5 years later, Afghanistan pays for sins of omission

October 08, 2006|By Ali Ahmad Jalali

On the fifth anniversary of the U.S.-led military invasion, Afghanistan faces the worst crisis since the ouster of the Taliban in 2001. Attacks by a resurgent Taliban and acts of suicide terrorism have taken the lives of more than 2,000 people this year; poor governance and a lack of economic opportunities erode human security daily; drug production has increased to a record high; the government is losing control of an increasing number of districts to insurgents or warlords; and corruption is rampant.

Not long ago, Afghanistan - with its successful, free presidential and parliamentary elections, improvement in women's rights and free media - was advertised as a success story among post-conflict societies. It was considered an example for Iraq. Today, the Iraqi situation inspires acts of terrorism in Afghanistan.

What went wrong? Was it the deployment of insufficient troops in a large, mountainous country or the investment of minimal funds to rebuild a heavily destroyed land? Did the U.S. war in Iraq shift needed attention and resources from an incomplete mission in Afghanistan? Were the incoherent reconstruction approaches of the international community and Afghan government responsible? Was it the failure to address the regional dimension of insurgency and terrorism? All of the above?

No one can ignore the notable progress in Afghanistan, but the current troubles are a result of what was not done rather than what was done.

From the outset, two contradictory concepts drove international intervention in Afghanistan. The country was described as the major front of a global war on terror, yet the intervention was a "light footprint" engagement. This "light footprint" continues to impair every aspect of reconstruction in Afghanistan.

The Taliban were removed from power, but neither their potential to come back nor their external support was addressed. Alliances of convenience with warlords perpetuated the influence of the most notorious human rights violators. Failure to crack down on drug traffickers and provide sustainable alternative livelihood to farmers led to record increases in illicit drug production that fuels corruption and funds terrorism and criminality. And inefficient use of insufficient funds, mostly by international contractors outside government control, failed to create economic opportunities, good governance and the rule of law.

The first two years after the fall of the Taliban offered the best window of opportunity for reconstruction. The enemy was disintegrated, public support for the policies of the central government was overwhelming, and international military forces had the hearts and minds of the population. In many cases, the people willingly cooperated in foiling acts of terrorism and freeing foreign hostages.

This opportunity was squandered. The Unites States' shift in attention and resources to Iraq came at a time when the global jihadists refocused their attention on a weak Afghan state. The Afghan government failed to act for long-term stability, opting instead for short-term deals with nonstate power holders who had their own interests.

The result has been a weak government with incompetent security forces and a poor and corrupt justice sector. The Afghan government's failure to protect rural communities, to respond to the legitimate needs of the people and to fight corruption has rejuvenated the insurgency.

The Taliban-led insurgents have training camps, staging areas, recruiting centers and havens in Pakistan. The operations of a Pakistani military force, deployed in the border region, mostly in Waziristan tribal area, have been effective against al-Qaida militants but have not done much to contain the Taliban, particularly in the Baluchistan, Bajaur, Swat and Chitral areas. There are several religious extremist groups in Pakistan that enjoy freedom of action there and do not hide their support for the Taliban. More effort is needed to crack down on these groups and stop cross-border terrorist activity in Afghanistan.

The current military response to the threat is not comprehensive. Left unaddressed is the context that nourishes the continuing violence: desperate economic conditions, lack of sufficient funds for development and reconstruction, governmental ineffectiveness, repression of communities by local thugs, and sanctuary for terrorists across the border in Pakistan. Until these issues are resolved, Afghanistan will remain a threat to international security.

The recently announced extension of NATO's security mission to cover the whole of Afghanistan comes as a peace deal between the Pakistani government and the pro-Taliban militants in the North Waziristan border area has led to a major increase in militants' cross-border attacks. But NATO's half-hearted response to calls for additional troops in Afghanistan and the restrained rules of engagement adopted by certain members of the alliance will not do the job.

Success in Afghanistan will depend on these key elements: removal of Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan; sufficient funds for development and adequate troops for securing the reconstruction effort; and tougher action by the Afghan government to crack down on corruption and support the rule of law.

Missed opportunities tarnish Afghanistan's recent history. Our globalizing world cannot afford for Afghanistan to fail - and the world must not fail Afghanistan.

Ali Ahmad Jalali was interior minister of Afghanistan from January 2003 to October 2005. His e-mail is jalalia@ndu.edu.

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