History Chasing Optimism: Afghanistan in Spring, 2005

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 2 Issue: 9

In May 2005, former Taliban Foreign Minister Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil said the Taliban was a “spent force” and asked his former associates “to hold talks with the Afghan government. It will be good for our people.” [1] His statement augmented announcements that other Taliban leaders had been killed or given amnesty. Together they are the latest developments that suggest the West has reason for optimism about progress in Afghanistan. President Karzai’s election in October, 2004, set a positive tone which continued in April 2005 when candidate registration opened for the once-delayed parliamentary election, set for 18 September 2005. Kabul claims there is high interest in the election and that nearly 70 parties are registered. Most recently, Lt. General Karl Eikenberry, U.S. commander in Afghanistan, was upbeat about the “tremendous” improvements in the country since 2003, noting that, “So much has been accomplished, so much has to be done.” [2]

Optimism is key in any endeavor, and there is no burking the notable progress in Afghanistan. Still, Western observers often forget that Afghanistan is a 2,000-year-old nation and culture in which dominant historical themes — a strong preference for security over democracy, resentment of foreign influence, insularity, religious conservatism, tribal politics, etc.– remain vibrant across society. Juxtaposed with the above-noted optimism, two such themes merit examination to explain why Lt. General Eikenberry is correct in saying “so much has to be done.”

Security vs. Democracy

Criminal and insurgent violence is on the increase. The Afghan press has reported rising murder and larceny rates in urban areas; increased banditry along the Qandahar-Herat road; and unprecedented numbers of kidnappings of women and children, apparently by human smugglers. [3] In addition, narcotraffickers have taken the offensive against Kabul’s anti-drug forces; in late-April 05, three Afghan counter-narcotics officers were killed and 2 wounded by a roadside bomb in Konar Province. [4] Indeed, German Defense Minister Peter Stuck –the Bundeswehr is training Afghan anti-drug units — recently said the risk of country-wide violence was increasing because the anti-heroin campaign threatened the income of well-armed warlords.

Attacks by Afghan and Arab insurgents are also up. This spring, several U.S. and European soldiers were killed or wounded by remotely detonated mines near Kabul and in the southern provinces of Oruzgan, Qandahar, and Helmand; the Taliban has assassinated Pashtun tribesman in Paktika Province and Waziristan for working with the U.S. and Pakistan [5]; and truck convoys supplying U.S. military units were ambushed in Nangarhar Province, southern Qandahar province, and at the U.S. airbase in Qandahar City. In addition, according to reports in Afghan Islamic Press on 27 and 29 April, 2005, Taliban guerillas are reportedly holding the Daichupan and Argandab districts of Zabol Province despite repeated efforts to dislodge them.

These criminal and insurgent attacks — the latter reminiscent of the low-level anti-Soviet insurgency — fuel the Afghans’ perception that their country is nearing the lawlessness that prevailed before the Taliban took power. “We can confidently state,” the independent Kabul daily Arman-e Melli wrote on April 27, 2005, “that the Taliban government was better than the present one because it enforced the orders of the Qur’an and created a peaceful atmosphere for the Afghan people.” From the far side of the country, the Herat News Center added that the current grim situation exists because “there is no law and mafia gangs can take advantage of this lawlessness.” Even the state-run paper Mojahed claimed the rising “rate of crime challenges the [Karzai] government more and more.”

The remedy for crime offered by much of the Afghan media — implementing Shari’ah law — reaffirms the traditional Afghan preference for security over democracy. “The only way to eliminate this harmful disaster,” the Herat News Center said on 28 April, “is to enforce Islamic law and that is what the public is demanding.” Those hearing Muttawakil’s claim that the Taliban is a “spent force” and unpopular, might consider the following. The April 25 edition of Arman-e Melli explained,

“If the [Afghan] Supreme Court imposes penalties, punishes criminals, cuts off robbers’ hands, executes killers, punished bribe takers, security will return by itself. … Implementing Islamic law will ensure peace and security. Moreover, it will produce social justice, protect the helpless from the cruel, and prevent brutality. If the killer is executed in front of hundreds of thousands of people and if the media also comments on it, millions of people will learn a lesson from it.”

Foreign Help vs. Foreign Interference

“We need long-term assistance,” President Karzai told foreign diplomats on 28 April 05, to prevent Afghanistan from again becoming a terrorist safe haven. “We want,” he continued, “an undertaking and a guarantee of help from the international community and America.” [6] Karzai’s request is reasonable to Western ears, but to a nation with “a long history of resisting foreign occupation” [7] the pro-Northern Alliance paper Payam-e Mojahed caught the public mood when it described Karzai on 25 April as “begging for charity” and argued that Afghanistan must “stand on its own feet and stop begging.”

Several issues brought debate about foreign interference to a head. The first is the poor economy. Much of the Afghan media links the bad economy to “administrative corruption” and “weak management,” both caused by the “horribly deep-rooted” problem of nepotism in the military and civil services, Payam-e Mojahed reported on 25 April. This corruption comes from foreign influence, Payam-e Mojahed explained, because “all those who supervise economic and reconstruction issues in Hamid Karzai’s cabinet have returned from the West.” Their goal, the paper said, is to create “a small wealthy class and the deprivation of the majority … [and Afghan] history shows that using foreign forces to maintain the dominance of a specific group at the cost of depriving another will have unpleasant consequences.” [8] Payam-e Mojahed also claimed Karzai was using foreign civilian organizations [e.g., NGO’s] “to maintain its power and marginalize its rivals.”

The worst foreign threat Afghans perceive, however, involves the question of a “strategic” U.S.-Afghanistan alliance and the proposal to build permanent U.S. bases in the country — the latter gained salience in the past month when the Pentagon said it would spend $83 million to improve Bagram and Qandahar airbases. The idea of permanent U.S. bases has been universally denounced by Afghans since Arizona Senator McCain called for them in February 2005, and Secretary Rumsfeld said the issue was still in play in mid-April 2005. The Mojahed said such bases “will harm the country’s peace and stability,” adding that international cooperation can be had without them. The Pashtu paper Thubat likewise claimed that permanent U.S. bases would violate the government’s legitimacy, Afghanistan’s territorial integrity, and that “not even five percent of Afghans” would approve them. Thubat’s editors also warned that U.S. bases would be meant to threaten Muslim Pakistan and Iran and turn Afghanistan into “a permanent military base just like it was once a terror base.” Hosting U.S. bases would mean Karzai must always “obey a superpower” and would convince Afghans of “the occupation of the country” and increase support for the Taliban, the Payam-e Mojahed reported on 25 and 26 April, 2005.


While recognizing some striking successes by the Western-backed Karzai government, it is far too early to judge the current Afghan situation as promising, let alone a durable success. As noted, the Afghans’ historic preference for security over democracy and their abhorrence of foreign influence are now directly challenged, and challenged at a time when Karzai is unsettling millennia-old Pashtun tribal culture by reserving parliamentary seats for women, stopping arranged marriages, and banning traditional punishments for murder, adultery and robbery. It is true that post-2001 Afghan affairs could have gone far worse, but it is also true that the worst obstacles to Western-style peace, stability, and popular rule remain in place.


1. Daily Times (Pakistan), 2 May 05.

2. Associated Press, 3 May 2005.

3. Mojahed (Kabul), 20 April 05; Arman-e Melli (Kabul), 25 April 05; and Anis (Kabul), 25 April 05, Radio Afghanistan, 22 April 05 and Herat News Center, 28 April 05.

4. Afghan Islamic Press (Peshawar), 30 April 05.

5. The Nation (Pakistan), 1 May 05 and The News (Pakistan), 1 May 05.

6. Associated Press, 28 April 05.

7. Reuters, 26 April 05.

8. Mardom (Kabul), 24 April 2005 and Mojahed (Kabul), 20 April 05.