by Conor Foley on August 27, 2009

I spoke at a seminar on UN peace-keeping a couple of weeks ago. Here is the text of my paper:

I lived in Afghanistan for a year and a half in 2003/2004 and returned there twice in 2008: the first time to do some research for the Overseas Development Institute on how humanitarian agencies were dealing with the deteriorating security situation and the second time for an evaluation of the Italian government’s justice sector reforms. I have written a Guide to Afghan Property Law and a chapter on Afghanistan in a book on UN peace-keeping missions, with particular reference to the restoration of housing, land and property rights. My own book on humanitarian interventions also has a chapter on Afghanistan.

The ousting of the Taliban after the attacks of 11 September 2001 is often portrayed as part of the policy of “liberal intervention”, the aphorism coined by former British premier Tony Blair that linked the humanitarian interventions of the 1990s, with the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The intervention in Afghanistan was legally justified by the doctrine of “self-defence” and both the US and UK governments reported this as the basis of their resort to military action under Article 51 of the UN Charter at the time. It also enjoyed widespread international support and the UN Security Council passed two resolutions threatening the Taliban with serious consequences for allowing Al Qaeda to establish a base in Afghanistan using its Chapter VII powers which authorize military action. This is in marked contrast to the events leading up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, which was not backed by a UN Security Council resolution, not widely supported by other countries, and is widely believed to have been a violation of international law.

However, whatever view you take of Blair’s arguments, Afghanistan never really fitted the “liberal interventionist” pattern at an operational level. No attempt was made to introduce the governance model that was developed in post-war Bosnia-Herzegovina and then imposed, with varying degrees of success, in Kosovo, East Timor, Haiti, Liberia and Sierra Leone – or indeed in post-invasion Iraq. The initial United States “invasion force” consisted of a few hundred CIA and Special Forces operatives who flew into the country with suitcases full of cash and linked up with the various militias who were then engaged in an ongoing civil war. They bribed as many of the militia leaders as possible to change sides and called air-strikes down on the rest.

The postwar governance arrangements were agreed at a conference in Bonn in December 2001, where the victorious Northern Alliance forces, essentially agreed to the imposition of Hamid Karzai as president, but kept most of the other key positions in the new government. Critically, this led to the exclusion of Pashtuns, the dominant ethnic group in the country, from the new regime.

The Taliban, which are widely acknowledged to have been a spent force by the start of 2003, re-emerged the following summer in response to a series of policy failures, which were quite obvious to all of us working there at the time. The US had deliberately decided not to engage in “nation-building”, partly due to President Bush’s ideological dislike of the concept and partly because it was gearing up its forces for the invasion of oil-rich Iraq.

A report by the International Crisis Group, in early 2002, estimated that it would take a minimum of 25,000 international troops to secure Afghanistan. The UN-mandated force was limited to 4,500 when I arrived and remained confined to Kabul. Compare this to the 60,000 troops who were sent to tiny, peaceful post-Dayton Bosnia and the other large and well-equipped missions that have been deployed elsewhere. The UN mission to Afghanistan had no executive powers and was supposed to operate with a “light footprint” – a significant difference with the transitional arrangements established in other post-conflict countries. There was also no serious attempt to tackle impunity or draw on the array of international criminal tribunals and justice and reconciliation mechanisms that have been established. Initial attempts to prevent known war criminals participating in the transitional government or enter parliament were unsuccessful and land-grabs were carried out by members of the new government quite literally in sight of the foreign Embassies who were implanting Rule of Law projects.

Little of the promised foreign aid arrived and international attention shifted to the invasion of Iraq. Corruption and impunity thrived. By late 2004, when I left the country, it is estimated that a half of Afghanistan’s provincial governors and security force commanders were self-appointed. Many of these were gangsters and narco-traffickers who had been driven out by the Taliban in the 1990s and whose return was greeted with horror by most ordinary Afghans. Together with the exclusion of Pashtuns from key positions in President Hamid Karzai’s government, this created the political basis for the Taliban’s renewal.

Dozens of my friends and colleagues were murdered, maimed or kidnapped while I was working in Afghanistan and I saw several of these attacks up close. Some were carried out by the Taliban, but some, such as the murder of four of my colleagues from Médicins sans Frontières, were almost certainly carried out by local commanders who were nominally allied to the government. On one occasion a compound of the International Rescue Committee was struck by artillery shells fired by the former police commander of Jalalabad city who was involved in a dispute with the regional governor.

The term Taliban is also used as a convenient catch-all description for a range of disparate insurgent groups fighting the Afghan government. Many are doing so for pragmatic rather than ideological reasons and even within the Taliban itself, the various factions are deeply divided. The last time I visited, one observer estimated that up to 80% of the violence came from criminal groups rather than organised resistance forces. This was before the current offensive began, and one of the dangers of President Obama’s new strategy is that it will unite these forces against a common foe.

While some lessons have been learned from these initial failures, western governments are still looking for quick fixes that are almost guaranteed to achieve the exact opposite of their policy goals. Aerial strikes have brought increased civilian deaths, boosting Taliban recruitment. Cross-border operations have spread the conflict to Pakistan. The large increase in western troop numbers has also just given the Taliban more targets. In the meantime the use of humanitarian aid to buy “hearts and minds” has been massively counter-productive. As well as blurring the distinction between military and humanitarian actors – which has led to the targeting of aid workers – the strategy has encouraged corruption, cut across long-term planning and probably helped to spread the insurgency to formerly peaceful areas so as to attract aid to them.

The biggest problem was that the initial failure to tackle corruption. This and the legacy of the country’s bitter civil war has created a deep-seated culture of impunity. Afghanistan is a party to the International Criminal Court, but none of its warlords have been arrested and they continue to behave as if they are above the law. Two of the worst of them were Karzai’s running mates in the presidential election of August 2009. The fraud which took place during this not only tarnishes Afghanistan’s government in the eyes of its own people, but also makes it more difficult for western governments to convince their own electorate that the foreign international presence is worth what it is costing in lives and resources to protect a discredited regime.

This is the context in which the anti-government insurgency continues to thrive. The Afghan state lacks legitimacy because it is corrupt and compromised. It does not matter how many “military defeats” the western occupation forces inflict on the insurgents because the ground that they capture cannot be held while people remain alienated from the state.

While talk of building “effective grassroots initiatives to offer an alternative to fight or flight for the foot soldiers of the insurgency” is right, the concern is that what this really means is trading away human rights and democratic accountability to buy over warlords and Taliban factions to the government side. Localized peace deals are preferable to thinking that successes can be measures through a body count of enemy fighters – all of whom will have relatives who wish to avenge them. But actually neither side can win while the battle is conceived in military terms. The Taliban’s support is concentrated among one ethnic group, Pashtuns, who are a minority within the country as a whole, and they have alienated many through their brutality, incompetence and primeval social attitudes. The government is not going to “win” either by physically eliminating its opponents or by co-opting them or their ideology into the state. However, it can “lose” if it surrenders its legitimacy by failing to build an effective state with which ordinary Afghans can identify.

Viewed from this perspective, the main priority is actually the same as it always should have been, concentrate on creating a decent state in that part of the country where the writ of the central government still has some authority. This should be based on understanding the value of incremental improvements, building on what works, recognising the cultural specificity of the country and adapting strategies accordingly. Currently, the vast majority of the aid is being pumped into areas that are effectively under Taliban control in the mistaken belief that this can buy the allegiance of local populations and convince them to stop killing our soldiers. Meanwhile, because the US refuses to provide its financial support through the central government, it cannot afford to pay decent salaries to its judges, policemen and civil servants who rely on bribes to supplement their meager salaries. This has created a vicious circle where donors refuse to fund the government through fears of corruption, which creates an environment where corruption will continue to thrive.

There is no shortage of reports written by experienced aid workers, who know the country, about how aid could be delivered better. Unfortunately, because it is seen as part of the counter-insurgency strategy its delivery is often organized through military-led bodies such as the Provincial Reconstruction Teams. These are replete with the jargon of military academies, but clueless about the country that they are actually in. As one diplomat put it to me in Kabul last summer, military officers on six-month rotation tours, “spend the first two months undoing the work of their predecessors, two months trying to understand why all their previous assumptions were wrong and then the last two months just wanting to go home”.

Long-term planning should actually mean that and so – for example – the country needs a military and police force that it can actually afford, which is not the model that the Americans are trying to foist on it. Similarly, while millions of dollars have been pumped into an official court system that is widely viewed as ineffective and corrupt, the Taliban have increased their credibility through developing their own justice system based on Afghan customary law.

Beyond this, more thought needs to be given about the role of Afghanistan’s immediate neighbours, Pakistan and Iran, in supporting a settlement and how a broader-based government can be created, which will almost certainly include some of those currently fighting with the Taliban – subject to the concerns voiced above. Afghan civil society, in particular its tribal elders, has been weakened by decades of conflict and was largely sidelined by the occupation forces – who preferred to deal with the warlords. It needs to be given a greater stake in the country’s future.

None of this is quick fix – and there is a genuine to debate to be had in the countries that are sending troops there about whether the cost in lives of their soldiers is worth the price paid in human lives. A “troops out” policy will, of course, result in a large upsurge in the numbers of Afghans killed – and that is why opinion polls have consistently shown that large majorities in Afghanistan support the continued military presence – just as Iraqis consistently opposed it. But it is difficult to see what the strategic objective of western governments is in being in Afghanistan and how they can convincingly sell this to their own electorates.

The basic problem is that Afghanistan has been suffering from a discussion based on the politics of illusion. Perhaps the type of “liberal interventionism” that has defined western foreign policy over the last few years would not have been appropriate given the country’s historical, cultural and political specificities. But despite all the hypocritical cant from western politicians about democracy and women’s rights, this policy was never even actually tried. Beyond some vague, and unconvincing, claims about not allowing the country to becoming a base of an international terrorism, western politicians struggle to articulate the international mission in Afghanistan, because the claims to date have never matched the reality. That makes it all the more difficult to justify why western troops are now being asked to kill and die there.



Michael Bérubé 08.27.09 at 12:47 pm

Thanks, Conor, this is terrific stuff. With regard to one of your major points —

one of the dangers of President Obama’s new strategy is that it will unite these forces against a common foe. While some lessons have been learned from these initial failures, western governments are still looking for quick fixes that are almost guaranteed to achieve the exact opposite of their policy goals. Aerial strikes have brought increased civilian deaths, boosting Taliban recruitment. Cross-border operations have spread the conflict to Pakistan. The large increase in western troop numbers has also just given the Taliban more targets. In the meantime the use of humanitarian aid to buy “hearts and minds” has been massively counter-productive.

— I wonder what you make of Stephen Biddle’s recent assessment of the war? It’s much more US-centric (not surprisingly, coming from The American Interest), weighing the multiple failures in Afghanistan in a cost/benefit scale whose standard of measurement is mostly that of American domestic politics. But I’m curious to know what you think of where your analysis and Biddle’s overlap (or differ, if you prefer).


alex 08.27.09 at 1:09 pm

All powerful and depressing stuff. but on a technical note, have you thought of using the ‘click to continue’ feature? Right now you are somewhat bogarting the front page.


Conor 08.27.09 at 1:25 pm

Alex: apologies – that is due to my technical incompetence. I will see if I can do that now.

Michael: I will read it now and come back to you.


virgil xenophon 08.27.09 at 1:34 pm

Terrific stuff indeed. Both as a man “of the right” and as a Vietnam veteran I find this all depressingly familiar. Corrupt central government, almost total lack of sense of nationalism with everything centered on village and tribal loyalties, etc., combined with a military presence in which due to rotation policies the out-look of personnel is short-term, etc., it’s all, all too familiar. Or as one very wise, very sharp young NCO who worked in intelligence once said to me: “When is the USAF ever going to learn that ya can’t ‘occupy’ a piece of ground with a bomb.” LOL. We have a nebulous, amorphous, un-focused open-ended policy that unfortunately will stagger on until Congress runs out of patience and defunds the entire affair–until the next crisis–then off we go again with a new set of actors (US) applying the same set of “non-solution solutions” to the same place. Depressing. Britain’s Sir Robert Thompson foretold this entire scenario in the early 70s with a book based on the British experience in Malaya and the French in Algeria and earlier Vietnam which emphasized the fatal consequences of short-term thinking entitled: “Vietnam: No Exit” Should be required reading. My advise is that, besides reading this fine piece, govt planners and/or decision-makers should read, just for starters, everything Lord Curzon and his biographers have ever written about the region. Fat chance.


Conor 08.27.09 at 1:43 pm

I think I need to signal my incompetence to the editors on the technical issues here. I have done the two things which I thought would mean that only an excerpt of this post appeared on the front page and neither seem to have worked. Henry if you can do it at your end or post a comment telling me how to do it that would be great.

Apologies again.


Conor 08.27.09 at 1:53 pm

Michael: yes, I broadly agree with that. It is the standard analysis that a lot of people are putting forward. Rory Stewart made some similar arguments in the London Review of Books recently.

Here is a view that I put forward a year and a half ago, which I think has broadly stood the test of time (certainly better than Polly Toynbee’s arguments)


Mike 08.27.09 at 5:07 pm

“Right now you are somewhat bogarting the front page.”

Oh man. ‘Bogarting’ is such a beautiful word. It should be used more often.


Michael Bérubé 08.27.09 at 9:48 pm

Conor: many thanks, and thanks for the link to your stands-the-test-of-time argument, too. And thanks to Alex for totally strategically deploying the word “bogarting.” Dude.


Joe's Keys 08.27.09 at 10:23 pm

Thanks for a great piece, Conor. I’m still a little curious as to what you think should/can be done from here on out: it seems at the end as if you’re calling for stronger promotion of women’s rights, but given that Hamid Karzai had to pass some truly abhorrent legislation against women just to shore up votes among the Uzbeks and others, it seems that at this point such an emphasis, while noble in principle, would be swimming against the ethnonationalistic tide just as surely as excluding the Pashtuns from the government was. Also, you’re spot on that corruption should have been an early focus, but given that the probable Vice President is running drugs at the moment and the election had rampant fraud, it seems like the cat is out of the bag… so now what?


Joe's Keys 08.27.09 at 10:23 pm

p.s. I second, or third, the excellence of the word “bogarting” by Alex.


lemuel pitkin 08.27.09 at 10:55 pm

it seems at the end as if you’re calling for stronger promotion of women’s rights

Funny, it seemed to me just the opposite — that he was calling for a phasing-down of the US presence there and the adoption of a more realistic, and thus much more limited, set of goals.


Salient 08.28.09 at 12:59 am

And thanks to Alex for totally strategically deploying the word “bogarting.”

No kidding. It’s about time. IMDB doesn’t even mention the song.

Conor… thanks for sharing this paper. It’s hard to know what else to say.

I guess I have a forgive-a-stupid-question question about this:

The initial United States “invasion force” consisted of a few hundred CIA and Special Forces operatives who flew into the country with suitcases full of cash and linked up with the various militias…

Is this reasonably comparable to the funding of Awakening movements in Iraq?


alex 08.28.09 at 7:26 am

Dude, Bérubé called me “dude”. Dude!


JoB 08.28.09 at 8:47 am

11, yep, it sounded somewhat like bonoing to me.


ajay 08.28.09 at 2:50 pm

OT: a rather less sunny view of Darfur and Central Africa…


nickhayw 08.29.09 at 3:16 am

Another great post, thanks Conor. A depressing situation. The lack of articulateness regarding what, exactly, we’re doing in Afghanistan is particularly striking.


JoB 08.29.09 at 9:04 am

Sorry, I don’t get it. It will be me but I thought we were fighting the Taliban, a bunch of fundamentalist people that want the population to live in medieval circumstances. And I though’ the goal would be victory i.e. a destruction and/or surrender of all factions as were fighting a government that is far from ideal but at least has made it halfway to our modern times. I also don’t get the comparison with Vietnam, as the Vietcong had clear intentions for the Vietnamese people to be transported to, say, 1984.


nickhayw 08.29.09 at 12:48 pm

I’m not sure the comparisons with Vietnam are entirely apt, either. From what I gather of the mood on the internets the comparisons seem designed mainly to disparage the war as a drawn-out catastrophe and one that will drag on for many years to come. But Afghanistan is materially not Vietnam. I suspect the ‘Viet-ghanistan’ tribe are playing the old isolationist/fear-of-foreign-wars card to strengthen their case for pulling troops out.

Anyway I don’t think our ‘enemies’ and goals are so clear cut. Are we fighting the Taliban, or organized (narco-) crime? Are we waging war on corruption, or terrorism? etc. and if the ‘enemy’ aren’t an easily distinguishable fighting force per se, then the goal of destruction/surrender isn’t quite as appropriate…but maybe destruction of the Taliban, insofar as they are the enemy, isn’t even what we want. Most of the news media here is concerned with our operations training the Afghan army – the messages being sent aren’t those of war.


alex 08.29.09 at 3:23 pm

One of the problems is that there is no “the Taliban”, if there ever was, as a unified entity. Otherwise, amongst other things, it would actually be harder to get some of them to change sides for money. But it also makes it much easier for people to become “insurgents” when the motivation strikes them.


JoB 08.29.09 at 5:00 pm

I don’t doubt that things are complex but even the world wars were complex. Insofar a certain faction isn’t committed to restoring medieval times, fine: compromise at will, & let them call themselves the real Taliban if they want. But as long as they are: fight ’em. For sure the tactics can be debated but what I don’t get is that the strategy is debated & pacifism argued. What is it that the critics want us to do: come back home – and leave it to the local customs to work their way up to pre-modern times?


virgil xenophon 08.29.09 at 6:32 pm

“What is it thet the critics want us to do: come back home–and leave it to the local customs to work their way up to pre-modern times?”

Ans: Yes, EXACTLY. The job description of the President of the United States and members of Congress is not that of “social worker.” Unfortunately, SOME things in this world ARE zero-sum games/events. What is good for the US citizen and registered voter to whom our elected representatives are responsible unfortunately just may not be in the best interests of Afghan women, children, etc.–at lest within the lifetime of those US citizen voters now alive. And it does no good to say that “in the long run” we would ALL be better off “en grosso mondo” if Afghan society were “modernized.” As has been famously stated previously (by a prominate anti-war “man of the left” btw) “in the long-run we are all dead.”

The part of the comparison with Vietnam that IS valid, I feel, is the fact that Afghan society is a tribalized, fractured, inward-ward-looking (by dint of geography, history, culture and religion) amalgam of distinct and distant tribes/villages with little sense of a national “governmental” identity in much the same way life in Vietnam centered on village society in which the District Chief was a distant figure let alone the national government. And in both cases also the national government and capitol city are regarded by the rural tribes/villagers as a distant morass of corruption sucking the life out of rural areas via repressive taxes and returning little in the way of services such as improved roads for farmers to get goods to mkt, etc.

The point is that drug-eradication efforts, “consciousness raising” efforts to liberalize the place of women in society, etc., only serve to drive the tribal elders into the arms of the Taliban who are their rivals otherwise. Compared to the Taliban, many (if not most) tribal elders seem massive wellsprings of progressive thought. Our choices in Afghanistan are NOT as between good and evil. Rather, they are, as Henry Kissinger once put it: between the truly nasty and totally disagreeable on the one hand and the absolute unbearable and unendurable on the other. Not pretty, but true. If we wish to keep our hand in the game to both influence events to our liking and simultaneously better the lot of ALL the Afghans we should pick the likely tribal winners and shower them with bribes/”support” of guns and money and basic infrastructure construction under THEIR ambit of control and let them love us and our money from afar. “Shower them with money” and bribe them for their affections–isn’t that how Hugh Heffner gets the babes? It’s also how the British controlled the key land of Egypt for a verrrry long time. As one British diplomat was once quoted as saying in response to the question of how England was able to so effectively “rule” Egypt: “Oh, we don’t ‘rule’ anything at all–but we control those who do.”


Martin Bento 08.30.09 at 10:59 am

Conor, I realize this is a bit blue sky, but do you have a sense of what would happen if Europe were to accelerate its current trajectory towards drug legalization and start importing opium legally but only from legitimate business. Mafias and Warlords are not actually efficient in a legal market, and there’s no need for heroin to come specifically from Afghanistan, so perhaps there would be economic pressure for the situation to normalize and economic reward if it does so, by which I mean reward for the people actually in formal and (more so) informal power, but the broader public as well.


JoB 08.31.09 at 12:27 pm

21-22, I can sympathize with what you say but try to sympathize with me finding your arguments to establish the overwhelming complexity of the case overly complex. The simple truth is that 21 says we should bribe somebody instead of fighting whilst 22 has it that we are at fault because we exactly are doing that.

I have no issue with gradualism, not even with keeping Karzai in power (checking him a bit by forcing the rhetoric of democracy upon him). Nor do I think it is in the nature of the people to be as stupid as their leaders have proven to be over the past few decades. And I don’t know whether Karzai would defeat the Taliban after smoking some stuff in that big great tent of his.

But I do know that without physical military presence there would be no chance in hell that the new order that establishes itself there would be any different from its previous version. And maybe it is not our fault that we forget what happened then because Bush and co have lied to all of us on what supposedly was happening elsewhere, but it’s still a forgetting that seems ill-advised.


sayke 09.01.09 at 2:30 am

conor – very well put. i’ve been in and out of afghanistan for 2.5 years so far, and i think your observations are spot on. the bush administration deliberately avoided nation-building, and so magically ended up without a nation! we should have played it like kosovo, and never granted karzai the illusion of soverignty which he now so adroitly exploits.

but now we’re here, and we need to prevent central asia from turning into west africa + nukes + takfiri fanatics… and the only way i can see to do that is via genuine, hard-headed nation-building. an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure: we need to make sure the power vacuum doesn’t come back. we need to fill it with a government that can secure and provide for its people. if we don’t, we’re going to need a whole pound of cure, and if you think the ounce is expensive, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.


gmoke 09.02.09 at 5:40 pm

Two missed opportunities:
Adbul Ghaffar “Badshah” Khan’s non-violent organizing

and the under-utilized installed solar capacity in Afghanistan

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