February 3, 2005 2:45 pm (EST)

Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.

More on:


This publication is now archived.

How can security in Afghanistan be improved?

There are many options. Among them: dramatically expanding and strengthening the new Afghan national army; broadening the size and mandate of the U.N.-sanctioned international peacekeeping force, which currently patrols only in and around Kabul; and assigning security tasks to the U.S.-led coalition force that has been devoted primarily to fighting terrorists.

What are the main security problems?

Taliban and al Qaeda fighters, routed by the U.S.-led Operation Enduring Freedom in late 2001, have regrouped and are attacking aid workers, coalition forces, and moderate Islamic clerics. On August 13, one of the deadliest recent days, a bus bombing killed 15 civilians and more than 40 fighters died in clashes between Taliban remnants and government forces. The authority of Afghanistan’s transitional government, established in June 2002 and headed by President Hamid Karzai, does not extend much beyond Kabul. Outside the capital, militias headed by so-called warlords control most provinces.

Who is in charge of security?

  • In and around Kabul, the 5,000-member U.N.-sanctioned International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) has made the capital a relative oasis of stability. NATO is now in command of the force, which does not include American peacekeepers.
  • Outside of the capital, regional militias hold sway over many parts of the country. These militias have little allegiance to the central government in Kabul, reports say. Some parts of Afghanistan are simply lawless.
  • The 11,500 anti-terror coalition soldiers that remain in Afghanistan as part of Operation Enduring Freedom--8,500 from the United States, the rest from Britain, New Zealand, France, Italy, Romania, and other countries--are not responsible for protecting Afghans. They do, however, help provide security for international aid workers in some parts of Afghanistan.
  • The poorly funded national army has only 5,000 soldiers, far short of the 70,000 the Afghan government and many military analysts say it needs. Afghan police and security forces remain weak and exercise minimal control.

Who are the warlords?

They include former Northern Alliance commanders who worked closely with the U.S. coalition to defeat the Taliban and now play a role in Karzai’s government. Some of the most powerful warlords fall into this category, including Rashid Dostum, Ismail Khan, and Atta Mohammed, all of whom serve on Afghanistan’s National Defense Commission, a 14-member body that advises Karzai on security policy. In some cases, these and other regional warlords in Afghanistan continue to receive U.S. financial and military support to hunt for terrorists. Warlords, in general, exercise a combination of political, economic, and military power outside of a constitutional or legal framework, according to a U.S. Institute of Peace definition.

Do the warlords maintain security in the areas they control?

To an extent, but their militias are accused of human rights violations and widespread corruption, and infighting among them has cost many civilian lives. Heroin smuggling and the collection of illegal tariffs are common. In some cases, only a small portion of legal revenue collected in the provinces is turned over to the central government.

What efforts has Karzai made to curb the warlords’ power?

In July 2002, Karzai’s Cabinet banned warlords from service as provincial governors and pledged to oust regional military commanders, governors, and police chiefs allied with local warlords. In August 2003, Karzai stepped up the pressure on the warlords. He said he would replace security commanders in six provinces and dismissed warlord Gul Agha Sherzai as governor of Kandahar and Khan as military commander in Herat (though he remains governor there). "It’s a gradual process; one small step helps the next step," says R. Grant Smith, a former U.S. ambassador to Tajikistan and a senior fellow at Johns Hopkins’ Central Asia-Caucasus Institute.

What is U.S. policy toward the warlords?

As part of the effort to defeat the Taliban, the United States provided money and arms to warlords. After the Taliban fell, this relationship continued in some cases while the United States also backed the government in Kabul. This dual policy came under considerable criticism. In recent weeks, some experts say, officials appear to have begun to diminish U.S. support for the warlords— a shift, these experts say, vital to the success of the Karzai government.

Is the threat from al Qaeda and Taliban forces growing?

Yes. After losing control of Afghanistan in late 2001, Qaeda and Taliban fighters regrouped, reportedly in Pakistan, and mounted minor attacks on U.S. forces and allied Afghan troops. These attacks have escalated in the last four to six months, and now include full-scale attempts to retake Afghan territory. There have also been a variety of assaults on softer targets, including the bombing of an all-girls school near Kabul and killings of leaders associated with Karzai’s government. Two police chiefs, two pro-government imams, and more than 30 policemen were killed in the south and east in July and August, Afghan officials said. Coalition forces have struck back, killing as many as 200 Taliban in the first week of September, Army Lieutenant General John Vines, the top coalition commander in Afghanistan, said September 8.

Is the resurgent Taliban a threat to the Karzai government?

Not directly, because the insurgent movement is small, says Barnett R. Rubin, the director of studies at the Centeron International Cooperation at New York University and the author of several books on Afghanistan. In addition, the U.S. military reports that the fighters do not appear to be well-organized or well-trained. On the other hand, Rubin says deteriorating security threatens reconstruction and the goal of building a functioning state. Safety 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. One major terrorist bombing in Kabul could seriously undermine the reconstruction effort, Rubin says.

Why are the peacekeeping forces limited to Kabul?

Originally, Northern Alliance commanders who captured Kabul resisted allowing any international forces in the country. ISAF’s presence in Kabul was a compromise worked out at peace talks in Bonn, Germany, in November 2001. Since then, many voices--including those of the Afghan government, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, and dozens of NGOs--have called for an enlargement of ISAF until an Afghan army is capable of maintaining security. Afghan Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, for example, has proposed a force of 20,000 ISAF troops to secure four major cities and along major roadways. But the United States hasn’t pushed for a more sweeping mandate and White House officials have not indicated that an increase in ISAF is part of their new plan for Afghanistan.

What is the new U.S. plan for Afghanistan?

Though its details are still being worked out, President Bush announced September 7 that he would ask Congress for an extra $800 million for the Afghanistan reconstruction budget, which is now about $900 million a year. The request for more funds sprang from a "comprehensive, strategic update on Afghanistan," said Douglas Feith, undersecretary of defense for policy.

One goal of the overall strategy, many analysts say, is to improve conditions in Afghanistan before the November 2004 U.S. presidential election.

Does the plan call for the U.S.-led anti-terror coalition to get more involved in providing security?

To a limited extent, yes. A key element of the plan, according to press reports, will be to double the size of the Afghan national army by June 2004. But the plan is also said to support a year-old effort to establish four more coalition-led Provisional Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) in major cities around Afghanistan. Since February 2003, such teams have been deployed in the cities of Bamian, Kunduz, Gardez, and Mazar-i-Sharif.

What are the PRTs?

Hybrid military-civilian teams of 60-100 people that provide security for international aid workers and work on reconstruction projects. Their loosely defined mandate does not require them to provide security for the Afghan people or participate in demobilizing the local militias. For now, U.S. forces lead three of the four teams but any coalition nation can lead one.

Have they been a success?

Early reports are mixed. U.S. officials say PRTs aim to increase the reach of the Karzai government outside of Kabul, and experts say they have somewhat improved conditions in the limited areas where they operate. But many humanitarian organizations and analysts say that the PRTs are hampered by their small size and restricted mandate. In addition, a coalition of aid agencies in Afghanistan says that PRTs compromise aid workers’ neutrality by blurring the line between military operations and aid. Instead of expanding the PRTs, these agencies would prefer the extension of ISAF into more cities.

Would the new plan broaden the PRT’s mandate?

Perhaps. Some experts say that the Bush administration’s reported decision to reduce support for warlords will allow U.S. soldiers assigned to PRTs to more broadly participate in efforts to disarm and retrain regional militias. The British-run PRT in Mazar-i-Sharif has already begun to patrol Afghan villages and provide greater security, former Ambassador Smith says.

How have efforts to demobilize militias proceeded?

Slowly. A major effort to demobilize some 100,000 Afghan militiamen, scheduled to begin in July, was put on hold, primarily because of concern among non-Tajik militia members about the disproportionate influence of Tajiks in the defense ministry and army, Smith says. Apparently in response, Karzai announced September 1 that he would replace several high-level Tajiks in the defense ministry. Funded by the United States, Canada, Japan, and Britain, the demobilization program offers job training, cash, and posts in the new national army to fighters who surrender their weapons.

What else does the new U.S. plan call for?

High-visibility reconstruction projects like roads and power plants to improve Afghanistan’s battered economy. Despite calls from the Bush administration for a "Marshall Plan"-style reconstruction effort in Afghanistan, few major infrastructure projects have been completed and progress has been disappointing to Afghans, experts say. In an effort to speed things up, a new ambassador--most likely President Bush’s special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad--and a team of foreign experts will move in to advise the Afghan ministries.

What’s next for Afghanistan?

According to the political process laid out at Bonn, Karzai’s transitional government is to convene a constitutional convention in October 2003, followed by national elections in June 2004. But logistical problems have postponed the convention’s start until December, and the election date may have to be pushed back, as well. The government hasn’t yet conducted a census, decided on rules for political parties, or determined the form of Afghanistan’s future legislature. Of greatest concern is that violence would mar any election unless regional militias are demobilized and security conditions improve, Rubin says. "Unless the United States and other power holders are truly willing to offer more support, forcing Afghanistan to hold elections would be the worst kind of hypocrisy— motivated by an excuse to leave and claim success," he says.

More on:



Top Stories on CFR


Israel has made eliminating the threat from the Gaza-based militant group a central war aim, but it’s not entirely clear at what point that condition will be met.  


Outright seizure of the Russian Central Bank’s hundreds of billions in frozen assets is currently off the table, but it is still possible to obtain large sums for Ukraine from the interest income on these assets.