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Afghanistan, Five Years On

Prepared by: Lionel Beehner
Updated: October 6, 2006


The purpose of invading Afghanistan five years ago, fresh after the Twin Towers fell, was to eliminate al-Qaeda’s safe haven. The Taliban had turned a blind eye to terrorist training camps and, once the bombs began falling in October 2001, urged global jihad against America (PBS) before fleeing across the border into Pakistan.

Five years on, the Taliban have rebounded and retaken large swaths of land along Afghanistan’s southern periphery with Pakistan. Buoyed by profits from opium, these insurgents also allegedly enjoy support from Pakistani intelligence, something Islamabad denies. Insurgents have already killed more coalition forces this year—163—than they did in all of 2005. “Afghanistan has become Iraq on a slow burn,” writes Jonathan S. Landay of McClatchy Newspapers. This CFR Slide Show is a photographic history of the first five years of the war in AFghanistan.

So what can be done? Bill Clinton, in his recent fiery interview with FOX News, accused the White House of treating Afghanistan as just one-seventh as important as Iraq (based on 20,000 U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan versus 140,000 in Iraq). The United States has spent over twice as much per capita on Iraq as it has on Afghanistan. Yet more troops and aid are “not in the cards” (LAT), admits CFR Senior Fellow Max Boot. Instead, he suggests playing “hardball” with Pakistan and supports a “more hands-on nation builder” as ambassador to Afghanistan, much like Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. envoy from 2003 to 2005. NATO’s supreme commander in charge of the alliance’s operations in the country, Gen. James Jones, says success lies not in military solutions but matters such as smart reconstruction and a comprehensive counternarcotics strategy.

Meanwhile, there is growing consensus that insurgencies like the ones raging in Iraq and Afghanistan cannot be won militarily. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN), while visiting a military base in the Taliban stronghold of Qalat, made news by recommending that “people who call themselves Taliban” be incorporated into a national-unity government (CSMonitor). He later backtracked from his comments, but Stephen P. Cohen of the Brookings Institution says striking a deal with the Taliban might work. “Our true interest is in ensuring that Afghanistan does not again become a haven for al Qaeda,” he tells “The Taliban, under Pakistani pressure, might ensure this if its own position was secured. This is distasteful, and might mean [Afghan President Hamid] Karzai's departure, but it does preserve our one core interest in Afghanistan.”

Ethnic Pashtuns on both sides of the border sympathize with the Taliban’s cause. Experts agree any solution to the Afghan conflict must involve Pakistan, whose government stands accused of harboring terrorists. “ The real question is not whether Pakistan is or is not supporting the Taliban, but why it is doing so,” writes Frederic Grare of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. To rescue Afghan-Pakistani relations and root out the Taliban and other terrorists from the region, he suggests that military rule in Pakistan be ended and democracy installed in Islamabad. New York University's Barnett R. Rubin urges conditioning U.S. military aid to Pakistan on its cooperation in clamping down on the Taliban. Rubin tells's Bernard Gwertzman that another way to win Pakistan's help is for U.S. officials to help allay concerns about Indian and Afghan support of the Baluch insurgency. 

Aside from security woes, Afghanistan also must overcome a number of economic, social, and political obstacles, as this new Backgrounder examines. “Levels of poverty, hunger, ill health, illiteracy, and gender inequality put Afghanistan near the bottom of every global ranking,” writes Rubin in this Council Special Report.

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