Afghanistan on the Brink

What are the prospects for democracy in Afghanistan?

August 18, 2009

What are the prospects for democracy in Afghanistan?

What is the view from Kabul today?

"Crushing poverty, growing violence, inept governance and the corresponding collapse of hope suggest a grim future for the average person in Afghanistan today."

(Fatima Ayub, researcher on human rights in Afghanistan, November 2008)

What explains the Taliban's grip on the country?

“The average Afghan knows NATO will be gone one day. But ordinary Afghans know the Taliban is there to stay.”

(Arnaud de Borchgrave, UPI editor-at-large, July 2008)

Why are Afghans so frustrated?

"The Afghans don’t understand anymore how a little force like the Taliban can continue to exist, can continue to flourish, can continue to launch attacks with 40 countries in Afghanistan, with the entire NATO force in Afghanistan — with the entire international community behind them.”

(Hamid Karzai, President of Afghanistan, November 2008)

Are Afghans the only ones who are confused?

“Like the Greeks, the British and the Soviets before them, America and its allies are discovering the old adage that Afghanistan is easy to invade — but difficult to control.”

(The Economist, December 2007)

Does all this seem familiar?

“Five years ago, pessimists warned that we Americans would soon find ourselves in a similar situation to what Soviet forces faced in the 1980s. They were wrong — but only about the timing.”

(Robert D. Kaplan, national correspondent for The Atlantic, July 2006)

How difficult will it be to stabilize Afghanistan?

“No matter how different European and American views, the reality is that stabilizing Afghanistan will take years and significant resources — just as has been the case in the Balkans, where Europeans and Americans have been working together for more than a decade.”

(Philip Gordon, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, September 2007)

What needs to be done?

“Breaking up the Taliban by winning over the moderates is a far better route to success than bombing and body counts.”

(Lord Paddy Ashdown, former British high representative to Bosnia, February 2008)

In other words?

“In Afghanistan, the Taliban begins where the road-building ends.”

(Amir Zai Sangin, Afghanistan's Minister of Communications, November 2006)

What does President Obama think of the situation?

"The situation is precarious and urgent in Afghanistan — and I believe this has to be our central focus, the central front, in our battle against terrorism."

(Barack Obama, then-U.S. presidential candidate, July 2008)

To what lengths will Western officials need go to?

“If the Taliban were prepared to sit on the other side of the table and talk about a political settlement, then that’s precisely the sort of progress that concludes insurgencies like this.”

(Mark Carleton-Smith, senior British commander in Afghanistan, October 2008)

But is it just the Taliban that is putting up resistance?

“The British Raj learned the hard way a century ago that the Pashtuns — Afghanistan’s largest and historically dominant ethnic group — will unite to fight a foreign occupation force simply because it is foreign.”

(Selig S. Harrison, director of the Asia program at the Center for International Policy, January 2007)

Are Afghanistan's politicians also at fault?

“Afghanistan’s problems — desperate poverty, fragile and corrupt government and a drug-financed insurgency — can’t wait for prickly politicians to sort out their differences. It is those politicians, rather than the troops battling the Taliban, who are courting defeat.”

(The Economist, February 2008)

So is corruption also an issue?

“The Taliban gave us a dictatorship of fear. Karzai has given us a dictatorship of bribes.”

(Saeed Shah, Afghan citizen, November 2008)

What could help?

“Two hundred judges in the country will do the work of five divisions. A thousand bureaucrats committed to integrity will do the work of ten more.”

(Ashraf Ghani, chairman of Afghanistan's Institute of State Effectiveness, November 2008)

What does the booming narcotics trade have to do with it?

“Illegal drugs pose a mortal threat to Afghanistan’s future. Corruption follows illegal drugs as surely as night follows day.”

(Zalmay Khalilzad, then-U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, January 2005)

Does the West have a plan?

“Simply exhorting farmers to turn away from poppies to wheat, saffron and pomegranates will not work.”

(Robert I. Rotberg, president of the World Peace Foundation, January 2006)

Is it possible that the whole project was doomed from the start?

"Supporting a heavily centralized government in Kabul, failing to encourage the growth of legitimate government at the local level and drawing former paramilitary leaders to posts of power, the international advisors in Afghanistan undermined themselves from the outset."

(Fatima Ayub, researcher on human rights in Afghanistan, November 2008)

Why is that?

“For three centuries, the Afghan state has been just barely a state — and ethnic and tribal communities paid obeisance to Kabul only if it accorded them autonomy.”

(Selig S. Harrison, director of the Asia program at the Center for International Policy, January 2007)

What does Pakistan have to do with it?

“The road to stability in Afghanistan runs through Pakistan — specifically the tribal areas that the Taliban and al-Qaida fighters use as a sanctuary.”

(Maharaja Krishna Rasgotra, former foreign secretary of India, and Stanley Weiss, chairman of Business Executives for National Security, October 2008)

Who else is involved?

“If you want to solve Afghanistan, you have to talk to the Iranians.”

(Bernard Kouchner, France’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, November 2008)

What should Europeans ask themselves about Afghanistan?

“Is it a vital function of well-endowed, mature democracies to help those nations much less well off to have a fighting chance to secure a peaceful way for themselves to reach a prosperous future?”

(Stephan Richter, publisher and editor-in-chief of The Globalist, April 2007)

And how can they help?

“We’re not here to fight the Taliban — we’re here to make the Taliban irrelevant.”

(Colonel Hans van Griensven, Dutch commander, April 2007)

And finally, what may be the central dilemma?

“We have no enmity with the West, but if the West wants us to live in a democracy, it must let us make our own decisions.”

(Enayatullah Balegh, Afghan imam, April 2006)

Takeaways

"Like the Greeks, the British and the Soviets before them, America and its allies are discovering the old adage that Afghanistan is easy to invade — but difficult to control." (The Economist, December 2007)

"In Afghanistan, the Taliban begins where the road-building ends." (Amir Zai Sangin, Afghanistan's Minister of Communications, November 2006)

"The Afghans don't understand how the Taliban can continue to exist with the entire NATO force in Afghanistan — with the entire international community behind them." (Hamid Karzai, President of Afghanistan, November 2008)

"If you want to solve Afghanistan, you have to talk to the Iranians." (Bernard Kouchner, France's Minister of Foreign Affairs, November 2008)

"The average Afghan knows NATO will be gone one day. But ordinary Afghans know the Taliban is there to stay." (Arnaud de Borchgrave, UPI editor-at-large, July 2008)