Karzai at the international summit on Afghanistan in Bonn, Germany, 2011. (Courtesy Reuters)

This piece was published as part of The Future of Afghanistan and U.S. Foreign Policy, a collaboration between the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism and ForeignAffairs.com. 

In late 2001, flush with an unexpectedly easy victory over the Taliban, the United States arranged a conference in the German city of Bonn aimed at shaping postwar Afghanistan. The conference charged the United Nations, in the guise of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), with providing the country’s security. And in terms that now seem positively quaint, the conference’s Afghan and international participants looked forward to the creation of a “broad-based, gender-sensitive, multi-ethnic and fully representative government” in Kabul.

What a difference a decade makes. As international representatives gathered last week for a second conference in Bonn, ISAF troops were still caught between a grinding insurgency led by a resurgent Taliban and an ineffective Afghan government headed by a feckless president, Hamid Karzai. Gone are visions of democracy; now, the mantra is sustainability, as ISAF eyes its planned exit in 2014 with a mixture of mounting alarm and palpable relief.

The twin Bonn conferences neatly bookend a lost decade in Afghanistan. Approximately 10,000 Afghan civilians -- by the most conservative estimate -- have been killed since 2006 (when such information was first systematically collected), and a further 5,600 Afghan soldiers and police have died facing the Taliban in those same years. Since 2001, almost 3,000 ISAF soldiers have died in action, and the United States alone has spent some $444 billion on counterinsurgency and state building. Yet many Afghans still see their ramshackle state as illegitimate, and progress toward rebuilding and stabilizing the country remains elusive.

Judged by any yardstick -- its ability to protect its officials, provide basic services, and control corruption -- Afghanistan has made little or no headway since 2001. The Taliban can claim some of the credit for these failures, but much of the blame falls on the Bonn process itself.

The Bonn participants overestimated the danger of ethnic civil war and so created a hyper-centralized executive office that actually made ethnic conflict more, rather than less, likely. By concentrating the appearance of authority in one office without giving it the means to assert power, Bonn rendered the presidency a lightening rod for the many grievances that emerged once the central government proved ineffective. With no real ability to tax citizens, Karzai and his coterie of confidants played the age-old game of extracting as much revenue as possible from foreigners to placate and buy off internal opposition. But foreign aid, often proudly branded with the flag of its donor, further undermined Karzai by underscoring his reliance on outside forces.

Afghanistan now has a central government that is at once too strong on paper and too weak in practice, perched precariously atop a withered state. Constructing a functioning central state after 30 years of nearly constant war was always going to be difficult, but the United States and its allies made the situation even worse after the first conference in Bonn. They relied on provincial reconstruction teams, contractors, and foreign aid agencies that bypassed Kabul -- all of which made sense in the short term, given the weakness of the state, but also undercut efforts to knit together far-flung villages and districts into a more unified political body.

As a result of these confused policies, ISAF created an Afghanistan that was neither unified nor rebuilt. A decentralized state-building strategy that accommodated the country’s regional variation might have worked but only if it had been led by Afghans themselves and not imposed by foreigners. Such a process could have created a set of local institutions with enough legitimacy to defuse simmering grievances and marginalize armed opponents.

Even notable progress in areas such as primary education and childhood immunization remains fragile. Although the United States alone has dedicated nearly $19 billion in assistance, the positive effect of the funds will likely fade as aid spending is reduced. Meanwhile, aid agencies have failed to build sustainable programs. For too long, they measured progress in terms of the amount of and speed with which money was spent rather than whether programs were actually producing their intended effects. And Afghanistan today remains hooked on foreign aid; according to the World Bank, 97 percent of the country’s domestic product is tied to the presence of ISAF and the donor community. This has bred skewed local economies, a culture of dependence among aid recipients, and sky-high levels of corruption.

Of course, if building a ship at sea is difficult, building one at sea while under fire is nearly impossible. In between the two Bonn conferences, the Taliban managed to evolve from a defeated regime into a robust insurgent organization with a substantial presence throughout much of the country. Although a good deal of attention is paid to the Taliban’s combat capabilities, their provision of services, however rudimentary, is where they really outcompete ISAF and the Afghan government.

With a fraction of ISAF's resources, the Taliban have managed to create mobile sharia courts, adjudicate local land disputes, and collect revenue and redistribute it to the families of their killed fighters. When the lure of services has proved insufficient to win over civilians, the Taliban have taken to threatening individuals with death if they do not stop collaborating with ISAF. And the Taliban’s information campaign has been far more successful than that of ISAF. Even though the Taliban killed more than five times the number of Afghan civilians in 2010 than ISAF did, an overwhelming majority of nearly 3,000 respondents to a 2011 survey I conducted in 21 Pashtun districts believed that the organization is more careful in avoiding civilian casualties.

The Taliban have undoubtedly borne substantial losses.
Since 2008, ISAF has employed airstrikes and night raids to kill key Taliban leaders, degrade their capabilities, and deter would-be insurgents from joining their ranks. Yet this strategy has precluded a political solution to the war by complicating negotiations with the Taliban. It has broadened the gap between local Taliban commanders, who bear the brunt of the war in Afghanistan, and their senior commanders, who are often safely ensconced in Pakistan. And by taking out so many senior and middle-tier insurgents, ISAF has accelerated the rise of a younger, more radical generation of Taliban fighters. Negotiating a settlement will be a difficult challenge, especially if ISAF continues to target the same leaders with whom it hopes to broker a peace agreement.

To be sure, ISAF has adapted over the past five years. After years of neglect, ISAF has wholeheartedly embraced development aid as a counterinsurgency tool, committing nearly $1.3 billion in small-scale Commander’s Emergency Response Program projects last year alone. Trying to reconcile the sometimes contradictory demands of winning the support of local populations while conducting military operations within them, ISAF has imposed severe restrictions on its use of airpower (and deadly force more generally) in a bid to avoid civilian casualties. And in the last two years, it has scored some important, if temporary, gains in Helmand and Kandahar, which, until mid-2010, were still dominated by the Taliban.

Yet as the anticipated troop drawdown looms, major problems remain. It is unclear whether ISAF has enough resources to consolidate its gains in the south while pivoting to deal with the Taliban and the affiliated Haqqani network in the east. ISAF’s proposed solution is to expand rapidly the Afghan National Army (ANA) and the Afghan Local Police (ALP). But that carries risks. The new ANA comprises mostly Tajiks and Uzbeks, prompting fears among Pashtuns about the army’s future intentions once ISAF withdraws. And the ALP is a program recycled from the detritus of six failed previous efforts, all of which aimed at recruiting village locals to serve as a stopgap for further Taliban incursions.

Most worryingly, army and police training programs are diffusing military skills throughout the population; in some units, desertion rates are as high as 40 percent. As ISAF withdraws, deserters or new militia members could use their skills against neighbors or the state itself. They will further erode the central government's control as the volatile mixture of new recruits, new weapons, and newfound power give rise to yet more challengers.

The second Bonn conference may have represented the last chance to craft a strategy for creating a stable, legitimate Afghan government capable of standing long after the foreign troops and funds depart. With ISAF's withdrawal now under way, its leverage over both the Karzai administration and the Taliban is ebbing, making a push for structural changes to the political system all the more important. Without meaningful reforms, including the emergence of political parties, district-level elections, and the decentralization of political power, Kabul may witness yet another round of civil war after 2014. The window for avoiding that outcome, and preventing another lost decade in Afghanistan, is fast closing.

Read more from The Future of Afghanistan and U.S. Foreign Policy.

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