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 to opposition groups. Thirty percent of political appointments were reserved for the United Tajik Opposition, a loose grouping of opposition figures, Islamists, and local strongmen united only by the fact that each had independently fought against Rakhmonov and his factions. The accord required combatants to demobilize and disarm in exchange for amnesty and salaried positions in the Interior, Defense, and Emergency Situations ministries and the Tajik Border Forces. 

The accord was the result of a three-year effort by the United Nations Mission of Observers in Tajikistan (UNMOT) and nearby states such as Iran, Russia, and Uzbekistan. These outside players hosted eight rounds of peace talks, restored multiple failed cease-fires, mediated on behalf of various factions, drafted vital sections of the peace agreement, and formed a Contact Group to monitor and troubleshoot implementation. The United States and European Union remained outside the group but occasionally offered input and assistance.

The members of the Contact Group had different interests, yet, at least with respect to Tajikistan, they also had one thing in common: a desire to prevent a resumption of civil war without spending much money. UNMOT's first operating budget was a paltry $1.9 million. International aid to Tajikistan actually declined the year after the accord. Iran was willing to sponsor cultural and economic exchange but was too strapped to give major grants. The peacekeeping force Russia offered was small. The Contact Group, in short, could afford to give Tajikistan only a basic makeover, and so it set its sights low, not wanting to let the ideal be the enemy of the acceptable. It concentrated on striking a balance across the country's varied political factions and dissuading them from restarting the war.

One thing that went by the wayside was democratic purity. By conventional standards, Tajikistan's first postwar presidential elections, on November 6, 1999, were a disaster. Rakhmonov blocked opposition hopefuls from gathering enough petitions to run. To create the appearance of competition, Tajikistan's Supreme Court ruled that Davlat Usmon, a popular opposition Islamist, must stand for election. On election day, pro-Rakhmonov officials pretended to count ballots, police escorted voters into booths, and ghost polling stations with no registered voters reported landslide results. Rakhmonov won handily.

The peace accord was on the verge of being derailed. Disaffected members of the opposition and warlords in the provinces threatened to take up arms, while the United States and Europe blasted the flawed elections and demanded the government enact democratic reforms. At this point, however, the story took an interesting turn. Rather than focus on procedural fairness, the Contact Group scrambled to ease tensions across the factions and help the opposition. The group brokered dozens of negotiations and cajoled the government to sign a protocol benefiting future opposition candidates. UNMOT refrained from publicly condemning Rakhmonov in exchange for assurances that he would quickly appoint opposition figures to key national and provincial posts. These behind-the-scenes measures saved the peace accord and compelled a government that had stolen elections to be more inclusive.

Warlords are an enduring feature of Tajikistan's political landscape. During the Soviet period, much of rural Tajikistan remained under their influence, and when the Soviet Union collapsed, they -- like other political challengers -- raced to grab abandoned weapons caches and smuggle arms from neighboring states. In the course of the civil war, many warlords fielded substantial security forces, created autonomous hamlets, and bankrolled their authority by taxing farmers, collecting tolls, and trading illicit goods. The strongmen often harassed UNMOT military observers who traveled around the country to monitor the peace accord, and sometimes even took them hostage.

These experiences convinced the Contact Group that the warlords could not be controlled and would pose serious political obstacles if challenged. So it opted for a laissez-faire approach instead, nominally integrating warlords into the political structure while allowing them to retain substantial autonomy. Some received key positions in district and provincial governments, while others were given command of provincial police and military units with formal titles and negligible salaries. A high-level fact-finding mission from UN headquarters blasted UNMOT's arrangement and noted that warlord "units continue to exist separately from governmental units, fully preserving their command structures." Nevertheless, the arrangement has kept warlords happy and the government stable. It has done little to curb corruption, drug trafficking, or abuses of authority but much to reduce the probability of renewed civil war.

The Contact Group also recognized that peacekeepers could help stabilize the situation on the ground but had no interest in, or resources for, a major commitment. So Russia took the lead in organizing a small CIS contingent of peacekeeping troops in and around the Tajik capital of Dushanbe. They were touted as impartial peacekeepers but really provided a secure cordon around the pro-Moscow Rakhmonov government. The Russian military mission was strong enough to prevent opposition groups from seizing Dushanbe but light enough to avoid being seen as an occupation. It provided the Contact Group with essential intelligence and had a pacifying effect on the country.

Russian soldiers were also stationed at strategic points along the Tajik-Afghan border in the south. Evidence surfaced in 2001 that some of these units were trafficking in Afghan opiates, but they still provided Tajikistan with a fairly effective buffer against an estimated 6,000 extremists who had earlier fled to Afghanistan and were now eager to return and derail the accord.

Tajikistan today is hardly a model of democracy or development. Elections are stacked, positions in the government bought and sold, and crucial public goods and services doled out to regime cronies. The country remains an economic basket case dependent on foreign aid, worker remittances, hundreds of UN Development Program projects, and proceeds from an estimated $2-3 billion annual drug trade. Yet Tajikistan has attained a level of political stability such that a return to civil war, extremism, and chaos seems unlikely.

Privately, many U.S. and UN officials in Kabul concede that the best-case scenario for Afghanistan is that in two or three decades it will arrive at the place where Tajikistan and its other Central Asian neighbors are today. Yet in spite of such realistic judgments, the international community has publicly committed itself to a much more ambitious agenda: the transformation of Afghanistan into a prosperous democratic country where rule of law prevails. The problem with this lofty vision is not only that it is unattainable but that in pursuing it, chances to achieve more practical outcomes will be squandered.

How can the Tajik playbook be adapted to Afghanistan? First, policymakers in Washington, Brussels, and Kabul should develop a coordinated backroom strategy to ensure that the opposition is included in key government decisions and positions even after incumbents such as Karzai steal elections.

Second, the International Security Assistance Force should redeploy troops away from the interior to key positions along Afghanistan's international boundaries in order to police the borders against incoming insurgents and arms smugglers.

Third, the international community should give warlords much freer rein so long as they do not take up arms against the government or international forces. However repugnant the warlords may be, the central government simply does not have the ability to displace them, and trying to do so can lead to unpleasant consequences. Until recently, for example, Ismail Khan was a powerful warlord in the Afghan west. He declined a political appointment in Kabul under President Hamid Karzai, refused to disarm his foot soldiers, and withheld millions of dollars in customs revenue from the central treasury. Yet he ran his region with an iron fist, dispersed sorely needed public services, and served as a bulwark against the Taliban and rival warlords. His forced departure in 2004, together with his replacement by inept central government officials, enabled a resurgence of Taliban activities and an expansion of the drug trade in the area.

Fourth, the United States should seriously engage on Afghanistan with Russia and Iran. Given Russia's stinging history in the country, it cannot offer to send troops. But Russian political advisers can transfer valuable insights on the conduct of border-control missions and lessons learned about the corrupting effects of trafficking on soldiers. Iran's role is perhaps even more sensitive, yet Washington and Tehran share interests in defeating the insurgency, suppressing trafficking, and fostering political stability in the Afghan west. And Iranian experience in mediating the Tajik conflict might usefully inform similar initiatives in Afghanistan.

Applying the Tajik model to Afghanistan will not give the United States and its partners the outcome that they want. But if they try it, they just might find they get what they need.


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  • GEORGE GAVRILIS is Assistant Professor of International Relations in the Department of Government at the University of Texas at Austin and an International Affairs Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
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