Chapter 8

War Amongst the People

By Dr Robert Johnson

Afghanistan is a field of conflict not just between foreign armies and insurgents but between agendas and ideas – about the future direction of humanitarian intervention, domestic political rivalries over policy, the suitability of exporting democracy, the promotion of women’s rights in the developing world, and the survival of the NATO alliance. The overwhelming popular view is that no foreign force can ever win in Afghanistan and the current mission is hopeless. Afghanistan’s recent history has often been used selectively by critics to “prove” this particular agenda. Some assert that only by returning Afghanistan to its “natural” tribal and medieval state will it ever realise peace. Almost all of the positions that are taken flourish on the assumption that Afghanistan is unchanging and therefore history is bound to repeat itself. When Western critics argue that wars in Afghanistan cannot be won, expecting foreign intervention to be futile, they not only assume an immutability in Afghan history, but they essentially condemn the Afghan people. 

Debates in the West have been dominated by the cost in lives and treasure of the conflict since 2001, by the errors of battling nationalist insurgents, the lack of progress on development, and the ongoing insecurity of Afghanistan. Various solutions have been advanced, and the United States formulated a plan for withdrawal that would occur in phases, handing over responsibility to the Afghan government in tranches of territory, while building institutions such as the ministries and security forces to “backfill” the departure of ISAF (International Security and Assistance Force) combat troops.47 Parallels have been drawn between Afghanistan and the American debacle in Vietnam. Others invoke the Soviet experience of 1979-89, asserting that the Afghans can always defeat states and empires with a combination of grim determination and rugged terrain. 

In fact, Afghans have often been defeated and overrun by foreign invaders, and they were just as likely to fight each other amongst the isolated valleys and desert communities, periodically lurching into civil war, than fight outsiders. Nevertheless, accommodation, co-option and compromise have been used far more frequently to contain conflict in Afghanistan. Conflict is part of the fabric of Afghan history, and Afghans have therefore developed a set of negotiating strategies to manage the frequent incidence of violence. The Western allies have recognised the importance of negotiations, but creating the conditions for a successful conclusion that meets the aspirations of all sides have proven problematic. 

Moreover, while we look for the historical parallels and lessons, we overlook the fact that currently Afghanistan is undergoing a period of profound social and political change more significant than at any time in its sometimes turbulent history. It is making the important transition from a dynastic and agrarian society to a bureaucratic state. State building is never a smooth process, and Afghanistan failed to achieve the transformation in the 1980s and 1990s. It has today developed into an anocracy, with significant problems with warlordism and insurgency. 

The problem faced by Afghans is one of choice, even if sometimes a Hobson’s choice – there are several conflicts going on in Afghanistan and many Afghan citizens have to face the reality of marauding banditry by gunmen and by poorly paid police, intimidation and opportunity offered by narco-gangsters, or choices between insurgent commanders and lucrative slices of development aid. Afghans are caught in a struggle for survival where guns and money have now replaced clan hierarchies and codes of honour. However, this has also been a war about the form that a new Afghanistan should take – one ideological and atavistic, the other based on patronage, profit and power. The difficulty for Afghan authorities and for Western assistance organisations is that no-one can be certain which choices Afghans will make about their future beyond this struggle for survival, ideology or profit.

The Bonn Conference of 3 October 2001 marked the beginning of a long and difficult process of reconstruction for Afghanistan. Six neighbouring countries plus the United States and Russia (known as the Six Plus Two) agreed that Afghanistan should enjoy a multi-ethnic, freely elected government. Nevertheless at the subsequent meeting of Afghans that December important continuity figures were not present - Dostum, Taliban leaders and the former king Zahir Shah. Even so, a “road map” for peace was agreed upon, starting with the formation of an interim administration (not a government). Provision was made for an Emergency Loya Jirga led by a Chairman, Supreme Court, banking and currency arrangements, United Nations assistance, Human Rights commission, and agreements on the return of refugees. It was a good start. In addition an international peace-keeping force, ISAF (International Security and Assistance Force), was to be deployed under the command of a British officer, Major-General John McColl. This had the task of restoring confidence in Kabul and protecting the leaders of the new administration from terrorists. Meanwhile, British and American Special Forces continued to hunt down al Qaeda activists, including Osama bin Laden. 

Most encouraging about the peace process were the early steps taken to hand over authority to the Afghans. Security was the first priority, but there was no question of permanent occupation, nor was there an opportunity, as had occurred in 1989, for Pakistan to intervene in Afghan politics for its own ends. The presence of ISAF was crucial in other ways. Without their detachments, there would be too great a temptation for some warlords to resume their campaigns. 

Expectations, however, proved impossible to fulfil. Afghans needed to feel the effects of material prosperity as a peace dividend and they looked eagerly towards the wealth of the West for assistance. In March 2004 Afghan delegates arrived in Berlin to lobby for $27.6 billion in aid, which worked out at $164 per Afghan (a figure nevertheless considerably lower than the estimated $336 per Iraqi estimated for the Second Gulf War of 2003). The Afghan government raised $300 million in 2003 but 94 percent of its needs that year were externally supplied. It was estimated that even if the 20 percent economic growth rate of 2002/2003 could be sustained at a steady nine percent, Afghanistan could not have hoped to be financially independent until 2016. As events transpired, even this rate of growth was wildly optimistic. 

Criticisms of the Western effort did not take long to develop. There was certainly an expectation in the UN that reconstruction of Afghanistan would take place, but the American military priority was the pursuit and defeat of al Qaeda. Field specialists also pointed out that Afghanistan’s “construction”, rather than “re-construction”, would actually take decades, a point lost on the critics. A number of development projects were planned across the country, and after 2006 there were 83 such initiatives in the British sector of Helmand. 

Yet the overriding problem was that Afghanistan was still in the hands of lawless armed groups, and too few troops had been dedicated for the security tasks that had emerged. In 2006 the British government had sent a reduced brigade to Helmand numbering barely 3,800 men. By 2010 there were upwards of 40,000 British, American, Danish and Afghan troops dedicated to carrying out the same mission. NATO’s presence in Afghanistan was considerable. At its peak, combat troops across the country numbered nearly 130,000, with especially heavy concentrations in the south and east where the Taliban presence was strongest. Conventional troops were augmented by Special Forces, supported by complete control of the air through both manned and unmanned armed aircraft.

There were evident problems with the initial strategy for Afghanistan. Afghans complained of a lack of human security, referring to a precarious economy, vulnerable agricultural yields and corrupt officials, rather than the Taliban. United Nations and military officials, lacking the experience of development work but drafted in to cover the absence of government advisors and non-governmental organisations, took a patronising approach and failed to engage Afghans at a local level. Contract workers were unchecked, and a practice of sub-contracting and extortionate costs reached epidemic proportions.48 The result was patchy development work, often of a low standard, with investment in buildings and short-term projects rather than people. 

The lack of a national Afghan criminal justice system was worsened by the lack of police officers. The auxiliary police created from militiamen proved ineffective, corrupt, and existed in too small numbers. The training programme in Kabul was too slow and was unable to furnish sufficient numbers to meet demands beyond Kabul. There were significant rifts in the approaches of NATO members of the ISAF forces, particularly over their mission, their rules of engagement and their attitude towards risk. Early British attempts to enter negotiations or truces with the Taliban or local insurgents were banned by the Afghan government in Kabul, and it took time to understand that a poppy eradication programme, while designed to tackle the corrupting influence of drugs nationally and globally, was inherently alienating because there were, as yet, no alternative livelihoods. Locals who might have provided security personnel and development workers, in the style of the traditions of village arbakai (militias), were disarmed because of a fear of private armies.

It was not an irretrievable disaster by any means. There were some aspects of the Western-led stabilisation effort in Afghanistan that were moving in the right direction, and that just needed time, manpower and money to sustain them. Unfortunately the diversion of resources to Iraq in 2003 checked progress in security and reconstruction at a critical time. Nevertheless the strategic aim of the Western powers was to deny Afghanistan as a base for further operations by al Qaeda and its allies. From 2001 it was clear that Afghanistan was no longer a space that bin Laden and his comrades could use with impunity. 

The Taliban strategy was somewhat distinct. They had little interest in a global Jihad and aimed to create an Emirate, win all Afghans to their ideology, impose shari'a law and maintain Pashtun supremacy. Their method was to undermine Western efforts, use force to demoralise and weaken Western forces in order to keep resistance alive, to sustain the idea of liberation struggle, and to wage a war of national defence. 

The West sought to establish a legitimate Afghan government based on principles of democracy and human rights, but also on the foundations of Islam. Opportunities to incorporate aspects of shari'a law within the criminal justice system in Afghanistan were rather slow to develop, while international criticism of the so-called “Rape Law”, authorised by the Afghan parliament, caused protests. The Afghan government was reluctant to criminalise the Taliban and was determined to remain in control of all negotiations, even if that meant derailing American and British initiatives in the short term. Creating a government that could satisfy the aspirations of non-Pashtuns seemed to anger or disappoint every faction. Nevertheless the recruitment of a new Afghan security force was essential and the Afghan National Army began to grow from 2001, and soon became an evident source of pride.

Providing Security

In 2009 General Stanley McChrystal, the commander of ISAF, announced a modification to the West’s strategy in Afghanistan. The objective remained the defeat of al Qaeda and the stabilisation of the country under the leadership of the government in Kabul, but McChrystal argued that the method was of vital importance. He called for the coordination and unifying of effort, particularly the closer partnering with Afghans. He demanded a rapid increase in numbers of Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) personnel. He urged the prioritization of resources, to signal the West’s commitment to Afghanistan in the long term. He was also clear, somewhat controversially, that he intended to protect the Afghan population not only from the Taliban but also from the corrupt and coercive elements of the Afghan government.

The relatively small scale of coalition manpower available in Afghanistan, certainly compared with concurrent operations in Iraq, and a preference for the use of air power in Western militaries, meant that there was a greater incidence of air strikes. Those planning coalition military operations in Afghanistan have shown awareness of the dangers of reliance on air power – especially the accidental and adverse consequences of killing civilians.49 The intention has been to prevent civilian casualties altogether, but while this aim goes further than the strict requirements of the law applicable in an international armed conflict, in practice it has not been achieved. Many factors have prevented its realization – poor intelligence and target selection, the proximity of military targets and civilians, weapons malfunction, and periodic misunderstandings between ground and air forces operating in Afghanistan.50 A Human Rights Watch report reviewed the period 2006 to 2008: 

“The combination of light ground forces and overwhelming airpower has become the dominant doctrine of war for the US in Afghanistan. The result has been large numbers of civilian casualties, controversy over the continued use of airpower in Afghanistan, and intense criticism of US and NATO forces by Afghan political leaders and the general public. As a result of OEF [Operation Enduring Freedom, the Counter-Terrorist mission] and ISAF airstrikes in 2006, 116 Afghan civilians were killed in 13 bombings. In 2007, Afghan civilian deaths were nearly three times higher: 321 Afghan civilians were killed in 22 bombings, while hundreds more were injured. In 2007, more Afghan civilians were killed by airstrikes than by US and NATO ground fire. In the first seven months of 2008, the latest period for which data is available, at least 119 Afghan civilians were killed in 12 airstrikes.”51

Tragically, in August 2008 thirty-three civilians were killed in a single US airstrike, and coalition officers described the agony of “the wedding party syndrome”, referring to an incident in which, tipped off by Afghans about a Taliban concentration near Herat, the subsequent successful air strike turned out to have been on a wedding party. The tip-off had been by a rival Afghan faction. Two years before, the Afghan parliament had demonstrated its concern about coalition air operations, and such expressions of concern subsequently became more frequent. President Hamid Karzai, whose authority has been diminishing, felt compelled to increase demands against the Coalition, criticising air strikes, calling for an end to civilian casualties, and insisting on the termination of arrests of Taliban suspects and their supporters in Special Forces night raids.52 

ISAF wanted to tackle the insecurity of the population by neutralising the insurgents and reassuring the Afghan people with an overt military presence. However, the insurgents were determined to maintain their resistance. In Kabul and other cities, terrorist attacks were a means to divert public attention whenever the insurgents came under pressure in rural areas.53 The UN Secretary-General reported in 2008:

“The overall situation in Afghanistan has become more challenging since my previous report (in 2006). Despite the enhanced capabilities of both the Afghan National Army and the international forces, the security situation has deteriorated markedly. The influence of the insurgency has expanded beyond traditionally volatile areas and has increased in provinces neighbouring Kabul. Incidents stemming from cross-border activities from Pakistan have increased significantly in terms of numbers and sophistication.” 

The report noted the implication of the increased violence by insurgents:

“The insurgency ... has also led to a sharp rise in the number of civilian casualties. Civilians are also being killed as a result of military operations carried out by Afghan and international security forces, in particular in situations in which insurgents conceal themselves in populated areas. Another worrying development is the fact that attacks on aid-related targets and non-governmental organizations have become more frequent and more deadly.”54

The concluding comment indicated a new development in the conflict. Hitherto many non-governmental organisations had been able to operate in areas under the control of the Taliban and other insurgent groups. However, military-led development work, a fear of spies, and a general anti-foreign attitude amongst the insurgent gunmen meant that aid agencies often had to pull out. In Zabul Province until 2006 there were over 30 NGOS, including Afghan agencies, but by 2009, only three were left. 

To improve security, the West was eager to develop effective Afghan National Security Forces. Recruitment was a significant success. Despite predictions that service would be unpopular, a volunteer army was created by the Americans. There were criticisms that Tajik-Afghans retained most positions of command despite provincial quotas that allowed for ethnic groups to be represented proportionally, but the situation was in part a legacy of the Northern Alliance victory in 2001. While Pashtuns were encouraged to enlist, literacy and competency levels were low, even by Afghan national standards. Pashtun recruits were in some cases afraid of Tajik-dominated forces, and promotion appeared to be influenced by patronage networks more than merit. The Afghan National Army had a variety of other problems. Soldiers sold their own equipment for personal profit, those absent without leave rose in number but went unpunished, and despite screening there were concerns about narcotics abuse. 

In addition, there were accusations of brutalities against civilians, although these dropped rapidly as training improved; some individuals were accused of ghost pay-rolling until a new system was introduced; and rumours of extrajudicial, summary execution of suspects was repeated annually. If incidents occurred, it may have been a result of a lack of faith in the criminal justice system, although this was improved significantly by 2010. 

These problems also stemmed from a lack of training - until 2009, recruits got only eight to 14 weeks in preparation for an arduous role, and contracts lasted three years. Inevitably there were concerns that insurgents might intimidate their families, and they could expect torture and execution if captured. On top of the work routine and the risk, initially there was little rotation out of the danger zones and casualties ran at 15 percent, with the best units over-worked. However, over time the situation improved. 

To assist in the development of experienced junior commanders, vital in any counter-insurgency, Western mentors were embedded. This proved an excellent interim measure, although there were complaints on both sides about expectations. As larger units were formed, and specialist leadership training developed, the embedded teams were consolidated into brigade groups, allowing Afghan formations to operate independently. There were, as one would expect for a new army, limitations in their capabilities, especially in intelligence, logistics, vehicle maintenance, air mobility, heavy weapons and transport. 

However, by 2010 parts of Afghanistan were being handed over to Afghan military and political control. An Afghan Air Corps was set up, with its own pilots and aircraft, while pay facilities, training institutions, and a medical evacuation chain were established. 

Any military intervention in a civil war invariably runs the risk that their forces will be drawn into taking sides. The UN-sanctioned ISAF has endeavoured to remain impartial, but there are elements within Afghanistan who have been eager to make use of the presence of the Western military forces for their own ends. In Kunar province in 2008, one group of local leaders manipulated both insurgents and ISAF by inviting fighters to “defend” their valley against foreigners, knowing that Western troops would clear the area and then commence development work. Once the insurgents had served their purpose, the locals drove them out and embraced the construction projects, but expressed the hope that the foreigners would also leave. 

The lack of manpower available to ISAF for the security of Afghanistan, even with the growth of the ANSF, the under-performance of the Afghan uniformed police, and the deteriorating security situation in some rural areas meant that serious consideration was given to establishing local gendarmerie in more remote regions. While critics feared the return of lawless militias that had done so much damage in the 1990s, advocates noted that Afghan security had been based historically on self-defence groups raised by a locality or a qawm (clan). 

In south–east Afghanistan the smallest entities were sentry parties, Tsalweshkai, but village councils might also raise Arbakai for development tasks as well as security and the delivery of justice. The chagha was a “hue and cry”, quick reaction force made up of an entire community to drive out raiders, while a fully-constituted lashkar, or war-party of up to 2,000 men, could move beyond the immediate environs of a particular community to raid, defend borders or wage an offensive war. Despite this system, lawlessness and feuding were still common, a point evidenced by the ubiquitous walled compounds and qalas across the country. 

Local justice was rough and ready - compliance with council decisions was enforced by house burning, stripping an individual or family of status or land, or varying degrees of mutilation and execution. Raising local auxiliaries, critics argued, risked worsening the security situation as vigilante groups administered these extra-judicial forms of retribution. Moreover there seemed the possibility that these groups might actually join the insurgency, wage private wars against neighbours and rivals, or become the targets of insurgent terror campaigns. Their lack of training and their dependence on just a handful of assault rifles, made them both vulnerable and a liability. Nevertheless it was a long-established practice in counter-insurgency campaigns in the 20th century to have militias beyond the areas controlled by the regular military and police forces. Sir Robert Thompson, reflecting on his experiences in Malaya, noted:

“So often one heard from good province chiefs in Vietnam…that they would prefer to have two or three extra Civil Guard companies rather than an army battalion (to hold villages)…the sole reason for the establishment of Special Forces (is) to make contact with tribes [in marginal areas] and recruit and organise them into units for their own defence on the side of the government.”55  

Thompson warned, however, that: “The establishment in the (densely) populated areas of similar groups is not desirable because such units tend to become independent private armies, owing allegiance less to the government than to some territorial local figure, and as a result bearing little responsibility for their actions”. Such groups therefore seem most suited to rural areas where they have a vested interest in defending a village, a valley, or a development project, where they release uniformed Afghan National Police from providing fixed site security, and where they can prevent or even reverse the process of insurgent recruitment of marginalised groups. 

Local security forces can assist in local governance building, providing a mechanism to link local justice and national government, particularly if groups remain local, accountable and licensed by the central authorities. The error of the 1990s was that militias were too large, and came to dominate when they were not anchored to a locality and were not accountable. Throughout the campaign, the West’s aim was consistent in wanting to progress Afghan security, which meant ultimately getting Afghans into a position where they could sustain their own systems. Given the costs of the ANSF, which are borne by the United States and not the Afghan exchequer, some rationalisation towards local security seems to be of even greater importance.


The purpose of the Western intervention in 2001 was not solely the pursuit of al Qaeda and its confederates, but the establishment of a new government based on democratic principles. The insurgency had a profoundly negative effect on the progress of Afghanistan towards better representative and accountable governance. In 2004 international teams organised the elections, but in 2009 the presidential and parliamentary elections were managed entirely by Afghans for the first time. 

Initial reports were largely positive. Despite violence and intimidation keeping some voters and observers away from the polls in many areas, in much of the country Afghans were able to cast their votes freely. The voters and polling station officials conducted themselves admirably in the face of threats from insurgents, and the basic administrative procedures of the election worked. There had been pre-election concerns about the ease of ballot manipulation in an election conducted without a voter registry, and fears of biased or corrupt local and provincial election officials. 

There were attempts, emanating largely from Pakistan, to issue hundreds of thousands of duplicate voter identification cards. Some local staff members either assisted in or failed to report significant election-day fraud. The Afghan election commission was opaque in its strategy for release of election returns, and, despite repeated assurances, failed to screen out potentially fraudulent results. Accusations of ballot stuffing reached such proportions that 10 percent of returns had to be recounted. Nevertheless Karzai was re-elected, albeit with suspicions amongst his rivals that he had “stolen” the election. In the popular Pashtun view, the government is still staffed with an unrepresentative number of Tajik, Panjshiri and Hazara members, former warlords with a criminal record, narcotics traffickers, and those seeking patronage for personal and clannish advantage. Achieving consensus in a country wracked by civil war would be remarkable. 

In Afghan history, even the strongest executive had to get the consent or submission of the various factions of the country, a process often accompanied by violence and bitter dynastic rivalries. When Amir Amanullah came to power in 1919, he first deposed his uncle, seized control of the army and treasury, but his next step was to gain the approval of the most significant ulema, clan elders and power brokers. Initially popular amongst Ghilzais, his reforms generated significant local resistance and he was eventually overthrown in a coup d’etat. 

The solution in Afghan politics is that democracy must be more localised - provincial and presidential elections are too remote from the everyday lives of rural Afghans. While metropolitan politics is closely aligned to national issues, what matters in the provinces is the decision of the village jirga, a qawm shura, and district government. The future appears to lie with these entities being linked seamlessly into the hierarchies and systems of national authority.

A state must offer its citizens not only security and representation, but also opportunity, although the wars in Afghanistan between 1978 and 2001 drove millions out of the country as refugees, with millions more uprooted and internally displaced. The numbers of refugee returns to Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban regime indicate that, despite ongoing security and economic problems, there is a degree of progress. According to UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees), which played a key part in the process of repatriation, between 1 January 2002 and 31 December 2007 a total of 4,997,455 refugees returned to Afghanistan. This is the largest refugee return in the world in one generation. 

It is striking that even in 2006 and 2007 – years of considerable conflict in parts of Afghanistan, the returns continued, if at a reduced rate of about 400,000 per annum. During the whole period 2002 to 2007, the overwhelming majority of refugees have been in two countries - Iran, from which 1.6 million returned, and Pakistan, with 3.3 million returnees.56  

Impressive as these return figures are, three major qualifications have to be made. The first is the sheer numbers of Afghan refugees. At the end of 2007, Afghanistan was still the leading refugee country of origin worldwide, with 3.1 million remaining outside the country. Thus in 2008, even after these returns, Afghan refugees constitute 27 percent of the entire global refugee population. Secondly, within the countries of asylum there have been some heavy pressures on these refugees to return. 

Not all returns were fully voluntary and in 2012 Pakistan announced that, within a few years, it would simply end refugee status for Afghans on its soil. Thirdly, the experience of many returning refugees has been a lack of employment opportunities and, in some cases, property disputes. This has created disappointment and bitterness, which is frequently transferred into anti-government feeling. The estimated unemployment rate of 40 percent across the country, not just amongst returning refugees, means that insurgents continue to have opportunities for recruitment. In the poppy regions of the south, this recruitment is often seasonal. Young migrant workers find themselves out of work after the poppy harvest and are casually employed to fight ISAF and ANSF forces. 

A War Economy

Afghanistan was devastated by a 30 year long civil war, and its economy was mismanaged by the demands of communism in the 1970s and 1980s, and then by the absence of significant support, beyond the valiant efforts of aid agencies, in the 1990s. Nevertheless capitalist enterprise has thrived in Afghanistan since 2001 and the country is likely to generate future revenue as a transit point for trade between neighbours. It has the potential to develop a natural gas industry, timber trade and the processing of agricultural goods. 

Yet it is plagued by significant structural problems. Only half of the required US aid (of $4.8bn) is reaching the country, development is eroded by widespread corruption, many foreign aid donations only cover their costs of sustaining a presence in Afghanistan, and insurgents obstruct, destroy or siphon investment money for their own ends. Afghan government officials are accused of drawing cash from development funds to deposit in private accounts abroad. It is a depressing fact that the largest share of money allocated to Afghanistan pays for the enormous American military presence there – the US spent $120 billion on military operations in 2012. 

Critics of the Western effort in Afghanistan maintain that the country will not modernise, a view based on the assumption that Afghan culture is somehow fixed in the past. Although it is true that many rural Afghans want to be left alone by outsiders, certain technologies have been readily adopted in Afghanistan, regardless of their rural or urban status – examples include transport systems and mobile phones. Families know that they have to look outwards for survival. Family members are often sent to Iran or Pakistan to find work to augment incomes at home. 

Afghans are interested in improved medical care and better education. Eager to find relief from the poverty of the countryside, migration into urban areas has been significant since 2001. Moreover it is worth noting that reforms in Afghanistan in the past were destroyed not by religious and social conservatism but by civil war and coercive mis-government. Even atavistic mullahs and jihadists who opposed modernisation now seem eager to embrace those aspects of modernity that benefit them, including modern SUVs, video and websites for propaganda.

Afghanistan’s relative poverty was in part historical, but it was also the direct result of the Soviet invasion and civil war, which destroyed much of the country's limited infrastructure and disrupted normal patterns of economic activity. GDP fell substantially because of loss of labour and capital, and the disruption to transport and trade. The continuation of the civil war hampered domestic reconstruction and international aid efforts. However Afghanistan's economy has grown at a fast pace since the 2001 fall of the Taliban, albeit from a low base. GDP growth exceeded 11 percent in 2007 and seven percent in 2008, while the growth for 2009/2010 was 22.5 percent. Real GDP was expected to grow by around 8.5 percent in 2010/2011, representing a per capita figure of $609. 

Despite these increases, unemployment remains around 40 percent and issues such as corruption, security, and shortage of skilled workers constrains development and the conduct of business. Foreign direct investment remains only $250 to $300 million per annum, equivalent to less than two percent of GDP. By contrast, gross opium-related revenue was estimated to be around $3 billion in 2009 and circa 20 to 25 percent of GDP in 2010.57 

In June 2006 Afghanistan and the International Monetary Fund agreed on a Poverty Reduction and Growth Facility programme for 2006 to 2009 that focused on maintaining macroeconomic stability, boosting growth, and reducing poverty. Afghanistan is rebuilding its banking infrastructure through the Afghanistan National Central Bank, although a disturbing embezzlement scandal at the highest level was exposed in 2012.

Yet what matters most to Afghans are the effects of war on farming. An estimated 85 percent of Afghans are dependent on agriculture and related agri-businesses for their livelihoods. War and the inconsistencies of return on licit goods mean that a significant number of Afghans have turned to the higher profits and guaranteed funding streams of opium production. 

Opium represents a significant share of the country’s agricultural economy and, by default, its overall economic health. As such, it rivals foreign aid donations in terms of leverage. Opium is thought to generate $2.3 billion each year, and there is understandable foreign pressure to eradicate the narcotics industry. Opium created tremendous wealth for a few in Afghanistan. One journalist even claims that opium now represents as much as 60 percent of Afghan GDP.58 

In recent years, some sources claim the number of farmers growing poppy and overall opium production levels are in decline, as more farmers produce and market alternative crops such as corn, rice, barley, wheat, vegetables, fruits, and nuts. Licit commercial agriculture played a significant role in increasing the income of rural populations. Industrial cash crops, including cotton, tobacco, madder, castor beans, and sugar beet, also played their part. But significant problems remain. Afghanistan’s agricultural production is constrained by dependence on erratic winter snows and spring rains for water, while irrigation systems took time to be repaired after decades of war and neglect. Relatively little use is made of machinery, chemical fertilizer, or pesticides. Water management in provinces like Helmand is often poor, with wasteful inundations rather than careful and equal distribution. 

The West often recognised these problems, but the scale of the task was so vast that estimated time frames for dealing with them were measured in decades. Afghan farmers needed micro-finance to buy quality seeds, fertilizer and equipment, and the international community helped to restore banking and credit services to rural lenders, which now administer loans in nearly two-thirds of the country’s provinces. From September 2009 more than 52,300 agricultural loans, ranging from approximately $200 to $2 million, had gone to small businesses, with a repayment rate of 94 percent. 

Success in this area encouraged commercial banks to extend loans for agri-businesses. Funds have been provided for leases, to promote food processing and support for crop exports. Nevertheless, as the Minister for Counter-Narcotics revealed, neighbouring countries exploit Afghanistan’s relative weaknesses. In one example, Pakistani merchants exploit Afghanistan’s lack of dry or cold storage facilities, buying up a glut of crops in the summer and autumn, then selling them back at a higher and sometimes exorbitant price some months later. 

In 2009 the international community, and the US in particular, significantly revised its counter-narcotics strategy for Afghanistan, ending direct involvement in poppy eradication and increasing support for licit agriculture and interdiction. The new strategy focussed on nodal points where there was clear evidence of cooperation between the insurgents and the narcotics trade. This was based on the assumption that groups like the Taliban derived significant sums of money from narcotics to sustain their campaign of violence. Poppy is relatively straightforward to cultivate and opium is easily stored and transported, providing a ready source of cash when other crops fail. Notoriously, Afghanistan produced 93 percent of the world’s opium in the period 2006 to 2010. Refined into heroin, a portion remains in the region supplied to a growing regional addict population, especially in Iran and Afghanistan, and the rest exported, primarily to Western Europe via Africa or Central Asia.

In a country that sustained significant damage to its productive capacity, the lack of governance has created opportunities, providing a niche for the Afghan farmer to make what he produces relevant to the global economy. For farmers, opium is simply “a miracle crop ... (Maturing) quickly, allowing double cropping ... it is more weather-resistant than wheat, is easy to store, transport, and sell ... (and) can easily be a form of savings in a country that until recently was wracked by inflation.”59  This crop is complementary to Afghanistan’s role as a trading economy, as Afghans have a long-history in international trade and trafficking. 

Crucially, the opium trade has produced national and international networks of production, refinement and export that have changed social relationships within Afghanistan, giving a powerful few enormous influence which has enabled them to dispense with traditional forms of governance and to buy off interfering Afghan government officials. The demand for manpower in this labour-intensive business also has benefits for the lower waged. In parts of rural Afghanistan, where the wage rates traditionally equate to a dollar a day, labourers are now paid at least $3 a day and as much as $6 a day during harvest time.60  For farmers, a hectare of land would potentially earn $13,000 from poppy as opposed to $400 from wheat.61  

Of the local economic transformation, one Afghan doctor noted: “Three years ago, when I first came here, people did not even have bread to eat.  There was no money for medicines, no money for a clinic fee.  Now everyone has enough.”62  Furthermore this has allowed Afghan politics to have an internal locus in addition to the introduction of external funding, giving internal relationships a more critical role than they would otherwise have in determining the geometry of power.  

Farmers themselves have been more concerned to ameliorate the effects of war, drought and interruptions to the transport system. Taking Helmand as an example, “what farmers lost in yield in the 2009/2010 growing season, they were compensated by a rise in the price of opium. Prices had increased to 70,000 PR to 80,000 PRs per man63 ($883 to $952)64 during the harvest season compared with between 12,000 PRs and 14,000 PRs ($142 to $165)65 at planting time. There was considerable speculation in the market with farmers being offered prices of 70,000 PRs per man ($883) at the farm gate but refusing to sell, waiting to see if the price would rise further.”66

“It is clear that those households that produced a surplus of opium, over and above the amount required to meet annual household expenditures, have been better able to meet the costs of the shocks of war and drought. They have been able to invest in other legal economic activities, which have subsequently made the transition out of opium production easier, even if the shift is temporary. In the south, a number of respondents report that having invested in livestock with the money they earned from opium production and by increasing the number of animals they possess, they have abandoned the cultivation of opium poppy. Others have purchased vehicles, such as a tractor for transporting goods to the bazaar, or cars to rent out as taxis. Setting up a shop is a popular business venture for many of those interviewed that had previously grown opium poppy. Nevertheless those respondents that experienced a dramatic fall in income in response to abandoning opium production were typically those that did not produce a surplus over and above the amount required to meet annual household expenditures, and consequently had nothing to invest in other potential income streams.”67 

Government-led eradication, which did so much to generate resistance to the government and their ISAF allies between 2006 and 2009, remains unpopular. The chief objection was that access to alternative livelihood support was either difficult or blocked by rival qawm. Accusations were made that eradication was subject to the clan preferences and patronage of government figures. A doctor in Gereshk, Helmand province, complained: 

“There are lot of people in the village who grow poppy but they (the government) only destroyed the crop of some. The Malik didn’t support me when I was arrested. Maybe he benefits. I paid 42,000 PRs ($500) to the police for my release.  My income has fallen as we have no poppy and I have had to take a loan.  The government is corrupt. They are thieves. They are bad people.  From the police up to Karzai they tell lies to the people. We will never become friendly with a government such as this.”68 

The extent to which the insurgents are dependent on the economic traffic that comes from the drug trade for their success is debatable. It is likely that the Taliban have diverse sources of income, ranging from donations from wealthy Gulf businessmen, ideologues in Pakistan, extortion from haulage firms taking goods into Afghanistan, racketeering within Afghanistan, and roadside intimidation. Having first risen to prominence in cooperation with local truckers and traders, the Taliban invests in security in local areas, providing for the safe passage of goods and extracting a fee. This system allows them to generate more revenue while expanding their influence, building relationships, and dominating the lives of Afghans at a local level. 

Antonio Giustozzi believes the close relationship to Afghan trade is one of the engines of Taliban success, and ensures that a steady supply of arms and ammunition continues to reach their fighters.69  The Taliban nevertheless recognises the importance of opium to Afghan farmers, and they are careful to frame support for the trade against government eradication and corruption. They have offered financial backing for those whose fields were being eradicated in exchange for support against the government, and they assist in the guarantee of production by ensuring that “salaam” payments are delivered to the farmers even before the crop has been harvested.70 By providing security and safe passage, they make the opium trade viable and seek to overcome the unpopularity generated by their 2000 ban on production.  

In Afghanistan, many groups seek to profit from war and narcotics. Transport businesses that deliver goods to ISAF forces have much to lose when the West withdraws, although much of the Western military footprint has been, unlike previous occupations in Afghanistan, brought in entirely from outside. The insurgents too play an important economic role in Afghanistan as a guarantor of commerce in an economy in which trade is critical as each Afghan attempts to “support a home that the land alone cannot sustain”.71  Jon Anderson notes that “apart from primary agricultural products, everything that Afghans use from tea to tools to clothing must be obtained from somewhere else”.72   And in such an economy, those who ensure that the routes to those other places remain open are indispensible. The insurgents, criminal groups, ISAF and the government are locked in a struggle for this critical part of the Afghan economic ecosystem.

There are other areas of the economy which have been affected by war, but which might offer some hope for the future. Afghanistan is endowed with natural resources, including extensive deposits of natural gas, petroleum, coal, copper, chromite, talc, barites, sulphur, lead, zinc, iron ore, salt, and precious and semiprecious stones. Insecurity in certain areas, difficult terrain, and an inadequate infrastructure and transportation network have made mining these resources difficult, and only limited attempts have been made to further explore or exploit them. 

The first significant investment in the mining sector, the Aynak copper deposit in east-central Afghanistan, is managed by a Chinese company and valued at over $2.5 billion. The Ministry of Mines has offered oil, gas and iron ore tenders along with gold mining to foreign investors. Natural gas, a resource first tapped in 1967, has been exploited for some time. At their peak during the 1980s, natural gas sales accounted for $300 million a year in export revenues, some 56 percent of the national total. Unsurprisingly, 90 percent of these exports went to the Soviet Union to pay for imports and debts. During the withdrawal of Soviet troops in 1989, Afghanistan’s natural gas fields were capped to prevent sabotage by the mujahedin, but the restoration of gas production was delayed by civil war. 

Conscious of the need to jump-start industrial activity, the government has endeavoured to create Reconstruction Opportunity Zones (ROZs) to create jobs in underdeveloped areas where extremists recruit young men. ROZs encourage investment by allowing duty-free access to the international community for certain goods produced in Afghanistan, but perceptions of insecurity continue to deter investors. Access also remains an issue. The restoration of Highway One (the “Ring Road”) that links Kabul, Kandaha, and Herat with the northern cities of Mazar-e-Sharif and Kunduz, is extending subsidiary routes into the provinces. 

For the movement of bulk goods, Afghanistan has long needed railways and there are plans to link Afghanistan into the regional network. The Hairatan to Mazar-e-Sharif railway project is also in progress. The project aims to grow trade between Afghanistan and Uzbekistan, reduce transport costs, increase vehicle operation savings, and create job opportunities in the project area. It will improve Hairatan’s marshalling yard and railway station, construct a new single-track railway line of about 75 kilometres from Hairatan to Mazar-e-Sharif, construct a new trans-shipment terminal facility at Mazar-e-Sharif, install signalling and telecommunication systems, install safety features for efficient operation, develop institutional capacity of the railway sector, and provide construction supervision and project management consultancy. 

The Amu Darya (Oxus) River, which forms part of Afghanistan’s border with Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, is navigable by barge traffic while the Shirkan Bandar Bridge, reconstructed with American assistance, reopened in 2007 thus reestablishing an important trade link between Afghanistan and Tajikistan.

The Kabul government is determined not to be burdened with any ideological constraints about a “command economy”, since central planning is vital for the recovery of the country. Its strategic plan for development is manifest in the Afghanistan National Development Strategy, adopted at the Paris Conference in Support of Afghanistan on 12 June 2008. While development assistance has remained at lower levels than expected since 2001, donor governments have sought to integrate their aid, foreign policy and military agendas in an effort to find a “comprehensive approach”. 

Pressure from donor governments and military actors to deliver “instant” development and democracy nevertheless pushed some NGOs into unexplored territory and created an uneasy marriage between the “three Ds” – development, diplomacy and defence. The West established its own PRTs (provincial reconstruction teams) to coordinate development projects and, in theory, military operations. The idea was to establish zones, cleared of insurgents, in which development work could take place in a secure environment. Cooperation between coalition nations, and between government ministries, was not entirely smooth. Many misunderstood the role and limitations of other agencies so that, while military leaders complained of a lack of progress and commitment in development work, those responsible for development argued the military generated resistance and failed to provide adequate security. 


Intimidation and insecurity have been the experience of many Afghans since 2001, although there have been dramatic improvements in recent years in certain areas. To maintain their influence, insurgent groups like the Haqqanis resorted to more significant acts of terrorism, often in urban areas. In rural areas, remote from government control, it is harder to provide physical security. One interviewee, known only as Khan, explained:

“By the middle of 2004, we were hearing rumours that the Taliban were operating once again in Ghazni. Friends and relatives in other rural districts were saying that armed men were beginning to show up in villages at night on motorbikes. Within a few months, signs of them began appearing everywhere. At first we saw shabnama (night letters) that the Taliban were leaving in shops, mosques, and other public places warning people not to cooperate with Karzai and the Americans. By the beginning of 2005 the Taliban began targeted killings of police officers, government officials, spies, and elders who were working with the Americans.”

Another interviewee gave a vivid impression of the low-key character of intimidation by insurgents:

“One night around midnight someone knocked on the door of our house. We were terrified, fearing that the police had come back to arrest me or my brother once again. But when we opened the door, it was one of my father's former students. He had a Kalashnikov on his shoulder and was a Taliban sub-commander already. The two other Taliban he was with also carried AKs and had several hand grenades attached to their belts. This was my first encounter with the Taliban since the defeat. We invited them to spend the night. Early the next morning I accompanied them to the mosque. My father's former student read out the names of those he accused of having betrayed Islam by following Karzai and the infidels. He warned them to cease all contact and to quit any job they may have had with the government or the Americans. He ended by saying he would return in one week.”73 

Pressure by insurgents is incremental. If initial visits do not ensure compliance, an individual or a family may be revisited and sterner measures imposed. One Afghan farmer explained: 

“There is a family from Marjah living in Lashkar Gah. They left the area to escape the fighting. When the eldest son went back to the house in Marjah to check on the house and animals he was arrested by Pakistani Taliban. They accused him of being a spy. They beat him and arrested him. They kept him in a room for two days and two nights. Then another Talib came. When he saw the eldest son he asked the Pakistani Taliban ‘Why have you arrested him? He is my villager. I know him’. The eldest son was released but he was told that he should not go back to Lashkar Gah as his fellow villager, the Taliban, had acted as a guarantor for him. Now the son cannot leave Marjah and the father remains in Lashkar Gah with the rest of the family.”74

If Afghans fear the intimidation of the insurgents, they also fear the police and military forces, and the corruption of wealthier and more powerful men. There are widespread accusations of corruption, particularly where narcotics revenue is perceived to be oiling the administration. Patronage networks and a desire not to miss opportunities can sometimes explain a lack of energy in tackling individual offenders. If corrupt officers demand patronage payments from their staff, the Afghan police patrolman must collect additional money from those he stopped at vehicle checkpoints. Others indulge in more blatant abuse and looting of civilians. Corruption and coercion was often top of the list of grievances in public opinion polls. Chief amongst these was the fact the government “turned a blind eye”. One clan elder stated: “If we let the elders work and have full authority, they can even talk to the Taliban and rehabilitate them, provided our decisions are binding and the international forces and the government respect them. We see governors coming in and being corrupt. But when the elders want to reveal this, nobody listens.”75 

Injections of Western money have fuelled rather than tackled corruption and conflict. The skeletal Afghan bureaucracy of 2001/2002 was eroded by the presence of high salaries in NGOs. It was simply more lucrative to leave government employment, even as a professional, to take up a low skilled post in a foreign agency.76 As one senior Afghan police officer told this author: “When the Soviets were here, they made a virtue of poverty; but you Westerners have created a situation in which everyone is now ashamed to be poor”. There is a growing awareness that the consequences of aid and humanitarian relief are not automatically benign because of these unforeseen secondary effects.77 

There were other ethical concerns about the Western intervention in Afghanistan. Although not subject to the degree of criticism levelled at the Iraq War 2003 to 2010, there was still disquiet with the mounting number of civilian casualties. In Afghanistan there was significant protest at Western coercion, particularly with regard to night raids, searches and arrests. Ethical anxieties increased when Western leaders appeared to be engaged in a policy of kill-or-capture of insurgent commanders, using either Special Forces or unmanned drone aircraft. 

Open sources suggest that since 2006 over 200 targeted strikes have taken place in Afghanistan. At least 80 drone strikes were launched against Pakistan’s lawless north-western region in 2008 alone, part of a pattern of strikes carried out against al Qaeda elements in Somalia, Iraq, and Yemen since 2002.78 Although the majority of these precision attacks were made with the support of their governments, those in Pakistan and Afghanistan appeared to have more ambiguous approval.

Nevertheless, at the time of writing the transition to full Afghan government control is underway. Some 75 percent of the population already live in areas where security is provided by Afghans, governed by their own leaders and by 2014 the entire country will be in that condition. ISAF is focussed only on areas of significant threat and is concentrating on a training mission. The Western effort, while often seen as only concerned with withdrawal, has fulfilled its mission of stabilising Afghanistan’s security, creating conditions for a new plural and representative political dispensation, and a viable economy. It has not yet completed all these tasks, but it has laid the foundations.

Summing Up 

Afghanistan is a case study of the consequences of both state collapse and uninhibited state power. The revolutionary process that began in 1978 resulted in the gradual erosion of the Afghan state. Those that propagated ever more radical solutions were, like so many revolutionary zealots, consumed by the monster they had unleashed. Without consent, radicals were forced to turn to state terror to enforce their new Utopia, and the result was brutality, coercion and atrocities, and eventually the failure of the state altogether. 

The Taliban were themselves part of this flux, backed by their external allies. Convinced of the righteousness of their own ideology, they perpetrated the very crimes they claimed to have come to eradicate. The politicisation of Islam, with all its moral certainties, produced a new extremism that stood in contradiction to the religious values of this established faith. While the Islamists convinced themselves that they were confronted by a Western presence and Western values which were to be destroyed, these same values, in fact, proved to be the essential requirements for social groups to coexist, shared by both Western and Islamic societies. 

The ideologues of the insurgency assert they must defend their way by violence, but this is really only an excuse to reject the modernity of the globe, avoid dialogue and escape into a fantasist realm that gives them prestige. 

The purpose of the Western presence in Afghanistan has not been the implementation of a development programme or the building of governance structures, important though these are. It is about creating a shared vision and a common identity for the future of Afghanistan. There are those who argue that the West should not engage in nation-building as it is beyond its capacity, but the 10 years of Western intervention have laid the foundations for a new and better Afghanistan, leaving the way open for the Afghan people to determine their own future. 

Since 2001, despite all the doubts and commitments the West faced, the insurgents failed to overrun or dislodge ISAF as they expected. Their major offensive in the south in 2006, and the subsequent operations through to 2012, were all defeated militarily. They failed to prevent elections or the people from voting in 2009 and 2011. 

Even their allies can be problematic, and jihadist benefactors are a burden as well as an advantage. There are often tensions between Pakistani, Afghan, Arab and other foreign fighters in the Taliban, Haqqani network, and Hezb-e Gulbuddin, especially over objectives. There is some suggestion that insurgent field commanders would rather be free of the munitions and financial constraints imposed by the Quetta Shura, their command council based in Pakistan. However, it is also clear that the Deobandi and Wahhabi doctrines that have sustained their motivation have drawn closer together and many Taliban fighters now identify with a pan-Islamic ideology, not just a Pashtun-Afghan one. This does not rule out a significant problem in the future for the Pan-Islamic jihadists. Pashtuns may reject regional and global ambitions if the Taliban recover power. 

There are suggestions that Karzai’s government, without the support of the Western military forces, will surely fail. Anocracies, like the government of Kabul, rarely succeed in countering insurgency. Pluralism, consociational democratic structures, and new systems of representation based on district government would be far preferable. Romantics who envisage the restoration of the old system of tribal elders wielding influence fail to acknowledge the profound political changes that have taken place in the last 30 years. The displacement caused by the Soviet occupation and the civil war broke up old village and clan structures. Moreover, young Afghans have little time for old generations that insist on practices they themselves have never known. However, there is an appetite for grass-roots decision-making and locally-led development projects, which could be encouraged, under supervision. Since 2001 improvements in communications mean that even rural remote areas are affected by central government, often for the first time in any continuous way. 

In the conflict, those that advocate a negotiated settlement wonder if there exists a solution that all would accept. An Islamic government could be possible, founded on shari'a law but honouring customary law and representing all the ethnic minorities of Afghanistan. However, since 2002 there has been very little sense of progress. President Karzai refused to accept negotiations that failed to acknowledge his leadership. Insurgent groups argued that they could not negotiate with a “slave government”, particularly while foreigners remained in the country. Iran and Pakistan would not accept a foreign puppet government and both sought to have a compliant state on their borders.

Development on its own is not enough to ensure the stabilisation of Afghanistan, but it has a significant impact on improving the lives of the people if it is led and administered transparently through local leaders. Large-scale projects and job creation are vital. 

Afghanistan will probably only reach a level of subsistence in some rural areas, but urban sites will naturally develop fastest and provinces like Helmand are well placed to serve as a hinterland to these fast growing cities. Afghanistan could be a trade route artery for Central Asia as it was historically, and the country as a whole has significant economic potential. Yet the future is uncertain. There are many significant “spoiler” factions intent on seizing Afghanistan for their own ends. 

What these armed groups and their backers fail to realise is that the struggle is essentially counter-productive. By seeking to possess or preserve Afghanistan, they will destroy it. Only by embracing modernisation and working for a united country has Afghanistan any real prospects for a better future.


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