Five years after the fall of the Taliban, the international community and the Karzai government are losing a battle of confidence among the Afghan people. The United States needs to take dramatic steps to spur the delivery of governance, security, and development in order to stabilize Afghanistan.

Five years after the fall of the Taliban, the international community and the Karzai government are losing "a battle of confidence" among the Afghan people. Three new trends signal that the momentum is changing: the precipitous increase in Iraqi-like suicide bombings, the unprecedented rise in hostility among ordinary Afghans toward Westerners, and the expanding number of Afghans who are "on the fence" on the question of whether to support the government or the Taliban. With the window of opportunity to change direction rapidly shrinking, the United States needs to take dramatic steps to spur the delivery of governance, security, and development in order to stabilize Afghanistan. Only by injecting the country with much needed resources and building local Afghan capacity can the United States help the government in Kabul establish its legitimacy and win back support from the Afghan people.

This was the general consensus from the first of two sessions in a four part series at the U.S. Institute of Peace to examine U.S. efforts in Afghanistan five years after the fall of the Taliban. The October 19, 2006, meeting of the Afghanistan Working Group featured Deborah Alexander, former special adviser to the U.S. embassy in Kabul; Jonathan Landay, a McClatchy Newspapers journalist with extensive reporting experience in Afghanistan; and Mercy Corps' George Devendorf, just back from visits with local staff in Afghanistan. On October 25, 2006, Alex Thier, senior Rule of Law adviser in the Institute's Center of Innovation for Rule of Law, was joined by Washington Post deputy foreign editor Pamela Constable. These discussions were moderated by Beth Ellen Cole, Coordinator of the Afghanistan Working Group at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

Blueprints for Stabilization and Reconstruction Were Slow to Emerge and Still Lack Resources

When the United States went into Afghanistan in 2001, the focus was on military operations and not reconstruction. "We went into Afghanistan with a plan to track down terrorists and kill al Qaeda," observed Deborah Alexander, who was among the first Americans at the U.S. embassy in Kabul after the fall of the Taliban. "That's not a reconstruction or stabilization plan." Finally, in 2004, an integrated reconstruction plan put forth by the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) laid out a vision for Afghanistan. Despite this vision, U.S. economic, political, law enforcement and diplomatic efforts remain "stove-piped" and require more coordination. For example, the $130 million investment in elections was an important first step, but the $8-$10 million currently allocated by the United States for democracy and governance in Afghanistan--a nation of 30 million people--is woefully inadequate.The U.S. embassy has also been severely understaffed, making it nearly impossible to integrate reconstruction and civil military efforts. While its ranks have grown from 25 to nearly 400 in the past few years, this cannot compare with the size of the staff in the Baghdad embassy. The Afghanistan Compact, agreed to by donors in January 2006, is a "great road map" for a stable and economically viable state but will remain a paper plan without a dramatic increase in resources.

The Result is Afghanistan is "Like Iraq on a Slow Burn"

A rise in civilian casualties from Western military operations and insurgent tactics coupled with the anemic pace of development has caused deep resentment of the West and the Karzai government. Devendorf reported that this new hostility makes it more difficult for anyone associated with the government or the international community to operate, as insurgents are increasingly targeting Afghan nationals who work for international NGO, NATO and U.S. operations within the country. Landay predicted that these insurgents, who retreated in past winters, will have enough ammunition and manpower to remain in urban areas and thus escalate attacks through the winter and spring. As Constable noted at the second session, "This is a new Taliban."

Moreover, the Afghan national police program requires an immediate infusion of resources to attract new recruits, pay salaries, provide proper equipment, and deploy experienced mentors to facilitate the development of effective police forces with accountable leadership. Some areas have absolutely no recruits. A majority of the existing force has succumbed to corruption and nepotism. Security still remains largely dependent upon U.S. and NATO forces, which recently assumed command of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), and a nascent but improving Afghan National Army. There are only 8,000 ISAF troops in the volatile south, an area of nearly 77,000 square miles.

Drugs and Corruption are the "Achilles Heal" that Hurts Afghanistan

According to Constable, Afghans say their worst problem is corruption. Instead of police protection and justice, the people are faced with extortion and abuse on a daily basis. The lack of trust in the government has left a void that is now being filled by the Taliban. Decisive action against corrupt officials is needed to change a situation where impunity reigns. Though the drug trade was virtually eliminated in 2000 by Taliban forces, it has begun "creeping, then soaring back" under local warlords, said Constable. A solitary focus on eradication will only harm the local farmers who are trying to feed their families. Calls have been made repeatedly for cross-cutting strategies that involve development, law enforcement and interdiction, eradication, and the removal of implicated officials, but they have been just as frequently ignored--or at least, never implemented. These strategies would also require improved coordination among the government and the international communities' disparate civilian and military entities.

Reaching the People " on the Fence" is the Battle Now

Rampant insecurity, corruption, and the increasing drug trade are strong indicators that Afghanistan has begun to slip back into a period of chaos and uncertainty. The Afghan people, whose hopes rose with the defeat of the Taliban and the prospect of a stable country, see their government as weak and corrupt. Never before has there been such hostility toward the United States within Afghanistan, and the goodwill brought by the United States five years ago has been all but squandered, said Landay. There is little time left to reach those people "still on the fence."

It Requires Governance and Development

Good governance that actually delivers essential services is key to establishing a backbone of support within Afghanistan. Development aid must increase, and the Afghan government could benefit from an influx of development advisors to ensure that the available funds reach the crucial areas of the country. An increase in aid must be accompanied by measures to help ease the difficulty the Afghan government faces in actually spending the money. Bureaucratic bottlenecks and other delays that severely hamper the deliver of services by the ministries need to be resolved quickly to facilitate expanded funding by major donors to the government.

Expressing safety concerns for humanitarian workers, Alexander urged that indigenous community structures already in existence should be used to help foster sustainable development. The National Solidarity Program, widely viewed as a successful program to spur local development and governance, should be expanded and funded accordingly.

In order for the Afghan people to believe in their government, the international community must help re-establish the presence of the Kabul government throughout the country and especially in pro-Taliban areas. As a result of insufficient funds, many outlying provinces have yet to receive electricity and power. Government officials who attempt to establish their place in such provinces also lack basic necessities, such as building space and running water. An expanded road-building program, critical for both security and reconstruction, is extremely important to the Afghan people. "The legitimacy of the Afghan government is the ultimate and only solution," Thier asserted.

Security Equals More International Forces, A Long-Term Program to Build Local Forces, and Negotiation

Participants underscored that the solution to the growing insurgency is not primarily a military one. Thinly deployed international troops do need reinforcements to stabilize the current climate of insecurity and to provide space for development and governance to grow. Lifting constraints imposed on troops through restrictive rules of engagement on the part of some participating NATO countries could help bolster security. The institutions that provide for rule of law—from the police to the judiciary—require serious attention. But according to Constable, many Afghans, whose tribal culture relies on deal-making to solve problems, believe that negotiation with the Taliban is the route to improved security. Any strategy to negotiate with the Taliban should be based on "the identification of true grievances amongst the people who must be won over," observed Thier. Other participants raised objections to negotiating with the Taliban and the Karzai government has yet to act on its stated policy to engage in serious dialogue.

Afghanistan's Stability is Tied to the Region

The stability of Afghanistan is of utmost importance for the stability of the region. The recent peace deal between Pakistan and Waziristan has caused the Afghan public to question the credibility of Pakistan's partnership with the West to combat terrorism. The United States must put more concerted pressure on President Musharraf to take more active measures in dealing with insurgents. In addition, the United States should engage Iran by looking at regional stability in a more proactive way, said Alexander.

Symbols of Hope and the Open Window

In a country that has been so "balkanized," observed Constable, "the only solution is some kind of national unity." The two institutions that are symbolic of this concept are the Afghan National Army and the national parliament, because their members do reflect the composition of Afghanistan's diverse society. This culture of institutions must spread throughout the country and provide governance, development, rule of law and security. The recent change in the Supreme Court and the Attorney General's office offer another sign of positive change. If the international community and the government of Afghanistan seize the opportunity now to build upon these successes, the window is still open—just barely—to ensure peace and prosperity.



This USIPeace Briefing was written by Beth Ellen Cole, senior program officer, and Kiya Bajpai, research assistant, in the Center for Post-Conflict Peace and Stability Operations at the United States Institute of Peace. The views expressed here are not necessarily those of the Institute, which does not advocate specific policies.


The United States Institute of Peace is an independent, nonpartisan institution established and funded by Congress. Its goals are to help prevent and resolve violent international conflicts, promote post-conflict stability and development, and increase conflict management capacity, tools, and intellectual capital worldwide. The Institute does this by empowering others with knowledge, skills, and resources, as well as by directly engaging in peacebuilding efforts around the globe.

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