IMGXYZ3088IMGZYXAfghanistan has eclipsed Iraq as the focus of U.S. military efforts, a sign of the country’s importance as well as the urgent need to bring resolution to the conflict. As the deadline for the Afghan government to transition to taking full control of its own security from NATO forces approaches in 2014, Afghanistan still faces significant challenges. Hekmat Karzai, director of the Centre for Conflict and Peace Studies (CAPS) in Kabul, Afghanistan, and cousin of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, spoke at the Carnegie Moscow Center about some of these challenges as well as reasons for optimism. Carnegie Moscow Center’s Alexey Malashenko moderated.

The Current Situation in Afghanistan

  • A multi-faceted insurgency: A common misperception in the West is that the Afghan insurgency is a singular, monolithic entity. Instead, it consists of several main groups: the Afghan Taliban, Hezb-i-Islami Gulbuddin, the Haqqani network, the Pakistani Taliban, and foreign fighters (including al-Qaeda). The death of Osama bin Laden could lead to renewed discussions between the Taliban and the Afghan government, Karzai said.
  • Regional factors: Afghanistan’s geographic location is frequently cited as a liability, with many of its neighbors playing a destabilizing role. Terrorists take advantage of a porous border with Pakistan to seek sanctuary there, while Iran has stepped up its soft-power efforts in various countries, including Afghanistan. Karzai labeled Afghanistan a “theme park of conflicts,” in which other countries—such as India and Pakistan, and the United States and Iran—play out their conflicts.
  • State security: At the time of the September 11, 2001 attacks, Afghanistan lacked a security sector—a police force and army. Foreign countries helped to fill this void in specific areas—Germany helped to rebuild a police force, the United States helped to develop an army, and Great Britain spearheaded anti-narcotics efforts—with varying levels of success. While the Afghan National Army has developed well, other state institutions need more progress. Karzai explained that it is not that the insurgency is strong, but that Afghan institutions are weak.
  • International community in Afghanistan: Although NATO has command over the entire Afghan security sector, the mission is comprised of 45 different countries. Each participating country is focused on satisfying its respective constituencies at home and, in the absence of a single development strategy, coordination among countries can be difficult. Furthermore, Karzai noted that traditional counterinsurgency principles hold that 80 percent of resources should go toward political means, with the remainder spent on the military. Currently, however, military expenditures in Afghanistan total over 90 percent of expenses.

Factors Favoring the Insurgency

Karzai highlighted several reasons driving the insurgency:

  • Financial: Many Afghans grapple with persistently high unemployment rates, and some turn to the insurgency as a means of income. Oftentimes, this means trafficking narcotics, which, in addition to aid from al-Qaeda and wealthy financiers, are a key source of revenue for the insurgency.
  • Revenge: Karzai noted that Afghanistan is a conservative Muslim society with strong societal bonds among individuals, and the killing of an individual is often treated as an affront to friends and relatives of this person. Actions by NATO and the International Security Assistance Force therefore often lead some Afghans to join the insurgency out of a desire for revenge.
  • Madrassas: During the time that the Soviet Union was involved in Afghanistan, thousands of madrassas, or Islamic schools, were established throughout neighboring Pakistan. Many of these schools supported the insurgent ideology and are the source of a number of insurgent fighters.
  • Bad governance: Certain governing individuals enrich only themselves or members of their own tribes, while ignoring others, causing resentment among these other groups.
  • The tribal component: Insurgent leaders might hail from a particular tribe and, on the basis of tribal links, bring in new members to join the insurgency.
  • Ideology: Citing Samuel Huntington’s argument of a confrontation between Islam and the West, Karzai noted that many religious clerics have issued a call for Muslims to violently fight “the West.”
  • Media operations: In the past several years, the Taliban has adopted a media-centric approach, publishing a frequently updated website in five languages. The insurgency has also received help from sympathetic media organizations throughout the Arab world. For example, former Taliban senior military commander Mullah Dadullah was prominently featured on Al Jazeera. 

Positive Trends Moving Forward

In the last few years, Afghanistan has made gains in several areas, mostly in the development of its infrastructure and institutions.

  • More attention: Karzai noted that after years of U.S. attention on Iraq, America is now giving Afghanistan the closer look it needs. The current U.S. strategy, first announced in December 2009, focuses more on societal and political factors, rather than a primarily military operation against insurgents, and Karzai believes that this strategy will produce dividends in the future.
  • Afghan National Army and intelligence: The national army has been improving, according to Karzai. It aims to have 170,000 members by the end of 2011, as it becomes a more competent and professional force. The National Directorate of Security, responsible for gathering domestic intelligence, has also made positive strides.

Areas Needing Improvement

  • Afghan National Police: A lack of solid leadership and persistent corruption have prevented the national police force from realizing its full potential, said Karzai.
  • Cohesive approach still needed: NATO operations in Afghanistan are still too much of a “patchwork,” with individual countries assigned to specific geographic areas. While this approach provides some benefits—a country’s military can become well acquainted with a particular geographic area—it also reduces overall effectiveness and can strain solidarity between countries. Fewer geographic restrictions and a more common approach are preferable, noted Karzai.
  • Safe sanctuary: Counterinsurgency efforts are hindered by the presence of a safe haven for insurgents in Pakistan, beyond the reach of NATO and ISAF forces, Karzai said.
  • Effective communication: Afghanistan still lacks a collective communication strategy that can effectively broadcast and share the successes already achieved with the Afghan people, he noted.

View from Moscow

Karzai observed that it is in Russia’s best interests for Afghanistan to become a stable, prosperous nation. For that to happen, certain issues need to be addressed:

  • Violent militancy in Central Asia: Moscow believes that if the Taliban is able to boost its sphere of influence, violence could increase—not just in Afghanistan, but in Commonwealth of Independent States countries and Russia as well, Karzai said.
  • Drugs: Russians comprise almost a third of worldwide narcotics deaths every year, noted Karzai. As a result, dealing with the drug trade in Afghanistan should be an important priority for the Kremlin.

Toward the Future

The future of Afghanistan, said Karzai, lies in three areas:

  • Peace and reconciliation: A political process centering on reintegration and reconciliation is the only way forward. Avenues for dialogue between Afghan leaders and the insurgency must be opened and promoted.
  • Transition: Currently, Afghanistan holds 2014 as the goal for when it will be able to take full responsibility for its own security. Both the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police will play a vital role in this effort.
  • Regional cooperation: Karzai argued that Afghanistan, located at the intersection of several regions, should strive to assume the role of a bridge or hub connecting these regions, and promoting pipelines and increased regional trade must be put in place to reach this objective. Economic interests will play a major role in this effort, Karzai observed.