Afghanistan and the International Community: What Now?

Journal article

Strand, Arne & Kristian Berg Harpviken (2001) Afghanistan and the International Community: What Now?, Security Dialogue 32 (4): 507–509.




As we write, US and UK forces are engaged in military action against the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. Simultaneously, the Northern Alliance is receiving renewed financial and military support from abroad, and has been encouraged to intensify its war efforts. Equally as important, a range of countries with interests in Afghanistan, including the USA, are working with various groupings that they think may play a role in a future political setup. At this point, leaving aside questions of the ethical and political wisdom of the ongoing war, we would like to address the vision of establishing a legitimate central authority capable of ensuring political stability in
Afghanistan. Indeed, re-establishing a functioning state, supported by neighboring states and integrated into the international community, is likely to be the most effective strategy in preventing terrorist groups’ continued use of Afghanistan as a safe haven.

The major influential groups in Afghanistan are military, rather than political, organizations. Over the past decade of civil war, each has developed a record of massive human rights violations, systematic crime and corruption, and inability to contribute to genuine power-sharing arrangements. 1 Therefore, none of the parties to the conflict are seen as legitimate political actors by the Afghan populace, and their claim to power is primarily vested in military capabilities. This premise stands even though the Taliban have tried to rebuild an administrative system based on the prewar model in areas they control but have been held back by competence and leadership deficiencies. 2

A number of academic commentators have recently drawn attention to the fact that none of the Afghan parties have expressed secessionist ambitions, 3 implying that post-Taliban Afghanistan will necessarily be characterized by some form of power-sharing. This, however, needs to be understood in the light of a situation where various warlords have been de facto running independent regimes and where several factions, including the so-called Uzbek militia led by Rashid Dostum and the Hazara-based Hezb-e Wahdat (Unity Party), have been exploring federation-type arrangements. Even if we maintain that the lack of clear secessionist ambitions is positive, there is an opposite sentiment that carries a challenge of its own. The tendency among
Afghan parties and their leaders is to assume that the only solution to the country’s quagmire lies in a strong central government, and often also in the rule of a strongman. This is partially the result of a fundamental lack of trust between the parties following years of brutal fighting and shifting alliances, but it also seems to be a deep-seated conviction that permeates Afghan politics. The breakdown in the Ashgabad talks between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance, which was triggered by the Taliban’s insistence that the top seat be retained by its own leader,
Mullah Omar, serves as an illustration of the preoccupation with strong central leadership. It therefore remains a key challenge to develop a new formula for power-sharing, one that opens up for a decentralization of power without threatening the country’s unity, one that is also based on the variety of actors that constitute Afghanistan’s civil society.

Even more fundamental, however, is the problem that the Afghan state apparatus has eroded to such an extent that there is little power to share. Power in present-day Afghanistan is primarily military, and it is vested in the individual parties, whose leaders may in turn have a strong interest in instability, with its ample opportunities for profit within the war economy. To give up that power in order to have a share of a power that does not exist is hardly a tempting proposition, particularly in a situation where recent history has instilled a deeply felt mistrust among all parties. At the same time, all major parties to the conflict suffer from legitimacy problems. Hence, the key vulnerability of any power-sharing arrangement is that, if representation is primarily a reflection of military strength, any such arrangement is likely to erode from within. Current pledges of support to the armed factions, whether military or humanitarian, may therefore soon prove counterproductive.

There are also challenges at the regional level. Six countries border Afghanistan: Pakistan, Iran, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and China. These countries have widely different interests related to the conflict in the country, and they have pursued widely different political strategies. The Afghan conflict has significant internal implications for all these neighboring countries, although the implications are clearly the gravest for Pakistan. The latter has sought solutions that could guarantee its influence in Afghanistan, which it sees as providing it with ‘strategic depth’ in its troublesome relations with India, and has been instrumental in building the military capacity of the Taliban. In contrast, Iran is strongly opposed to the Taliban, seeking to secure its interest through supporting the Northern Alliance, directly confronting Pakistan’s ambitions. In a larger perspective, Iran’s policy in Afghanistan has been guided by its rivalry with Saudi Arabia.
Tajikistan and Uzbekistan have both been affected by spillover effects from the
Afghan conflict, which Russia uses as its prime argument for maintaining a key role in regional security arrangements. Tajikistan has been particularly important, hosting an air base that supplies the Northern Alliance. Both Turkmenistan and China have, for different reasons, cultivated political and economic relations with the Taliban.

Consequently, the regional picture is complex, and the agendas of neighboring countries are often closely intertwined with the problems they may have with their neighbors, as reflected by the importance for the Pakistani position of the conflict with India, or the role of Russia for the policies pursued by the Central Asian republics. At present, no regional organization that encompasses the states bordering Afghanistan exists, though the UN has established an informal forum, the 6+2 Group, which also includes the USA and Russia, to compensate for this. The 6+2 Group has sensibly called for an end to all military supplies to the parties in Afghanistan, a demand that several of its members violate consistently.

Afghanistan’s neighbors stand to lose much from the downward spiral of their conflicting interests, since the Afghan problem tends to be an integrated part of their internal security challenges. Ultimately, a stable Afghanistan is in the best interests of all, but establishing the confidence necessary to break the spiral is no easy task. Fundamentally, however, a solution to the Afghan problem must build on the positive commitment of neighboring states. That can only succeed if they all agree to place a settlement in Afghanistan at the top of their foreign policy agendas. This may also be the time to discuss a more formal regional security body for the neighbors of Afghanistan. Stabilizing Afghanistan can only succeed if based on a long-term regional commitment.

A possible new approach to assisting the reconstruction of Afghanistan has been formulated over the past few months. The conventional sequencing is to provide only short-term, life-sustaining aid to countries labeled as being in a state of ‘complex emergency’, and to move to more long-term assistance for reconstruction and development once a political settlement has been reached. In Afghanistan, the exclusive emphasis on life-sustaining aid has been reinforced as relations between the Taliban and the international community have withered. It has now been suggested that peacebuilding and large-scale assistance must go in tandem, using assistance to prepare the ground for peace. 4 UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, in a related manner, called for a larger repertoire in the UN approach to Afghanistan, complementing penalties with substantial rewards. The bottleneck for large-scale reconstruction, however, is on the implementing side: for such an effort to be effective, it must move away from air-drop approaches to distribution, place existing capacities at the center, and aim at genuine economic and social development. At present, however, the whole aid apparatus is geared towards short-term emergency aid. A major investment in building competence among Afghans would have to be key in any new initiative. 5

Given the mistrust between parties to the conflict and the downward spiral created by the conflicting interests of neighboring states with regard to Afghanistan, it is very likely that a substantial international-assistance engagement will need to be coupled with an international presence during a period of political transition. Right now there is every reason to warn that a new regime installed from the outside will be seen as illegitimate. A new government will need to be worked out from within, but international facilitation will be required; furthermore, once a transition arrangement is in place, its survival is likely to hinge on an international presence. It is therefore high time that we start discussing what form an international presence might take, and start the work towards mobilizing the resources that will be required, in terms of personnel as well as finances. As to the first question, an international presence could possibly be based on some sort of collaboration between the UN and the Organization of the Islamic Conference. Observers should be recruited from countries (most likely Islamic) that have not supported any of the parties to the conflict in Afghanistan and whose policy is not closely tied to that of the USA and its NATO allies. Hence, all neighboring states would be excluded; their role would be to support the transition by regional commitment. As to mobilizing resources, it is to be hoped that the emerging realization of how the present-day situation in part results from the larger world community’s losing interest in Afghanistan with the disappearance of the communist threat will lead to a different approach for the decade we have just entered. In themselves, the adverse consequences of the armed campaign imply a massive moral responsibility.

Kristian Berg Harpviken

Research Fellow, International Peace
Research Institute, Oslo (PRIO), and
Department of Sociology and Human
Geography, University of Oslo, Norway

Arne Strand

Research Fellow, Chr. Michelsen Institute,

Bergen, Norway, and Post-War Reconstruction and Development Unit, University of York, United Kingdom



1 See, for example, Ahmed Rashid, Taliban:Islam, Oil and the New Great Game in Central Asia (London: I. B. Tauris, 2000).

2 Arne Strand, Karin Ask & Kristian Berg Harpviken, Humanitarian Challenges in Afghanistan: AdministrativeStructures and Gender & Conflict, CMI Report 2001: 4; available at


3 See, for example, Olivier Roy, ‘Afghanistan After the Taliban’, New York Times, 7 October 2001.

4 Barnett R. Rubin, Ashraf Ghani, William Maley, Ahmed Rashid & Olivier Roy, Afghanistan:Reconstruction and Peace­building in a Regional Framework, KOFF Peacebuilding Reports 1/2001, Center for Peacebuilding, Swiss Peace Foundation; available at


5 Kristian Berg Harpviken, ‘Afghanistan: Capacity-Building and the Emergency Label’, Development Today, vol. 11, no. 14, p. 11.

An error has occurred. This application may no longer respond until reloaded. Reload 🗙