The Foreign Service Journal, July-August 2008

In recent months, the growing security threat in the country has prompted alarm. During a visit this past spring, the chief of the International Committee of the Red Cross expressed dismay at the resurgence of the Taliban, declaring that the humanitarian situation was worsening and the conflict was expanding. While intelligence reports indicate that al-Qaida is no longer based in the country, operating from across the border in Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province, only a costly, protracted U.S./NATO deployment in southern and eastern Afghanistan prevents the group’s return to its safe harbor. Also this spring, Director of National Intelligence General Michael McConnell acknowledged that Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s administration only controls 30 percent of the country. According to McConnell, the Taliban holds 10 percent, with the rest controlled by tribes or local figures not subservient to Kabul. The number of Taliban-initiated incidents in 2008 is likely to surpass even that of 2007, and advances in Logar andWardak provinces just to the south of Kabul raise the prospect of rising pres- sure on the capital itself. The resurgent Taliban is drawing on a seemingly inex- haustible base of recruits in Pakistan and among discour- aged and often impoverished Afghan youth. Unchecked opium-trade profits provide funding for the growing Taliban operations. The opium bazaar also provides vast funding for al-Qaida and allied anti-government leaders such as Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Jallaluddin Haqqani. In addition to providing a principal funding source for Karzai’s adversaries, the massive, exploding opium produc- tion has critically hobbled the government itself, corrupt- ing officials at the district, provincial and national levels. What accounts for this escalating failure? More impor- tant, how can it be turned around? It is no secret that the U.S.-led effort to rescue Afghani- stan has been vastly under- resourced, relegated to an after- thought by the enormous and ever-expanding demands of the Bush administration’s Iraq cam- paign. And the Afghan leaders themselves are far from blame- less. But the international inter- vention also contained fundamen- tal design flaws in the conception of a system of government for post-Taliban Afghanistan that ignores the country’s history, traditions and political real- ities. Recognition of this misstep points to a possible path toward greater stability and an eventual rescue of the ven- ture in Afghanistan. A Range of Perspectives The apparent deadlock has prompted a range of pro- posals and recommendations shaped in part by varying assessments of progress to date in the areas of security, development and Afghan governance. Administration assessments have generally been more positive in all three areas than those of non-government analysts and those of Afghans themselves. In the security area, administration analysis has tended to portray rising Taliban assertiveness as evidence of des- peration, while private-sector analysts tend to regard the rise of Taliban-initiated attacks, including suicide attacks, as evidence of growing sophistication and capacity. Economic development presents a patchwork of prob- lems with poor security, limited government absorptive capacity and international aid commitments that are incompletely fulfilled or consumed by costly donor-coun- try contractors seen generally as impeding progress. Afghan governance similarly gets mixed reviews. While the government remains reasonably stable and Afghans enjoy far broader freedoms than under Taliban rule, corruption, particularly related to opium production and trafficking, remains endemic. Critical government services, especially related to justice and the police, are widely seen as having failed. Recommendations range from prescriptions for a modest course correction to calls for more urgent and wide-ranging change. There is growing agreement F O C U S 24 F O R E I G N S E R V I C E J O U R N A L / J U LY- A U G U S T 2 0 0 8 Edmund McWilliams is a retired FSO and periodic con- tributor to the Journal . He has served in Islamabad, where he was special envoy for Afghanistan, and in Kabul. In 1992, he opened the first U.S. embassies in Bishkek and Dushanbe, serving as chargé d’affaires in both. He retired in 2001 after a 26-year career. The conception of a system of government for post- Taliban Afghanistan that ignores the country’s history, traditions and political realities was flawed.