This month marks the two-year anniversary of the Taliban’s fall. While the need for improvement in Afghanistan remains, the country’s population appears better off now than at any time since warfare first broke out over two decades ago. The Afghan people themselves support this conclusion since, according to the United Nations, well over two million refugees have returned since the Taliban’s ouster — a number far exceeding original expectations. Though these returnees place added stress on limited resources, their decision to come back home reflects that word of mouth among average Afghans paints a more positive picture of the situation inside the country than that often presented by the headlines most outsiders read. Yet future success for Afghanistan is far from assured. In particular, the goal of preventing the country from again becoming a safe haven for terrorists will depend on two key factors: internal political stability and military security.
An Afghan committee charged with creating a new constitutional draft recently presented its result to President Hamid Karzai. After some debate, Karzai eliminated the proposed position of prime minister, for fear that it would lead to instability. The model for Afghanistan’s political system as it will now be presented to a national assembly for ratification in December will consist of an elected president and a bicameral legislative body similar to that in the US.
While most observers — including the Afghans’ US advisors — are generally content with the end result of the constitution’s proposed political structure and guarantee of rights, a notable exception is the US Committee for Religious Freedom. This organization has warned in a recent report that a particular section of the document which vows that “no law shall be contrary to the sacred religion of Islam” runs the risk of returning the country to a style of governing it dubs as “Taliban lite.” Certainly the article in question runs contrary to the principle of the separation of church and state as established in the US constitution, but it does reflect what the constitutional committee’s members found when they conducted wide scale interviews of the Afghan population: an “overwhelming desire” to be governed by the tenets of Islam.(1) Though a constitution without this wording would find more favor abroad, it would likely risk losing support for the central government among Afghans, an important factor in ensuring future stability. It remains to be seen how much outside pressure will be brought to bear to address this issue.
At least equally essential as the government the Afghans create for themselves, however, will be the level of commitment the international community gives to the country in terms of aid. According to reports both from Afghans and journalists, the most common complaint these days is that not enough reconstruction has taken place. Recognizing this, President Bush joined Karzai in making the rebuilding of the road between Kabul and Kandahar an immediate goal. Highway reconstruction is much needed in Afghanistan not only because of the devastation wrought by over two decades of warfare and neglect, but also because rebuilding transportation links will promote commerce as well as the extension of the central government’s control.
Other high profile projects which the Afghan government and the aid community hope to undertake include additional highway work and infrastructure development such as repairing power and irrigation systems. This will not only provide much-needed services, but also jobs. The Bush Administration has spotlighted such projects as a goal for US aid to Afghanistan.
Yet most experts believe that much more money is needed than the international community has currently promised. Afghan Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani, for instance, estimates that his country needs at least $15 billion just to bring it to a prewar level of development. While the Bush Administration has increased Washington’s financial commitment to Afghanistan, it is far from a top priority. Of the $87 billion allotted for Iraq and Afghanistan in the aid bill passed in early November by Congress, only $1.2 billion is designated for Afghanistan. Karzai and future Afghan governments will need more assistance if they are to provide tangible signs of their ability to affect areas beyond Kabul.
Another difficulty facing Afghanistan, and one not as easily remedied as the need for more funding, is that of the resurgence of the Taliban and al Qaida, (which have joined forces since 9/11 with Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar). As a way to gain more recruits and donations, the militia’s supporters have also tried to draw a parallel between the current American military presence within the country and that of the Soviet Union’s in the 1980s. Yet this claim does not stand up to closer analysis. The Red Army generally had deployed about 120,000 troops, compared with the US-led coalition forces’ total of about 15,000. Moreover, guerilla activities then were far more widespread than now, where they are concentrated mainly in the south and east. Perhaps the key difference is the Afghan people’s perception of outside forces. While the Soviet presence sparked a massive revolt among the general population, today what Afghans — both those in the government and most ordinary people — have requested is a greater international troop presence especially in the form of peace keepers.
One key similarity between the two time periods, however, is the role that Pakistan plays. Currently, as in the 1980s, Pakistan is host to the forces targeting foreign troops and Afghans loyal to Kabul. A significant difference, however, is increasingly seen in the nature of the attacks. International aid officials have pointed out that for the first time, NGO workers are a particular target of the antigovernment forces. Taliban spokesmen have also recently promised more suicide attacks, an indication of al Qaida’s influence on the movement. Another sign of this same trend is the continued, sizable presence of non-Afghans within the Taliban’s ranks, primarily Pakistanis, Arabs, and “Chechens” — Muslims from the former Soviet Union.
The US-led coalition and Afghan forces from the new National Army have largely been successful in combat against concentrations of Taliban and al Qaida remnants. But the experience of other countries — from Israel to the US, among many others — shows that no matter how strong or stable the central government, no country so far has been completely able to immunize itself from terrorist attacks. Afghanistan almost certainly will not prove to be any different. Yet as long as US troops remain in Afghanistan, they will at a minimum prevent the Taliban from achieving any sort of conventional military victory, which is what it would take for the movement to again make the country a safe haven for terrorism. As one high-ranking Afghan official recently told TM, “a little bit of insecurity is a good thing” since it guarantees that the international community — and particularly American forces — will keep their attention focused on the country. How far Afghanistan progresses beyond that goal will depend at least as much on the decisions of outsiders as on the Afghans themselves.
(1) Gall, Carlotta. “New Afghan Constitution Juggles Koran and Democracy.” The New York Times. October 19, 2003.