Our Q&A on Afghanistan

A backgrounder on the problems plaguing Afghanistan’s reconstruction, and on why the war-torn country should matter to Europe

Question: What are the main problems in Afghanistan?

Answer:  The power of the democratically elected government of Hamid Karzai extends only weakly beyond the outskirts of Kabul and is even precarious within the city limits. Corruption by senior officials –  and the perceived acceptance of this by both Afghan and international officials – has dented President Karzai’s standing. Many ministries are Potempkin institutions. The relationship between the President and Parliament is acrimonious. Large areas of the country are still ruled by warlords. The south and east of Afghanistan are racked by a virulent insurgency with safe havens in Pakistan, funding from a number of sources including the opium trade, and tactics increasingly mirroring those of the insurgency in Iraq (albeit it still far less sophisticated).

Reconstruction and delivery of basic services has been uneven, with significant disparity between urban and rural areas, as well as between North and South.  Kabul remains an eye sore, litter-filled and dirty yet with modern shopping malls, a luxury hotel and plush residences erected for the super-rich.  Rule of law remains weak and the entire security sector is donor-funded and fiscally unsustainable.  Osama bin Laden, whose capture was one of the key aims of the intervention, remains free.  Security has deteriorated in once-safe areas like the capital Kabul, which has been hit by several suicide-bombers recently.

Possibly most dangerous for the country’s long-term stability, Afghanistan has become a narco-state with the opium industry competing in volume with official GDP and eating away at the fabric of the state’s institutions.  As one report put it: “drug money turns into bribe money, undermining local governance”.   There are persistent allegations that senior government ministers are and their relatives are involved in the trade.

Question: Why did things turn out so badly?

Answer: Progress has been stunted by a number of other factors and the literature on these is vast and growing. Problems include the light footprint, an absence of UN  leadership both in Kabul and latterly in New York, and the inability to marshal sufficient troops to extend the Coalition’s remit – and that of the Afghan government – beyond Kabul. The Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs), civil-military units created as a substitute for a military presence, have seen qualified successes in the north, but have not been able to substitute for a comprehensive military or developmental presence, especially in the south and east.

Question: Is everything lost?

Answer:  Success as imagined in late 2001 may no longer be probable. In addition, the idea that the international community can by itself produce success should be shelved. But it is still possible to imagine a relatively stable, poor but developing, conservative Islamic democracy can be established. A country than can demonstrate an alternative to violent Islamism and the Taliban’s offerings. It is still possible to see how Afghans state that is can be built in a close partnership between ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’. So the answer is no, everything is not lost. But it will require a step change in the way in which the international community – including the EU – operates.

Question: What is the EU’s role?

Answer: Troops from 27 EU member states now account for more than half of ISAF’s total deployment of 35.500 soldiers.   Member states are in command of 11 Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) across the country.  Financially, the EU Commission and Member States together have contributed a third of Afghanistan’s total reconstruction assistance. In the period 2002-2006, the EU was the second largest donor and collectively contributed €3.7 billion, of which the €1.1 billion was contributed through the EU Commission budget. In 2006, the EU launched a police mission – EUPOL – which expects to number 193. EU Commission’s financial allocation for the 2007-2010 period is € 610 million.

Question: Why does Afghanistan matter to Europe?

Answer: Should Afghanistan fail as a state, it is not beyond reason to imagine it too would revert back to being a terrorist-haven as in the mid-1990s. This scenario represents a clear and present threat to Europe, which has found itself under an unrelenting terrorist assault. The Madrid train bombings of March 2004, which killed 119 and wounded more than 600, were undertaken by the Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigade, better known as the “Secret Organization of Al-Qaeda in Europe”. The London bombings of July 2005, which left 52 dead and more than 770 injured, also could be traced to this group. The foiled 2007 attacks in London, Glasgow, Berlin and Copenhagen illustrate the continuing threat. European law enforcement agencies know that the Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigade used the Afghan-Pakistani border area for training in these European attacks.

Finally, failure in Afghanistan means a blow to Europe’s’ most important security organisation, NATO. NATO’s post-Cold War accomplishments are legion and have confounded those who, in early 1990s, predicted the Alliance’s demise. It has expanded to include seven formerly Communist countries. Almost all those countries not already in NATO have been offered membership of Partnership for Peace (PfP). NATO succeeded in policing the Balkans and laying out an agenda for defence transformation. But despite these feats, NATO was marginalised in the first Bush administration as Washington preferred “Coalitions of the Willing”. As the challenges of the Afghan mission and the Iraq War mounted, the U.S effectively “came back” to NATO, handing over ISAF to NATO and lobbying the 2004 Istanbul Summit for a training mission in Iraq.

Now, with the election of French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who promises to reintegrate France into NATO’s military command after 40 years, the search for a new agenda for NATO’s April 2008 Bucharest Summit and as relations between NATO and Russia are at their frostiest, the Afghan mission – the organisation’s first out-of-theatre task – threatens to re-create fissures between the U.S and Europe as well as within Europe. U.S Defense Secretary Robert Gates has openly and repeatedly criticized European NATO members of for failing to provide the extra troops: “I am not satisfied that an alliance whose members have over 2 million soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen cannot find the modest additional resources that have been committed for Afghanistan”, he told journalists.

The likely result: NATO as the sort of toothless political institution Russia once hoped for while a new US administration reverts back to militarily-effective but politically-weak ‘Coalitions of the Willing’. The implications of such a division of labour may be profound, and could undermine the likelihood of future interventions, even under the “responsibility to protect” doctrine – where clear and compelling cases of massacre, starvation, or government induced genocide are in evidence.

There is also small chance that success in Afghanistan will make a difference in Muslim “hearts and minds”, so important in the struggle against violent Islamism. An April 2007 poll of four major Muslim countries found that large majorities believe that undermining Islam is a key goal of US foreign policy.  But another opinion survey of the three largest Muslim countries – Indonesia, Bangladesh and Pakistan – shows people are favorable to the U.S for aid and want more assistance in the future. Coupled with polls that show a more favourable view of Europe in a number of Middle Eastern countries, such as the UAE and Lebanon, it is not unreasonable to argue that success in Afghanistan will have a positive effect in the battle for the “hearts and minds” in the Middle East.

Question: How big is the opium economy?

Answer: The sheer size, scope and nature of the drug problem marks Afghanistan out. The area under cultivation has increased from about 80.000 hectares in 2003 to an unprecedented 193.000 hectares in 2007. Afghanistan now accounts for 82 percent of opium poppy cultivated worldwide and supplies 93% of the global opiates market.   By comparison, the drug trade in Myanmar (the next largest drug trade relative to GDP) is just under 25 percent of the size of the legal economy and the narcotics trade is now less than 5 percent the size of Colombia’s legal GDP.

The illicit drug economy cannot be understood outside the context of Afghanistan’s over-all reconstruction and development.  Two decades of war has left Afghanistan with some of the highest rates of rural poverty, illiteracy, and infant and maternal mortality, and an average life expectancy of only 44 years.  International assistance is seen as failing to deliver tangible improvements to people’s lives.  The United Nations ranked Afghanistan 173 out of 178 nations on the 2004 Human Development index.

Question: What can be done about the opium economy?

Answer: Neither aerial spraying nor legalisation as advocated by the Senlis Council provides a silver bullet for resolving Afghanistan’s drug problem.  Afghanistan does not have the administrative infrastructure to run the massive regulation scheme – to monitor farmers, hand out licences, and control sales – that legalisation would require.  A scheme to buy up the entire poppy crop would create a perverse incentive for farmers to grow more poppy, without any risks involved, and would still allow narcotics networks to bid at a higher price – all at a rising cost for Western taxpayers.   Eradication, as currently implemented, achieves almost no results and at a disproportionately high cost.

Instead, the international community needs to take aerial eradication off the table for now and make clear that traffickers, not farmers, are the problem. The EU needs to encourage the U.S to move away from a single-minded focus on counter-narcotics. Counter-narcotics and counter-insurgency represent two parts of a circle that cannot be squared. In conditions of poverty and insecurity, farmers will grow opium. In an environment of impunity, kingpins and their backers in government will continue to ply their trade.

A “population protection” strategy, which diverts funding from CN – for example money for the Ministry of Counter-Narcotics – into providing security to local farmers and building local capacity to maintain the security is more likely to pay dividends. This needs to be coupled with arrests and prosecution drug lords and their backers in government, and offers of tangible alternatives to farmers through longer-term rural development. Key and well-known drug traffickers need to be placed be submitted to the UN’s watch-list – which currently has seen no names submitted. Once security has been provided, ‘stability contract’ is needed: an agreement between the central government and provincial leaders to deliver certain levels of security.

Question: Can the EU do more?

Answer: The EU cannot solve Afghanistan’s problems alone.  But a united EU can act as a powerful advocate for a better and more coordinated international approach. The US rightly argues that more troops are needed to dominate the terrain, and lambasts European allies for their failure to step up their effort. European countries are right to criticise the current military strategy and to fear that an increase in troop numbers might only lead to more counterproductive operations, antagonising Afghans as they look at mounting civilian casualties.

Herein lies a bargain. EU countries should commit to sending more troops, trainers and civilians to Afghanistan, as well as lifting all remaining “caveats” hampering their soldiers’ effectiveness for the coalition strategy. In addition, the EU must reverse the decline in reconstruction funding and find ways to spend funds locally through the mixed military and civilian Provincial Reconstruction Teams and in support of provincial governments and the reconciliation effort.

In exchange, the U.S must fully accept and implement a shift from a strategy based on combat operations to one focused on human military and economic security as well as coming fully behind political outreach to Taliban commanders. This will entail preserving the lives of Afghan civilians, expanding NATO’s security presence and working hand-in-glove with state and local authorities. To be successful, it will also require abandoning the current counter-narcotics policy – with its emphasis on crop eradication and the bogey man of aerial spraying-  and helping President Hamid Karzai to engage mid-ranking, “moderate” insurgent leaders in order to negotiate a political settlement with these and other opponents.

Click here for more resources and some recommended reading on Afghanistan.

Download our report entitled “Afghanistan: Europe’s Forgotten War“.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.

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