Five years after the fall of the Taliban, Afghanistan is beset by security and reconstruction challenges. The two are inextricably linked and pose the biggest threats to stability in Afghanistan’s southern frontier, where Taliban fighters and poppy farmers have revived in recent years. CFR.org’s Lionel Beehner asked five regional, reconstruction, and military experts what advice they would give to secure the Afghan-Pakistani border and accelerate Afghanistan’s reconstruction.
There needs to be much greater cooperation between Afghan, Pakistani, U.S. , and NATO militaries in the border areas. Joint patrols and similar arrangements should be initiated. There should also be timelier intelligence exchanges. NATO and U.S. forces should be authorized to pursue Taliban elements crossing from Afghanistan into Pakistan. Hopefully “hot pursuit” would be undertaken with the cooperation of Pakistani authorities, but should be considered even if Islamabad is unwilling. On the political side, there should be a determined effort to gain formal Afghan acceptance of the Durand Line, the frontier laid out by the British in the 1890s. This will not be easy. The Afghans have traditionally claimed the Durand Line has no standing since it was “forced” upon them by the British. Yet it has been in existence for over a century as the de facto frontier. In fact, the Afghan government accepted it de jure in the 1919 treaty ending the third Afghan war. To make things more palatable for the Afghans, a UN-sponsored international conference attended by Afghanistan ’s neighbors should pledge support for the sanctity of the country’s borders. Differences over the actual location of the Durand Line—maps differ on this—could be addressed by a tripartite commission with Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the United States, or some similar arrangement.
Unless the security situation improves, reconstruction will continue to languish. Here, full cooperation by Pakistan remains key, along with improved local police forces. The generally positive experience with the Afghan National Army shows that results can be achieved, but not overnight. A revised, well-planned police effort is needed, not another “crash” program. And the international community must be prepared to underwrite the salaries of the “new” police force given the Afghan government’s lack of resources. Afghanistan has a good economic development plan, which gained international approval at the London conference last winter. The challenge is to see that countries implement their pledges and thatAfghanistanitself achieves agreed milestones.
As things are now moving, this is a lost war, beyond “reconstruction” or “improvement.” The United States should have originally sought to create a neutral Afghanistan and defer the Iraq adventure until Afghanistan was secure. The former might have prevented the Pakistanis from seeking to balance Indian influence in Afghanistan; the latter just might have led the United States to put enough forces in Afghanistan to put the Karzai government on a stable footing. These are lost opportunities. At present there are only three ways to salvage the situation, all distasteful but better than the present path to defeat:
First, the United Statescould cut its losses in Iraq, staying on in Kurdistan, but sending at least 50,000 troops to Afghanistan. This, plus additional pressure on backsliding contributors, might just persuade the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to stay on, and generate enough military capability to impress both the warlords and the Taliban. Absent a new American commitment, the Europeans are gong to quickly lose interest in Afghanistan and will pull out themselves. This would also permanently damage NATO’s ambitions to have an out-of-area capability.
Alternatively, the United States could do a deal with the Taliban. Our true interest is in ensuring that Afghanistan does not again become a haven for al Qaeda. The Taliban, under Pakistani pressure, might ensure this if its own position was secured. This is distasteful, and might mean Karzai’s departure, but it does preserve our one core interest in Afghanistan .
Third, the United States could turn to India for assistance in Afghanistan. This would put genuine pressure on Pakistan to cease its tacit and explicit support for the Taliban. It is strategically risky, and might lead to still another India-Pakistan crisis, but if coupled with a more active regional diplomacy, it might stabilize the situation in Afghanistan.It is virtually impossible to guarantee a secure border because tribal people on either side share ethnic group and family ties. The key is to figure out how to make allies of the tribal people both in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The heavy-handed military approach that has dominated the strategy in both countries works against this effort and has contributed to the greater insecurity in the tribal regions. It has also resulted in the death of some valuable interlocutors and opened a space for the mullahs to be the arbiters in tribal and personal disputes. This has given them additional authority particularly in Pakistan . Making allies is a difficult and complicated approach that requires a deep knowledge of the culture, an understanding of the outstanding grievances in the area, and [the ability] to go about tackling them.
Before reconstruction can be accelerated, there must be an effort to root out corruption and mismanagement. This is not just the problem of some within the Afghan government but also [with some] within the international contractors and employees. Many (possibly the majority of) reconstruction projects are top-heavy in administrative costs, resulting in poor-quality work because the money is spent on a whole series of subcontractors. There is an overwhelming amount of duplication, as well as inadequate information and understanding of needs before investing money. In the past five years, Afghans have seen very little significant improvement in their lives; they mostly believe that the reconstruction budgets have made foreigners wealthy and their own government rich and left them pretty much as they have always been—neglected, poor, and frustrated.Securing the border requires both physical and political measures. First, I would advise making the border a legally demarcated international boundary with no claims of sovereignty or special rights by one state on the territory of the other. This would make Pakistan less eager to destabilize Afghanistan and lessen its concerns about its Pashtun and Baluch population. Pakistan has raised the idea of fencing parts of the border, but Afghanistan has objected to this proposal on political grounds. If Islamabad believes that by fencing some strategic entry points it can guarantee a less porous boundary, then fencing should be made an option. The recent agreement between Islamabad and North Waziristan has thus far failed to produce one of its main target outcomes: prevention of cross-border activities. If Pakistan or Afghanistan is willing to grant the tribes more authority—something I do not believe is beneficial for state and nation-building processes in either country—then the tribes signing agreements should be held accountable for any cross-border activities occurring under their jurisdiction. How this could be done is still open to question. On a purely military front, enacting the proposed joint Pakistani, Afghan, and NATO patrols along the border could be a step forward.
I would advise moving away from acceleration of short-term reconstruction projects toward more infrastructure projects. Sexy facades have taken precedence over sound foundations. Long-term, foundational, and infrastructure projects may not be the choice projects for politicians in Afghanistan or in donor countries. Much of the reconstruction, both government funded and in the private sector, has been of the Potemkin village type. In Kabul , glass-covered buildings are built without proper planning for sewage, water, or parking issues. For security reasons, connecting Afghanistan’s main cities with a modern road system takes precedence over other infrastructure projects. While there has been progress in this sector, there are still large sections of the country which are not connected with paved roads; this is especially true in the interior and northern parts of the country. Another important step is to "Afghanize" the work. Most major projects rely on foreign contractors that build houses and schools on foreign models with elevated overhead costs. If more Afghans were engaged in reconstruction with Afghan-style building—albeit with expert supervision when necessary—more schools and houses would be built at lower cost, and they would have Afghan-ownership, not only in style but also in labor.