Asia Program

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Appraising Afghanistan: Measuring Success and Failure, Six Years Later

December 06, 2007 // 2:30pm4:30pm
Event Co-sponsors: 
International Security Studies
Middle East Program
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Six years after the launching of the military intervention that overthrew the Taliban and deprived al-Qaeda of its sanctuary, there is good news in Afghanistan. Hamid Karzai continues to rule as the country's first democratically elected president. In many areas of the country, commerce is flourishing and children (including young women) are back in school. Yet at the same time, Afghan public opinion is increasingly uneasy about the ability of U.S. and NATO forces to provide security—perhaps not a surprise, given that Afghan civilian deaths reached an all-time high of 5,700 this year amid a growing Taliban-led insurgency. On December 6, the Asia Program, along with the Middle East Program and Division of International Security Studies, hosted an event that sought to measure progress on a range of issues that affect security and stability in Afghanistan.

William C. Martel considered how to define and measure "victory" in the current war in Afghanistan. He asserted that the term can be defined on three different levels: tactical (victories in battle), political-military (a series of battlefield victories that enable political and military goals to be achieved), and grand strategic (victories in ideologically or morally motivated wars that "reorder" the strategic foundations of the international system). According to Martel, the first two levels of victory have been achieved: al-Qaeda and the Taliban were defeated through tactical triumphs, while "at least for now" events are "consistent with" political-military victory. Have international forces attained grand strategic victory in Afghanistan? Martel suggested—but did not state explicitly—that this may be the case. He noted that the Taliban and al-Qaeda were removed by "de facto" regime change—an outcome that in his view may indicate victory on a strategic level. Additionally, their ouster marked an ideological triumph for the international community, as radical regimes were vanquished as part of a global war on terror and replaced by a democratic government.

Seth G. Jones traced the evolution of Afghanistan's insurgency over the last six years. In 2001, an "exodus" of defeated al-Qaeda and Taliban forces ensued from Afghanistan into Pakistan's border regions. Over the next few years, they regrouped, and by 2006, these "rejuvenated" fighters had resumed "sustained operations" back in Afghanistan. Jones pointed to recent Taliban advances into Afghanistan's western and central regions, though he emphasized that this progression is rurally based and that neither the Taliban nor other insurgent groups in Afghanistan are capable of taking cities. He attributed the rise of this rural insurgency to poor national governance in the countryside. Since 2001, Kabul has been unable to establish law and order in rural areas. As a result, Afghan villages are often left unprotected. Similarly, the national government has major problems delivering key services—particularly water and electricity—to non-urban areas. If the insurgency is to be defeated, Jones concluded, then the national government must provide better governance in Afghanistan's hinterland.

William Byrd examined efforts to combat Afghanistan's poppy production, which reached record levels this year. He bluntly stated that counternarcotics (CN) policies have failed: the country's opium economy has grown; the drug industry has "consolidated" around the "politically connected"; and drug-related corruption is widespread. Byrd argued that many of the currently proposed solutions to opium growth in Afghanistan—such as blanket eradication, legalization, and subsidies for other crops—"don't stand up to scrutiny." He recommended instead a "smart" CN strategy that would target areas that have only recently begun opium production, and that would take preemptive measures to deter growth in areas now opium-free. A successful CN strategy must also recognize that tackling Afghanistan's drug problem will require time. Accordingly, Byrd recommended a long-term development focus instead of an overemphasis on "unsustainable" and "costly quick-impact projects." Nations like Turkey and Thailand took decades to attain CN victories, he noted, and it might be 10-20 years before "definitive success" is achieved in Afghanistan.

Malaly Pikar Volpi reviewed gender issues. Six years after the Taliban's fall, she declared, the status of Afghan women remains abysmal. The trafficking of women is "rampant." Afghanistan's maternal mortality rate is one of the world's worst. Women as young as eight are forced into marriage. In the southern province of Helmand—a bastion of the resurgent Taliban—only 6 percent of girls go to school. Eighty-seven percent of Afghan women are victims of violence. Meanwhile, the institutions meant to protect and advocate for women are hamstrung by corruption or discrimination: Afghan police take bribes to set perpetrators free, while participants in women's shuras (councils) "are not taken seriously." Yet even while presenting this stark picture, Volpi underscored that there is still hope. Women's access to microfinancing has improved significantly. Additionally, the Afghan government has launched public information campaigns, instituted a new 12-year education plan, and ratified pro-women legislation. Yet Volpi warned that major challenges remain, especially in a nation whose public is often "resistant to change."

A common theme resonating throughout this event was the importance of the international community in Afghanistan's reconstruction. Volpi argued that international aid for women's programs in Afghanistan is wholly inadequate, and that if Afghan women's status is to improve, then the world must stop using kid gloves in its approach to Afghan cultural practices that cause women's suffering. Byrd stated that international involvement is instrumental for sustaining long-term CN policies in Afghanistan. And Jones concluded that more international support for Afghanistan's government is crucial for a successful counterinsurgency. In particular, he urged greater involvement from Iran and Pakistan. "Neighbors," he observed, "matter an enormous amount" in Afghanistan.

Drafted by Michael Kugelman, Asia Program Associate
Robert M. Hathaway, Director, Asia Program, Ph: (202) 691-4020

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