The South Asia Channel
Elusive Peace in Post-9/11 Afghanistan
Before 9/11 Afghanistan was a forgotten, devastated state. Winning the peace and nation-building will require international support.
Just a few days before the tragedy of 9/11 fourteen years ago, Afghanistan had been a pariah, forgotten state in the international system. Landlocked and surrounded by predatory neighbors at the time, the Afghan people and their beautiful homeland, once the “Garden of Central Asia,” had become the battleground of proxy conflicts since 1979.
Indeed, Afghans proudly defended their country but at the hands of outside powers, they bore the brunt of one of the last, most destructive conflicts of the Cold War. After the war ended they naturally expected the United States and its Muslim allies — including Saudi Arabia and Pakistan — to stabilize and rebuild post-war Afghanistan.
However, much to the dismay of the Afghan people, the United States prematurely disengaged from Afghanistan and completely neglected its post-Cold War stabilization and reconstruction. The resulting vacuum in the country was soon filled by a number of regional players, particularly Pakistan, which used ethno-ideological-religious nationalism to polarize Afghan politics and to gain full influence over Afghanistan, thereby achieving one of its core geo-strategic objectives in the region.
To a large extent, Pakistan succeeded in their strategic pursuit by creating the Taliban as a proxy force, which completely destroyed Afghanistan’s post-Cold War weakening state and ousted the mujahideen-led government out of Kabul in September 1996. At the same time, the Taliban began harboring al Qaeda, protecting its leader Osama bin Laden, as their guest of honor, against the will of the United States, whose embassies al Qaeda bombed in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 and later bombed the USS Cole in 2000 in Yemen.
Moreover, the Taliban allowed unhindered cultivation, production, and trafficking of narcotics in and out of Afghanistan. They not only used the revenues from drug trafficking to fund their terror campaign across Afghanistan but also justified that drugs served as an effective tool to kill the “infidels” in the West. In sum, they reduced Afghanistan to a no man’s land where transnational terrorist and criminal networks freely roamed and often used the country as a safe operational sanctuary, from where to hit hard at American targets around the world.
On the morning of September 11, 2001, the United States woke up to face the consequences of its premature disengagement from Afghanistan a decade earlier. It was in neglected, stateless Afghanistan where al Qaeda and the Taliban masterminded the tragedy of 9/11. The shock, chaos, and unprecedented human and material losses that the United States sustained on 9/11 compelled the country to reengage in Afghanistan, quickly toppling the Taliban and ending its tyranny, which had dehumanized the Afghan people, destroyed their cultural heritage sites, including the statutes of Buddha, and utterly isolated them from the rest of the world.
In the wake of post-9/11 international intervention in Afghanistan, former U.S. President George W. Bush promised a Marshall Plan for the reconstruction of Afghanistan. On April 17, 2002, in a speech at the Virginia Military Institute, where General George Marshall had trained a century ago, President Bush called the Marshall Plan “a beacon to light the path that we, too, must follow.” He said that Afghans had felt abandoned before, including by the U.S. at the end of the Afghan war against the Soviets in the 1980s, and noted: “We’re not going to repeat that mistake. We’re tough, we’re determined, we’re relentless. We will stay until the mission is done.”
Unfortunately, however, the promise of a Marshall Plan for Afghanistan’s reconstruction failed to materialize, even though it shot up Afghans’ expectations and encouraged over 5 million Afghan refugees to return home prematurely from abroad. In retrospect, the Bush administration hardly wanted to implement a Marshall Plan in Afghanistan, since they had already been planning for the invasion of Iraq in 2003, which subsequently sapped most of America’s resources needed to secure the future of Afghanistan.
In a December 2007 congressional hearing, Admiral Michael G. Mullen, former chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the war in Afghanistan was an “economy of force” operation, a military label for a mission of secondary importance. The chairman added: “It is simply a matter of resources, of capacity. In Afghanistan, we do what we can. In Iraq, we do what we must.” This fateful acknowledgement by America’s top brass confirmed the conclusion reached by some regional state actors: that the United States would indefinitely remain preoccupied about Iraq at the cost of Afghanistan’s state-building and reconstruction processes. This effectively encouraged them to reconstitute and re-operationalize the Taliban to undo Afghanistan’s rapid gains.
Although the 2009 surge by the Obama administration of military and civilian resources to consolidate Afghanistan’s achievements temporarily forced those same regional state actors to back off, the deadline-driven transition process, which scheduled Afghan forces to take over the security responsibility from the NATO-International Security Assistance Force by the end of 2014, convinced regional peace spoilers of America’s wavering support for Afghanistan’s long-term stabilization. This has resulted in the continuation of support for the Taliban to operate out of safe sanctuaries in Pakistan, even though the country has been paid more than $13 billion in Coalition Support Fund assistance for cooperating with the United States and its NATO allies in the war against terrorism and radicalism.
Since 2001, almost 3,500 international forces, including 2,363 American troops, have been killed by direct and indirect terrorist attacks launched into Afghanistan from its immediate neighborhood. Moreover, thousands of Afghan forces have fallen alongside their international comrades, while about 26,000 innocent Afghan civilians have been killed since 2001. Just recently, the United Nations reported that in the first six months of 2015, 5,000 civilians had been killed.
Thanks to the ultimate sacrifices of the Afghan, American, and NATO forces over the past 14 years, the Afghan people have come a long way, making significant progress towards long-term institutionalization of peace, pluralism, and prosperity, in close partnership with and assistance from the international community. Tangibly speaking, Afghanistan’s ongoing reconstruction includes the building of many schools, universities, health clinics, highways, roads, bridges, irrigation systems, and other socio-economic infrastructure and facilities across the country. As a result, Afghans’ life expectancy has sharply risen, while Afghanistan’s still dismal infant and maternal mortality rates have notably declined due to improved healthcare, better sanitation, a balanced nutrition, and increased access to electricity across the country.
And Afghan women and girls have benefited the most from international intervention since 2001. While they were denied under the Taliban their most basic human rights — such as access to education and healthcare — women are now serving as vocal representatives of their constituencies in the Afghan parliament where female ministers occupy 28 percent of the seats. In fact, there are more female legislators in the Afghan parliament than in the United States Congress or British parliament.
Moreover, while Afghanistan’s own forces have replaced their international counterparts to protect Afghan citizens, last year witnessed a peaceful transfer of political power to the National Unity Government led by President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah. The unity government has appointed a cabinet, which is now busy implementing a robust reforms agenda to consolidate and sustain Afghanistan’s gains of the past 14 years, with the continued support of the international community.
Despite these promising developments, three destabilizing factors with local, regional, and transnational dimensions contribute to deteriorating security in Afghanistan. At the local level, the government’s lack of capacity and resources impedes its ability to meet popular demands for basic services. After 37 years of war, Afghanistan suffers from weak state institutions, and the Afghan army and police forces have not received adequate attention and investment from the international community. Without security, reconstruction proceeds slowly or not at all.
Transnational drug traffickers and terrorists have taken advantage of Afghanistan’s lack of security and slow pace of reconstruction, effectively hijacking the country’s economic re-emergence. The relationship between drug mafias and terrorists is mutually beneficial. The Taliban finances some of its operations through a 10 percent tax collected from opium producers. Narco-terrorists continue to enjoy an enabling environment as global demand for Afghanistan’s heroin far outpaces the international community’s ability to provide licit agricultural development and alternative livelihoods for poor Afghan farmers.
To address these root causes of instability in Afghanistan, the international community must commit adequate resources for helping Afghanistan implement the objectives of its strategy to achieve self-reliance during the Transformation Decade (2015-2024).
Second, Afghanistan sits in the middle of a predatory neighborhood. The terrorist sanctuaries outside of Afghanistan’s borders must be shut down. The ability of the Taliban insurgency to operate in Afghanistan depends on a sophisticated extremist infrastructure in Pakistan that recruits, indoctrinates, and trains terrorists. This infrastructure capitalizes on endemic poverty and illiteracy to recruit young men into traveling to Afghanistan to fight in the name of jihad.
Third, drug-consuming countries must recognize their stake in ending regional narco-terrorism. Hundreds of thousands of lives and billions of dollars have been lost to the war on drugs in Iran, Russia, Europe, and the United States each year. If major consumer countries invest preventively to revitalize Afghanistan’s agricultural economy, they will save the lives of their own citizens and deal a blow to their own domestic drug mafias. When Afghan farmers see that their crops can be preserved with cold storage and transported to neighboring countries on a modern road, they will replant their previously uprooted orchards. But if all they perceive is neglect and mismanagement, these farmers will keep falling back on the guaranteed profits of a poppy crop.
History has demonstrated that winning the peace has a higher rate of success in post-conflict countries where the majority of people support international intervention. In Afghanistan, the people overwhelmingly support the presence of the international community and their forces to help secure and rebuild the country. Capitalizing on this strategic asset will guarantee the success of nation-building in Afghanistan and set a valuable precedent for future post-conflict stabilization and reconstruction.
WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP/Getty Images