan to create a legitimate long-term government structure was never implemented. And this has left an opening for our current failures in Afghanistan. The goal of the Bonn meetings of November 2001, led by Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN special representative of the secretary-general, was to allow an unrepresentative group of Afghans to agree to a process that would create a legitimate order in the country. The Bonn group prepared a script for reaching that objective, consisting of clear timelines and delineating the key institutional changes that needed to take place. Among these were the transfer of power to an interim administration headed by Hamid Karzai in December 2001; the election of a Loya Jirga (Grand Assembly) by indirect elections under the supervision of the UN; the selection of the head of state and key officials of a transitional government by the Loya Jirga; the appointment of a constitutional commission to prepare a draft constitution; debate and approval of that document by a constitutional Loya Jirga; a vote to bring to power the first directly elected president of the country; and parliamentary elections to choose the legislature. The critical benchmarks were completed by October 2004, and the parliamentary elections took place in 2005.
These three years of transition were marked by significant tensions. Even so, Afghanistan underwent a number of positive changes, and began to regain its statehood through an inclusive political process and the desire of the Afghan public to solve disagreements through political channels. The Bonn process derived its authority from the correlation between rhetoric and action, promises and delivery. Afghan stakeholders saw that the system was predictable; the rules of the game clear. And perhaps the greatest achievement of the new approach was the enthusiastic participation of over 9 million Afghans in the 2004 presidential election. Stories of old women and sick men being carried to the ballot box endowed the political drama with a moral, human side, and the willingness of the people to assume the rights and obligations of citizenship was obvious.
Simultaneously, a dedicated team of Afghan technocrats and civil-society leaders articulated a vision for good governance of the economy and polity, translating goals into outcomes through innovative national initiatives, like the National Solidarity Program (NSP), which awards block grants for village-run development projects; the National Communications Program, which taps the private sector to deliver basic services to citizens; the creation of a national health service; and the establishment of a national army. Each program was designed to meet the needs of ordinary Afghans. And each was founded on principles of accountability and transparency. Their success demonstrated that institutional reform was feasible, and the team's efforts helped create a solid set of partnerships with international organizations and donor governments.
The apogee of their efforts was the Berlin conference of March 2004, where the Afghan team presented a detailed, $26.5 billion eight-year action plan for securing the future of Afghanistan. Impressed by their record of reform and the depth and breadth of their plan, the assembled foreign and finance ministers and representatives of international organizations pledged $8.2 billion dollars for the first three years of implementation. This forward momentum increased the political capital of the government, making the Afghan people trust that elected representatives could undertake the reforms necessary to generate sustainable change. But within months of taking office, Karzai was to waste the political capital with which he was imbued. A leader of a people taking their first steps toward participatory government needs constraints. And for all of the Bonn process's achievements, it left the president without a script for defining the future.
HAMID KARZAI took the oath of office in November 2004 with a high stock of legitimacy, but he soon returned to the old way of doing business in Afghanistan-a politics of compromise and accommodation in the name of maintaining a semblance of stability. The Afghan team that had supported him was denied the opportunity to broaden and deepen their state-building agenda after the election. The high expectations of early 2005 imperceptibly but systematically gave way to disappointment as distrust over lost opportunities mounted.
By restoring a group of rapacious individuals to positions of authority, Karzai essentially opened the door for the Taliban's comeback. We should remember that in 2001, the Taliban withdrew from Kabul without a fight, and ceded its headquarters in Kandahar. Some of its commanders even surrendered their arms to the Interim Administration. The Taliban's rank and file returned to their villages, and their leadership withdrew to sanctuaries in Pakistan. Years of Taliban domination in the south and east had left Karzai as the sole source of credible authority in those regions. But instead of appointing people of integrity to positions of authority, he selected individuals whose actions led to the systematic alienation of the Pashtun population. The new government officials and their coteries, motivated by greed and personal gain, launched a systematic effort to grab the fortunes made from illicit trade in the region and to monopolize the new opportunities that came with war-particularly the chance to supply U.S. bases by seizing state lands and gaining control of civilian contracts.
To cement their authority, officials used a variety of dirty tricks against their opponents, including manufacturing evidence to ensure their arrest by coalition forces. Having lost years of their lives in U.S. detention facilities inside and outside Afghanistan, hundreds of these formerly incarcerated men joined the insurgency to take revenge for the injustices perpetuated upon them. Mullah Zakir, who was imprisoned in Guantánamo, is now one of the leaders of the Taliban, openly fighting NATO forces. Indeed, by 2005 the Taliban were regrouping, and injustice had become the insurgency's fuel.
Ironically, strongmen paid and equipped by foreign intelligence agencies to fight the Taliban assumed control of ministries and whole provinces, treating these offices and locales as personal fiefdoms. Yet, their alleged utility in the war against terror ensured their continued political and financial support from Western governments, even though their growing power undermined the type of good governance that state building requires. Making matters worse, organized crime took advantage of the weakened Afghan state, creating powerful cartels for the production, processing and trafficking of narcotics. The Taliban thus stepped into the breach to lead an insurgency against a government which seemed to be failing.
All this occurred against the backdrop of a loss of will by U.S. and ISAF forces. The emergence of the insurgency in the south in 2006 presented ISAF with a major challenge and forced the Bush administration to revise its plans for scaling down military involvement. Indeed, the very possibility of U.S. disengagement led Pakistani military and intelligence officials to provide their Afghan "assets" with sanctuary and resources, perpetuating instability.
At the same time, ISAF operations revealed the weakness of the civilian components of the international system in Afghanistan. Time and again ISAF would clear a district of the insurgents, but locals were unable to keep the peace.Image: Pullquote: A military surge alone cannot solve the Afghan problem.Essay Types: Essay