The Failed State of Afghanistan: Introduction



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The Failed State of Afghanistan: Introduction

Currently playing on the world stage is the Global War on Terror and of the many actors involved in the production Afghanistan has a leading role. Afghanistan is a country with a turbulent history. The cold war left the country in chaos and civil war that eventually led to the rise of an oppressive regime that was based on extremism, called the Taliban. Taliban relations with terrorism led to its own removal from power when Afghanistan became the first front in the war on terror. While removing the Taliban from power was seemingly a flawless act, it actually placed Afghanistan in a dire situation. Although the Taliban was violent and oppressive, it was arguably a legitimate government in the sense that it was able to impose its will over more than 90 percent of the territory (Background 1). A legitimate government is an important part of the structure of a state. Without a legitimate government, the functions of an effective state are impossible to achieve, warlords and their militias break up the territory through fighting, and narcotics production runs rampant. The acts of invading of Afghanistan and deposing the Taliban were intended to liberate the Afghani citizens and vanquish the terrorists, but one unwanted result has been the failure of the state.

The Global War on Terror has caused significant changes for the country, changes that never would have occurred had it not been for the attacks by Al-Qaeda on the U.S., and the Taliban’s connection to that terrorist organization. Afghanistan is now currently being reconstructed under the supervision of the U.S.-led coalition, the United Nations, and the current Afghan government. Afghanistan’s supervised reconstruction will remain a leading global issue until it is completed, as it remains a front in the terror war, is an important opportunity for the United Nations to experiment with “peace building,” and provides implications for the future of democracy and perhaps stability in the Middle East. The successful completion of constructing a new Afghanistan is therefore paramount, and it is necessary to consider how to advance the process into the future. In order to interpret the reconstruction process as it stands today, it is necessary to understand the background that led to the failure of the state, and the reconstruction process as it has progressed thus far.

Before the Terror War: Afghanistan Withering

Afghanistan’s Cold War and post-Cold War history includes many pertinent events leading to its current status of a failed state; the state was in a weakened condition even before the Global War on Terror. War, drug trade, human rights issues, and an intimate link to terrorism mark Afghanistan’s recent history. A history that is politically complex, with Islamic fundamentalists, warlords, and drug traffickers playing key roles. During the mid-1990s, one group took control of Afghanistan and that was a fundamentalist group called the Taliban. While the Taliban did implement some policies restricting the drug trade in Afghanistan, the state of Afghanistan began to wither under the regime between 1996 and 2001 (Rasanayagam 191). The Taliban, while able to maintain military power over most of the state, showed its either unwillingness or incompetence in maintaining the other attributes of a sovereign nation. The Taliban never built the institutions needed to run a state, or assumed any responsibility for the welfare of the Afghani citizens. Instead “they left [these tasks] to the international community of UN agencies and NGOs funded by foreign donors (Rasanayagam 212).” Under the Taliban, women were oppressed and there was continuous fighting between the regime and the remnants of the Northern Alliance, freedom fighters who opposed the Taliban’s rule (Marsden 58). The relationship between Afghanistan and terrorism also blossomed under the Taliban, and this relationship led Afghanistan to become the first front in the war on terror when the terrorist organization it was harboring attacked the U.S. on September 11, 2001. Ironically, the U.S. was partially responsible for both the rise of the Taliban, and Afghanistan becoming a haven for terrorism.



Afghan History: Soviets then Terrorists

Between the years of 1980 and 1991, the United States had a vested interest in Soviet occupied Afghanistan. It is well known that the U.S. made many contributions to the Afghans fighting to rid the country of Soviet influence, through money and weapons. A lesser-known U.S. contribution was freedom fighters in the form of the most radical Muslims from around the world. This was a joint effort between the American CIA (Central Intelligence Agency) and the Pakistan ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence), with Saudi Arabia also contributing some radicals of their own; one being Osama bin Laden. This strategy served all three actors, it helped Pakistan further Islamic causes, it contributed to the U.S. cold war policy by showing “the entire Muslim world fighting the Soviet Union alongside the Afghans (Haleem 124),” and it helped Saudi dump some of its extremists on another country. One unforeseen result of this strategy was the hatred the extremists held for the Soviets being eventually transferred to the nations, which had inserted them into Afghanistan.

During the years of war between Afghanistan’s freedom fighters and the Soviet backed forces, both the Americans and Soviets had strengthened political movements that had little indigenous support (Marsden 148). After the Soviets left and anarchy ensued, these political movements failed to form any government and led to more fighting, this time between several of the left over factions. The early 1990s saw a period of civil war in Afghanistan between competing factions/movements that had historically opposed each other over nationalistic and religious issues (Johnson 2). American interest in Afghanistan dwindled as Soviet influence had been eradicated by the beginning of the decade, but Pakistan’s interest continued. The Taliban movement was directly related to the Soviet occupation and subsequent withdrawal. The combined factors of Pakistan’s remaining interest, and the post-Cold War condition of Afghanistan made the time ripe for the ascent of the Taliban.

Pakistan wanted a government in place that would be friendly and one movement that seemed to fit the bill was the Taliban (Haleem 125). Pakistan’s population includes many people of the Pashtun ethnicity (the ethnic majority in Afghanistan), and believed they would be able to open direct trading routes for trade with Central Asia by assisting a Pashtun group in taking power in Afghanistan (Haleem 125). Pakistan helped the Taliban, which was primarily Pashtun, take power in the mid-1990s. At the time, the U.S. supported the Taliban’s regime through its allies, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, because the Taliban seemed to bring stability to the chaotic Afghanistan, and shared American anti-Iranian sentiment. However, the U.S. miscalculated the true motives of the Taliban, and when the Taliban captured Kabul, the capital city, in 1996 and established the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, the U.S. did not recognize the true threat the Taliban posed. It was not long, however, before the true goals of what was in fact a theocratic totalitarian regime became evident. Even before Kabul was captured, the Taliban had marginalized Pakistan’s influence, not allowing Pakistan to use the regime as a puppet, and had begun to support terrorist organizations such as Al-Qaeda.



The Taliban’s Intimacy with Terrorism

In September of 1996, before the capture of Kabul, Osama Bin Laden, a leader in the terrorist organization Al-Qaeda, had become a supporter of the Taliban. Bin Laden had recognized the potential for the Taliban to become the leading power in Afghanistan, and donated a large amount of money (some $3,000,000 (U.S.)) toward the campaign to take Kabul (Nojumi ). In the following years, Bin Laden would strengthen his ties with the Taliban even more thorough finances, weapons, and through intermarriage with the Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar. It was during these years that Bin Laden was able to set up training camps and coordinate his terrorist undertakings around the world in the name of Al-Qaeda. The Taliban provided safe haven for terrorists through out the late 1990s, and this brought the story of the U.S., Pakistan, and the Cold War full circle. The terrorists from Afghanistan began to wreak havoc in a diminishing Pakistan in the later part of the decade, and terrorism born in Afghanistan found its way to United States soil. The attack on the United States in 2001 marked the beginning of a new era for both the world and Afghanistan. The relationship between the Taliban and Al-Qaeda/Osama Bin Laden led to the expulsion of both from Afghanistan, and the failure of the state.



The Era of the Terror War: An Era of Change for Afghanistan

In 2001, the United States-led war on terror began. The falling of the World Trade Center towers will become as historically significant a symbol as the end of the Cold War; although, while the dismantling of the Soviet Union signified the end of an era, the towers represent the beginning of an era. The age of the Global War on Terror began on September 11, 2001. The weeks following the attacks saw the U.S. skillfully organize the coordination of information and international support to prepare for the initial stages of the war. The two targets listed for the first campaign of the war, later named Operation Enduring Freedom, were “the Al-Qaeda training camps and installations in Afghanistan and the Taliban (Rasanayagam 252).” The U.S. decided to use lessons learned in Operation Desert Storm and begin the offensive using air power to destroy the military capacity of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. The second phase was a ground offensive run by the U.S., but involving a combination of forces from Russia, Great Britain, and the Northern Alliance (Rasanayagam 252). The Northern Alliance consisted of a barely cohesive group of militant factions led by a smorgasbord of warlords. The campaign began on 7 October 2001 and continues today. Operation Enduring Freedom saw the Taliban’s political force virtually eliminated and Al-Qaeda’s withdrawal from the country. Unfortunately, with the deposing of the Taliban, Afghanistan saw its, if not legitimate at least dominant, government dissolve along with whatever sovereignty existed under Taliban rule, and this further diminished the already withering state. The ousting of the Taliban left a power vacuum that needed to be filled with a new government, and a state in dire need of reconstruction.



State Building: Transition to a new Government

An interim government was established as a result of the December 2001 “Agreement on Provisional Arrangements in Afghanistan Pending the Re-Establishment of Permanent Government Institutions (also called the Bonn Agreement).” Bonn Delegates chose Hamid Karzai to be the head of an interim government based in Kabul (Johnson 3). The goal of democratic development was also introduced during this conference, and a timetable, of four years, for the completion of the goals set by the agreement was established. Bonn included provisions for the creation of loya jirgas (grand assemblies) both emergency and constitutional, and set other goals for the process of re-construction. The emergency loya jirga was to elect a transitional government, and the constitutional loya jirga would draft a constitution for the nationally elected government. Such goals included, the United Nations playing a key role in the process, National elections by 2004, the organization of an Afghan military, and the eventual discharge of all aid when the re-construction was completed. Bonn outlined the process to rebuild the state of Afghanistan.

The emergency loya jirga met in June 2002, and included 1,600 participants from all regions of the country. The loya jirga selected the transitional government and elected a president to head it. Hamid Karzai was elected and he appointed, and the loya jirga approved of, a 111-member cabinet. The transitional government would also be run from Kabul. Bonn called for a constitutional loya jirga to adopt a new constitution within 18 months of the selection of the transitional government (Johnson 9). The United Nations saw the drafting of a constitution as a “fundamental state building exercise”, and from December 2003 to January 2004, a 502-person loya jirga met and drafted a new Afghan constitution (Johnson 9).

Under the new constitution, the Head of State and Head of Government is the President. The President is eligible for two 5-year terms, and is elected by a majority of the popular vote. There are now 34 recognized provinces in Afghanistan, Each province is governed by provincial councils; council members are elected by a popular vote, and they serve 4-year terms. A Supreme Court and bicameral legislature were also created. The two chambers of the legislature include the Meshrano Jirga (upper house), and the Wolesi Jirga (lower house). The lower house has the power to ratify treaties, propagate laws, and approve budgets. A fixed number of delegates from each of the 34 provinces are to constitute the 249 member Wolesi Jirga (Komano 13). The upper has the power to approve proposed laws and the budget. Both houses contain elected members from all 34 provinces, but the Meshrano Jirga has a mixture of appointed and elected members. The Meshrano Jirga will consist of 102 members, one delegate from each provincial assembly, one delicate to represent the district assemblies in each province, and 34 delegates appointed by the president (Komano 13). The power to impeach the president was also included in the powers of the bicameral legislature.

The constitution made many provisions to affirm women’s equality under the new government. The president is required to choose women for half of his appointees to the House of Elders, and the House of People is supposed to include at least 68 women, about 25 percent (Johnson 10). Under Taliban rule, Afghan women suffered under oppression. Under the new government, it seems that women will not suffer, and will actually play an important role in the new system. With the constitution for the new system drafted, the next step was to elect the persons to fill the offices.

State Building: Electing the New Government

The Bonn Agreement called for, free and fair, elections within two years of the emergency loya jirga, but several factors caused delays. Rather than having presidential, provincial, and legislative elections on the same day, they were rescheduled for different times. By June 2004, the two-year deadline, elections had not yet taken place, but the first presidential elections were scheduled for October.9 October 2004. Eligible voters for the elections were those over the age of 18, and out of the 11,350,000 registered voters 8,120,000 voted (Kamano 11). Hamid Karzai won the majority of the vote, and the presidential election over 17 other candidates (Rubin and Humayun 9). With 55.4 percent of the vote, Karzai received much strong support from urban areas, but detailed analysis of the election results shows that region support ran along ethnic lines (Kamano 11). Nonetheless, the presidential election was a success in that the Taliban insurgents did not sabotage it, and it would appear as though the people of Afghanistan were enthusiastic about the new democratic process. There was a voter turn out rate of more than 70 percent. Legislative and Provincial elections were later held on 18 September 2005, with women winning the proper proportions of seats in both houses of the legislature as outlined by the constitution (Johnson 15).

Through these elections, Afghanistan established a legitimate government within its own state, and took a step toward international recognition of its legitimacy. The UN generally recognizes states with democratic constitutions, and sees elections as a “principal benchmark” (Rubin 184). The United States recognizes legitimate governments that are elected by “universal adult suffrage,” and, along with the UN, also requires that states adhere to basic human rights standards (Rubin 184). With its new constitution, and elected government, with women holding positions, Afghanistan is certainly moving toward international legitimacy. However, Afghanistan has yet to become internationally legitimate because it still lacks some of the key factors that make an effective state, and continues to be a failed state.

Reconstruction Incomplete: New Government, but Still a Failed State

To say that early reconstruction processes were a failure would be a false statement; however, in retrospect, several things could have received more consideration. Explanation for why Afghanistan continues as a failed state can be found in some of the processes that took place immediately following the removal of the Taliban. The emergency loya jirga and Bon Agreement created a transitional government based in Kabul, and established an itinerary to develop a new permanent government; however, neither provided plans for creating the institutions necessary for a new state to establish the legitimacy of that government.

An effective state needs have a monopoly of the security institutions in its territory; in other words, the state should be the dominant force of the land. While Bonn did establish the goal to develop Afghan security and armed forces, it did not provide provisions for achieving this goal. As a result, the forces that the Kabul government has to enforce its power are not strong enough to control the land of Afghanistan; they are not even strong enough to control Kabul. Assistance from international forces is required just to keep order in Kabul, and despite this assistance, three election administrators from the UN staff were taken hostage, in broad daylight, the same day the presidential election results were announced. So while the Kabul government is legitimate, in the sense that the people of the country elected it, it is suffering a crisis of penetration.

Without the development of strong forces that are under the control of the Kabul government, Afghanistan will continue to be a failed state. The U.S.-led coalition and the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) are currently developing the Afghanistan National Army (ANA), but an Afghan army capable of controlling the entire state has yet to materialize. For now, the international forces still do the majority of fighting, and this presents another problem in itself. If the forces with the monopoly over security institutions are not controlled by the Afghan government, then any progress toward establishing the new government’s rightful rule over the country is hollow, as the power comes from outsiders not the government.

Bonn also neglected to address many of the problems that have continued to plague the re-constructing of Afghanistan such as, the fighting between different ethnic groups, the regional chieftains, referred to as “warlords”, and the resurgence of the opium production (Johnson 2). The warlords who had helped run the Taliban out of the country did not want to participate in the new Kabul government when it was established. The warlords instead preferred to keep their autonomy; this decision has led to center-periphery tensions, and thus, has greatly contributes to the crisis of penetration the new government has been perpetually faced with.

The failure of Bonn to address the problem of the warlords has led the interim, transitional, and elected governments, to contend with the influence of the warlords and their powerbase. The warlords’ powerbases come from the regional militias they control, and for many, the financing they gain through the production and trade of opium. The opium production in Afghanistan has skyrocketed since the deposing of the Taliban:

The country is fast approaching narco-state status with its opium crop and transport representing 35-60 percent of the country’s licit GDP. Current estimates posit that approximately 87 percent of the world’s heroin is produced in Afghanistan (Johnson 1).

The regional warlords will no doubt continue to present immense problems in the reconstruction of Afghanistan.

Had the Bonn agreement considered incorporating the moderate Taliban into the new system, rather than just hoping the group would dissolve on its own, the insurgency may never have become an issue, but now it is too late. For now, the ISAF has the responsibility of protecting the new Afghan government against the insurgents, and the U.S.-led coalition has the responsibility of counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency. During 2006, the security in Afghanistan began to deteriorate. In 2007, when there was a troop surge in Iraq, another front in America’s war on terror, security was improved there; however, with increased security in Iraq, the U.S. saw the situation in Afghanistan continue to escalate (International 1). Subsequently, U.S. commanders in Afghanistan have since been asking for more troops to fight a mounting insurgency. Although the Taliban saw its political, and most of its military, power vanished in 2001, those extremists who were left over regrouped, and even after seven years of war, the they have yet to yield, and it is likely that they have been aided by Al-Qaeda. The war, it seems, is bound to continue for many more years; some officials even say that it is fated to be unsuccessful (We 7). Until a capable Afghan national army is built, these forces will continue to be responsible for the security. Security, along with many other issues, is very important in the reconstruction process.

In early 2006, following the end of the four-year period of the Bonn Agreement, the London Conference on Afghanistan was held to address impediments to reconstruction and confirm the commitment of the international community to the process. A new five-year plan, called the Afghanistan Compact, was produced during the London Conference, and, much like the Bonn Agreement, it established benchmarks to further the efforts toward Afghanistan becoming an effective state (Rubin and Humayun 1). The Afghanistan Compact attempts to tackle the things that Bonn had failed to address, as well as other persisting problems plaguing the reconstruction process. The compact aims to develop Afghanistan into an effective, independent, and legitimate state. For Afghanistan to meet such lofty goals, the compact provides plans to improve security, governance, develop the economy, reducing the narcotics industry, and improving regional cooperation (Rubin and Humayun 10). With the Afghanistan Compact, the international community reaffirmed its commitment to the state-building process in Afghanistan, but in order for reconstruction to end successfully, those involved will need to consider several critical factors as they progress.



The Future of Reconstruction

One of the immediate issues that must be addressed is the production and trafficking of narcotics. It is one of the most, if not the most, significant problems impeding the progress of Afghanistan (Stránsky 39). The narcotics economy funds the Taliban, terrorists, and warlords; thus, fueling the violence and internal tensions within the country. Afghanistan will not be able to eliminate the narcotics problem alone. Narcotics issues affect the international community at large, and no one can solve the problem alone. The solution of the narcotics problem in Afghanistan will only be found through international support and cooperation. Any plan to fix the problem must realize that the process will take some time. A long-term plan must be organized and the aid from the international community must not be based on the condition of short term-eradication of narcotics production, such a plan would impoverish the country and undermine the reconstruction process in general (Rubin and Humayun 11). Many farmers depend on the poppy crop for their livelihood, so the immediate destruction the entire crop would be a grave mistake. Instead, the solution would be to provide massive support to the farmers in the coming years to wean them off the poppy crop and on to other crops, and then to provide a market in which the new crops may be sold (Stránsky 39). The issue of narcotics is one of many that will require the support and cooperation of the international community to solve.

In order to solve any of the problems facing reconstruction the amount and type of assistance provided by the international community must be taken into account. The resources, support, and assistance provided must be carefully orchestrated to advance the newly created Afghan institutions, and to provide the opportunity for Afghanistan’s sovereignty to grow (Rubin and Humayun 11). Recognizing that it is neither time to reduce the military presence of the U.S. coalition or UN forces, nor is it time to reduce economic aide is also paramount. Reducing aid and military presence before reconstruction is complete could have catastrophic effects on the future of the state.

Methodical implementation of the aide and support of the international community over the next phase of reconstruction will be very important. To ensure Afghanistan will not fall apart once the direct support of the international community is gone, a few critical missions must be completed. The international actors supporting the reconstruction must be willing to provide the means to develop Afghanistan’s economy, continue aiding the establishment of the new government, and try to integrate the new Afghanistan into the region (Rubin and Humayun 10).

The building of a successful state will require the growth of a successful economy. A stronger economy will be crucial in providing the finances needed to help Afghanistan take over security, improve governance, tackle narcotics and build a justice system (Rubin and Humayun 11). Therefore, a developed economy will also be important in the process of the new Afghan government establishing legitimacy, and stability in the state.

Those supporting the process of legitimizing the new government must be sure to provide the funding and aide required for the necessary institutions until the Afghan economy is built up. Funding will be needed to build police, and security forces. The Afghan National Army will require funding as well as training. Government institutions will also require much aide, until established as legitimate the revenue the government receives to fund its institutions, through taxation, will be limited because of the crisis of penetration. Finances through trade will also be scarce until the economy is developed and the government is established as legitimate.

One final issue that must be resolved before a reconstructed Afghanistan would be safe and secure in the Middle East, is the integration of the new state into the region. Ethnic, political, and economic tensions will leave Afghanistan fending for itself in the middle of an unfriendly region if steps are not taken to assure its successful reintegration once it becomes an independent state again. The relationship between Pakistan and Afghanistan will be most important in this integration process. Years of conflict over trade, ethnic, and border issues have lead to a sour relationship between Pakistan and Afghanistan (Rubin and Humayun 10). Most recently, Pakistan and Afghanistan forces clashed when, in spring of 2007, Pakistan constructed a fence along the two countries contiguous border. The international community must work to resolve the issues between the two neighboring countries so that Afghanistan can have an ally, or at least one less enemy, in the region. Before the aforementioned missions are completed, it is unlikely that the reconstruction process will be completed successfully.

An Austere Present but Hope for the Future

A failed state is one in which the national government cannot control its own territory. Afghanistan became a failed state the day that Operation Enduring Freedom started. Once the Taliban was removed, Afghanistan lost the things that make a state a state; such as sovereignty, legitimate government, and independence. While historic achievements have been made in the years since the war began, it has to be acknowledged that Afghanistan has yet to become an effective state. Afghanistan remains less than sovereign, and the problem of establishing legitimacy for the new government persists.

Currently, Kabul is aided by international forces in establishing its legitimacy, and so even if the crisis of penetration is solved, Afghanistan’s sovereignty could at best be considered limited. The states sovereignty would be limited because, in order to receive the aide of international forces, Afghanistan has had to give up certain rights to the supranational entities, and foreign nations that supply it. Until Afghanistan is able to establish its new government as legitimate by means of its own institutions, the state will be unable to attain true sovereignty and independence. In 2011, when the Afghanistan Compact has run its course, it will once again be time for all those involved to convene and evaluate the progress of reconstruction, as well as revise the blueprints for the new Afghanistan. By that time, the Afghanistan project will certainly not be complete, but, optimistically, the country will still be headed toward a rebirth, as it is now.

In 2011, the global community will again have to decide whether to continue its commitment to rebuilding Afghanistan. It would be nonsensical not to recommit because, when reconstruction of the state is finally completed, Afghanistan may become an effective democratic state in the Middle East, and perhaps provide a platform to bring stabilization to the region. The success of a democratic Afghanistan would greatly help in promoting democratic movements in other states of the region. If democracy becomes popular among Middle Eastern nations then stabilization would necessarily follow because ideally democracies do not go to war with other democracies. Democracy and stabilization are lofty ideas in the Middle East; ideas that are presently grounded by the fact that reconstruction of Afghanistan remains ongoing and problematic. If such ideas ever take flight, it will not be in the near future, but that is not say they will never be actualized. With perseverance from the global community, the building of a new state of Afghanistan will one day be successful, and perhaps peace in the region will follow.

Works Cited

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"International: Petraeus's next war; Iraq and Afghanistan."The Economist 4 Oct. 2008: Research Library. ProQuest.  Odum Library, Valdosta, GA.  7 Nov. 2008 

Johnson, Thomas. “Afghanistan’s post-Taliban transition: the state of state-building after war.” Central Asian Survey 25.1 (2006): 1-26.

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Rubin, Barnett and Humayun Hamidzada. “From Bonn to London: Governance Challenges and the Future of State-Building in Afghanistan.” International Peacekeeping 14.1 (2007): 8-25.



Stránsky, Martin Jan. “The Road Ahead.” The New Presence Summer (2007): 36-39

"We have no imperial right to remake nations." New Statesman 13 Oct. 2008: 7+. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Odum Library, Valdosta, GA. 7 Nov. 2008 .


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