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Afghanistan: On the Brink

Afghanistan’s Uncertain Transition from Turmoil to Normalcy

a report by Barnett R. Rubin
Council on Foreign Relations, March 2006, 43 pp., $10.00


In December 2005 I spent several hours a day in the lobby of the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul interviewing some of the people who passed by. The hotel, perched on a hill at the edge of the city and long ago written off by the Intercontinental chain as a loss, has been through some rough times in Afghanistan’s twenty-three years of war. In 1992 I spent more than a month using the hotel as a bunker to avoid getting hit, first as the Communist regime crumbled and then as the civil war unfolded across the city below me. For much of the following decade the hotel was without regular electricity or running water and you never saw an Afghan woman there.

In 2005, sitting on a sofa in the hotel’s lobby, I found on my left a former Taliban commander with a beard down to his waist, and on my right a young and beautiful Afghan woman from Herat, whose only concession to “covering up” was a very loose and flimsy head scarf. They were both members of the new Afghan parliament that had been elected on September 18; for the past week they had been receiving instruction from UN experts on what a parliament was and how to behave in one. The two-hour lunch breaks allowed the members of parliament (MPs) to meet each other informally. As he argued with the woman, I could see that the former Taliban officer was still in a state of shock that she was there at all.

An even bigger shock must have been the seating arrangements on December 19, 2005, when the parliament was inaugurated by President Hamid Karzai in the presence of US Vice President Dick Cheney, who arrived twenty minutes late. Men and women MPs were seated next to each other in alphabetical order—and there were no complaints. That does not happen in Iran or in the Arab world; the largely rigged parliaments in most Muslim countries enforce strict segregation.

The parliament has proved that it is not a tightly controlled vehicle for Karzai or the Americans. It set about its first task in March 2006 with the kind of earnestness and professionalism one might expect from much older bodies. In Afghanistan’s presidential system of government, the country’s new constitution gives parliament the power to approve the president’s cabinet and the MPs did just that. They politely demanded that each of Karzai’s twenty-five cabinet ministers present their credentials, say what they had achieved and hoped to achieve, and then answer tough, rapid-fire questions from the MPs.

Even more remarkable was that the proceedings were, for the first time, broadcast live on TV and on radio. A large part of the population watched them. For a month work came to a standstill while mesmerized Afghans heard tribal and warlord ministers fumble for words as they sought to explain themselves. Eventually on April 20 parliament approved only twenty ministers, forcing Karzai to fire five of his nominees.

It is hard to overstate the importance of such a freewheeling parliament and the first general elections experienced by Afghans since 1973. Some 6.6 million Afghans had cast their vote and 41 percent of them were women. Women hold sixty-eight seats or 27 percent of the 249 seats in the Wolesi Jirga, or lower “House of the People,” and one sixth of the seats in the Meshrano Jirga—the upper house or Senate called the “House of the Elders.” That is by far a greater number of women in parliament than in any other Muslim country, or, for that matter, in many Western countries. Yet an estimated one third of the male MPs consists of warlords, gross violators of human rights, or men involved in drug smuggling. It is what you get after more than two decades of war.

The voter turnout last September was only 53 percent, compared to 70 percent for the presidential elections in 2004. The reasons for the low turnout have everything to do with the perilous state of Afghanistan today, the lack of security, and the disillusionment of voters.

The elections brought to a conclusion the UN-sponsored process that began in late November 2001, when the UN officials Lakhdar Brahimi and Francesc Vendrell persuaded the Afghan factions to meet in Bonn to outline a “road map” for the future. Since then the Afghans have debated and voted on a new constitution, freely elected a president and a parliament, and set up councils in all thirty-four provinces to run their own affairs. By now over 60,000 militiamen have been disarmed, five million children have been sent back to school, and some health care is being provided beyond Kabul. The growth of Afghanistan’s gross domestic product (GDP)—excluding its booming production of opium—has averaged around 17 percent each year since 2002.

This year GDP growth is expected to amount to 14 percent, and the government will finance 60 percent of its annual budget with its own revenue rather than from Western and other donors—even though the funds for the entire development and reconstruction budget still come from donor countries. Yet government revenue will total only 5.4 percent of non-drug GDP in 2006, “less than any country with data,” according to the latest Council of Foreign Relations report on Afghanistan by Barnett Rubin. Ominously he also points out that the postwar economic boom is now coming to an end. Rubin, the best of a handful of American scholars on Afghanistan before September 11, still knows Afghanistan better than anyone else. His report for the Council on Foreign Relations makes depressing reading, whether in showing what was not done at the right time or what still needs to be done.


Attempts to resurrect the Afghan state during the last five years have been dependent on four sets of players. On the Afghan side there are Karzai and his ministers, the warlords, and struggling human rights workers. The international community has been led by the UN secretary general’s special representative to Afghanistan. The first three special representatives—Brahimi, followed by the Frenchman Jean Arnault and the German Tom Koenigs—have helped administer the elections, the parliament, and the government, and they have coordinated their activities with the UN development agencies and some eight hundred Western and Afghan non-governmental organizations (NGOs) as well.

The most influential international officials have been the Americans, led by the US ambassador and the successive American generals who have led the coalition forces, which now number 23,000 troops. (Most of them are Americans who are hunting down members of al-Qaeda.) The most decisive and intrusive foreign official in Afghanistan was Zalmay Khalilzad, who served as US ambassador from 2003 to 2005 and is now the US ambassador in Iraq. Initially, the US government refused help with peacekeeping in Afghanistan. A more recent participant in this activity in Afghanistan is NATO, which, since August 2003, has led the eight-thousand-strong International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF, in Kabul. This year NATO will deploy 11,000 more troops as it sets up provincial reconstruction teams in twenty-three of the country’s thirty-four provinces. Next year US forces will merge under NATO to create a single command.

It is now five years since George W. Bush declared victory in Afghanistan and said that the terrorists were smashed. Since the Bonn meeting, in late 2001, a smorgasbord of international military and development forces has been increasing in size. How is it, then, that Afghanistan is near collapse once again? To put it briefly, what has gone wrong has been the invasion of Iraq: Washington’s refusal to take state-building in Afghanistan seriously and instead waging a fruitless war in Iraq. For Afghanistan the results have been too few Western troops, too little money, and a lack of coherent strategy and sustained policy initiatives on the part of Western and Afghan leaders. The Bonn conference created the scaffolding to build the new Afghan structure, but what was consistently missing were the bricks and running water. Inside the scaffolding there is still only the barest shell.

One consequence has been a revived Taliban movement that has made a third of the country ungovernable. Together with al-Qaeda, Taliban leaders are trying to carve out new bases on the Afghanistan–Pakistan border. They are aided by Afghanistan’s resurgent opium industry, which has contributed to widespread corruption and lawlessness, particularly in the south. The country’s huge crop of poppies is processed into opium and refined into heroin for export, now accounting for close to 90 percent of the global market. This spring’s crop is expected to be larger than ever, and reports suggest that drug smugglers are increasingly forming alliances with Taliban fighters. According to the Independent in London, Islamic fighters agreed to temporarily suspend their campaign of violence during the poppy harvest this year, to ensure maximum profits. The Afghan government has shown a fatal incapacity to deliver services to its people and the West has failed to deal with interfering neighbors, such as Pakistan and Iran.

The situation was becoming so critical that many concerned donors, but especially the United Nations, debated how to formally continue extending support to Afghanistan after the process agreed on at Bonn was completed. In February 2006, Karzai, the UN, and a large group of nations signed the Afghanistan Compact in London, setting out, once again, the world’s commitment to Afghanistan and in turn Kabul’s commitment to state-building over the next five years. Praised as a major declaration of the world’s solidarity with Afghanistan, the compact is in fact an admission of strategic failure. Many of its goals can be found in numerous promises, agreements, and pledges that were made, and never fulfilled, by the US, Britain, and other powerful nations as far back as 2001. The compact may well be a case of too little too late—even if it could be fully carried out. Rubin observes that the Afghan government will be held accountable for any failure to meet the compact’s ambitious goals, but the Western nations that sponsored it cannot be held accountable. We have seen the same pattern in Iraq and Sudan. The international community makes promises that remain unfulfilled, only to remake them a few years later, freshly packaged.

NATO’s supreme commander, the American general James Jones, is fond of saying that Afghanistan’s main problem is drugs, not the Taliban. However, without taking on the Taliban, the drug problem cannot be addressed. In the four southern provinces of Helmand, Kandahar, Zabul, and Uruzgan, the Taliban and their mafia friends from Pakistan, Iran, and Central Asia command farmers to grow poppies so they can rake in money from taxes and peddle heroin abroad to fund their movement. These provinces are the main base and command center for the Taliban and are now entirely devoid of any signs of economic reconstruction or the presence of NGOs. I was told that British, Dutch, and Canadian troops under NATO command will be deployed in these provinces this summer; but they have adamantly refused to address the poppy problem, and each country has a different strategy for contending with the Taliban. The British say they will go on the offensive; the Dutch say they will act defensively. Thus the NATO forces seem more like a coalition of the unwilling than anything else, and the Taliban have started to challenge them with an accelerated summer campaign of bombings and ambushes.

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