A Critical Assessment of International Post-Conflict Reconstruction Efforts in Afghanistan

Essay 2006 18 Pages

Politics - International Politics - Region: Far East


Table of contents


1st part Prelude to Reconstruction
2nd part From Theory to Practice: Challenges for reconstruction
3rd part Factors Favouring Resurgence of Insecurity



Bibliography and References


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With the adoption of a new constitution in 2004, Afghanistan emerged anew as a member of the international community after decades of anti-Soviet jihad, interfactional and interethnic civil war, and wars of conquest and resistance by and against the radical-Islamic Taliban movement. While clearly every society emerging from armed conflict requires some degree of reconstruction, the needs of Afghanistan following allied intervention in 2001 have been by far beyond the ordinary − after a quarter-century of armed conflict the country’s entire social, political and economic infrastructure had been destroyed, while war left Afghanistan facing the worlds largest refugee population.

It has now been almost half a decade since the fall of the Taliban and billions of dollars have been pledged for reconstruction by the international community. Judging from numerous indicators, it appears that Afghanistan is on its way to be once again a "functioning state" − we will critically assess if this is really the case by considering socio-historical factors of Afghanistan's current situation such as historical segmentation of elites and the legacy of the USSR's invasion, followed by a critical discussion of post-conflict reconstruction efforts as well as underlying structural problems undermining these efforts.

1st part Prelude to Reconstruction

For the better part of the last 150 years, Afghanistan has been a weak border state[1], financed largely through foreign aid rather than taxation. As a consequence, Afghanistan has continuously faced a rather low level of integration of society into the state and the national community. Historically, society has been held together under a small elite ruling by spending and redistributing foreign aid as well as by manipulation and reinforcement of social segmentation[2]. Following a military coup with support from a pro-Soviet military in 1978, the country's elite was more segmented than ever, trying to keep control over the weak, although growing, Afghan state coexisting in a fragile equilibrium with society. During the 25 years following the Communist coup, Afghanistan saw the complete breakdown of this equilibrium between state and society and a spiralling social and economic cataclysm − Soviet invasion and the foreign-sponsored resistance leading to a protracted war between the Soviet Union and anti-Soviet forces fighting to depose Afghanistan's Marxist government[3].

The combination of the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, the USSR's collapse and the consequent end of Soviet aid, together with continued regional powers’ support for various competing factions of the radical Islamic mujahideen led to the collapse of the Afghan state in 1992, followed by inter-factional warfare, the strengthening of alternative power structures, and the eventual takeover of most of Afghanistan by the Taliban[4].

Before the civil war, Afghanistan's different ethnic communities coexisted relatively peacefully, including Hindus, Sikhs and Jews who played a significant socio-economical role. Accordingly, Afghanistan had been a rather tolerant, ethnically, culturally and religiously mixed society[5]. Given the conflict's evolution and the increasingly important involvement of non-Afghan ideological elements − notably the Islamic-revolutionary character of the Taliban − it would be a mistake to consider Afghan society as having moved backwards towards a traditionalist state, as numerous analysts have done. Rather, prolonged civil war and Taliban dominance have given rise to extremist but novel socio-cultural elements without previous roots in traditional Afghan society[6].

The continuous fighting rendered much of the country de-facto stateless as chaotic violence prevailed while elites were unable to establish any consensus about the way the state should be organized. Not surprisingly, the continued fighting and lawlessness created opportunities for uprooted factions, like the Taliban, and for regional powers with a strategic interest in Afghanistan, like Pakistan, as well as for independent or semi-independent actors like drug lords and smugglers to forge a coalition capable of taking over and enforcing order[7]. As a consequence of this foreign involvement, the Afghan conflict was never a purely national but always a regional conflict − with important consequences, as we will see.

The civil war with its repeated intercommunal atrocities destroyed much of the traditional tolerance, having led to a fragmentation of power and society − perhaps irreparably damaging the country's socio-economic fabric[8]. This fragmentation and complete breakdown of the previously existing equilibrium between state and society is making comprehensive sustainable nation-building an extremely challenging undertaking.

2nd part From Theory to Practice: Challenges for reconstruction

In late 2001, under pressure to form a successor regime to the ousted Taliban, the internationally mediated Bonn Accords presented a roadmap to re-establishing permanent institutions of government − providing for establishing a highly centralised state within two and a half years. This time frame proved overtly optimistic, not taking into account various problems reconstruction would run into. While the country has made some considerable progress since 2001, including rapid economic growth, increasing primary school enrolment, rehabilitation of roads, a stable currency and the holding of elections[9], living standards remain among the lowest in the world, drug cultivation soars, and the government's authority still barely stretches beyond Kabul, challenged by the constant threat posed by the continued presence of independent armed forces throughout the country. In many districts, particularly in the south and east, almost no government offices and services exist beside self-appointed officials and warlords. Not only undercuts this continued and resurgent armed conflict any reconstruction effort and return to normality, but also adds additional challenges to reconstruction by causing further internal displacement[10]. Moreover, more than 2000 people have died in factional fighting since the fall of the Taliban[11] illustrating that 5 years after the end of the war, human security is still not adequate and that the agreed time frame could hardly suffice to turn Afghanistan into a stable democracy.

This disjunction between the presumption of a unitary Afghan state and the reality of an Afghan state with many decentralised unofficial power centres challenging one another has fuelled a popular loss of confidence in the structural reconstruction effort[12].

The international community's hopes for bridging this disjunction between theory and reality has largely rested on plans for promoting strong government capacity through continued security sector reform (SSR) supported by various donor countries[13]. This includes notably the forming of an Afghan National Army (ANA), the training of police forces, organising Justice Reform, anti-narcotics and the Afghan Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration Program (ADDR). However, each of these programs has been plagued by various problems and initial targets had to be repeatedly readjusted, notably due to lack of funding[14], of political motivation, and of proper phasing and coordination between projects. Lacking a strong commitment, donors have been slow to meet even parts of their pledges while most of the money eventually paid financed short-term humanitarian relief rather than long-term reconstruction[15].

Opium cultivation is an example of how programs have been weakened due to the complex interlinked nature of the issues at stake.

Production had virtually disappeared in 2001 after a Taliban ban on its cultivation − yet by 2003 production had reached new record levels[16], strongly benefiting regional warlords as profits are the equivalent of more than 60 percent of Afghanistan's legal GDP while its rural economy earns an estimated excess of $100 million from Opium[17]. An estimated two million people − about 9% of the population − are engaged in poppy cultivation: ill-considered poppy eradication thus poses potentially disastrous risks for Afghanistan’s political stabilization and economic reconstruction. Poppy cultivation is not merely a simple coping mechanism, but often a means of social upward mobility, as it allows farmers to earn up to $12 a day while most ordinary Afghans still face extreme poverty[18]. Simple eradication therefore undermines efforts at political stabilization by alienating rural communities, rather than addressing underlying economic grievances, driving them into the hands of regional warlords and strengthening centrifugal tendencies. In fact, while donors put great emphasis on anti-narcotics efforts, certain donor policies have concurrently undermined these very efforts[19]. At the same time, profits from Opium production have allowed warlords to further entrench their position and thwart government initiatives to break their influence, disarm militias and take control of the country. In the face of continuing extreme poverty, funds derived from Opium have allowed local strongmen to compete with the central government for influence and even coerce or bribe police and ANA forces.

These forces remain small, underpaid and largely ineffective, unable to project order and security − depending on the ISAF contingency for years to come: While initially responsibility for security throughout Afghanistan was to be given to the ANA, the UNSC eventually voted ISAF’s deployment beyond Kabul, reflecting the ANA's ineffectiveness. However, lack of funding and material and the refusal of some nations to deploy outside Kabul have meant that the expansion has often been seen as a simple dilution of the previous level of coverage[20].

The poor security situation and the recognition of the inability of national and international forces to protect reconstruction efforts has led to the expansion of alternative approaches to reconstruction, such as PRT's[21] outside deployment areas. These had some limited utility in providing protection to reconstruction, yet have proven unable to prevent any fighting among warlords, curbing the endemic violence, or the killing of aid workers.

While many NGO's who are now dependent on such forms of armed protection outside Kabul have been active since the earliest days of the conflict and during the time Afghanistan attracted little world attention, the American invasion brought with it some 3000 NGO's and aid organisations.


[1] Evans, 2002

[2] Rashid, 2001

[3] Rubin, 2002

[4] Evans, 2002, Rashid, 2001

[5] Rashid, 2001

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Tarzi, 2006; World Bank, 2006

[10] Tarzi, 2006

[11] Padya, 2004

[12] This is even further so as even in the government, corruption and patronage rather than competence and integrity guides the choice of officials, often together with the de-facto distribution of armed might on the ground

[13] Although in the strict meaning of the term one should rather talk about security sector creation.

[14] In January 2002, a meeting of donor states and financial organizations pledged $5.25 billion through 2006 for reconstruction – less per capita per annum than spent in Bosnia, East Timor, Kosovo, or Rwanda. Of some US$ 1,352 million committed for March 2003 – March 2004, only US$ 536 was actually disbursed. (Woods, 2005)

[15] Goodson, 2003

[16] Pandya, 2004; in 2003/04 Afghanistan supplied more than 75 percent of the global market and more than 95 percent of the European market.

[17] See Rashid, 2001 While an abrupt eradication of Opium production could proof disastrous for many poor Afghanis involved in the trade, Afghan society nevertheless clearly has an interest in fighting Opium production if one considers growing evidence of a wave of Heroin dependency and related AIDS infections in the country due to internal consumption of Heroin related to drug production and transport.

[18] Felbab-Brown, 2005; even USAID pay rates cannot compete with this source of income, as it offers only a comparatively meagre $3–$6 a day to its Afghan employees

[19] Observing a correlation between the amount of wheat distributed and an increase in poppy cultivation, the WFP noted that ill-considered distribution of wheat had inadvertently contributed to an increase in poppy cultivation in certain regions by undermining the local market for wheat and depressing its prices (World Bank, 2006)

[20] Pandya, 2004

[21] A Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) is a small operating base from which a group of sixty to more than one hundred civilians and military specialists work to perform small reconstruction projects or provide security for others involved in aid work.


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Critical Assessment International Post-Conflict Reconstruction Efforts Afghanistan Conflict Security Development




Title: A Critical Assessment of International Post-Conflict Reconstruction Efforts in Afghanistan