Kandahar is the political and economic frontline of the war in Afghanistan. As the birthplace of the Taliban, the stakes are high for reconstruction and stabilization efforts in the surrounding area. Throughout Afghanistan, the Taliban are growing stronger and the insurgency against NATO and Afghan forces is increasing. The justice system is corrupt at best, and at worst, non-existent, and the elected government appears powerless. The effects on daily life in Kandahar are stark: at night people fear the Taliban, by day, they fear corrupt officials and have little access to basic goods and services.

Sarah Chayes - humanitarian, journalist and author – led a roundtable discussion at Carnegie Europe where  she gave a detailed account of her experiences living in Kandahar since 2001. She emphasized that it is of the utmost importance to understand the complex nature of the Afghan people, as well as the infrastructural realities on the ground.

Three Chances

Chayes began by explaining how the election of Barack Obama has given the West a a third chance to do right in Afghanistan. The first chance came in 1989 when the United States successfully enabled Afghan forces to fight an invading Soviet Force. The United States achieved its goal of pushing the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan, but missed the opportunity to build an Afghan nation. Instead it completely withdrew from the country, leaving a power vacuum that the Taliban filled in 1996.

The second chance came in 2001 with the start of ‘Operation Enduring Freedom’ and the election of President Hamid Karzai. This was a time of optimism in Afghanistan. Karzai was well respected and the allied forces were welcomed. The Afghans expected the United States to have a plan for reconstruction, but it soon became clear there was no plan, no clearly set objectives, and very little internal coordination. A lack of forward thinking was compounded by a lack of resources, which only became more pronounced as the war in Iraq dragged on.

Today the Afghans feel positive about Barack Obama and the presence of the allied forces. But war fatigue is setting in for both Afghanistan and the United States and Europe. The war has seen very little success over the last seven years, and doubts are raised about whether the war can be a success at all.

Expecting Withdrawal

The widespread international media attention given to the likelihood that Western governments will withdraw from Afghanistan is interpreted by the Taliban as an admission of defeat.  Taliban fighters and regular Afghan citizens hear these reports and expect allied forces to withdraw at any moment, leaving many Afghans to give up hope. They are giving in to the Taliban in the hope of regaining a semblance of governance  and protection from government and Taliban abuses.

Democracy in Afghanistan

Chayes stressed the critical importance of nation-building in Afghanistan. Currently, democratic institutions are breeding corruption. Bribery is rife, bureaucracy is unworkable, and basic services are inaccessible, even in cities. There is a severe lack of citizen redress and no system in place to handle and vet citizen complaints of government abuse.

Afghanistan’s elections are also under threat. The 2005 elections did more to discredit the concept of democracy than it did to instill it. Shallow assessments of the election  by international agencies like the United Nations, which described them as a ‘feat in governance’ despite little regulation of the ballot counting process,  only undermined the value of democracy for many.

There are fears in Afghanistan that history will repeat itself in this election year. Many Afghans people are beginning to question why the West would endorse a process that has, so far, led only to corruption.

Capacity for Good Governance

Fears that there is a dearth of capable people in Afghanistan to run government are unfounded, argued Sarah Chayes. The problem is that the wrong people are in government.  When the United States overthrew the Taliban in 2001, they did so with the help of the Afghan military and warlords. They then left those people in power, which has inevitably led to corruption.

Although there is not a shortage of capable people to run government there is very little in the way of training for those who choose, or would choose, to enter public service. Chayes proposed the creation of a mentoring system similar to the one currently used to train the Afghan National Army. That program has been extremely successful and could be applied to the public sector at relatively little cost. 


The United States cannot attempt to bring about stability in Afghanistan without addressing the question of Pakistan. Living in Kandahar, Chayes said it quickly becomes clear that there is a coordinated effort by the Pakistani military to encourage insurgency. Conflict on the border benefits Pakistan’s military by helping to justify its existence within Pakistan’s domestic debate.

The United States will need to actively support countervailing civilian forces in Pakistan in order to combat the growing strength of the Pakistani military. This will then lead to a lessening of insurgency on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. 

European Commitment

There are concerns in Europe that faltering European public support for Afghanistan will hinder Europe’s commitment to Afghanistan. There is a great deal of impatience in Europe regarding the war. And yet, Europe will need to commit to Afghanistan in the long haul if it hopes to play a positive role in its recovery.

Chayes suggested that a part of the problem may lie in the fact that European governments have difficulty explaining to their people why the Afghan war is important. This may be due to the fact that the governments themselves lack a clear understanding.

European weariness is also a product of negative perceptions: citizens are not opposed to dedicating resources to Afghanistan in principle, but are fatigued by a war that appears to be resulting in the needless deaths of both civilians and soldiers.

If the West cannot make a sustained commitment to nation-building and security in Afghanistan, then it should withdraw altogether. Continuing along the path of ad hoc counter-terrorism and state building can only lead to more civilian and troop casualties.