As the Obama administration and the rest of the international community grapple with the challenge of stabilizing Afghanistan, analogies have proliferated as fast as insurgents. Policymakers should learn from experiences in Iraq, one hears -- or Vietnam, or Malaya, and so on. Ironically, the best analogy may lie right next door in Tajikistan.
Soon after gaining its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Tajikistan collapsed into a devastating civil war. Government forces, Islamists, and local warlords battled one another across its wildly remote and mountainous territory in a prolonged conflict that killed thousands of people, displaced half a million residents, and stranded 80 percent of the population in grinding poverty. Many of the combatants sustained their efforts by taking part in a multibillion-dollar drug trade, while extremists based in lawless frontier provinces launched terror attacks on neighboring states.
Today, Tajikistan is still corrupt and authoritarian, but it is also tolerably stable -- stable enough for the international community to forget about it, which is a striking mark of success. The turnaround was due largely to an intelligently conceived and successfully implemented intervention by a small UN mission and a core of unlikely bedfellows that included Iran and Russia. Rather than forcing free and fair elections, throwing out warlords, and flooding the country with foreign peacekeepers, the intervening parties opted for a more limited and realistic set of goals. They brokered deals across political factions, tolerated warlords where necessary, and kept the number of outside peacekeeping troops to a minimum. The result has been the emergence of a relatively stable balance of power inside the country, the dissuasion of former combatants from renewed hostilities, and the opportunity for state building to develop organically. The Tajik case suggests that in trying to rebuild a failed state, less may be more.
Tajikistan's civil war ended in June 1997, when the various government and opposition factions signed a peace accord. The accord recognized the government's leader, Emomali Rakhmonov, as interim president but mandated elections and key concessions