Small Wars Journal

Cautious Optimism

Wed, 06/05/2013 - 3:30am

Editor's Note: This paper was originally published by Marine Corps University’s Middle East Studies Department as an “Insight Paper.” It is reprinted here with permission.

The approaching withdrawal of international forces by the end of 2014 officially concludes the current mission of the United States in Afghanistan under the International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) mandate. The U.S. plans to transition to a smaller remain behind force tasked with assisting the government of Afghanistan (GIRoA) in maintaining a secure environment. What will happen beyond that date is still yet to be determined, but legions of groups and media pundits are warning of a Taliban return and/or a renewal of the chaos that gripped Afghanistan during the civil war (1992-1996) and Taliban (1996-2001) eras. Such predictions are based on experiences following the withdrawal of the Soviet Union and the United States so called “abandonment” of the country when the threat of communist expansion was eliminated. [1] Here I will take a short, historically based examination of the era of Soviet departure from Afghanistan during February of 1989. Thereafter, I will briefly compare the condition of the Afghan government and overall stability in 1991 and 1992 to what the United States will be leaving behind when current operations cease on December 31, 2014. Based on core variables with a specific historical perspective of military, political, and economic development, I argue that GIRoA is considerably better equipped today than it was in 1992 to maintain central state authority.

GIRoA is functioning and developing in an uneven but consistent manner. A successful polity is certainly not pre-ordained, but money and support committed by the international community provides Kabul latitude to expand influence and grow in three key areas. First, the professionalism of the security forces will develop. Consequently, the insurgency continues to face stronger, better- equipped, centrally loyal armed forces, which will gain considerable legitimacy in the eyes of the Afghan people as western forces withdraw. Second, Kabul’s government is present in most of the 364 districts in the country and Kabul has significant influence in the 34 provincial capitals. The current political system, although experiencing numerous challenges, is comparatively pluralistic and relatively absorbing of the various competing interests of the diverse nation. Third, the international community led by the United States is committed to providing needed funds while helping Kabul achieve increasing degrees of economic independence. From the perspective of military strength, political stability, and economic growth, conditions in Kabul today compared to the situation in 1992 when President Najibullah turned over the country to a United Nations led interim government are considerably more stable. For these reasons, despite the countless mistakes, a violent resistance and billions of wasted dollars, the established governmental system in Afghanistan will endure the current hardships and unevenly develop into a stable regional actor.       


The Geneva Accords, signed on April 14, 1988 paved the way for the Soviet departure from Afghanistan and a U.N. led process to a transitional government led by the Islamic resistance (Mujahedin) parties based in Pakistan. Soviet forces began departing in May of 1988 and on February 15, 1989; the final Soviet soldier left Afghan soil. Remaining was a military of questionable loyalty, thousands of militias fighting an established enemy with a legitimate cause, an unresolved divided and contested political climate, dwindling funds, and an uninterested international environment more focused on a crumbling Soviet Union than mitigating perceived local disputes in Afghanistan. Afghan President Najibullah continued to receive support from the Soviet Union as Pakistan and the U.S. colluded to create a unified polity from the seven Pakistan-based resistance groups to the communists. The Soviet aid enabled a functioning government that held out extensively longer than anyone predicted. The end of 1991 however, witnessed the enactment of a mutually agreed suspension of funds both from the Soviets to the Najibullah regime and from the United States to the resistance parties via the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence. Without economic incentives to purchase loyalty amongst the numerous armed groups, Kabul fell within months. In April of 1992 President Najibullah officially turned the country over to a UN sponsored interim government. He was never able to leave the country, trapped in the UN compound in Kabul. The competing factions could not come to agreement and the UN interim government crumbled nearly as quickly as it was created. So was the political environment prior to the civil war of 1992-1996.      

Military Comparison

In early February of 1989 the Soviet Union left behind a large and relatively competent military capable of securing population centers and key lines of communication. Despite predictions of a quick disintegration of the security forces and the communist government, Najibullah’s regime endured and defeated a major insurgent offensive in Jalalabad during March of 1989. The $3-4 billion annual Soviet aid package proved sufficient enough to hold the military together. By 1990 however, foreign funding decreased by 40 percent and at the end of 1991, ceased completely.[2] Consequently the outcome of the 1991 Battle of Khost was different.  Much of the army deserted and the Mujahedin scored a major battlefield victory. With the dwindling of funds, the loyalty of thousands of soldiers and officers disappeared, the majority of whom ultimately were absorbed into various ethnic groups competing around the country. With no centralized and paid security apparatus, lawlessness amongst the competing ethnic groups broke out, and the rural areas fell under the control of local warlords.

In comparison to the disappearance of funds in 1991, the current environment looks considerably different. The Security Partnership Agreement signed in May of 2012 commits the United States to Afghan stability and development well into the future. The international community has committed to funding the 352,000 members of the Afghan security forces at $6 billion annually until 2018. The current Afghan Army consists of five corps located strategically around the country. These forces will continue to be funded, equipped and advised by the international community led by the United States. The Afghan army’s performance has been admirable fighting against the insurgency. Despite concerns regarding ethnic factionalism, the Afghan National Army has increasing representation at the highest levels from all ethnic groups. With the required funds provided and the strengthening security forces receiving sufficient arms, the Taliban face an extended battle against a professionalizing force scheduled to take the lead in all military operations throughout the country during the spring of 2013.[3]             

Political Comparison

The political situation in Kabul in 1991/2 is unrecognizable compared to today. When President Najibullah announced his resignation from power in March of 1992, the UN scrambled to consolidate the various resistance parties into an organized system that could rule peacefully. The Peshawar Accords signed April 26 were bound to fail as the two primary Mujahedin parties of Jamiat-e Islami and Hizb-e Islami of Gulbudin Hekmatyar (HIG) never fully agreed on the power sharing agreement. By May, HIG forces were rocketing Kabul, and before the end of the summer of 1992, over 1800 civilians had been killed in the lawlessness that engulfed Kabul.[4] The communist government had initially been so exclusive and brutal that many tribes and potential members of the government were driven to the insurgency. Najibullah and the communists were incredibly unpopular in the countryside. Thus, the resistance enjoyed wide-spread support and legitimacy.

In contrast to the exclusive and brutal nature of the communist regime, the current Afghan political system enjoys substantially more participation. Twenty-one political parties are represented in the lower house of parliament, none of which are allowed to identify themselves based on ethnicity.[5] Many of the former “warlords” of the Mujahedin era currently work within the government in either elected or appointed positions. Although struggling and still a minority, civil-society groups made up of intellectuals and businessmen are gaining influence and a voice in politics. The Taliban maintain limited support and legitimacy and attract minimal sympathy for their resistance to the government.[6]    

Economic Comparison

As the Soviet Union declined and eventually crumbled, international aid to the Afghan state ceased. The limited amount of revenue the government collected from customs and indirect taxes was quickly consumed by rampant corruption among the leadership ensuring meager sums trickled down to the Afghan people. In addition to fund shortages, basic commodities such as food and fuel were increasingly scarce, further limiting the ability of the central government to project any influence and the military to conduct operations. “In the end, the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul was not defeated in the field, rather it disintegrated when it became clear it was running out of resources.”[7]

The economic situation in Kabul today is greatly improved, but not yet fully stable. 95 percent of the nations GDP is sourced from foreign aid, and GIRoA predicts that $10 billion in annual aid will be required until 2025.[8] During the Tokyo Conference of July 2012, international economic support was promised through 2017.  To transfer the aid-dependent economy to a licit independent one, the international community is placing high priority on curbing corruption and integrating Afghanistan into the regional economy with development and investment in the transportation, telecommunications and mining sectors holding priority. International donor aid combined with a growing economy, and development in key sectors at a minimum will provide sufficient revenue to keep the government working, the security forces loyal, and the bureaucracy intact.


Throughout history, creation of modern nation-states is a complex, uneven, and with few exceptions a violent undertaking. Afghanistan’s development will be no different. One thing for certain is Afghanistan will progress in its own way and in line with the traditional norms of acceptable behavior. These norms cannot be injected from outside social engineers, but must be organically accepted. Although each nation develops in its own way, certain structural aspects promote future stability. A strong, centrally-loyal military, a broadly legitimate political system, and a source of revenue to provide financial opportunities all exist in Afghanistan and with the assistance of the international community, will strengthen vis-à-vis potentially spoiling actors. 

This piece is admittedly limited and perhaps even a bit simplistic in scope and predictions. In no way does it intend to mask the incredible challenges yet to be confronted by the Afghan state, but aims to provide a sobering perspective on the doomsday scenarios being widely predicted. The underpinnings of a nation-state are established in Afghanistan. Political growth and development in Kabul and a strengthening military, in the context of an economically committed international community combine to provide the foundations for a reliable nation-state in a historically insecure region.

[1] Diego Cordovez and Selig S. Harrison, Out of Afghanistan: The Inside Story of the Soviet Withdrawal (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 260-270. Although it can be debated, the term “abandoned” assumes that the United States provided aid to the Mujahedeen via the Pakistani government in order to assist the Afghan nation in the first place. In fact, U.S. policy was limited and clear. The U.S. aided and armed rebels via Pakistan in order to stop the spread of communism into Afghanistan. The Declaration of International Guarantees contained in the Geneva Accords clearly stipulates that the U.S. and the Soviet Union “Undertake to invariably refrain from any form of interference and intervention in the internal affairs of the Republic of Afghanistan and the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.” Such a stipulation was believed necessary to guarantee the Soviet Union would cut off arming and aid to the Najibullah government.   

[2] Antonio Giustozzi, War, Politics and Society in Afghanistan: 1978-1992 (Washington: Georgetown University Press, 2000), 274.

[3] Kenneth Katzman, “Afghanistan: Post-Taliban Governance, Security and U.S. Policy,” Congressional Research Service Report for Congress RL30588, April 9, 2013, 26-34.

[4] Barnett Rubin, The Fragmentation of Afghanistan: State Formation and Collapse in the International System 2d ed. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002), 272. 

[5] Kenneth Katzman, “Afghanistan: Politics, Elections, and Government Performance,” Congressional Research Service Report for Congress RS21922, November 30, 2012, 5.

[6] Mohammad Osman Tariq et al., Afghanistan in 2011: A Survey of the Afghan People (The Asia Foundation, 2011), 48-52.

[7] Giustozzi, War, Politics and Society in Afghanistan, 237.

[8] Katzman, “Afghanistan: Post-Taliban Governance, Security and U.S. Policy,” 58.


About the Author(s)

Brad Fultz is a Marine Major currently stationed at Marine Corps University and member of the AF/PAK Hands Program


Madhu (not verified)

Mon, 07/28/2014 - 11:32am

For discussion, because I don't know and, as I've said, I won't pretend that I do:

<blockquote>This is not the first time that Kerry’s done a solid for Afghanistan when things looked as bleak as Rosie O’Donnell’s TV career. And the Afghans I’ve talked to (“Wait…what…you don’t want chai? So…RUDE!) in the last couple of days have pretty strong feelings on the World Cup (Lots of Germany fans here, kids.) and on the course currently plotted for the heretofore deadlocked Afghan elections.

But it is the first time that Kerry’s essentially undoing what the Americans helped set up when the constitution was adopted in Afghanistan in 2004. That’s not to say that this is a bad thing: it’s the best possible outcome that could be imagined for the current situation.

And going forward it has the potential for Afghan national-level governance to develop along more stable lines. But patting one’s self on the back for undoing something your country helped set up in the first place is a touch…disingenuous.</blockquote>…

<blockquote>Fourth, the AFPAK boundary is not notional (except to GIRoA). Eastern tribes ‘consider Pashtuns from beyond the Durand Line as first and foremost Pakistanis. [The] border is increasingly acknowledged as a clear line and not just an undefined frontier where the influence of one state wanes and that of another gradually begins.’28
Note Rubin's homogenization of 20+ million Pashtuns. He fails to account for myriads of differences in customs and practices, where certain Pashtuns do not recognize Pashtunwali; and where Islamic beliefs diverge substantively, from mystical/cultic practices to Sunnism to Shiism; the dominance of Pashtu/Urdu or Urdu/Pashtu as first/second language in Pakistan, and Pashtu/Dari in Afghanistan, and so on.</blockquote>…

<blockquote>US has done a great service to Afghanistan by intervening at this juncture. In Democratic Politics such compromises are normal. Look at Pakistan, why MQM is being wooed by all governments whether it was PPP or now PMLN. They don’t need their votes n center or Sindh but still neither removed MQM governor, Why? The alternate was a civil war. The compromise that US has brokered is not ideal but is much better than the alternate which would have been a Civil War in Afghanistan. Some Governors of Abdullah Camp had announced they would forcibly take over Presidential Palace. This is not good but democracy will come slowly and gradually. More than Ashraf Ghani or Abdullah, Afghanistan needs a peaceful transfer of power and continuation of the democratic system. Opposing something just because Americans have done it, is not a very mature approach. Even in Pakistan Saudi Arabia is known to broker deals when there is apolitical impasse. A Stable Afghanistan is in the best interest of Pakhtuns everywhere. Any way its not a Pakhtun versus Non Pakhtun issue in Afghanistan as is portrayed by certain circles in Pakistan and elsewhere. Abdullah has Pakhtun supporters and Ashraf Ghani has even more non Pakhtun supporters, Rasheed Dostum and Ahmad Shah Masood's family stands by Ashraf Ghani while Zalmay Rasul stands by Abdullah.</blockquote>…

Last link via Omar Ali

Madhu (not verified)

Fri, 05/02/2014 - 2:00pm

There is a piece over at the libertarian site antiwar-dot-com similar to this, strangely enough. Sort of along the lines that it is threat hyping to say everything is going to all apart.

I am not going to pretend that I know what might happen because I don't. I'll link it when I get the chance. Just for a contrast to a lot of what is written.

Madhu (not verified)

Tue, 12/10/2013 - 9:33am

Looking over my old comments in this thread, I sure do come across as kind of a nutjob, don't I?

I prefer "enthusiastic" and "a passion for knowledge," but I can understand other interpretations....

This is an interesting comparative study. Though many have exhausted the Soviet vs. US methods in conducting operations in Afghanistan, not nearly as many have weighed the post-Soviet outcome with the potential endstate for the US.

Though I think you reinforce your points with adequate data, I remain a little more pessimistic about Afghanistan's future absent ISAF. More than anything, I believe the economic future is much bleaker than anticipated, and, as already stated in the comments, I think the country's future is precariously placed in the hands of foreign aid. You're correct in asserting that Afghanistan does have certain signs of functioning as a state, but I believe most of these to exist superficially.

Your point on desperately needed social change coming from within Afghanistan is well made.


Wed, 06/05/2013 - 9:08am

Most governments can maintain security if they have the funding to pay for it. Afghanistan is no different in this regard.

The question is, what happens when the money runs out? If foreign governments are funding the opposition heavily things tend to go badly (Vietnam, all of the final colonial conflicts in Africa, Nicaragua). If foreign governments stop robustly funding the opposition things tend to mush into a violent, if stable, peace (Central America and to a lesser degree Indian Kashmir).

Granted narcotics money and the current bunch of Saudi funded jihadi idiots can make life miserable for a solvent government (Colombia and virtually every government in the Middle East), they generally are not a threat to the viability of the state without an outside government heavily supporting them (Libya and increasingly Syria).