Afghanistan: Five Years Later
by Stephen Zunes
Foreign Policy in Focus
On the fifth anniversary of the launch
of the U.S.-led war against Afghanistan, the Taliban is growing,
much of the countryside is in the hands of warlords and opium
magnates, U.S. casualties are mounting, and many, if not most,
Afghans are actually worse off now than they were before the U.S.
UN figures place Afghan living standards
as the worst in the world, outside of the poorest five countries
of sub-Saharan Africa, with life expectancy of less than 45 years
(compared with 70 years in neighboring Iran). The per capita gross
domestic product (GDP) is under $200 (compared with $1650 in Iran).
Fewer than three Afghans in 10 are literate, and infant mortality
is among the highest in the world. The economy is barely functioning,
with the country's 24 million people dependent on foreign aid,
the opium trade, and remittances from the five million Afghans
The U.S.-backed government of President
Hamid Karzai has little credibility within the country. Afghans
routinely refer to him as "the mayor of Kabul," since
his authority doesn't extend much beyond the capital city, or
more derisively as the "assistant to the American ambassador,"
given his lack of real authority relative to U.S. occupation forces.
Historically, Afghans respect strong leaders who can at minimum
deliver some degree of security and occasional economic favors.
Karzai has thus far been unable to provide either to the vast
majority of his country's people.
The U.S.-managed presidential elections
in 2004 and parliamentary elections last year_-organized with
very little input from the Afghan people regarding structure or
scheduling_-were riddled with fraud, including stuffed ballot
boxes, vote-buying, intimidation, and multiple voting. U.S. officials
actively pressured a number of prominent presidential candidates
to drop out of the race to help ensure Karzai's election. Even
if the results of the elections were broadly representative of
public sentiment, unelected warlords in the provinces make the
majority of political decisions that affect people's daily lives.
Barnett Rubin, America's foremost scholar
on Afghanistan, described the country as not having "functioning
state institutions. It has no genuine army or effective police.
Its ramshackle provincial administration is barely in contact
with, let alone obedient to, the central government. Most of the
country's meager tax revenue has been illegally taken over by
local officials who are little more than warlords with official
titles." According to Rubin, the goal of U.S. policy in Afghanistan
"was not to set up a better regime for the Afghan people,
but to recruit and strengthen warlords in its fight against al-Qaida."
While women are now allowed to go to school
and leave the house unaccompanied by a close male relative-_rights
denied to them under the Taliban-_most women in large parts of
Afghanistan are afraid to do so out of fear of kidnapping and
rape. Human Rights Watch reports that, despite the ouster of the
misogynist Taliban, "Violence against women and girls remains
The security situation in the countryside
is so bad that groups like Medecins Sans Frontieres-_which stayed
in Afghanistan throughout the Soviet war and occupation of the
1980s, the civil war and chaos of the early to mid-1990s, and
the brutal repression of the Taliban through 2001-_have completely
withdrawn from the country.
Yet the Bush administration continues
to be in denial about the worsening situation in Afghanistan.
President Bush recently declared that Afghanistan was doing so
well that it was "inspiring others to demand their freedom."
And Vice President Cheney has referred to the rapidly deteriorating
Afghan republic as a "rising nation." Secretary of Defense
Donald Rumsfeld earlier described the new Afghanistan as "a
breathtaking accomplishment" and "a successful model."
Amnesty International reports, however,
that during the past year, "The government and its international
partners remained incapable of providing security to the people
of Afghanistan. Absence of rule of law, and a barely functional
criminal justice system, left many victims of human rights violations,
especially women, without redress. Over 1,000 civilians were killed
in attacks by U.S. and Coalition forces and by armed groups. U.S.
forces continue to carry out arbitrary arrests and indefinite
The Bush administration has not taken
kindly to reports of abuse of prisoners and other violations of
international humanitarian law. Last year, angry anti-American
demonstrations in Afghan cities protesting abuses of Afghan prisoners
by American jailers resulted in U.S.-commanded Afghan police shooting
into crowds, leaving 16 dead. Following a Newsweek report of abuses
of Afghan prisoners, Rumsfeld angrily denounced the magazine and
warned that "people need to be careful what they say."
The Bush administration dismissed pleas by President Karzai to
rethink its tactics and to allow for greater Afghan control of
police and military operations.
Warlords, including war criminals that
brutalized the Afghan people prior to the Taliban's takeover,
now rule a number of Afghan provinces. In the north of the country,
they are actually allied with former leaders of the repressive
Communist regime against whom the United States fought a proxy
war in the 1980s. A number of notorious warlords now sit in the
cabinet and hold other high posts in the U.S.-backed regime. Kathy
Gannon, who worked for 18 years as the Associated Press correspondent
in Kabul, has observed in her new book I is for Infidel that the
Afghan government includes "the biggest collection of mass
murderers you'll ever get in one place." Gannon reports that
Afghan Defense Minister Abdul Rashid Dostum's "viciousness
was legendary in Afghanistan." The United States, which has
enormous leverage on the Afghan government, has refused to press
Kabul to bring these war criminals to justice. In fact, top U.S.
military officials work closely with the war criminal Dostum on
internal security issues.
The Rise of the Drug Lords
Fifteen years ago, Afghanistan supplied
90% of the heroin entering Europe. When the Taliban came to power
in 1996, they imposed the greatest curtailment of opium production
in a half century, reducing production to only a small fraction
of its size earlier in the decade. Virtually the entire crop that
remained at the time the United States began bombing Afghanistan
five years ago was in areas controlled by the Northern Alliance,
which the United States helped bring to power soon thereafter.
Indeed, the Bush administration has had a history of cozying up
to drug lords. Hazrat Ali and Haji Mohammed Zaman-_who along with
U.S. forces led the Afghan ground attack against the al-Qaida
holdout in Tora Bora_-had long been the biggest heroin and opium
magnates in the Pashtun areas of Afghanistan.
This past year saw the largest harvest
of opium poppies in history, now representing a full one-third
of the Afghan economy. As much as 92% of the world's illegal heroin
now comes from Afghanistan, leading to a dramatic drop in prices
and an increase of consumption. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime,
in its authoritative annual survey, reported that "opium
cultivation in Afghanistan is out of control" and that "Afghan
opium is fueling insurgency in Western Asia, feeding international
mafias and causing 100,000 deaths from overdoses every year."
The Bush administration has resisted pressure
to take action against the drug lords, refusing to bomb drug labs
and directing troops not to take action if they come upon opium
crops or heroin production. According to New York Times reporter
James Risen in his book State of War, Rumsfeld has met personally
with Afghan military commanders known to be among "the godfathers
of drug trafficking" and made it clear that their illegal
enterprise would be tolerated as long as they remained allied
with the United States.
Aside from the impact of increased opium
production on addicts and their societies worldwide, this resumption
of large-scale Afghan opium production is a significant threat
to Afghanistan's stability, since it is one of the major sources
of the warlordism that has wreaked such havoc on the country.
And, despite cracking down on opium production while in power,
the Taliban are now taxing poppy growers to finance as much as
70% of their renewed military operations. As in Colombia, the
ongoing violence since the United States launched its war five
years ago has resulted in all sides taking advantage of the drug
trade to advance their power and influence.
The Taliban's Comeback
The Taliban emerged under the leadership
of young Islamist seminarians raised in refugee camps in Pakistan
during the 1980s. During that time, a repressive Communist regime
ruled Afghanistan with the support of tens of thousands of Soviet
troops who occupied the country and engaged in a brutal bombing
campaign that took the lives of hundreds of thousands of civilians
and forced up to six million Afghans into exile. In 1992, U.S.-backed
mujahadeen fighters ousted the Communist regime. The country then
descended into chaos as competing factions fought one another.
Out of this turmoil arose the Taliban militia. Many Afghans initially
welcomed the new force for bringing desperately needed stability
and order to the country despite their extremist and totalitarian
brand of Islamic rule.
Because the United States failed to bring
order to the country after attacking Afghanistan and overthrowing
its government five years ago, the Taliban is tragically on the
comeback. Rampant corruption within the U.S.-backed government
and ongoing civilian casualties from U.S. military operations
have also contributed to popular resentment and helped fuel the
Taliban's resurgence. British General David Richards, who serves
as NATO's commander in Afghanistan, said in an interview with
the Associated Press that if conditions for ordinary Afghans do
not improve soon, the majority could switch their support to the
Taliban. While Afghans are aware of the "austere and unpleasant
life" under the extremist Islamist movement, Richards said,
as many as 70% of the population would prefer a return to Taliban
rule if the U.S.-led coalition fails "to start achieving
concrete and visible improvement" to the lives of ordinary
The respected European think tank, the
Senlis Council, reported last month that the Taliban is "taking
back Afghanistan" and now controls much of the southern and
eastern parts of the country. According to the report, "U.S.
policies in Afghanistan have re-created the safe haven for terrorism
that the 2001 invasion aimed to destroy." The Taliban are
as ruthless as ever, attacking civilians who refuse to support
them and specifically targeting women working for relief groups.
They are not alone, however. What the Bush administration labels
"Taliban" also includes a growing coalition that consists
of other clans of Pashtun warriors long renowned for their resistance
to foreigners, as well as nationalist forces once backed by the
United States during the 1980s in the war against the Communist
regime in Kabul. Very few of the guerrillas confronting American
and other NATO forces are foreigners or al-Qaida. Virtually all
of them are ordinary Afghans. Some identify with the Taliban,
some do not. All see themselves as part of the longstanding tradition
of resisting outside invaders, whether British, Soviets, or Americans.
The Taliban offensive in the past year
has taken the lives of more than 2,800 Afghans and 160 Coalition
troops. U.S. troop strength has grown by 15% in the past six months
to 22,000, and the casualty rate for U.S. soldiers relative to
their numbers is even higher than in Iraq.
Even many Bush administration supporters
are recognizing the seriousness of the situation. After meeting
with senior U.S. military officials in southern Afghanistan, Senate
Majority Leader Bill Frist observed, "It sounds to me that
the Taliban is everywhere." Raising questions as to whether
a purely military strategy would work, he added that, to prevail,
Coalition forces needed "to assimilate people who call themselves
Taliban into a larger, more representative government."
Misplaced U.S. Priorities
The war waged five years ago this fall
might well have been avoided by engaging in serious negotiations
with the Taliban regime to bring Osama bin Laden to justice. The
reliance on high-altitude bombing_-with its concomitant high levels
of civilian casualties_-may have been less effective in rooting
out al-Qaida than focusing primarily on small-unit commando operations.
Even after these questionable strategies
in the initial U.S.-led military campaign, the United States still
could have handled the post-Taliban situation better. The Bush
administration should have pressed for peace negotiations between
rival Afghans parties instead of handing power over to the Islamists
and militia commanders who had allied with the United States in
its proxy war against the Soviets in the 1980s.
Until recently, when it transferred command
of Afghan military operations to NATO and successfully pushed
for additional forces from Canada and various European countries,
the United States did not actively solicit support from other
nations out of an apparent desire to steer the political and economic
direction of post-Taliban Afghanistan unimpeded. Instead, the
United States subcontracted security of much of the country to
the warlords, who have actually served to destabilize the country.
Though President Karzai initially tried to curb the power of the
warlords, the United States deliberately strengthened their power
because they were fighting the scattered remnants of the Taliban
and al-Qaida. Furthermore, following the Taliban's overthrow,
the United States rejected international calls for the establishment
of a genuinely multinational force with adequate numbers to maintain
order, which would have included large numbers of troops from
If the United States had given priority
to establishing security beyond the capital city of Kabul, the
new Afghan government would have more easily consolidated its
authority and disarmed warlords and other rogue elements. With
adequate security and funding, development projects could have
enabled the government to win more popular support and brought
more moderate supporters of the Taliban into the political process.
In addition, the power of the drug lords would have diminished,
and farmers could have found better ways of making a living than
growing opium poppies.
President Karzai has criticized the lack
of development aid from the United States, particularly compared
with the half trillion dollars the United States has poured into
Iraq. In the past two years, the United States has slashed spending
for reconstruction for Afghanistan by 30% to help pay for the
Iraq war, and very little of the development aid promised by the
United States has actually gone to help ordinary Afghans. The
respected development agency Action Aid International estimates
that only 14% of U.S. aid to Afghanistan has actually gone to
legitimate development projects, with nearly half of it paying
overpriced and dubiously qualified American technical consultants
and much of the rest going for the purchase of American products
of questionable value to Afghanistan's development priorities.
Indeed, U.S. economic assistance for rebuilding the country is
only a fraction of what the United States has spent to bomb it.
Karzai has also called on the United States
to concentrate its military efforts on stopping the flow of men
and arms from sanctuaries in Pakistan instead of conducting air
strikes against civilian areas and raids on private homes, which
further alienate ordinary Afghans from the government and increase
their sympathy for the Taliban. Though nominally a sovereign nation,
the Afghan government has no control over U.S. military operations
in the country, and U.S. troops can detain Afghan citizens indefinitely
without charge and without permission of their government.
While the media and Democratic Party leaders
have increasingly acknowledged the tragic blunders of U.S. policy
in post-Saddam Iraq, few have raised their voices about the Bush
administration's tragic mishandling of post-Taliban Afghanistan
beyond the failure to capture Osama bin Laden at Tora Bora at
the end of 2001.
U.S. failures in Afghanistan are closely
connected to the U.S. decision to invade Iraq. In addition to
sapping financial resources that could have provided development
aid needed to win over Afghan hearts and minds, the United States
diverted soldiers, spy satellites, military equipment, and other
vital resources away from the unfinished job in Afghanistan. For
example, the U.S. Army's Fifth Special Forces group and other
elite units originally slated to continue tracking down al-Qaida
remnants and Taliban leaders left for the Persian Gulf in 2002
to prepare for the invasion of Iraq.
Despite these manifold failures of Bush
administration policy, however, the United States can take several
steps to contribute to the prospects of peace and security in
Afghanistan. It should develop a counter-insurgency strategy that
lessens reliance on air power, which has thus far resulted in
large-scale civilian casualties and, as a result, increased anti-American
and anti-government sentiment. The multinational force in Afghanistan
should expand to include troops from Muslim nations to counter
the xenophobia resulting from the predominance of North American
and European forces. The United States should insist that Pakistan
eliminate the sanctuaries used by Taliban and al-Qaida forces
to infiltrate into Afghanistan, which may require U.S. pressure
on the Musharraf dictatorship to consent to free elections that
can allow for a more credible representative government.
On the economic front, the United States
should dramatically increase international assistance to Afghanistan
under UN supervision designed to create sustainable development,
particularly in rural areas. It should support a campaign against
opium production and provide viable income-producing alternatives
for the rural economy. And it should pressure the Karzai regime
to crack down on corruption and purge his government of war criminals,
opium magnates, and others who have abused the human rights of
the Afghan people.
It's not too late for the United States
to reverse course in Afghanistan and, with sensible military and
economic policies, prevent the country from further slipping into
the violence and lawlessness that threaten to push the country
down the same path as Iraq.
Stephen Zunes is Middle East editor for
the Foreign Policy In Focus Project, where this report first appeared.
He is a professor of politics and the author of Tinderbox: U.S.
Middle East Policy and the Roots of Terrorism (Common Courage