Warlords, Drugs, Democracy
Warlords, Drugs, Democracy
The Taliban’s Neighbourhood and Regional Diplomacy with Afghanistan
The Taliban’s Neighbourhood and Regional Diplomacy with Afghanistan
Op-Ed / Asia 9 minutes

Warlords, Drugs, Democracy

Elections in Afghanistan have been postponed until September as a result of security worries and the low level of voter registration achieved so far. Democratic progress there might be a useful asset for American President George Bush in his re-election bid, but serious long-term international attention is needed to prevent a return to chaos and civil war.


More than two and a half years after the ousting of the Taliban,is the state moving, as some optimists believe, towards a new phase of post-conflict reconstruction? In their view, most of the deadlines laid down in the Bonn Accords of November 2001 have been largely met. A fully representative government will replace the semi-representative Transitional Administration after national elections in September. A constitution, created in the presence, if not with the whole-hearted support, of most political factions, has come into being. The new political arrangements it ushers in will be moderate and democratic and respect Afghan traditions.

The international security presence has expanded outside the capital Kabul. Assisting reconstruction are small civil-military Provincial Reconstruction Teams. With between eighty and two hundred members each, the teams have dual roles of development and security. The international community has successfully overseen the most difficult phase of post-Taliban reconstruction.

Pessimists, however, believe that there are as yet no signs of either political stability or military security. The resurgent Taliban poses an ever-increasing threat to the government, to international security forces, and to local and international non-governmental organisations.

Warlords and commanders refuse to accept Kabul's authority, running their own mini fiefdoms and extracting revenues through extortion and other criminal activities including narco-trafficking. Many warlords, aligned to the US-led coalition, are using this relationship to expand their political and military authority at Kabul's expense. American efforts to strengthen the government are thus undermined by its reliance on warlord allies to fight Al Qaeda and eliminate the remnants of the Taliban.

The international community's failure to reconstruct a democratic, liberal, representative government foreshadows grave consequences for the future. The legitimacy of the newly created government institutions is weakened by the way in which they were formed. A manipulated emergency loya jirga undermined the Transitional Administration's authority, just as a manipulated constitutional loya jirga has undermined the constitution's legitimacy. Pessimists have little faith that the forthcoming presidential and parliamentary elections will be either free or fair.


The truth lies somewhere between doomsday scenarios and euphoria. Afghanistan remains suspended somewhere between conflict and peace, but the international community has clearly opened windows of opportunity for security and good governance. The overthrow of the Taliban and the creation of a relatively representative state are a vast improvement.

International commitments and assistance for recovery and reconstruction have helped, in some measure, to revive an economic infrastructure destroyed by years of civil war. Security is far from guaranteed for most citizens, yet the international military presence has helped keep at bay domestic despots such as the Taliban and their allies, as well as international terrorists.

Given continued international support - political, economic and military - the country could move towards a sustained peace, but the threats to that peace require greater international muscle and the political will to reconsider some unwise policy choices.


Action will have to be taken, and soon, to prevent the conflict from resuming the shape of an all-out civil war. The international community, which is overseeing and thus responsible for reconstruction, needs to recognise that:

  • The process of reconstruction will be slow and painful. Twenty-three years of civil war and external intervention have taken their toll on the state and remaining political structures. The international community will have to be prepared to play a hands-on role for many years if stability is to be restored. Short cuts will simply not pay.
  • The wide gap between existing resources, fiscal and military, and those promised will have to be redressed. A failure to bridge the gap will undermine the progress so far.
  • Popular participation and representative government are essential for a sustainable peace. External interference or acquiescence in domestic manipulation of political processes will only make matters worse.


How can the most pressing challenges be met? It would be counter-productive to manipulate the electoral process. Government and UN officials expressed concern about a credible electoral exercise by the first deadline in June, citing insecurity, lack of resources and prior planning.

The UN intends to open 4,200 registration offices by this month. As yet, there are only 54 sites in eight cities. A little over ten percent of the ten and a half million eligible voters have been registered so far, and this includes only two percent of eligible women. Even political parties are yet to be registered.

Elections due in June have been postponed until September. If sufficient numbers of voters cannot be enrolled, if there is no freedom of association and expression, and if security conditions do not permit a free and fair process, then elections should be postponed. Anything less would undermine the authority of a future elected government. Yet a definite date for elections is necessary. Otherwise the Transitional Administration's legitimacy will fast erode, since its mandate expires in June. It is essential that elections for the president and parliament should be held simultaneously. Bypassing parliament, even before its creation, would only generate more friction in an already fractured society.


The problem of warlordism can no longer be swept under the carpet. The US-led coalition does need local allies to fight terrorism and its agents, but warlords are not the answer. If anything, their presence is contributing to growing popular acceptance, if not support, for a resurgent Taliban.

In the south and east, for instance, the main area of coalition military operations, this continued reliance only serves the Taliban's purposes, as the coalition alienates the very people who welcomed international intervention and the regime's demise.

The coalition must recognise that the warlords have been unreliable allies, providing misinformation that has several times produced civilian casualties. Many, including a number of prominent Kabul warlords, use a thriving drug trade to arm private militias.

Beyond Kabul, and to a lesser degree even within the capital, warlords employ extortion and violence in a culture of impunity. Some Afghans now remember the Taliban days with nostalgia.

Washington might opt for a quick fix to deal with increasing insecurity and the slow growth of a national army and police. Almost a quarter of the ten thousand army recruits have already absconded. According to coalition commander General David Barno, US special forces would train a five thousand-strong National Guard from provincial commanders' soldiers. Transforming the militias would only legitimise them while undermining international efforts to demilitarise.

As yet only 2,300 fighters have been demobilised in Kabul and the cities of Kunduz and Gardez, the first phase of a three-year disarmament programme. The south and east are inaccessible because of Taliban activity, while warlords certainly don't want to disband their militias. Giving these commanders a military role will only promote factional fighting and lawlessness. And it will not help to extend Kabul's authority.

Continued insecurity, including the Taliban revival, is seriously undermining recovery. Slow economic progress is in turn adversely affecting political and social reconstruction. How can this chicken-and-egg dilemma be dealt with? Since demilitarisation and the formation of a credible national army and police have faltered, an expanded, invigorated international security presence is the only way out.


NATO's decision to take over and expand the International Security Assistance Force's presence outside Kabul is certainly an encouraging first step. In a reversal of US policy, the Bush administration is keen on a more vigorous NATO role. Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld ultimately wants the alliance to take over all international military operations. Yet the present shape of its first out-of-area mission leaves much to be desired.

In August, NATO took over the six thousand-strong Assistance Force in Kabul. Two months later it agreed to expand beyond Kabul and in January, Germany took charge of a provincial reconstruction team in Kunduz, a relatively safe area. The thirteen thousand mostly US coalition troops command a number of such teams, led by the US, Britain and New Zealand, and intend to set up more.

Despite appeals from Secretary-General George Robertson and his successor Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, NATO member states are reluctant to deliver the ground troops, logistical and intelligence support and communications necessary for meaningful expansion. For instance, only Turkey and the Netherlands have agreed to provide three Black Hawk helicopters each.

To provide security during the forthcoming electoral process, Washington wants at least ten more NATO-led reconstruction teams, making sixteen in all. Britain, Italy, Turkey and Norway are committed to leading one team each outside Kabul. The Netherlands, Romania and Lithuania have indicated interest in contributing. The French have proposed to deploy a five thousand strong Franco-German brigade from the Europcorps, but only for six months and in Kabul.

Non-NATO states Sweden and Finland have expressed a willingness to contribute. Yet is unlikely that these teams will be in action by the middle of the year, since member states are reluctant to provide troops in the absence efforce protection from the US-led coalition.

NATO intends to set up a northern command in Mazar-e-Sharif and one in Herat in the west, but the growing insecurity in both centres might discourage member states from committing ground troops in any meaningful manner. The south and southeast most need an international security presence, but it is here that NATO is reluctant to tread.

Even if the teams are finally set up, this modest presence may not be sufficient to deal with multiple challenges and demands: the threats posed by the Taliban, warring warlords and drug dealers; the extension and protection of governmental authority; and safeguards for a free and fair election.


Since the departure of the Taliban, poppy production has surged. This includes those areas controlled by President Hamid Karzai's allies. The proceeds of the trade are financing warring factions and undermining Kabul's authority. It is also a source of funds for the Taliban and their allies as well as Al Qaeda.

Afghanistan is the world's largest opium producer, providing almost three-quarters of global production. According to the UN Office of Drugs and Crimes (UNODC), poppy production last year amounted to 3,600 tonnes. 1.7 million people, seven percent of the population, is directly engaged in it. Almost half a million people globally are involved in the Afghan opium trade, while farmers' and traffickers' income totalled $2.3 billion last year. In mid-February, at an anti-drug conference in Kabul, UNODC Chief Antonio Maria Costa cautioned the international community against inaction, saying that the next two years will be crucial.

The conference discussed ways of combating the problem, including providing alternative livelihoods, strengthening law enforcement and creating a functioning criminal justice system. Economic alternatives for poor farmers could include the development of horticulture and agriculture as well as the provision of micro-credit. Washington's preference is for drug eradication. The destruction of crops would alienate farmers but targeting laboratories would hurt the pocket books of the traffickers who benefit most.

Britain is training an Afghan Special Narcotics Force but local capability is some distance away. Until then, the US-led coalition and NATO will have to be more proactive. In January, American warplanes destroyed a narcotics laboratory, but this followed bloody infighting between two northern warlords.


Afghanistan's reconstruction is also dependent, to some extent, on its neighbours. Relations between Kabul and Islamabad remain tense, largely because of Pakistan's perceived support for the Taliban. Most domestic and international observers believe that Islamabad still backs the Taliban since it continues to use Pakistani territory as a sanctuary and recruits from Pakistani madrasas and Afghan refugee camps. There is also a long-standing border dispute, as Afghan governments have been reluctant to accept the Durand Line as the international boundary dividing the two.

Nothing less than zero tolerance for Pakistani intervention will do, especially from Washington. Operations in the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan might have led to the arrest of some Al Qaeda operatives but they have failed to net any key Taliban leader. Only American pressure can force the military government to take decisive action.

However, the international community will also have to address Islamabad's security worries. An anti-Pakistan stance by key officials in Kabul and intervention by traditional adversaries such as Iran and India only feed perceptions that Afghan territory will be used to undermine Pakistan's security. For too long Afghanistan has been the battleground for external powers' Great Games. It is time for the Afghans to be given a chance, with international support, to determine their own destiny.

"Demilitarisation and the formation of a credible national army and police have faltered. An expanded, invigorated international security presence is the only way out."

Elections in Afghanistan have been postponed until September as a result of security worries and the low level of voter registration achieved so far. Democratic progress there might be a useful asset for American Pres George Bush in his re-election bid, but serious long-term international attention is needed to prevent a return to chaos and civil war.

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