Special Reports



Overview 2001-2008

In 2001-2, as the ‘international community’ set out to reshape and rebuild the Afghan state, there was a lot of optimism that the project could be achieved. By and large Afghans were welcoming external intervention, which promised to bring in a lot of money and was not very heavy militarily. ISAF at that time just operated in Kabul and had a relatively hands-off approach; its main task was to prevent a coup of the militias in control of Kabul against transitional president Karzai. American operations within the context of Enduring Freedom were causing some controversy because they were much more aggressive, were sometime causing casualties among civilians and clashed with local traditions and attitudes. However, the impact of such misbehaviour was limited to some remote areas of the country and was not spreading around. The new Afghan authorities, led by Hamid Karzai, seemed to accept the international agenda and to intend to play by the rules. This, as least, was the picture presented to the public within the so-called Western democracies. 

On the ground, the feeling was already in 2002, quite different. The UN mission (UNAMA) which was supposed to assist and coordinate an effort to be driven by the Afghan government itself, appeared highly inefficient and devoid of any clear idea of how Afghanistan could be run. The result was the resort to the classical ‘template approach’, that is trying to apply standard measures used elsewhere to Afghanistan, without much effort to adapt to the local situation. Hence priorities were a new constitution and presidential and parliamentary elections, while the re-establishment of functional security forces and sub-national administration was neglected, even if these could have been argued to be the real priorities. 

The Taliban Regroups
When the Taliban insurgency started in the summer of 2002, it was initially dismissed as cross-border operations sponsored by remnants of Al-Qaida or by rogue elements of the Pakistani security establishment. Indeed, for the first several months the insurgency amounted to little more than a nuisance in military terms. What many observers did not realise at that time was that the Taliban leadership was dispatching agents throughout that half of the country south of the Hindu Kush, trying to re-mobilise networks of old Taliban. Facing little opposition by the highly incompetent and dysfunctional Afghan armed forces, during 2003 they started having significant success in some of the more remote areas, where the influence of the clergy was greater, often sympathetic to the Taliban, and where the prospects of benefiting from the externally induced economic recovery were weaker or non-existent. 

The fate of these regions mattered little to Kabul, but they turned into the breeding ground of a larger insurgent army, which by 2005-6 was ready to start spreading to many regions, which were neither economically depressed, nor marginal. The influence of the clergy in these new regions of Taliban infiltration was not as strong as in the original ones, but the task of the insurgents was facilitated by the concomitant deployment of large numbers of foreign troops in these very areas. The new deployment was of course designed to secure these areas against the insurgents, but had the perverse effect of convincing local power-brokers that the ‘foreigners’ were up to disrupting local patterns of influence and control and hurting their entrenched interests. 

This was typically the case of Helmand province, where the power bloc of Sher Mohammed Akhundzada was directly threatened by British deployment, not least because the Brits insisted on Sher Mohammad’s removal from the position of governor. Without the cooperation of these power brokers, the foreign forces were isolated and blind in regions which they did not know, and thereafter struggled to find their footing in the confrontation with the Taliban.

By 2006, therefore, the insurgency was engulfing all of southern Afghanistan, even if it remained marginal in the south-east and most of the east. Soon, however, the expanded battleground started breeding even more fighters for the Taliban guerrilla army, allowing them further expansion westwards towards Herat and eastwards towards Kabul. By 2008, a number of relatively wealthy or at least well-connected provinces around the capital itself were fully affected by the insurgency and outside central control, like Wardak and Logar. The insurgency had by now reached critical mass, which allowed it to start mobilising around itself all types of grievances against the government, including that of people who had little or no ideological sympathy for the Taliban themselves.

It did not help that by 2008 the credibility of the Afghan government had sunk to very low levels. From the perspective of the Afghan public, the main issue was the unprecedented corruption of the new government. The unrestrained promises made in the early months of the post-Taliban era by international organisations, Afghan politicians and NGOs concerning the future impact of reconstruction funds also contributed to the change of mood later. They created in a sense a ‘revolution of rising expectations’, which meant that even if in the post-2001 period Afghans were still receiving more external aid than ever before in their history, that still fell short of expectations, and of what most Afghans were now thinking they were entitled to. The not unfounded perception that much of the money allocated to Afghanistan by countries and international organisations was siphoned off in one way or another, only compounded these feeling of having been cheated. 

There is no evidence that any significant number of Afghans joined the insurgency because of this disappointment; the typical insurgent was either a radical ‘madrasa boy’ or disenfranchised village youth with little understanding of the wider environment. However, such feeling certainly weakened opposition against the Taliban among village elders, a key sector of the rural population, which in some areas at least had kept the Taliban at bay in the early years of the insurgency.

A monarchy without a monarch
At the root of the disfunctionality of the Afghan state as it emerged in 2002 onwards, were some strategic choices made in 2002 and the personality of the President himself, Hamid Karzai. Karzai was initially hesitant between the model of institution-building sponsored by the United Nations and some embassies, and the re-establishment of a ‘monarchy without monarch’, that is of a patrimonial system of government all centred around his person and his personal relations with local power brokers. By 2003 Karzai had made up his mind. From that moment, he just paid lip service to the rhetoric of institution building, while actually working to establish a patrimonial system under his personal control. 

While most observers indignantly rejected Karzai’s turn, a few recognised that in the Afghan context that might not have been an unwise choice, at least as a temporary measure. However, the key problem was that Karzai was not the best choice of a man to be at the centre of such system. The indecisive, hesitant and politically often naïve Karzai could not handle the system he was creating; his choices of satraps to run the system at the local level and of ministers at the centre were often disastrous. Together with Karzai’s inability to supervise effectively, this was a key factor in the spreading of massive corruption and in the inefficiency of the state machinery.

Compared to all this, the importance of politicking in Kabul pales. The original coalition behind Karzai, which included moderate monarchists, northern militias and returnees from the west, did not last long. Karzai proved rather apt at playing divide and rule with the northerners, co-opting some and excluding most, while succeeding for some time to mobilise Pashtuns around his figure and against the northern militias, run by the ethnic minorities. The new coalition sailed Karzai to victory in the 2004 presidential elections, even if some cheating was needed to allow a Karzai victory at the first round. However, from 2006 his core Pashtun support started to wane as Karzai was not able to deliver on his many promises, and the once supportive village elders were badly affected by the consequences of growing insecurity, blaming Karzai for not being able to protect them. 

As of November 2008, it was by no means certain that the scheduled 2009 elections would take place. Karzai was known to prefer a Loya Jirga (Tribal Council) solution, which he could more easily manipulate to renovate his presidency for another term, or at least for some more time. Some Europeans countries were also in favour of a solution of this kind, not out of sympathy for Karzai, but because of lack of confidence in the possibility of holding elections when half of the country was badly affected by the insurgency. However, both Americans and the UN were strongly in favour of holding elections on schedule, because of the heavy investment in terms of image, and because of the concern that postponing or cancelling elections would not just be de-legitimising and divisive, but could also be presented by the Taliban as a major victory. 

If elections do take place
In the event of elections taking place, the general expectation is of a much lower turnout than previously. Although it was not clear yet in early November whether Karzai would face a strong challenge from any competitor, his popularity was so low that even otherwise modest candidates could appear as a threat. A Karzai first round victory seems to be ruled out. Karzai was clearly trying to enhance his chances by ‘synchronising’ the provincial and district administrations, through the appointment of people whom he trusted to support his candidacy, as well as by trying to win back elders through the distribution of cash. Karzai also tried to build up an image of a strong leader, by allowing greater recourse to death penalties, and to court the clergy by not challenging sentences based on extremely conservative interpretations of the religious law. He also started pushing for negotiations with the Taliban, in part in order to present himself as a man of peace and as a leader capable of action independently of his foreign patrons; and in part in order to court the Taliban’s favour and convince them to let the 2009 elections happen. Karzai still expects to get a significant amount of votes from the Taliban-controlled south.

A disappointing economy
Throughout the 2002-2008 period, the economic performance of Afghanistan’s economy was quite disappointing. Given the return of over 3 million refugees and the injection of US$15 billion of dollars in terms of aid in an economy which was estimated at US$4.4 billion, 29% GDP growth in 2002, 14% in 2003, 9% in 2004, 14% in 2005, 5.3% in 2006, 8% in 2007 and 7.5% in 2008 appear to imply a lot of leakage and very little if any multiplier effect. Certainly a substantial amount of the cash pumped in immediately left the country in the shape of ‘consultancy fees’. The tendency to contract foreign companies to carry out much of the reconstruction work also contributed to limit the impact inside Afghanistan. 
Thus in 2008 GDP was still under US$10 billion, including the narco-economy. 

Some sectors of the Afghan economy experienced real growth in 2002-8, in particular telecommunications and banking. The introduction of mobile phones in the country was hugely successful, not least because hardly any telephone network existed in 2001. However, this industry is not labour intensive and relatively few jobs were created. Each mobile phone company (there were four in 2008), created just a few hundreds of full time jobs, although more jobs were created in the informal sector (street sellers of phone credit) and in the trading sector (telephone shops). The same could be said of the banking sector, which created jobs in the low thousands. By 2007, unemployment was estimated by the government itself at 40%, a very high percentage in its own right and even higher in a country were very few women are employed outside the informal agricultural sector. Unsurprisingly, the unemployment rate is much higher among the nation’s youth, a fact which contributes to feed the crisis and inevitably facilitates their recruitment by insurgents. 

President-elect Obama placed Afghanistan at the centre of his electoral campaign, but it was never clear whether his claim that a new strategy was necessary, implied a substantial change of direction, or not. Judging from his public statements, Obama seems to want more of the same: more troops and more money. In the end, Obama will probably bow to the recommendations of Gen. Petraus, as his high status at home makes it almost impossible to challenge his views. Even if Gen. Petraeus could come up with a winning military strategy, or at least something better than the existing one, the political strategy would still be missing; working out such a new political strategy is not part of Petraeus' mandate. 

What Political Strategy?
Even if some of Obama's public statements contained explicit criticism of President Karzai and his government, his advisers denied that Obama would support a 'change of horse' in Kabul. If eventually Obama and his team will decide to wholeheartedly support Karzai in the forthcoming elections, they would either be left with a re-elected Karzai, weaker then ever and unable/unwilling to sort out the state machinery, or with a new president, elected despite the lack of American support! Neither option seems very attractive. Moreover, stuck with an Afghan president legitimised by elections, it would be very difficult to go against him, whatever his decisions might be. 

Because of the shape that the state machinery has been taking, over the last few years, it has become relatively independent of foreign patronage and more reliant on the revenue deriving from the protection of ‘shadowy economic activities’. As a result, foreign patronage has been reduced, as has the ability to direct the Afghan government in the desired direction. 

It might therefore be wiser trying to gamble everything on a change of horse in Kabul before it is too late, but January-February might be Obama's last chance to do so, as an operation of this kind just before the Afghan elections could result in a disastrously divisive outcome. 

It is unlikely, of course, that the new President might take such a daring step in the first days of his tenure, but Petraeus or no Petraeus, the military situation may well suck in more resources but does not allow of ‘victory.’ A serious deterioration could lead to more than one ‘surge’ with the spectre of a Russian-type involuntary evacuation as a worst case. The lessons of Vietnam must not be forgotten.