Afghanistan’s Ongoing Instability: The Product Of Foreign Intervention?

Today, Afghanistan is a fractured state devastated by decades of extensive foreign military intervention. Despite numerous attempts, external actors have consistently failed to exercise comprehensive and continuing influence over the mountainous landlocked state. Afghanistan was established as a sovereign political entity in 1747, and its geopolitical location has historically been of strategic interest to foreign powers. While invasions of the region can be dated back to Alexander the Great in 330 BC, it is useful to consider Afghanistan’s contemporary history of foreign intervention, and how this has served to create new sources of instability, and compound those factors already impacting the state. Afghanistan was subjected to a chain of British invasions beginning in 1838. These were followed by the Soviet-Afghan war, which stretched throughout the decade from 1979-89. This war resulted in the destruction of state infrastructure and the fragmentation of the existing political system, leaving the nation in turmoil. Most recently, the events of September 11, 2001 brought Afghanistan firmly back into international focus, resulting in the launch of the United States-led ‘War Against Terror’. This invasion resulted in a devastating loss of civilian life, ravaging a country and population already suffering from high levels of hunger and homelessness. Despite its purported goal of stabilizing the nation and its political framework, Operation Enduring Freedom ultimately failed in their commitment to eradicate the influence of the Taliban. More than 31 000 civilian casualties were documented as a direct result of war-related violence, and 29 900 civilians were reported as being wounded. Estimates of the additional casualties which occurred as an indirect result of conflict are numbered in the hundreds of thousands. While these figures may serve to demonstrate the civilian cost of war in Afghanistan, they fail to illustrate the large-scale displacement and suffering that resulted from the invasion. In the future, it is crucial that the international community accepts that military violence is not an effective method of stabilizing Afghanistan, or exerting influence over it. Rather, the focus should be on achieving good governance and raising the overall quality of life by supporting the legitimate Afghan government in becoming more capable, effective and accountable.

Afghan society features many divisions, which have historically proven preventative of the establishment of a strong central government. The international community must necessarily recognize the significance of the complex nature of Afghan society, as well as its violent and war-torn history in order to interact effectively with the state. There is a religious divide between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims, as well as (often cross-border) divides between different ethnic groups. Family, tribal and language groups form additional aspects of individual identity in Afghanistan, which act as further divisions making up the rich tapestry of society. Essentially, Afghanistan has always hosted a culturally and linguistically strong, diverse society. In terms of individual loyalties, these forms of social organization tend to take precedence over the state, as a larger form of national organization. Without broad national cohesion, developing a strong overarching system of political organization has historically proven difficult.  Operating as part of Afghanistan’s diffused and decentralized power structure, warlords have traditionally controlled significant areas of the state. These extensive divisions demonstrate that in Afghanistan, areas that have not fallen under Taliban control or influence are far from being intrinsically cohesive, and foreign policy measures aimed at addressing Afghan instability must necessarily take this into consideration. Achieving stability in Afghanistan will not only increase domestic security, but also regional and global security. With the rise of modern, transnational security threats such as terrorism, the international community has a direct vested interest in alleviating instability in Afghanistan and providing aid focused at increasing government capacity.

In 2006, foreign objectives in Afghanistan shifted towards embracing an approach geared increasingly towards assistance and reconstruction. International actors played a greater role in developing and rebuilding infrastructure, and training the Afghan military with the goal of helping the government take back control of the country. It is in this capacity that the international community should continue to provide support in Afghanistan, with the ultimate purpose of achieving a strong and self-sufficient Afghan government, capable of operating effectively without external support. Although the Taliban and Al-Qaeda maintain significant influence in Afghanistan, it is likely that public support for these groups will decline as government capabilities increase. With a government capable of providing goods and services, fewer people will rely on alternative sources. Achieving good governance in Afghanistan necessarily involves addressing social tensions and ensuring that the government is broadly representative of the entire population, and not perceived as being aligned with a certain group. The adoption of the new constitution can be perceived as providing the framework to achieve this. The Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund (ARTF), administered by the World Bank and contributed to by numerous donors, operates with the goal of providing funding in Afghanistan where it counts. The ARTF has recognized the value of working closely alongside the Afghan government to implement this funding, to ensure that it can achieve the greatest impact. The ARTF has also placed significant emphasis on heightening government accountability and transparency in Afghanistan. The international community should continue to work alongside the Afghan government, through mechanisms such as the ARTF, rather than attempting to apply a cookie-cutter approach to development.

Poverty and food security remain significant issues facing the Afghan population, which can be alleviated through economic growth and development. The international community contributed $18.4 billion towards humanitarian relief and economic reconstruction in Afghanistan between the years 2001 and 2009. This contribution enabled a vast leap in economic development however, inadequately developed political institutions threaten to limit the progress prompted by this aid. Poverty and food security can be considered entwined with economic development and political stability: addressing and alleviating one area will improve the others. Increasing access to health and education facilities is crucial for improving human security in Afghanistan, and will increase public confidence in the Afghan government. The international community must continue to support Afghanistan financially, and should support the non-governmental organizations operating in the state to achieve positive change.

The contemporary cost of war has devastated Afghanistan, and demonstrated once again that foreign military intervention is not the solution for instability, but rather one of its primary causes. Going forward, the international community must recognize the destructive costs of past warfare in Afghanistan, and continue supporting the Afghan government through assistance and reconstruction efforts. Increasing economic development and achieving good governance are crucial steps leading to the ultimate goal of improving human security in Afghanistan, and safeguarding the population from violence perpetrated by the Taliban.

Catherina Pagani