For want of a nail, as the old adage goes, the shoe, horse, battle, and, ultimately, the war, were lost. Afghanistan too is missing the right nail. Without it, that war could easily be lost.
The missing nail is a single authority with the clout to enforce integration, cooperation and action across the hugely complex and multifaceted layers of government, external actors and realities of Afghani culture, politics and tribal relationships.
Five years after Operation Enduring Freedom toppled the Taliban, Afghanistan is both better and worse off. On the positive side, there is every opportunity to create a stable, functioning state under an acceptable standard of rule of law. On the negative side, the lack of urgency by the Afghan government in addressing these challenges has created a perplexing contradiction that could leave Afghanistan a failed state slipping back under the horrors of Taliban rule. And the friction and often childish behavior between President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan and President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan are also unneeded impediments that must be fixed.
Despite the huge barriers to modernization, including a population in which four out of five Afghans cannot read or write, incestuous tribal politics and an economy in which illegal drug trade accounts for more than half of Afghanistan’s GDP, with continued NATO and coalition presence and given enough time, the country can still be put on a stable footing. Yet, given Western expectations for short-term success, the inability of the Afghan government to move ahead more forcefully and worsening events in Iraq, time is precious and is running out.
The crucial nonmilitary reconstruction efforts suffer from this same absence of authority and coordination. At the highest levels of the Afghan government, there are coordinating committees that can work such as the Policy Advisory Group that is a mini-war cabinet and the PRT Coordinating Council. But authority is difficult to pin down and in cases such as water and irrigation, jurisdiction can stretch across half a dozen ministries.
Security-sector reform has five pillars: counternarcotics with a UK lead; judicial reform under Italy; disarmament and demobilization led by Japan; police training assigned to Germany; and training the Afghan National Army (ANA) headed by the U.S. Only army training has moved forward. The four other crucial categories are bogged down and have had little impact. Furthermore, there is no central authority with the clout to force reform at a faster pace.
On the physical security side, 37 nations are in Afghanistan. But the coordinating structure is also problematic: makeshift, personality-driven and often ad hoc. NATO, through the International Security and Assistance Force (ISAF) has over 31,000 troops deployed in Afghanistan, including some 24 Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) stationed in about two-thirds of the provinces. No two provinces are identical in the scope of the challenge and what type of reconstruction effort is needed. The PRTs report to national, not ISAF, authority. The United States, through Central Command, has about 12,000 American troops deployed separate from ISAF. The ANA numbers about 30,000, of which two-thirds are fully trained and ready. To succeed, far better coordination and integration among these diverse organizations, including NGOs and the Afghan government, are urgently needed.
While the Taliban-related insurgency smolders, ISAF and Central Command, in conjunction with the ANA and Afghan police force, can hold the line. However, if progress is not made in rebuilding destroyed or missing infrastructure; creating jobs; ensuring a rule of law is put in place; weeding out corruption and controlling drug production by giving farmers alternative means of seeking livelihoods, military force alone will not work. This requires redressing the absence of viable central authority.
What is needed is an outside authority that can better coordinate these many complicated and often-unconnected strands of activity to include those of the government and NGOs, including the U.N. Afghan mission that itself requires stronger leadership. The European Union would seem the perfect organization to fill this role through appointing a distinguished and highly experienced individual as high commissioner, as was the case in the former Yugoslavia. This individual, by force of personality and intellect, would derive the needed authority and legitimacy to energize and redirect the efforts of the critical nonmilitary reconstruction programs in order to generate more effective and rapid progress. Clearly, relationships with Mr. Karzai, the Afghan government and this individual will be crucial.
Afghanistan and the international community are running out of time. The coming NATO heads of state conference to be held in Riga later this month would be the right forum to make a formal request to the European Union for support and for such a high commissioner. But if this request is not forthcoming and a suitable individual is not put in place, this failure will truly be the nail that prevents securing Afghanistan’s future.