Presented at "Afghanistan: Peacebuilding in a Regional Perspective" conference (organized by the Chr. Michelsen Institute and the International Peace Research Institute) in Bergen, Norway on 22-24 September 2002.


The terrorist bombings of September 11, 2001 brought the US back to Afghanistan, ending almost a decade of slow US withdrawal from a nation which had been the focus of so much concern throughout the years of the Cold War. Now, once again, the situation in Afghanistan is defined as critical to US geostrategic concerns, but it should not be presumed that this will long be the case.

After virtually writing off the deteriorating security environment in Afghanistan as of no direct consequence to the US, the Bush administration was stunned when the al Quaeda network demonstrated that its reach extended to US soil. The Americans felt driven to seek immediate action

While everyone in the US administration recognized eliminating the al-Quaeda network in Afghanistan was simply attacking the tip of the iceberg, the US led War on Terrorism had to begin somewhere. Destroying al Quaeda's safe haven in Afghanistan would not end the threat to the US, but it would make it more difficult for terrorists to get training. The al Quaeda camps could not be realistically destroyed without taking out the Taliban government, a group which enjoyed virtually no international recognition or support.

These first decisions were easy to make, as they seemed to have little potential downside. It was a threat that US military officials thought could be dealt with rather quickly and with limited US casualties. The decades of fighting in Afghanistan meant that there were a number of local military surrogates who could be drawn into the fighting, some of whom had already worked with US intelligence agents while rebuffing Soviet invaders, and this would help minimize the loss of life among US troops. Moreover, many of Afghanistan's neighbors saw strong advantage in facilitating a US led military intervention.

US policy-makers quickly decided to provide the military support necessary for the Afghan opponents of the Taliban government to be victorious. While the US was careful to garner strong international backing for these actions, the US was the initiator and the leader of this effort, so much so that Washington gained a deciding voice in naming Hamid Karzai to head an interim government. Washington then helped legitimate his rule and worked to facilitate the process of popular affirmation of his rule. Then, after a series of bombings put his life at risk, the US Department of State even took over the job of insuring the personal security of Afghanistan's president.

Defeating the Taliban was an easy first step. Putting Karzai in power was a more difficult one, and the challenge of keeping him alive could prove more difficult yet. But, although these are the kinds of actions that the US finds easiest to take---arguably because Washington understands how to do them---they do not in and of themselves do anything more than create a plausible setting for Afghan recovery.

The task of rebuilding Afghan society is one that will take decades and tens of billions of dollars to complete. Afghanistan has been a battleground for nearly a quarter of a century. Its factional divisions go deep, its youth know nothing of peacetime life and have few of the skills that it requires, and most of the Afghans with such skills are unwilling to abandon the comfortable lives that they have made for themselves and their families in exile.

President George Bush and key members of his administration have pledged to help see through the long process of "nation-building" in Afghanistan, a goal which in the first dark days after September 11, the US president expressed real scorn for.

On the face of it, there has been an enormous change in US policy toward Afghanistan in the past year. But how much has really changed? This time will the US see through the process of rebuilding Afghanistan? Is the level of US engagement sufficient? What are the consequences if US interest wanes? Will the international commitment to help facilitate Afghan recovery remain strong? Will the security of neighboring states once again be placed at risk?

To date the US has provided some $400 million in assistance since October 2001, and US officials are pressing hard for other countries to promise large sums for the rebuilding of Afghanistan, and to live up to these commitments once they are made. But it is difficult to find evidence that the administration has a real understanding of what it would take to transform Afghanistan into an economically viable country that is not a security threat to its neighbors.

For that reason it is hard to see the Bush administration's foray into nation-building in Afghanistan as first and foremost about Afghanistan and its recovery. In fact, US policy seems primarily designed to reassure US citizens that they are no longer at risk from the chaotic conditions which had led to the establishment of terror camps in that country. US policies in Afghanistan are also designed to demonstrate to potential foreign critics that this US administration sees through its obligations to its allies in the War on Terrorism.

What matters to senior US policymakers is that the situation on the ground in Afghanistan does not impede the aims of the War on Terrorism, and that Afghanistan no longer provides sanctuary to groups that target the US. To date, support for current US international goals has served as a litmus test for distinguishing between friend and enemy in Afghanistan. It was for this reason that the US choose to work with key elements in the former so-called Northern Alliance, including former war lords who might well have been judged international criminals in other settings, and has allowed these men to play an active and sometimes even a leading role in the new transitional Afghan political order.

Over the past year US priorities in Afghanistan have always been shaped by the administration's understanding of the more overarching needs of the US led War on Terrorism. The US long opposed a broad based international security force in Afghanistan because it might hinder the ability of the US to clean out pockets of al Quaeda and Taliban support. The US has also done relatively little to curb the drug trade, and other forms of criminal activity that the local war lords in Afghanistan have long profited from. In particular, the sums of money allocated to try and combat the cultivation of opium have been so small so as to almost sabotage the goals.

It can easily be argued that both these decisions have exacerbated the difficulties of reconstruction in Afghanistan, and both will make it much harder for civilian rulers that are concerned to build a country based on international norms to consolidate their power.

Given the record of US behavior, it would be a mistake to read too much into statements made by US policy-makers that the US will stay the course in Afghanistan, or to assume that even if some in the Bush administration are eager to advance this goal that such statements will be predictive of behavior. Many of these pronouncements may be the sincere desires of the men and women making them, but the process by which words get translated into deeds in Washington is an arduous one. Even if the focus of the administration remains unchanged, key political actors at every stage of the process are able to refocus or modify policy recommendations as they wind their way through Congress and then through the vast US AID and assistance community bureaucracies.

Additionally it is quite difficult to know how seriously to even take the US statements of intent. For all the initial expectations that September 11 would spark the creation of a new international system or even a new paradigm for explaining global security patterns, in many ways its continues to be business as usual in the US foreign policy community.

Save for the cases of rebuilding Germany and Japan in the aftermath of World War II, there are virtually no examples of the US showing any real staying power is seeing through the rebuilding of a war-torn society. The jury is still out on the successor states to Yugoslavia, but these are countries located in Europe, and many European states strongly believe that their economic and more traditional security interests are directly threatened by developments in the Balkans.

Despite the long history of US engagement, Afghanistan is not the kind of country that US policy-makers like to remain in. Afghanistan is neither an Atlantic nor a Pacific state, nor a traditional ally of the US based on any sort of argument of cultural affinity, nor a close friend of the US because of US domestic political expediency. The Afghan diaspora community in the US is small and lacks any real political clout, save through its ability to influence a few congressmen and senators whose districts have benefited disproportionately from US AID sponsored assistance projects in Afghanistan. US business interests have seen little benefit in US engagement as well. The one possible exception was Unocal, which was attracted to the idea of building pipelines to move Turkmenistan's oil and gas to market across Afghanistan in the mid-1990s. But the economics of the project were such that it did not seem worth their while to try and seek US government support for the project against the increasingly more vocal protestations of women's groups who were appalled by the Taliban's treatment of Afghanistan's female population.

The US has a long history of engagement in Afghanistan, and many knowledgeable and experienced people capable of supervising US activities there. But their voices have rarely been heeded in policy debates about with whom and how the US should be engaged.

The history of earlier US involvement in Afghanistan should be instructive. The US has been pulled into Afghanistan to try and respond to more overarching security threats or geopolitical goals. But US interest falters when the geopolitical benefit associated with continued engagement begins to diminish.

It is hard to believe that the level of US engagement in Afghanistan will remain constant as Washington identifies new theaters of international engagement. The US military remains keenly involved in Afghanistan, and is continuing to strengthen the US position in both Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. But the attention of US strategic planners has already shifted to Iraq, and this shift in attention is being justified by a redefined presentation of the nature of the major threat to US security, as it is being presented to the American public

There is certainly a strong argument to be made that the US should remain in Afghanistan to see through the process that Washington has begun. It is very easy to argue that this is in the long-term interests of the US. That in the absence of sustained US engagement Afghanistan the forces which impeded the process of economic and political recovery in Afghanistan will slowly reassert themselves, destabilizing their own country and putting the security of neighboring states at greater risk.

However, the voices that call for sustained and even deepened US engagement in Afghanistan are being drowned out. In fact, it really took a series of extraordinary events to bring the US to the point of active engagement in Afghanistan. Had US airline security personnel been more vigilant at Dulles, Newark and Logan airports, or had Mohammed Atta not been such a good student of civil engineering as to figure out how to bring down the twin towers of the World Trade Center, the US might never have turned its attention to Afghanistan.

For years Western analysts had been pointing to the risks associated with Afghanistan's degeneration into lawlessness, and warning that the dangers were increasing as the Taliban leaders consolidated their hold over nearly 90 percent of the country's territory. This was a theme that was frequently underscored by prominent Russian and Central Asian leaders, all of whom believed that anti-regime activists in their own countries had ties to Afghanistan's theocratic regime.

Despite US participation in a variety of international negotiating efforts to bring peace to Afghanistan, prior to the terrorist attacks on the US, the Bush administration had given little thought to directly intervening to end the civil war in Afghanistan. Nor did the US display any real interest in leading an international recovery effort to rebuild that society in the event that the conflict should be brought to an end.

While most US politicians were quick to grant that the situation in Afghanistan was an unfortunate one, from the time of the Soviet withdrawal in 1987, the fate of Afghanistan ceased to be a US priority. Ironically, the level of US diplomatic engagement in trying to seek a solution to the Afghan civil war had been increasing in recent years, and a bilateral US- Russian- working group on Afghanistan had been established in 2000, whose work was continued after the Bush administration took office. But prior to September 11 Washington rejected the idea of direct US engagement in Afghanistan, as there was a broad consensus that the situation in Afghanistan would not change until the Afghans themselves were ready to see civil order restored.

The stage is already set for the same conclusion to be reached again. Organized acts of violence are occurring more frequently in Afghanistan, and civilian authorities still enjoy little protection from lawless elements who still assert their will over parts of traditional Afghan society. This does not mean that progress is not being made. It is, but the difficulties of "nation-building" that are being encountered in Afghanistan are likely to continue to escalate.

Blame for this, though, lies not just with the rather anarchical Afghans, but also with the US and the international community more generally. The pattern of international engagement in Afghanistan has long been a piecemeal one. The international community moves from relief to reconstruction with a logic that is apparent to those who administer developmental assistance professionally, but its slow pace is often interpreted as indifference by communities that are the target of its efforts.

The more difficult the nation-building process in Afghanistan appears to be, the more likely the international community is to weary of the tasks before them, and the more convincing they are likely to find the pleas of competing claimants for their attention. Rather than committing more resources to Afghanistan, enough to really tip the balance in favor of reform elements, large-scale assistance projects for Afghanistan are likely in fact to be funded more slowly.

With a US administration bent on ousting Saddam Hussein from power, American patience with the Afghan's could prove to be very limited. The War on Terrorism has created extraordinary claims on America's foreign policy resources----which traditionally have been meager, especially given the US's national wealth. A war in Iraq will create untold and unpredictable US burdens and responsibility.

Prior to September 11, 2001, in the face of an international system that was being shaken up by the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe, and the demise of the USSR, three US presidential administrations found what they felt were good reasons not to divert much US assistance to or even expend a great deal of diplomatic resources in Afghanistan. As the US seeks larger and more complex targets in the War on Terrorism, those making the case for increased US engagement in Afghanistan will find it harder and harder to be heard.

Martha Brill Olcott is a Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, DC