AFGHANISTAN: Nation-building

February 15, 2005

Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.

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Are the problems facing Afghanistan likely to crop up in Iraq?

Perhaps. Nearly a year and a half after the Taliban regime was ousted, security remains Afghanistan’s biggest problem. In Iraq, it’s not clear whether an effective force will step in to bridge the security void left by Saddam Hussein’s downfall.

Is nation-building succeeding in Afghanistan?

Only to a degree. It’s true that the lives of many Afghans, particularly women, have improved since the Taliban fell in late 2001, according to Arthur C. Helton, director of Peace and Conflict Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. But Helton notes that Afghanistan remains far less than a fully functioning state.

Does the central government control the country?

No. The rule of Afghanistan’s transitional government, established in June 2002, does not extend much beyond Kabul. Outside the capital, regional militia hold sway over many parts of the country. These militia, headed by so-called warlords, have little allegiance to the central government in Kabul, reports say.

What other threats does the government confront?

Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters have again taken up arms after lying low in neighboring Pakistan. Some nation-building experts say there’s a danger that, in Iraq, Saddam loyalists and other extremists who have gone underground will re-emerge to launch attacks on coalition troops and a future Iraqi administration.

Does the Afghanistan experience offer lessons for Iraq’s postwar reconstruction?

Experts caution against considering post-Taliban Afghanistan a precise template for the new Iraq. But they make two broad points: First, Afghanistan teaches the general lesson that the Bush administration and the international community must be realistic about what can be achieved in Iraq and when. And second, as the United Nations did with Afghanistan, the United States is likely to have underestimated the level of commitment needed to establish a stable democracy in Iraq. Some analysts add that the nation-building project promised by President Bush may simply be beyond the capabilities of the U.S. government.

How do the rebuilding tasks differ?

Iraq is a predominantly urban society that was run for the past three decades by a highly centralized government. Reconstruction largely involves repairing and restoring pre-existing facilities and services, such as transportation and other infrastructure and government institutions. U.S. officials hope that much of the rebuilding cost will be covered by revenue generated from the country’s vast oil reserves.

In contrast, Afghanistan lacks a recent tradition of national government, has few natural resources, and its largely illiterate population endured 23 years of civil strife. Reconstruction is centering on small-scale building projects such as bridges and schools. One larger-scale project is the construction of a highway joining Kabul, Kandahar, and Herat, paid for mostly by the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Japan. Afghanistan will depend on foreign aid for years to come, experts say; most of this assistance has so far targeted relief rather than reconstruction, due to both need and security concerns.

Has war with Iraq distracted U.S. attention from Afghanistan?

On a visit to Washington in February, Afghan President Hamid Karzai pleaded, "Don’t forget about us if Iraq happens." A month after the start of the Iraq war, the Bush administration pledged an additional $100 million in economic aid to Afghanistan as a measure of its continuing concern. But experts say there’s no question that the Iraq war has distracted U.S. attention and resources away from Afghanistan; the amount of American involvement in the country going forward, they say, will depend on the level of tensions in Iraq and elsewhere.

Are al-Qaeda and Taliban forces still active in Afghanistan?

Yes. After U.S.-led forces routed them, al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters reportedly regrouped in Pakistan, and they have been carrying out small raids.

What kind of attacks?

Taliban fighters have been blamed for the ambush killing of two U.S. soldiers in southern Afghanistan, a mortar attack on a peacekeepers’ compound in Kabul, and the murder of an International Committee for the Red Cross worker in central Uruzgan province. Security concerns have prompted some donor countries to delay deliveries of promised aid, and some nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have curbed or suspended operations in high-risk areas.

Who is defending the new government?

The U.N.-sanctioned International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) is responsible for security in and around Kabul. The 5,000-troop ISAF is currently led by Germany and the Netherlands; NATO will assume leadership in August. U.S. troops do not participate in ISAF.

Why aren’t U.S. troops assigned to Afghan peacekeeping missions?

Experts note that historically, Washington has steered clear of such peacekeeping missions because of reluctance to divert U.S. troops from key American objectives, concerns about cost, worries about possible casualties, and a sense that others could do the job. But about 8,000 American combat troops are stationed in Afghanistan, part of roughly 11,500 soldiers from 23 nations assigned to hunt down al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters.

Does Afghanistan have an army?

It is being formed; U.S. and French personnel are training recruits of the new Afghan Army. Experts say it will take about five years to turn it into an effective military force, and that it’s unclear whether security can be improved significantly in the interim.

What are security conditions like outside Kabul?

The rule of law is limited; regional militias and police forces sometimes provide basic security but law enforcement is often corrupt. Some areas are simply lawless.

Why are the peacekeeping forces limited to Kabul?

Despite calls from the Afghan government to expand ISAF operations, participating countries are reluctant to take on additional costs and risks. Some experts are hoping that when NATO takes over the force, the U.N. Security Council will expand the peacekeeping mission’s duties and the territory it covers. Some Afghanistan-watchers say more focus should be placed on disarming and demobilizing fighters of the former Taliban regime and the Northern Alliance, a loose confederation of Afghan militias and warlords recruited by the United States to help overthrow the Taliban. But the United States, which so far has participated only in combat operations but would be asked to provide logistical and other support to an expanded peacekeeping force, hasn’t pushed for a more sweeping mandate.

How well is the Afghan government functioning?

Experts say that many Afghans are frustrated by the central government’s failure to bring order to the country. President Karzai appointed governors for Afghanistan’s 32 provinces, but local warlords often challenge them and the power they are supposed to wield in the name of the central government. For example, six provinces have reportedly defied Karzai’s ban on opium poppy cultivation; Afghanistan is the leading producer of the crop, which is used to make heroin.

What has the Afghan government done to curb the warlords’ power?

There have been some limited efforts:

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  • In July 2002, Karzai’s cabinet banned warlords from serving as provincial governors and pledged to oust regional military commanders and police chiefs allied with local warlords.
  • Last fall, Karzai ordered the dismissal of about 20 civilian and military officials in a dozen provinces, some of whom were accused of drug trafficking, extortion, and other crimes. But Kabul has no effective means of enforcing the dismissals, and many of the officials reportedly remain in their posts.

Some experts say that Karzai has had little choice but to tolerate corruption and incompetence in his government because his only enforcement arm, the Afghan National Army, has fewer than 3,000 soldiers. Many former mujahadeen fighters, who battled the Soviets and later the Taliban and are often backed by powerful militias, occupy influential government positions that they reportedly won by force and intimidation.

Is Karzai taking steps to disarm Afghanistan’s militiamen?

Yes. Karzai and the United Nations are launching a project, titled the New Beginnings Program, to disarm some 100,000 Afghan militiamen. Funded by the United States, Canada, Japan, and Britain and scheduled to begin in July, the program will offer job training, posts in the new national army, and cash to fighters who surrender their weapons. Experts point out, though, that the warlords themselves also have deep cash reserves with which to encourage loyalty, so it’s not clear how much success the disarmament initiative will have.

Is the United States making other efforts to extend the central government’s influence beyond Kabul?

Yes. The U.S. government is establishing Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) to provide security for humanitarian activities; facilitate communication between the central government, the Army, and NGOs; and help the central government extend its reach beyond Kabul. The first of eight planned PRT test offices was set up in the central Afghan town of Gardez in February 2003. The 50- to 60-member teams will include U.S. combat troops, civil affairs units, and civilian government officials.

Will PRTs help fill the security void?

Some NGOs have said that, while PRTs could perhaps make marginal improvements in the short term, they may destabilize the country in the long term by distracting attention and support away from a more permanent solution to Afghan security, such as building the national army. Also, some critics have argued that the initiative blurs the line between military and humanitarian operations, which NGOs believe should remain distinct.

How has life improved for Afghans since the fall of the Taliban?

Most of the positive change in the country has been propelled by the fall of the Taliban, and women, who were excluded from all aspects of public life under the fundamentalist Islamic regime, have been the biggest beneficiaries, experts say. Humanitarian aid can now flow more easily into the country and most Afghans have access to food and shelter. Irrigation systems have been refurbished and schools and hospitals repaired, providing better education and health care. But experts emphasize that most rebuilding projects to date have been small. And President Karzai has said that Afghanistan, which has begun to receive some of the $4.5 billion in international aid pledged at a 2002 conference in Tokyo, needs three to four times that amount.

What’s next?

According to Afghanistan expert Barnett R. Rubin, the country will reach a turning point within six months. A loya jirga, or traditional Afghan council, is due to meet in October 2003 to ratify a draft constitution. The constitution will lay out the framework for new elections, scheduled for June 2004. "Prospects at the moment are that the government will stay together as long as the coalition is there," Rubin says. But he warns that unless the international community does more to improve security in the country, a new constitution could prove futile.

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