Afghan Chaos Isn’t Inevitable


By Daniel Serwer

International Herald Tribune
April 12, 2002

While U.S. forces have scored repeated victories against Al Qaeda in battles in eastern Afghanistan, a war is being lost in the rest of the country. The security situation is deteriorating. The opportunity to prevent further bloodshed among the Afghan warlords and suffering in the general population is evaporating.

Many of the problems Afghanistan poses are familiar from experience in the Balkans - lengthy warfare, massive population displacements, collapsed states, bombing followed by international intervention on the ground, massive humanitarian needs and large-scale reconstruction requirements.

What are the lessons from Bosnia for Afghanistan? The first is that if the international community wants to determine the outcome, it has to have force on the ground, not just in Kabul. Limiting the European-led peacekeeping forces to the capital is a mistake. They should be deployed throughout the country, as both the United Nations and the Afghan government are asking.

The peacekeeping forces cannot just stand by. They must establish military superiority over armed factions, friend or foe. Gradualism does not work. Only in a secure environment can a serious, peaceful political process begin, including the formation of an Afghan national army. Security comes first, but any foreign force on the ground will also have enormous, even if unintentional, political and economic impact. It will strengthen some factions and weaken others. Where the international forces locate headquarters, which suppliers they use, whom they hire, which roads and bridges they repair will shape Afghan politics for many years.

This process has already begun in Afghanistan. Among the readiest helpers in a post-conflict situation are those who collaborated with the previous regime. Are the international forces being careful not to do business with former Taliban and their supporters? Are they searching out and empowering local authorities untainted by religious extremism?

As in the Balkans, America is anxious to free its troops from Afghanistan to pursue priority national interests, whether in Georgia, Iraq or elsewhere. It is correct to expect America's European allies to pick up most of the post-conflict burden, as they did in the Balkans. But getting them to do it requires greater attention to building a coalition that not only fights the war but is committed to winning the peace. Without U.S. leadership in Afghanistan, the Europeans will prove a serious disappointment, especially if any serious military challenge arises. The United States needs to be prepared to stay the course because constant uncertainty and pullout plans seriously undermine a peace mission with long-term goals.

Unity of command and purpose is crucial. Both troops and civilians in post-conflict Afghanistan will need to know who is charge and what they are trying to accomplish. The new Afghan government needs a clear structure with which it can collaborate, not a jumble of military forces under different commands, diplomatic missions representing divergent interests, and well-intentioned but uncoordinated assistance organizations.

No such cohesive structure exists today. The UN mandate does not extend even to coordinating, much less commanding, the work of others.

Once security is established and people are fed, rule of law becomes the pressing need. Wisely, the Bonn agreement for provisional arrangements in Afghanistan included a legal framework. This framework needs to shape reality as quickly as possible, which means creating police, courts and prisons. Allowing post-conflict chaos to continue is a formula for disaster in the longer term, with criminal organizations taking over.

Life and property need to be protected, violators arrested, tried and punished, and the confidence of ordinary people in the fairness and transparency of judicial institutions established.

Some would conclude from these Balkans lessons that there should be no continuing international presence in Afghanistan, least of all one involving Americans. It gets the United States involved in state-building in a place it knows little about.

But those who take that approach will have to accept the risk that international terrorism, linked with drug trafficking, will again take over. Already we are seeing the emergence of warlords and brigandry, not to mention human rights abuses. These problems will grow into something far worse if the intervention does not deepen.

The writer, a former U.S. State Department special envoy in Bosnia, directs Balkans programs at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington. He contributed this personal comment to the International Herald Tribune.

More Information on Afghanistan
Lessons Learned from Peacekeeping Operations
More Information on Peacekeeping

FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C íŸ 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.