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Time to Recommit to Afghanistan’s Secure Future
M. Ashraf Haidari

Diplomatic Traffic


Hours after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the international community rallied in solidarity with the United States for a collective response. They traced the source of the terrorist attacks to Afghanistan, a country that after the end of the Cold War had slipped backwards into a medieval nightmare under an extremist Taliban government that actively encouraged Islamic radicalism and terrorism; that made Afghanistan a global base for drug production and trafficking; and that was responsible for smuggling light weapons and illicit goods. 

Living under the Taliban regime, the Afghan people suffered from unspeakable atrocities, while state institutions collapsed and the country’s physical infrastructure was completely destroyed. The international impact of Afghanistan's downward spiral was widespread, with 9/11 only the highlight that finally mobilized the world to take action. Before that, proxy conflicts had driven hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees into neighboring Pakistan and Iran; exported drugs had killed millions in many countries, while the money earned from those sales had funded the war machine of the Taliban and Islamic militants far and wide. Al-Qaeda freely used Afghanistan as a base to target American assets worldwide — including the bombing of the USS Cole in October 2000 and the American Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998.    
In sum, Afghanistan embodied the consequences of international negligence in the post Cold War era. But international inertia ceased on September 11, 2001. The world suddenly discovered Afghanistan, which became the main focus of the global fight against terrorism. That leaving Afghanistan to the Taliban had been a huge mistake by the international community was now accepted wisdom, and it became clear that if the international community had stayed on to help rebuild Afghanistan at the end of the occupation by the Soviet Union, in 1989, the country would not have become Al-Qaeda's base for global terror attacks. 
Five years on, peace remains elusive in Afghanistan today. The same destructive transnational forces that ripped Afghanistan apart in the 1990s continue to undermine its new democracy and threaten international security. A number of interdependent factors account for the resurgence of security threats to Afghanistan and the international community.

First, while it took the Taliban seven years to establish its rule over much of Afghanistan, Coalition forces ousted them in 45 days. Collapsing like dominoes in front of the US-led advance, the Taliban forces gave up and headed to their villages, or crossed the border into Pakistan in late 2001. 

Since then, Coalition forces have mainly focused on hunting down the leadership and remnants of Al-Qaeda, leaving thousands of former Taliban combatants to their fate.  This effectively has allowed the Taliban to regroup, find new sources of funding, and receive insurgency training outside Afghanistan. They have now reorganized in a well- coordinated insurgency, rapidly capitalizing on Afghanistan’s vulnerable human environment to prosecute a protracted war of harassment and terrorism.       

Second, despite being the world’s main front in the war against terrorism, Afghanistan has so far received less per capita reconstruction and security assistance than all other recent post-conflict countries, including Iraq, Kosovo and Bosnia. Lack of resources has led to short-term planning, with most attention given to quick fixes at the cost of long-term development projects to address basic needs. Hence a lack of human security and economic development has left Afghanistan’s war-torn society vulnerable to narco-terrorists who engage more than 2.3 million Afghan farmers in opium poppy cultivation. Peasants remain extremely poor, however, as most of the drug revenues go to drug lords and corrupt police officers.  

Third, between 2001 and 2005 the basic institutions of central government were established with the full participation of the Afghan people. But law enforcement institutions, which constitute the face of any government, have been neglected from the beginning. The implementation of judicial and police reforms that should have been the foundation on which other state institutions were built was shelved indefinitely due to a lack of resources.

Consequently, a security vacuum has widened in areas where state institutions are either absent or too weak to protect people, particularly in the south and east, areas which have seen little or no reconstruction assistance over the past five years. When left without a choice, people resort to whatever alternative is available for survival. Unfortunately, narco-terrorists have stepped in to provide that alternative by offering people protection in return for poppy cultivation and passive opposition to the government. 

It is apparent that unless state institutions are strengthened to address security needs, the trust of Afghans in democracy and their support for the fight against terrorism may erode over time. But popular opposition to the Taliban and its network of narco-terrorists can and should be strengthened. It is a matter of deepening the trust of Afghans in their new democracy.

Five years of international blood and treasure have gone into creating a legitimate government in Afghanistan, headed by President Hamid Karzai, who is providing the leadership demanded by the complexities of building a new state in a tough neighborhood. In addition, international efforts to build peace in Afghanistan continue to enjoy the support of the Afghan people, who don't want to see their country slide back into the chaos of the 1990s. Moreover, the people and government of Afghanistan are committed to a strategy to win the peace: the Afghanistan Compact and the Afghanistan National Development Strategy. With these essential agreements in place, Afghanistan is far closer to success than to failure.

Afghanistan needs a minimum of $4 billion a year to implement the short- and long-term objectives of its integrated strategy for security, governance and development. The international community must deliver on the pledges they made during the London Conference earlier this year to make possible the implementation of that three-pronged strategy.   

At the same time, they must build on lessons learned from five years of nation building in Afghanistan to ensure that aid is used effectively through close coordination with Afghan partners, based on sound policies that are centered on local ownership of the development process, so that Afghans themselves can take responsibility for the future of their country.      

As we learned from the 9/11 tragedy and the suffering of the Afghan people throughout the 1990s, a failed Afghanistan is not an option for the international community. Success is the only way forward.

M. Ashraf Haidari is political counselor at the Embassy of Afghanistan in Washington; he was Peace Scholar and Fellow in Foreign Service from 2002-2005 at Georgetown University.

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