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Sep 12, 2011

Afghanistan 10 years on and still more questions than answers

The war in Afghanistan is an experiment in a new form of war where "victory" will be measured against uncertain goals of stability, development, and reconstruction, writes Dr Benjamin MacQueen, deputy director, Global Terrorism Research Centre, Monash University.


We are still confronted by more questions than answers 10 years on in Afghanistan. For better or worse, this is the nature of the conflict in the long-troubled central Asian state. The war in Afghanistan is an experiment in a new form of war where “victory” will be measured against uncertain goals of stability, development, and reconstruction.

What complicates matters greatly for strategic planners in Washington, Brussels and even Canberra is that the people of Afghanistan are justifiably resentful of this experimentation that has bought little in the way of tangible benefits, while the Taliban-led insurgency are acutely aware of the strategic uncertainty around the operation. However, this is not just an issue of “should we stay or should we go?”, but what our responsibilities are as an international community.

The strategic ambiguity that characterises the operation in Afghanistan stems from the catalyst for the intervention where the US and its allies struggled to understand how to respond to the threat from al Qaeda. That is, how does a state respond to a direct, armed attack from a non-state actor? Here, the immediate mission statement was relatively clear-cut:  the removal of the al Qaeda safe haven in Afghanistan, to find those responsible for the 9/11 attacks, and to destroy the al Qaeda organisation.

However, from 2001 to 2005, the US and its allies fell into familiar patterns. That is, the threat at the core of the war on terror was re-articulated in conventional security terms in focusing on the Taliban as a pseudo-state actor and, of course, folding in Iraq as part of the dynamic. As has been widely and convincingly argued, this has been the most detrimental miscalculation of the war on terror and for the pursuit of a more lasting and resonant solution to the situation in Afghanistan.

The shift in operational focus from the original goals of the 2001 intervention to the focus on stabilisation, development, and reconstruction was driven by a need to undercut the structural causes that facilitated transnational terrorism. That is, how best to prevent the ability of a movement such as al Qaeda becoming operationally capable of committing an attack such as 9/11.

This rearticulation of the goals in Afghanistan towards stabilisation, development, and reconstruction, the forces under the command of the NATO-led International Security and Assistance Force (ISAF) has led to a series of quandaries. Central to this is the dilemma whereby development is predicated on a relatively stable local environment. However, this stability requires a degree of popular participation, something lacking as most Afghans see the Karzai government and its NATO/ISAF backers as illegitimate.

In other words, the stability required for development is undercut by the very lack of development as a means to enhance the legitimacy of the state. In this environment, a resurgent Taliban, as well as the numerous other sub-state groups in the country who may feel threatened by the emergence of an increasingly assertive government in Kabul, need only disrupt this delicate balance between stability and development to prevent advancement toward what we see as our strategic goals.

Day-to-day security remains the primary issue for most Afghans; something that reflects poorly on how this conflict has been managed at a strategic (i.e. political) level since 2001 while the initial optimism among the bulk of the Afghan population for the occupying force has largely faded. Corruption is rampant, the most recent elections were mired in credible allegations of vote-rigging, opium production continues apace, and the progress of negotiations is stuck over the question of whether to include representation from elements of the Taliban.

All of this puts NATO, ISAF, and the Australian troops and advisers on the ground in a profoundly difficult situation. Domestic pressure for clarity on what our strategic goals exactly are has led to a focus on 2014 as the drawdown date. It is hoped that the newly formed Afghan National Army will have the capacity to take over security operations in the country backed by a reasonably functional government.

This is likely to be premature, with the most likely outcome being a government and armed forces with limited reach outside of a few major cities and the rest of the country controlled by sub-state organisations that can draw on external patrons for arms and finances. The alternative to this is leaving the “end-date” for this mission open, potentially fomenting a greater degree of popular resistance to the foreign presence and what would be seen as an imposed government in Kabul.

This is, in many ways, a no-win situation, but one that we need to get used to. With an intervention in Libya under the “Responsibility to Protect” doctrine, as well as current grappling in articulating a response to the current humanitarian and security disaster in Somalia, the international community is feeling its way along in still slowly coming to terms with a more fluid, uncertain security environment.

This is a long process, and unfortunately for the people of Afghanistan, it will be played out in their backyard.


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20 thoughts on “Afghanistan 10 years on and still more questions than answers

  1. Peter Ormonde

    Afghanistan is not in any real sense a country – not a nation state – it is a place. It is not controlled by any central government but rather is a place filled with deep regional tribal and clan loyalties and obligations. It thrives – if that is the right words – on corruption, fear and ignorance.
    So when you say the Karzai Government is widely regarded as illegitimate, a change of government will do little to resolve the situation. Any government is illegitimate. Any government in Kabul requires the co-operation and participation of the regional clan leaders and warlords who control the country outside of Kabul.
    Thus the US and its allies are forced into seeking some rapprochement with the Taliban allied gangsters who will continue to effectively control the place once the yanks call it quits.
    Pity the poor people of that place, especially the women, the educated and the independent thinkers. God help ’em. We sure won’t. Better get Blue Scope Steel making more razor wire Julia.

  2. shepherdmarilyn

    I hope Pakistan sends us all their Afghan refugees

  3. MLF

    Dr MacQueen, thanks for a refreshingly intelligent piece on this highly complex and global issue.

    Crikey, thanks for a refreshingly intelligent piece on this highly complex and global issue. More please.

  4. LisaCrago

    Thank you for this piece. I would like to see more from this author on this subject. Too few Australians understand what is going on and many just don’t care other than to rant on that we should never have even gone there.
    Well politics failed and we are there, Australia is at war against the Taliban which was THE government of Ghan so I certainly would not call them a non-state actor.
    We will eventually negociate with the Taliban and make a diplomatic settlement of sorts. I hope this is done before we lose too many more of our finest young ADF service men.

  5. nicolino

    This sums it up very succinctly. If only the government would be honest for a change and tell us the way it actually is. Not much hope of that with either Gillard or Abbott. They just play act at the funerals of men much finer than they can ever aspire to be.

  6. AR

    What a shame that the US couldn’t leave ‘well enough alone” in the 70s. After the King finally abdicated in 1972, as he’d been trying to do for at least 10yrs to enjoy a wine & song lifestyle in his modest italian stucco, the country was well on the way to at least the 19thC.
    For decades Zahir, & previously his father, had been sending young afghans, of BOTH genders, abroad to be educated (medicine, engineering, teaching) where ever they could find a place even, shock, horror ‘the East Bloc’.
    They were eager to establish schools & clinics in the countryside and did so, only to be slaughtered in their thousands by the feudal landlords/mullahs/money lenders horrified by the prospect of losing their control.
    Step in, as per the worn script, the US in the form of Zbigniew Brzezinski in the failing & flailing last daze of the Carter admin, “..to trap the Russians in their own Vietnam quagmire..”, gleefully overfunded by the incoming Reagan admin and the rest is history. For a Hollywood version see “Charlie Wilson’s War” esp the final scenes when the ’cause’ is abandoned, having achieved its goal of crippling Carter & ensconcing Raygun.
    Each 4 years when there a re fears that the US will go isolationist according to the repugs. I’d pray (if I knew a good religion) that to finally come to pass.

  7. LisaCrago

    Re Peter O’s comment

    I could strongly argue that it is indeed a nation state; albiet now an occupied failed state but will leave that sort of stuff to experts such as authors like this.

    But I do see the points Peter is making that are valid.
    The very non-pc pov that I hold is that Ghan under the rule of warlords and the heroin trade was not controlled as ‘we’ in the west would understand, but there was law and order. Then when the Taliban worked to ‘govern’ AS A STATE (Taliban leaders were in the US on a Dip mission weeks before 9/11) they needed brute force to do so.
    How did they do it? Well they shot all the warlords who would not work with them and shot and totally wiped out the heroin traders and they destroyed the fields taking ghan’s heroin production down to less than 2% of the world market.
    The Taliban were anti-drug campaingers with an iron fist.
    That is how they controlled the shop with law and order of the toughest order.
    But in the democratic western world we did not like the public slayings and maybe (conspiracywarning) the herion trade drying up upset some others.

    Democracy is not a one size fits all and some nations are best ruled by dictators. Iraq was governed and Afghanistan WAS governed, just not how our liberal sensitivities wishihied them to be.
    The west does not usually have a problem with non democratic governments as long as they keep they are not hostile to being trading partners.
    Restoring the Taliban is the only way to work towards controling the drug lords who now rule most of the country.

  8. Policeman MacCruiskeen

    All the money spent on military operations would do some good in Afghanistan were it given to the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan who are the real heroes in that place. They describe themselves as “freedom loving and anti-fundamentalist” which is good enough for me. The conditions in which they operate are hair raising, to say the least, but they are oriented towards practical solutions for impoverished and oppressed women. But I guess that such simple, pragmatic solutions as supporting such an organisation are beyond our military tacticians and political leadership.

  9. Peter Ormonde

    Sadly it will be the women of Afghanistan who we deliver gift wrapped for the Taliban when we leave. Good luck girls.

    Lisa …
    I would be interested in your strong arguments that Afghanistan has ever been a “nation state”… I’ve never been able to find any suggestion of this in the history of the place. It has always – always – been a loose collection of regional fiefdoms each controlled by tribal and clan leaders with shifting allegiances and feuds. The only thing that has brought widespread co-operation has been an external threat – the Brits, the Russians and now us.
    It is a feudal place. Kabul’s power stops at the edge of town. There is no law – no order – there is just power backed by guns. As ever.
    As for the Taliban being anti-opium this looks true on paper – at least to the extent that they regularly burned the fields of rivals. But a large part of the economy runs on opium production and indeed for the last decade opium has been a substantial source of funds for the warlords who – as it suits them – claim to be aligned with the Taliban.
    Nothing in Afghanistan is as it seems – no one is a goodie (except for the women mentioned above perhaps) – there are no easy answers, perhaps no answers at all.

  10. MLF

    Thats a beautiful thought Policeman except that under Taliban rule, which is was and which it again shall be, women have no rights. Pregnant women do not even have the right to be touched by a male doctor – and as women are not allowed to be educated that means women doctors are thin on the ground which means thousands and thousands of women and babies used to die each year in pregnancy/childbirth related issues.

    So yes, a terrific thought but completely unrealistic if western philosophies of human and equal rights are not ingrained in the place.

  11. LisaCrago

    Peter, It may depend on how you want to define ‘nation state’; either as a political autonomous sovereign state (governed) OR as a cultural grouping.
    Politically a nation is defined not only by its own self determination, but by the recognition of its soverenty by other nations, historically by those that share boarders.

    May I recommend a book by Sayed Qasim Reshtya,”The Price of Liberty: The Tragedy of Afghanistan” written in the mid 1980’s.
    Just because Afghanistan has had a turbulent history does not mean that it has never been a country.

    re drug trade. after four years of lawlessness from the begining of Operation Enduring Freedom Ghan’s heroin production went from 2% to 150% of world supply; a glut. So while they are “winning” the war on terror they are loosing the warr on drugs.

    I do believe that there will be answers to this difficult situation and I believe that Russia will eventually play a part. They are none too happy with how this has been screwed up by the ‘West’. Shame that NATO refuses to include Russia. Hey, but that is another debate.

  12. Peter Ormonde


    My notion of a nation is a bit complex … partly it has to do with a centralised authority exercising control over the economy and ensuring that some accepted forms of law and order applies within its borders.
    But it is also a cultural concept – where there is a shared perception of an identity and a “national interest”. I believe that Afghanistan falls down on all fronts in these definitions. Arguably so does Pakistan.

  13. LisaCrago

    Geopolitics is very complicated that is for sure, but, with all due respect Peter, that sounds more like a pov than a learned, academic or historical fact.
    But we are all entitled to our pov’s.

    Ahhh, Pakistan. The elephant in the room….

  14. Peter Ormonde


    Enlighten me and my pov … I’m assuming that’s a point of view…. point me towards some analysis of the history of Afghanistan that demonstrates the operation of a centralised government (either from Kabul or Kandahar) that ran to controlling the economy and providing an acceptable form of law and order within its borders. Also any information suggesting a shared national interest and sense of identity would be most welcome. I wouldn’t accept the rule of Mohammed Zahir Shah as meeting these criteria, incidentally.
    Always on the look out for enlightenment.

  15. LisaCrago

    Plenty out there via the net to read. try and google that book I mentioned or read anything not written or published by an American. 🙂

  16. LisaCrago

    NO offense intended to our brothers in arms but your policy makers and their academic advisers often have their head where the sun don’t shine.

  17. Peter Ormonde


    I have actually read a few smart ones… one of the best is David Kilcullen… but he is more on tactical and strategic analysis. A good head and well out in the sunshine.

    I remembered that I had actually read some of your fella … on here: http://www.afghan-web.com/history/articles/reshtya.html

    Curiously though, Reshtya’s analysis is essentially political and international – focussing on the shifting grounds and alliances within the Kabul political elite. And underneath all these shifts there are regional and tribal influences and affiliations which he fails to discuss. It is as though Kabul is Afghanistan – which it ain’t.

    Suffice to say that everything serious I’ve read on the area we call Afghanistan is fraught with tribal and regional divisions, fragmentation and shifting loyalties … but very few instances of any notion of “national interest”, with the Kabul elite exercising very little control or influence over the country as a whole. Most of their time was spent squabbling over the spoils offered by various foreign aid sponsors and development programs.

    None of that is to say that historically Kabul and other centres like Kandahar did not have great culture and sophistication, or that the pashtuns did not manage to colonise hostile areas and extend the influence of various regimes based in Kabul. But this is not what I would call a nation state in any accepted sense.

    Here’s a nice potted history from the Centre for Applied Linguistics that illustrates the point: http://www.cal.org/co/afghan/ahist.html

    But no one I’ve come across can deny the deep underlying tribalism and weakness of any of the historical forms of government in the area. Good fighters though and they don’t like outsiders – they are even worse than the immediate neighbours…. only thing that ever unites the place, for a while.

    Anyway, the real victims of our imminent departure (and the restoration of the Talibs to some sort of share of power in that corrupt and unpopular Karzai government) will be the women and the sprinkling of independent thinkers that remain in the place. Our role will have been ineffectual, counterproductive and deeply deeply disappointing. We are slow learners.

  18. LisaCrago

    Geopolitics and the concept of the ‘nation-state’ (which you have stated Afghaistan has never been) usualy are essentially political and international.

    I clicked on the link to the book I ref to and it is only a snippet, I think one really needs to read more that 10 pages of a book before you review it. Call me old fashioned but I use books and journals rather than open websites, but some of those are good for a brief overview.
    I have both an academicc interest in this subject, years of study of USSR geopolitcs resulted in having to study the political history of Afghanistan. AND I also have a very personal interest knowing people who come and go from the war. I can assure you, women are no safer in Ghan today, than they were ten years ago, in many areas it is much worse and the majority of the population, inculding those in the gov there no longer want to be occupied and wish to welcom the taliban back. But the western media, including the likes of Crikey, does not report much about this, which is why I was happy to see Dr Benjamin MacQueen raise the bar here. I think I will leave it at that.

  19. AR

    My suggestion is Martin Ewans’ “Afghanistan, A Short History of Its People & Politics”.
    Although a straight laced UK ambassador he had the feel of the country & a deep understanding of the history that led to the current catastrophe. I part company with his views thereafter but recommend the book nonetheless.

  20. Ian

    What the women of Afghanistan are facing now are three enemies, the occupiers, the Taliban and Karzai and the warlords. The occupiers should leave right now – I’m sure the women of Afghanistan will be happy to see them go.

    Let’s face it the occupation was never and is still is not in any way, shape or form about democracy and human rights in Afghanistan let alone women’s rights. It’s about American imperialism.

    Perhaps commentators on this article would care to google Malalai Joya, one of those Afghani women and listen to what she has to say about it. She was recently in Australia and has given lengthy talks on the situation and the views of those women.

    We are involved in a war in Afghanistan not in a great humanitarian mission to save the women or anyone else there and whats more it is unwinnable. Right now it seems to me our continued presence there is more about saving face than anything else.


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