Afghanistan: In Search of Security

On May 1, 2003, U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, on a visit to Kabul, triumphantly declared that “major combat activity” in Afghanistan was over and that the “the bulk of the country is now secure.” Rumsfeld scoffed at those analysts and critics who dared to challenge this optimistic assessment, derisively labeling them “armchair columnists.” Four months later, on September 7, 2003, during a return trip to Kabul, Secretary Rumsfeld delivered a very different message. He was in the Afghan capital to shore up an increasingly fragile Afghan Transitional Administration (ATA), beset by insecurity and struggling to advance a sputtering reconstruction process.

The defense secretary’s surprise visit to Kabul, and Baghdad before that, reflects growing unease in Washington that the two U.S.-led state building projects are faltering. As in Iraq, events in Afghanistan over the past three months have been alarming. August marked the bloodiest month there since the fall of the Taliban. Within a two-day period, on August 12-13, 2003, over 50 Afghans were killed in several isolated incidents across the country.

A number of factors and conditions have led to Afghanistan’s security dilemma. A low-intensity war, fought between the Taliban and U.S.-led coalition forces has escalated significantly over the past six months; violent clashes between rival warlords continue to break out at various flashpoints, most notably around the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif; the narcotics trade has grown exponentially; and crime rates, characterized by offenses such as theft, extortion, and rape, have surged.

In addition to the direct human and material costs of insecurity, the indirect impacts on humanitarian and development work have been immense. According to the UN, over one-third of the country is off-limits to its personnel, and many high-profile international humanitarian organizations such as the Red Cross (ICRC), Doctors Without Borders, and the World Food Program (WFP) have withdrawn their international staff from high-risk areas in the country. The WFP estimates that up to 1.3 million vulnerable Afghans will be deprived of urgently needed support due to these retrenchments.

Moreover, the curtailment of humanitarian assistance and the slow pace of reconstruction have engendered growing resentment among the population. This frustration has been directed at the ATA and in some cases has found expression in support for antigovernment spoiler groups. Though few Afghans mourn the fall of the Taliban regime, it is not difficult to find those who would speak nostalgically of the security and stability that it provided. After all, the Taliban’s most popular policy was to rid the country of warlordism.

Afghanistan is entering a crucial phase in the ongoing state-building process, as national elections and a constitutional assembly, or Loya Jirga, are scheduled to take place within the next ten months. However, in light of recent events, many Afghans and international stakeholders have expressed doubt as to whether these processes are feasible or even desirable under current conditions. The international donor community has taken a number of steps to confront Afghanistan’s security crisis, but current levels of international support are simply not commensurate with the scale of the reconstruction and security challenges that exist. Not only is more aid needed, but these funds must be better targeted to meet Afghanistan’s immediate priorities–security and the need to provide some semblance of a peace dividend to the beleaguered population.

Spoiler Groups

In late August and early September 2003, over 1,000 Afghan soldiers, supported by U.S. troops and aircraft, were engaged in a 12-day offensive, dubbed Operation Mountain Viper, against up to 300 Taliban militants in the mountains of Zabul province in southeastern Afghanistan. In what has been described as the heaviest fighting with insurgents in over a year, 124 Taliban soldiers were killed along with five government soldiers and one member of a U.S. Special Forces unit. Although U.S. military leaders and their Afghan counterparts proceeded to boast of their rout of Taliban forces in the battle, the director of intelligence for Zabul province, Khalil Hotak, in an interview with an Agence France-Presse (AFP) journalist, was more forthright about the battle’s outcome and long-term significance. “There are no more enemy forces in the area anymore, but you never know what is going to happen tomorrow,” Hotak said. He went on to explain, “We are waiting to see when they will reappear” (AFP, September 4, 2003). Hotak’s remarks clearly illustrate the difficulty, and at times futility, of combating an enemy that can strike so fiercely and then evaporate with speed and ease, blending into local communities or fleeing across the porous border with Pakistan.

The large-scale battle against U.S. and Afghan forces in Zabul is not characteristic of the strategy employed by the Taliban and other spoiler groups in Afghanistan. They have learned from their previous encounters with coalition forces in the initial months of Operation Enduring Freedom and have adjusted their tactics accordingly, growing adept at launching hit-and-run assaults, typically from across the border in Pakistan. In an effort to destabilize the government and derail the reconstruction process, they have focused the bulk of their attention on Afghan security forces, ATA civil servants, aid workers, and civilians loyal to the government, choosing to shy away from direct engagements with the heavily armed and well-trained coalition forces. In spite of this emphasis on soft targets, in the past three weeks, four U.S. soldiers have been killed in fighting with Taliban forces, and there has been an average of 15 attacks per day on U.S. forces.

The resurgent Taliban has regrouped and reorganized, launching ever-more-coordinated and brazen attacks. Mullah Omar, the leader of the Taliban movement, who has eluded an intensive U.S. manhunt for his arrest, has established a 10-man leadership council and has appointed commanders to oversee military operations in each Afghan province. The group has established mobile training camps and bases in both Pakistan and Afghanistan, has launched a propaganda campaign to garner new recruits and provoke antigovernment feeling, and has solidified its alliance with Hizb-i-Islami, the fundamentalist, anti-Western party led by former Prime Minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Using “night letters” or propaganda pamphlets, the Taliban has made significant inroads in the South, where the majority Pashtun population has become increasingly disillusioned with the current political dispensation due to the slow pace of reconstruction, their perceived lack of political representation in the capital, and the reemergence of predatory warlords. According to Khalil Hotak, “In Zabul province, 80% of the people in every district are loyal to the Taliban” (AP, September 2, 2003).

The Taliban forms the core of an alliance of spoiler groups consisting of al Qaeda and Hizb-i-Islami. It is believed that there are up to 1,000 Taliban insurgents operating in the South and a similar number of Hizb-i-Islami fighters in the East, its core support base. There are also reports that mid-level al Qaeda leaders have returned to Afghanistan to reestablish cells and are providing resources and logistical support to the Taliban. The Taliban and al Qaeda offer monetary rewards for attacks on coalition and Afghan government forces ranging from $116 for firing a rocket to $5,000 for killing an American soldier. Such monetary rewards have proven attractive to Afghans in the South, disillusioned with the government and the American presence and struggling to support their families.

One of the principal reasons for the Taliban’s resurgence is the sanctuary and support it has received from Pakistan. The Taliban presence in Pakistan, both in rural areas along the Afghan border and in urban centers such as Quetta, is conspicuous. In the largely lawless Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) straddling the border with Afghanistan, the Pashtun-dominated population has been fiercely supportive of the Pashtun-based Taliban movement. Pro-Taliban graffiti is commonplace on the streets of Quetta, where Taliban leaders openly meet to strategize, and madrasas (religious schools) throughout the region exhort their pupils to join the Taliban-led jihad against U.S. forces.

Perhaps the most fervent supporter of the Taliban in Pakistan is the NWFP government, a coalition of six Islamic parties called the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal that has provided both sanctuary and assistance to the former Afghan regime. The Pakistani military and the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) have also allegedly provided clandestine support to the Taliban since their rise to power in the early 1990s. Although Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has vociferously endorsed the U.S. campaign to eradicate the Taliban and has committed his government to supporting this effort, large sections of the Pakistani military and intelligence apparatus have maintained ties to the Taliban movement. The existence of such ties was demonstrated in late August when the Pakistani government arrested several mid-level officers in the military for suspected links to extremist Islamic groups associated with the Taliban.

Popular support for the Taliban in the NWFP and within the security services has complicated the Musharraf government’s efforts to comply with U.S. and Afghan demands to deny the Taliban sanctuary and to crack down on cross-border insurgency activity. Musharraf’s failure in these tasks has seriously strained Afghan-Pakistani relations and has provoked a sharp rise in anti-Pakistani sentiment in Afghanistan, culminating in the ransacking of the Pakistani embassy in Kabul and the outbreak of border clashes between Afghan and Pakistani forces. The U.S. has attempted to resolve the dispute through the recently established tripartite commission, a body consisting of U.S., Afghan, and Pakistani officials that was established to address bilateral issues. But Washington’s efforts have been to no avail. In an effort to pressure Pakistan into action, the Afghan government has provided Pakistani and U.S. authorities with a list of names and locations of Taliban officials operating in Pakistan, but thus far no action has been taken by the Pakistani authorities.

As a political and social movement, the Taliban has been seriously weakened. It is not in a position to overthrow the Afghan central government unilaterally, and this situation is unlikely to change in the near future, provided that coalition troops and the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF, the multinational peacekeeping mission) remain in the country. However, the Taliban has successfully reinvented itself as a guerrilla movement capable of exploiting ATA weaknesses and disrupting, even paralyzing, the reconstruction process. According to the former police chief for Kandahar province, the Taliban is “stronger now than at any time since the fall of their government” (TIME, August 31, 2003). In conjunction with the destabilizing effects of warlordism and the drug trade, the threat posed by the Taliban is amplified considerably.

The Warlords

In spite of the central government’s efforts to emasculate the warlords, these traditional strongmen have retained their stranglehold on political and economic life across much of Afghanistan. Sporting private armies and garnering resources through the drug trade, aid from foreign states, and various forms of criminal activity, these figures have proven difficult to dislodge. Nevertheless, decisions taken by the government over the past three months have raised hopes that this uphill battle can be won. In early August 2003, President Karzai ordered a shuffle of high-level government posts that affected several powerful and controversial provincial governors. The governor of Kandahar province, Gul Agha Sherzai, a major powerbroker in the South, was stripped of his post and appointed minister of urban development and housing, and Hamidullah Tokhi, the governor of restive Zabul province, was shifted to govern Wardak province. Perhaps the most prominent individual affected by Karzai’s shuffle was Ismail Khan, the governor of Herat. Khan kept his post as governor but was stripped of his position as military commander, a move consistent with the government’s policy of separating civil and military duties.

Yet although this shuffle seems significant, it is unlikely to have a major impact on these governors’ spheres of influence. Sherzai will remain at the head of a complex clientelistic network of alliances that controls all aspects of military, economic, and political life in Kandahar province and will be replaced by his former spokesperson Yusuf Pashtun. The move to strip Khan of his military authority is purely symbolic, as it is impossible to enforce. The patronage-based relationships that Khan has nurtured with military commanders in the West will likely ensure that, although he is no longer the official head of the armed forces in that region, unofficially he will retain a great deal of influence over military decisions.

This is not the first time that the central government has attempted to assert its control over regional warlords through a shuffle of government positions. In May 2003, President Karzai demoted powerful warlord General Rashid Dostum, stripping him of his deputy defense minister portfolio. He was subsequently appointed as a presidential adviser on security and military affairs, a posting that requires his presence in Kabul. This move, while raising eyebrows in Afghanistan and throughout the international community, has had little practical effect, as tensions in Mazar-i-Sharif have shown no signs of diminishing, and Dostum has yet to relocate to Kabul.

Complementing the shuffle of governors was the announcement in early September of the long-awaited reforms of the Ministry of Defense. Although Defense Minister Marshall Fahim, perhaps the country’s most powerful warlord, will retain his position, 22 new appointments to the Defense Ministry have been approved by the ATA cabinet. These appointments are intended to inject a degree of ethnic diversity into the ministry and pave the way for the start of the national disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) program, which has been stalled due to Defense Minister Fahim’s reluctance to enact reforms.

The reforms installed a Pashtun, General Abdul Rahim Wardak, as the first deputy for the Army Chief of Staff and three additional deputies representing the Hazara, Uzbek, and Pashtun ethnicities. Although the appointments are significant, two of the three top posts within the ministry still belong to the Tajik-based Shura-i-Nezar faction led by Fahim and it remains to be seen whether the new appointees will be given meaningful authority. “I hope it is sustainable and the newly appointed people enjoy full authority according to their job descriptions,” General Shir Mohammad Karimi, the newly appointed chief of operations within the Ministry of Defense, has publicly stated. Karimi went on to note that he would not continue to work if “everything had to go through the Defense Minister” as was previously the case (Integrated Regional Information Networks, September 24, 2003).

It is too early to tell whether the reforms, which came into effect on September 23, 2003, will appease the Afghan people, particularly the regional commanders disenchanted with the disproportionate level of influence exercised by the Shura-i-Nezar faction. Most warlords and militia commanders in the country, particularly in the Pashtun heartland in the South, have steadfastly refused to hand over their weapons to a Ministry of Defense that they perceive to be controlled entirely by a rival faction. Previous, lesser reforms in the Ministry of Defense failed to assuage the concerns of regional leaders, particularly those of Pashtun groups. Although those reforms brought in military leaders of Pashtun descent, most were Fahim loyalists, and thus were not deemed acceptable by a skeptical Pashtun populace. While many Afghans and international stakeholders have reacted to the latest reforms with cautious optimism, voices of discontent, primarily Pashtun in origin, have begun to emerge. Hashmat Ghani Ahmadzai, the head of an influential Pashtun tribal group and brother of Afghan Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, has emphatically stated that the changes are of a “symbolic nature and they are not effective” (Radio Free Europe, September 25, 2003).

Security Sector Reform

Since Afghanistan lacks a countrywide peacekeeping force to fill the security vacuum created by the fall of the Taliban, the bulk of the burden for restoring security to the country has fallen on the security sector reform (SSR) process. The purpose of SSR is to create efficient, effective, and accountable state security structures that will obviate external security assistance, but this long-term process requires a minimum baseline level of security. Nevertheless, SSR has been touted as a veritable panacea for Afghanistan’s immediate security woes. Given conditions in the country, it is not surprising that the process has proceeded at an excruciatingly slow rate. Afghanistan’s SSR agenda consists of five pillars, each supported by a different donor state: military reform (U.S.); police reform (Germany); the disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration of ex-combatants (DDR) (Japan); judicial reform (Italy); and counternarcotics (UK).

Military Reform

The central feature of Afghan military reform is the creation of a representative and professional Afghan National Army (ANA). The ANA training process is viewed by many as a litmus test for the entire state-building endeavor. In the absence of a force willing and capable of upholding the writ of the central government outside Kabul, the expectations for the nascent ANA have been raised to unrealistic levels.

The U.S.-supported training program has been plagued by a number of problems regarding recruitment, resources, and the ethnic composition of the recruits. These problems have limited the program to 5,000-6,000 troops as of September 2003. Although the first battalions of the ANA have reportedly performed well in their initial deployments, it will take 5-10 years for the ANA to meet its agreed force size of 70,000 troops, thus limiting its capacity to handle immediate security threats.

Police Reform

Assigned the task of supporting Afghan police reform, Germany’s main accomplishment has been the reestablishment of the Kabul Police Academy, which offers bachelor and higher-level degrees. The academy, which began training an initial class of 1,500 recruits in the first week of August 2002, can be considered one of the success stories of SSR. In an effort to complement this institution and accelerate the broader reform process, the U.S. has facilitated the establishment of a National Police Training Center (NPTC) in Kabul to provide training to the country’s rank-and-file officers. However, given that most of the 73,000 police officers in Afghanistan today have never received any police training, let alone rudimentary education, these initiatives represent only a first step toward addressing the country’s policing dilemma.

DDR

Afghanistan’s disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration program is perhaps the most discussed DDR initiative in the world today, despite the fact that it has yet to be implemented. The purpose of DDR in the Afghan context is not to remove the gun from Afghan society, an unrealistic goal, but, as Japan’s special representative for DDR, Kenji Isezaki, has stated, to oversee the “deconstruction of military formations” (Institute for War and Peace Reporting, August 27, 2003). The current effort, the Afghan New Beginnings Programme (ANBP), is, like previous plans, well-designed and fully funded. The main problem is not technical or economic but political. The domination of the Ministry of Defense by one faction of the United Front, the Tajik-based Shura-i-Nezar, has stalled the program. The recent announcement of reforms in the Afghan Ministry of Defense may be the catalyst that is needed to jumpstart the ANBP.

Judicial Reform

On November 28, 2002, a judicial reform commission supported by the Italian government and the UN Development Programme (UNDP) began reconstruction of Afghanistan’s legal framework, which was almost completely destroyed by the civil war. Two months later, Italy and the UNDP announced the formation of a two-year project called “Rebuilding the Justice System in Afghanistan.” The first phase of the project will involve the reconstruction and provision of equipment for courthouses across the country, the training of judges and other legal officials, increasing the administrative capacity of the justice system, and organizing seminars and training for justice system staff. Despite its lofty goals, during its first eight months, the program’s results have been less then exemplary. Currently conducting a survey of the country’s justice system, the program has been stalled in a preparatory phase since its inception. Meanwhile, as progress in police reform exceeds that in the justice sector, a glut has emerged in the country’s courts, placing the police and other security institutions in an untenable position. Until judicial reforms are actually implemented, the culture of impunity that pervades Afghanistan will not be broken.

Counternarcotics

In 2002, Afghanistan regained its position as the world’s leading producer of opium, after a brief hiatus under the Taliban, who had successfully halted production by 2001. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has estimated that in 2002 over 74,000 hectares of land were used for growing poppies, producing 3,400 metric tons of opium. The income generated from this trade surpassed $1.2 billion in 2002 and constituted 20% of the country’s gross domestic product. As many as 3-4 million people in Afghanistan are directly or indirectly involved in the drug trade. Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the recent upsurge in poppy cultivation has been the emergence of drug laboratories within Afghanistan. Whereas the majority of the poppies cultivated in Afghanistan were previously refined into heroin outside the country, now a large portion of the narcotics apparatus–and the criminal networks that operate it–has shifted into Afghanistan.

The adverse effects of this dramatic increase in drug production and trafficking are multifaceted and far-reaching. The lucrative drug trade is a major source of income for warlords and spoiler groups; it fuels corruption, money laundering, and crime; and it poses a major health threat by spreading the use of intravenous drug consumption, augmenting the ever-increasing number of drug addicts in the country and fostering the spread of HIV/AIDS. Afghan Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani has aptly warned that the narcotics trade is “a threat to democracy” that if left unchecked could transform Afghanistan into a “narco-mafia state” (Washington Post, July 10, 2003).

On January 17, 2002, in an attempt to halt drug production, the Afghan Interim Administration (AIA) banned poppy cultivation and the consumption of heroin and introduced, with British support, an aggressive poppy eradication program. From the outset, the program has been plagued by inefficiency and mismanagement. It offered $350 for each jirib (one-fifth of a hectare) of poppies destroyed, even though poppy growers can make double that from growing their product and selling it on the open market. Compounding the problem, many farmers claimed that they were not duly compensated for the destruction of their crops. The abject failure of this $34 million program, prompting UK and ATA officials to shelve it, was evinced by the fact that poppy cultivation actually increased in the targeted areas.

In terms of drug enforcement, the UK government has pledged £70 million ($112 million) over three years to create an antinarcotics task force. With this money, 50 British customs experts have begun training a drug enforcement unit of the Afghan police. The trainees will form the core of a new drug law enforcement department within the Afghan national police called the Kabul Counter Narcotics Directorate (CND). The British have also pledged to provide the Afghan border police with modern equipment to reach remote areas quickly in order to close drug trafficking corridors along the borders with Pakistan, Iran, and Tajikistan. However, according to Mirwais Yasini, head of the CND, very little of the funding and support promised by the UK has been delivered. “I was expecting Mr. Blair to do more,” Yasini commented. “We need funds and assistance … my men are dedicated … but they have received only tens of thousands of dollars from the UK, not even hundreds of thousands” (UK Mirror, August 2, 2003). Not surprisingly in light of this shortfall in resources, no major drug arrests have been made. Echoing the frustration of Afghan officials, the director of the UNODC, Antonio Maria Costa, recently explained: “I have learned that the budget of the CND, which is so important, is just $3 million, and the money was never disbursed, and they [the CND] are supposed to fight against a drug economy of $1.2 billion. Now it makes no sense” (Integrated Regional Information Networks, September 4, 2003).

Although the initiatives introduced by the ATA and the British are beneficial, they are severely underfunded and fail to address the underlying cause of drug production in Afghanistan–a lack of viable alternative livelihoods for farmers. Resources and energy must be invested in the design and implementation of alternative-crop and rural infrastructure development programs to run parallel with eradication programs. The government does not have the capacity, particularly in remote drug producing areas, to uphold the poppy ban forcefully. It requires incentives to build public trust, and this will be a long-term process. For countries that have faced similar problems, including Thailand, Turkey, and Pakistan, it took 15-20 years to curtail production. In light of the disappointing results of the current Afghan program, it may take several generations to achieve tangible progress in Afghanistan.

Faltering Reconstruction

One of the root causes of the recent wave of insecurity in Afghanistan is the slow pace of reconstruction due to insufficient levels of donor support to the country. At the January 2001 Tokyo donors conference, the international community pledged $5.2 billion for Afghan reconstruction over a five-year period. However, the World Bank has since estimated that Afghanistan will require $15-20 billion over that time span. Of the $2.1 billion earmarked for 2002, $1.84 billion (88%) was actually delivered. Although these amounts are all quite high relative to other post-conflict countries, the disparity becomes apparent when aid levels are viewed on a per capita basis. Per capita external assistance to Kosovo from 1999-2001 was $288; to Bosnia from 1996-99, $326; and to Rwanda in 1994, $193. In contrast, per capita aid disbursed in Afghanistan in 2002 was $63, and this figure will decline to $42 from 2003-2006.

The largest portion of the aid has been allocated to emergency humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (45%), and most of the funds have been channeled to international NGOs and private contractors (55%) rather than to the central government. A common criticism of the current aid regime is that too much money has been allocated to NGOs, who are difficult to regulate and coordinate. Most Afghan government officials emphatically affirm that the vast majority of the money allocated to NGOs is wasted. Though such NGO-bashing is typical in post-conflict settings, where NGOs make an easy scapegoat for both domestic governments and international donors, it is accurate that the amount of money delivered directly to the ATA has been strikingly low; only 16% of the funds disbursed in 2002 were channeled to the central government.

Lacking the necessary resources to implement reconstruction projects, let alone pay the salaries of civil servants, the Kabul government has been forced to renege on its promise of a peace dividend to the Afghan people. In a country where trust and faith in centralized government is already extremely fragile, this has been a major setback. Another result of the shortfall in funds has been a rise in corruption within the government. Salaries for civil servants are dangerously low. Their average wage is $40 per month, which is below subsistence level in most parts of the country, particularly in Kabul. For example, due to the influx of international aid workers following the fall of the Taliban, housing prices have skyrocketed, reaching levels comparable to those in many large Western cities.

Clearly one of the answers to the ATA’s budgetary dilemma is to raise funds internally through the collection of taxes and customs duties. However, given the government’s nominal authority outside Kabul, the bulk of this revenue has flowed to the coffers of regional warlords instead of to the Ministry of Finance. The ATA is working assiduously to alter this situation and made a major stride in May 2003, when it brokered an agreement with 12 of Afghanistan’s key governors and military commanders, obligating them to hand over customs revenues to the central government and to stop all military interference in political and civil affairs in the country. Since this landmark agreement, the government has collected $85 million in tax revenue from the provinces and has gained unprecedented access to provincial tax records. However, considering that an estimated $800 million was generated in customs duties in the country during the past financial year, it is unlikely that the ATA will be able to assert full control over the country’s tax and customs system for many years to come. To offset the inevitable funding shortfall and budgetary deficits that will surface during this period when the ATA lacks access to adequate internal revenue sources, a reliable and consistent flow of donor support is required. This will not be the case according to the current aid scheme, under which international support to Afghanistan will decline over the next three years from $910 million in 2004 to $301 million in 2006. Given growing donor fatigue and changing budgetary priorities of donor states, these amounts will likely contract even further.

Despite the great promise generated by the Tokyo donor conference and the inauguration of the ATA, few Afghans have seen the fruits of the ongoing reconstruction process. Frustration across the country over the lack of improvement in standards of living and the rise of insecurity is palpable and growing. Perhaps the case that best exemplifies the failed promise of the post-war period has been the project to rehabilitate the country’s main highway, connecting Kabul with the southern city of Kandahar and with Herat to the west. The reconstruction of this 1,200 km road, initiated in November 2002, has been touted as one of the centerpieces of the reconstruction enterprise, intended to benefit thousands of Afghans and to demonstrate the advantages that can accrue from supporting the new political order. The U.S. accepted the role as lead donor for this $250 million project, contracting the Louis Berger Group (LBG) to provide the engineering, design, and construction management. The project was not only important because it would rehabilitate one of the country’s most important transportation arteries but also because it would generate thousands of jobs, stimulating Afghanistan’s flagging economy. However, as of June 2003, only 2% of the project had been completed, and it had given jobs to a mere 100 people.

The principal reason for the lack of progress on the highway has been insecurity. Spoiler groups have launched a number of attacks on construction workers and deminers working on the road, incidents that have forced the postponement of work on numerous occasions. The U.S. Agency for International Development, through the LBG, is now paying over 800 Afghan policeman $5 a day to patrol the road at all times to confront the problem, an initiative that has reduced security-related incidents. Recognizing the vital symbolic and practical importance of the enterprise, President Bush has pledged to complete the road by the end of 2003. It is important that this promise is fulfilled in order to bolster public confidence in the government and to clearly convey to the Afghan populace that the international community will not abandon the country, as it has done so often in the past.

The Bremerization of Afghanistan

The U.S. has not remained oblivious to Afghanistan’s security predicament and has taken steps to shift its policy toward the country. The Bush administration’s new approach will be anchored in a fresh $1.2 billion aid package, $800 million of which has been presented to the U.S. Congress as a part of a massive $87 billion funding request for both Afghanistan and Iraq. The request, which awaits congressional approval, has aroused a great deal of opposition, particularly from Democrats critical of the Bush administration’s broadening economic commitment to Iraq. However, with Republican support for the request strong, it is likely that it will be approved in some form. This infusion of funds will raise the current level of U.S. aid to $1.9 billion, making it by far the largest donor to Afghanistan. The U.S. already spends $11 billion per year on its military campaign, Operation Enduring Freedom, aimed at rooting out the Taliban and al Qaeda. The operation is being carried out by 11,500 coalition troops, 8,500 of which are American.

ATA and UN officials have been pleading for more U.S. aid and activism for the past two years, so the recent U.S. decision has been heralded as an important step forward. The majority of the funds will be spent to accelerate the security sector reform process, most notably to expand the police and military training programs. However, what has surprised and dismayed many officials and observers both in Afghanistan and abroad are the conditions attached to the U.S. contribution. The U.S. aid package is contingent on the ATA welcoming more than 100 U.S. officials into the Kabul government to be attached to key ATA ministries in order to oversee the disbursement of U.S. aid. Under the plan, 12 senior U.S. officials will work as direct advisers to ATA ministers, and the remainder will operate at the technical level within the ministries. The new cadre of officials will, in effect, form a shadow government based at the U.S. embassy. Critics have already dubbed the plan the “Bremerization of Afghanistan,” referring to the role of U.S. civilian administrator in Iraq, Paul Bremer.

The new aid package has yet to be approved by the U.S. Congress, but, in light of previous congressional support for an augmented U.S. role in Afghanistan, it is unlikely to encounter serious opposition. Nevertheless, the policy has provoked fierce debates in Washington centered on a fault line between the State Department and the White House. Some members of the State Department have leveled stinging criticisms against Zalmay Khalizad, the U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan in line for the job of ambassador. According to an unnamed State Department official interviewed by AFP, “He [Khalizad] wants to build an empire… He is meddling in the personnel system and circulating documents with grand plans for people and money, but he hasn’t got that authority yet, and it’s creating some bad blood” (AFP, August 26, 2003). The official went on to accuse Khalizad of circumventing the conventional chain of command and reporting directly to National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice.

Afghan officials, eager not to be seen as too critical of the new U.S. approach, have insisted that Khalizad must not have the same sweeping powers accorded to Paul Bremer in Iraq. “Afghanistan is not Iraq … we already have a government and bureaucracy,” Omar Samad, a spokesperson for the Afghan Foreign Ministry, emphasized (Montreal Gazette, August 19, 2003). It is precisely for this reason that the new policy is ill-suited for Afghanistan. Perhaps the most encouraging aspect of the current situation in Afghanistan has been the performance of the ATA, which despite countrywide insecurity has remained remarkably stable and has displayed more competence and efficiency with each passing day. Transplanting senior U.S. officials into the Afghan administration would undermine this growing assertiveness and foster dependency on the United States. This “heavy-footprint” approach, which has hardly proven effective in Iraq, would be counterproductive in the Afghan context.

In conjunction with the aid increase, the U.S. has indicated that it will double the number of Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRT) currently operating in Afghanistan from four to eight. The PRT concept–a Pentagon scheme to win hearts and minds in the South and East of the country, where Pashtun resentment of the U.S. presence has grown steadily over the past year–is now widely viewed as a vehicle to expand security outside the capital. Designed to carry out small-scale reconstruction projects and to provide a secure environment for humanitarian organizations to operate, the PRTs lack the manpower and resources (their current budget is only $12 million) to make a significant impact on either the security or reconstruction fronts. However, with the international community reluctant to commit to expansion of the ISAF peacekeeping mission, the PRT represents the only tool available to extend security.

Prominent figures such as Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN secretary-general’s special representative for Afghanistan, and ATA President Hamid Karzai continue to call for the expansion of ISAF. And NATO’s assumption of the command of the force in early August 2003 sparked a fresh wave of appeals for the force’s enlargement. However, in spite of recent signals that NATO is considering the idea, that Germany would be willing to participate in such a mission, and that the U.S. would drop its objections–the U.S. has consistently opposed ISAF expansion on the grounds that it could interfere with the ongoing war on terror–the likelihood that enough international political and military support will be garnered to implement such a plan is improbable. NATO is still looking for member states to commit troops to fulfill its current mission, when Canada’s term as lead force contributor ends in August 2004. Although the extension of ISAF’s geographical mandate to major urban centers across the country would undoubtedly have a positive effect on the security situation, the unending debate on this issue has become a distraction.

With or without expansion, ISAF will continue to play a vital role. The situation in Kabul is far from secure, as events in recent months–such as the bombing of an ISAF transport bus that killed four German soldiers–have demonstrated. In actuality, ISAF has yet to fully accomplish the goals of its current mandate, to secure and demilitarize Kabul, creating the political space necessary to nurture democracy. Instead of embroiling itself in the ongoing debate about expansion, ISAF should focus its attention on securing Kabul, an accomplishment that would advance the Bonn political process and accelerate reconstruction.

The Road Ahead

Although the security situation in Afghanistan is deteriorating and the reconstruction process continues to sputter, one must not overlook the extensive achievements made by the ATA and the international community over the past two years. Millions of Afghan children, including girls, have returned to school; 2.32 million Afghan refugees have been repatriated, one of the largest voluntary refugee influxes in history; a new currency, the Afghani, has been established and remains remarkably stable; and the economy has grown by 28%. It is precisely because of these advancements, many of which would have been flights of fantasy during the Taliban period, that the prospect of failure is all the more ominous.

The situation in Afghanistan has become so volatile that high-ranking government ministers have resorted to delivering cataclysmic warnings on overseas visits, as Foreign Minister Abdullah did on a trip to Washington in July 2003. Abdullah warned that if urgent action was not taken to address Afghanistan’s security dilemma, the country would once again become “a failed state … ruled by drug lords, warlords, by forces of darkness, unstabilized by terrorism” (UN Wire, July 15, 2003). To avoid this eventuality, the ATA and the international community should take the following four steps in the coming months:

Increase Donor Aid and Channel It to Internationally Administered Trust Funds

It is abundantly clear that what Afghanistan needs more than anything else is more aid, at least enough to match per capita levels received by other post-conflict situations such as Kosovo, Rwanda, and now Iraq. The forthcoming U.S. increase in aid will provide a significant boost to the reconstruction effort, but clearly much more is needed. As Omar Samad recently explained following the announcement of the U.S. aid plan: “What we are looking at is the bigger context. In the next 10 years, we will need $15 billion in assistance to rebuild this country and to feel confident of the direction this country is heading. What we have received in pledges thus far is just $5 billion to cover the next four to five years” (Christian Science Monitor, September 8, 2003). The financial burden for this increase in support should not fall solely on the U.S.; it should be shared among Afghanistan’s various donors.

Yet fresh aid pledges alone will neither resolve Afghanistan’s budgetary crisis nor adequately stimulate the reconstruction process unless they are channeled in a more effective manner. To maximize its impact, donor aid should be allocated to internationally administered trust funds such as the Afghan Reconstruction Trust Fund (ARTF) and the Law and Order Trust Fund for Afghanistan (LOTFA), created to underwrite the reconstruction process and to cover the recurrent budgetary expenses of Afghan institutions. Channeling money to internationally administered trust funds enables the donor community to monitor the use of aid closely while affording Afghans ownership of the process. If Afghanistan is to create an effective and representative government, free of graft and corruption, its civil service and security forces must be paid adequately and on a consistent basis. This is currently not the case, as the average salary for a government employee is below subsistence level and is infrequently delivered.

Unfortunately, the trust funds have not proved attractive to many donors, who tend to support highly visible projects with tangible outputs, such as the building of schools, bridges, and irrigation networks. But if a government cannot buy textbooks or pay teachers an adequate wage, refurbishing schools is useless. Emblematic of this problem is the current state of LOTFA, established by the UNDP to cover recurrent budgetary expenditures for the police, and the Afghan Reconstruction Trust Fund (ATRF), intended to fund major ATA development projects. To date, only $27.5 million of the $114 million targeted for the LOFTA has been raised and only $30 million of the ARTF’s $600 million funding goal has been secured.

The state-building process can only be sustainable if it is owned and directed by the Afghan people, not externally driven by the donor community. It is for this reason that the conditionality of the recent U.S. aid package is so dangerous. If implemented, this policy will give credence to a view, rapidly gaining acceptance in Afghanistan, that the U.S. is an occupier rather than a generous donor and ally. In a country so acutely resistant to foreign encroachment and interference, a trait spawned by centuries of foreign invasion and intervention, such a perception could alienate the public and isolate the government. The U.S. aid contribution represents a watershed in the reconstruction process, and a more activist U.S. approach should pay long-term dividends both to Afghanistan and the international community. However, flooding the Afghan government with U.S. officials is a flawed policy that will likely hobble, rather then advance, the state-building enterprise.

Expand and Reconfigure the Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs)

To fill the security vacuum that exists outside Kabul and to facilitate the ongoing SSR process, a third-party military presence in some form is required. Regardless of how much money is poured into SSR, there will inevitably be a gap period until Afghan security structures reach their full capacity. The expansion of ISAF would be the ideal solution to fill this gap. ISAF deployments to major urban centers and transportation arteries outside the capital should be sufficient to accomplish this goal. According to one UN estimate, approximately 10,000-13,000 troops–a modest number compared to the 40,000 soldiers committed to Kosovo when it became a UN protectorate in 1999–would be required for a mission of this size and scope. However, as stated earlier, the international community has been reluctant to make such a commitment to Afghanistan.

Without ISAF expansion, the onus for filling the security gap falls on the Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRT). Unfortunately, even under ideal conditions the impact that these teams can have on the security situation is marginal. To illustrate this fact, the British PRT in Mazar-i-Sharif, one of the country’s most volatile flashpoints, consists of 72 people and is responsible for a territory the size of Scotland. The PRTs have neither the resources nor the mandate to provide significant security protection or reconstruction; as a result they achieve little more than the veneer of engagement on both fronts.

To maximize their potential impact, the PRTs should be provided with more resources and given a new, streamlined mandate. Instead of carrying out small-scale reconstruction projects, they should focus exclusively on providing security for reconstruction and development work and on facilitating SSR. Given their military structure, they are better suited and prepared for such tasks. The British PRT has adopted such a formula and is currently working with the UN Security Commission in the North to advance the local disarmament process. All of the PRTs should engage in similar activities. Not only would this make them more effective, but it would clarify their role in the eyes of both the populace and humanitarian organizations. International NGOs have complained vehemently that the PRT concept blurs the distinction between the military and civilian spheres and accordingly places their staffs at increased risk.

Focus More Attention on SSR

The adverse nature of the security situation, coupled with the lack of international resolve to deploy peacekeepers outside the relative stability of Kabul, has placed tremendous pressure on the SSR process. If coalition forces and ISAF were to leave Afghanistan tomorrow, the ATA would probably collapse and internecine conflict would likely erupt. NATO has given the ISAF mandate a greater degree of long-term stability, and the U.S. has pledged to maintain its troops in the country for the foreseeable future. However, these forces will not be there forever. Shifting security and economic priorities compounded by the strain of increasing casualties could prompt troop withdrawals in the coming years. When international troops eventually leave, Afghan security forces must be ready to fill the void and assume full responsibility for the country’s internal and external security. At the current rate of SSR progress, core security structures such as the national Army and police will not reach their full capacity for up to a decade.

More funds and attention must be dedicated to SSR in the coming months to put the process on track. In the past month, several policy decisions have demonstrated that the U.S. and the international community may be heeding this call. The U.S. has affirmed that $564 million of its $1.2 billion aid package will be allocated to SSR, specifically to expand the Kabul-based military training program and to establish regional police training centers to complement the Kabul-based Police Academy and National Police Training Center (NPTC). Also, the announcement that reforms in the Ministry of Defense will be implemented in the coming weeks could help kick-start the much-anticipated ANBP/DDR program. However, like many other policies and announcements that have generated hope and promise, only time will tell if rhetoric will turn into reality.

News regarding the state of the counternarcotics and judicial reform pillars of the SSR agenda has been less encouraging. The newly formed CND is short of equipment and experienced officers and has yet to receive significant funding from the principal donor for this area, the UK. “They’re expecting results for nothing,” according to Mirwais Yasini, the director of the CND (Economist, August 14, 2003). Yasini has affirmed that a successful program could cost $300 million over three years. This is a modest figure, considering the scale of the problem, yet the CND has received only a fraction of the money promised to it by London. In addition to drug enforcement measures, resources must be dedicated to crop substitution programs to provide Afghan farmers with alternative livelihoods. This factor, widely recognized as the key element in Thailand’s successful antidrug campaign, has not been adequately explored in Afghanistan.

In recent months it has become apparent that a lack of progress on judicial reform has begun to obstruct the other pillars of the SSR process, most notably police reform and counternarcotics. The absence of a coherent legal framework to guide, support, and provide purpose to law enforcement agencies has made police work untenable. To address this adverse situation, judicial reform must be prioritized in the months ahead. It is advisable that all the pillars of the SSR agenda receive a similar boost in support from the international community to ensure that Afghan security structures will be able to assume their rightful roles as guarantors of the country’s security in as short a period as possible.

Shift U.S. Strategy

The U.S. strategy in Afghanistan has two distinct thrusts: the war against the Taliban, al Qaeda, and Hizb-i-Islami, primarily in the South and East of the country, and the support of President Hamid Karzai’s regime and the concomitant state-building process. Unfortunately, these two simultaneous endeavors have, at times, worked at cross-purposes. It is vital that Washington harmonize its two agendas, infusing its overall strategy toward Afghanistan with a greater degree of coherence and consistency.

There are two policy adjustments that the U.S. should make immediately in pursuit of this objective. First, Washington should cease all support to regional warlords under the auspices of the War on Terror. The U.S. has allied itself with several regional powerbrokers, providing them with money, arms, and training for their militia forces in return for the use of those militias in anti-Taliban operations. The relatively small number of U.S. troops deployed in this theater of operations has prompted the Pentagon to rely heavily on local forces. While acknowledging the existence of such strategic relationships in the early phases of Operation Enduring Freedom, U.S. officials are now adamant that such associations have been discontinued. It is accurate that ties with some recalcitrant regional warlords, most notably Bacha Khan Zadran, have been severed, primarily due to their open hostility toward the Karzai regime. Nevertheless, there are strong indications that Washington has maintained strategic relationships with certain regional warlords. Apart from direct material support, the tacit recognition that the Pentagon has offered to many of these figures has been enough to embolden them to challenge the Kabul government. If the ATA is to be successful in reining in the warlords–a crucial task to establish the central government’s legitimacy–it will need Washington’s unwavering support. Such support should consist of an unambiguous signal to regional warlords, whether it is Ismail Khan or Rashid Dostum, that the U.S. will no longer condone any activities that could destabilize the Kabul government.

Secondly, the U.S. must exert more muscle on regional states, most notably Pakistan, to observe a policy of noninterference in Afghanistan. Washington has been reluctant to apply concerted pressure on Pakistani President Musharraf out of fear that it could weaken his regime and strengthen Pakistan’s radical Islamist parties. Yet the recent clashes on the Pakistani-Afghan border, coupled with clear evidence that the Taliban is regrouping on Pakistani territory with significant support from segments of Pakistan’s military and government, demonstrate that immediate action is needed.

With a constitutional Loya Jirga and national elections scheduled to take place within the next ten months, Afghanistan is entering a vital phase of its state-building process. The Constitution has already been delayed three months due to the deteriorating security situation. With confidence in the ATA waning, further setbacks to the Bonn process could create a major crisis of confidence in the new political order. The international community must act immediately to shore up the government, stabilize the security situation, and accelerate the development process. Otherwise the tremendous gains already achieved in rebuilding Afghanistan may be squandered. The consequences of a failure to exploit the current window of opportunity to rebuild Afghanistan would be disastrous, for, as Dr. Abdullah candidly stated in July 2003 on a visit to Washington: “I’m not optimistic to say if we lose this opportunity there will be another one” (UN Wire, July 15, 2003).