By Arun Anand

The Taliban Story: How international community failed Afghanistan, paved way for Taliban (Part 22)
Source: Wikimedia Commons

This the 22nd part of the 30-part series on ‘The Taliban’. You can share your feedback at [email protected]. Here is the 22nd part-

Hamid Karzai was not a bad choice to lead Afghanistan but he had too many challenges to meet. He had to deal with warlords who wanted their pound of flesh, an extremely challenging economic situation, poverty, deprivation and lack of development in all spheres including health, education, infrastructure. There were no industries and hence hardly any jobs. The kind of international aid that Afghanistan needed didn’t come through. The international community, despite, all the big talk was found wanting. Had democracy brought development along with it, the support for radical Islamist organisations like Taliban would have dwindled to the minimal. The initial years were especially crucial in this regard when Afghanistan attracted a fair amount of aid, but far less than what Balkan nations had attracted in 1990s. This despite the fact that Afghanistan was amongst the bottom three countries when it came to global rankings based on the key socio-economic indicators.

US’ security and economic assistance from 2002 to 2004 was a modest $4.4 billion and nearly two thirds of it went to economic assistance, leaving slightly more than a third for security assistance. The lack of progress in the development of the police, counter-narcotics and promotion of the rule of law was particularly noteworthy. On the security front, the build-up of Afghan National Army (ANA) was slow but deliberate. The ANA was small but successful and popular among people. Police development in the first few years was very slow and unproductive, except in the German-sponsored education of commissioned officers. By 2008, around 70 per cent of US funds went to security assistance or counter-narcotics. 1

‘Education’ was one of the most important sectors that got neglected during this era and that could have helped to bring a complete transformation of Afghan society. Hassan Abbas critically analysed this factor and how international community and Afghanistan fared on this front in ‘The Taliban Revival’.

‘Sadly, the education sector – the most potent instrument of change in any society – failed to receive the donor priority that it deserved. It was understandable that security objectives should drive policy choices in the beginning, but a continuing clash between development goals and security compulsions was unsustainable for nation- building purposes. Education was especially critical in a society where a radicalized minority had dominated society through coercion and oppression. That the Taliban were able to get away with that in the name of Islam was something that was worth bearing in mind while a development agenda was crafted. Even from a purely counterterrorism perspective, a counter-narrative to misdirected and misplaced Taliban ideology was sorely needed. The creation of a vibrant education system was hence a common- sense solution. But, as they say, ‘common sense is uncommon’ – a truism that is particularly true in war zones. In 2004, three years after the occupation began, primary school enrolment had risen from 0.9 million to nearly 4 million, and the proportion of girls receiving education from virtually zero to 35 per cent. However, these figures were distorted by the high rate of enrolment in major cities such as Herat and Kabul, where girls made up 35–58 per cent of the total; in the former Taliban strongholds of south Afghanistan, girls’ enrolment was pitifully low – 3 per cent in Zabul, 5 per cent in Helmand and 7 per cent in Khost. Between 2003 and 2011, almost 5,000 new schools were built and enrolment reached around 7 million. This was an important achievement; but it is estimated that throughout this time around 40 per cent of the those who were supposed to be in schools were not in school. Even more instructive is the fact that in the period between October 2005 and March 2007, six per cent of schools were burned down or closed down by insurgents, and by 2008 the number of attacks on schools, teachers and students had almost tripled to 670 – almost two attacks every day. The Taliban knew exactly how dangerous public education was to their cause and agenda. However, once the pattern of attacks became clear some steps to safeguard schools should have been taken involving the local population. To give credit to ordinary Afghans, they wanted their children in school; but, as one astute reporter – Barry Bearak of The New York Times – reported in 2007, “The accelerating demand for education is mocked by the limited supply”. Interestingly, from 2001 onwards, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) invested only 5 per cent of its Afghanistan budget in education. The disconnect between supply and demand was glaring.’ 2

A RAND study conducted by top US diplomat James Dobbin brought out two most salient points regarding Afghanistan:

  • It is nearly impossible to put together a fragmented nation if its neighbours try to tear it apart, so every effort should be made to secure their support; and 2) Accountability for past injustices can be a powerful component of democratization, but it should be attempted only if there is a deep and long- term commitment to the overall operation.

Abbas says, “The international effort in Afghanistan in its early years was unimpressive on both counts. However, of more significance were the missed opportunities in the socio- political and economic arenas of the nation building project, which in turn opened up a chance for the Taliban to stage a comeback in the coming years. Afghans themselves were to be blamed, too, for failing to get their priorities right and to engage with donors more proactively.”

One of the biggest failures that laid out the ground for Taliban’s comeback was that the international community couldn’t help Afghanistan build an effective civilian law enforcement structure which is at the core of any democratic society.

Abbas highlights the fault lines in this regard and how this failure led to a situation where the resurgence of Taliban was just a matter of time as the ISI had already resurrected it and was getting ready to launch it back in Afghanistan under the nose of Americans: ‘Afghanistan needed an effective civilian law enforcement infrastructure to be built with the aid of police professionals, rather than rely solely on ‘stabilization operations,’ conceived and implemented by defence officials. Inter-agency disconnect in the US was at least partially responsible for missing this point. Even intelligence resources, a vital element in such a campaign, were not utilized appropriately. In the early months of the military campaign, only a handful of US State Department or other civilian officials were physically available in Afghanistan to conceive and plan any state- building efforts. To make up the shortfall, 13 teams of CIA operatives, whose primary job was to hunt terrorists, were asked to stay in remote corners of Afghanistan to coordinate the political efforts. The task they were given was beyond the capabilities of an organization that was well on the way to becoming a militarized intelligence outfit.

Reform of the security sector in Afghanistan fell to four states, each of which was assigned a specific field: the US was given responsibility for the military; Italy, the judiciary; Germany, the police; and Britain, counter- narcotics. These roles were interconnected, but apparently that was not enough to bring planners from those countries to a single table to think things through, and there was no effort made to develop any management structure that would oversee the four pillars. More specifically, as leading world expert on the subject Robert Perito laments, “None of the donors focused on the need to strengthen the one Afghan institution – the Interior Ministry – that would be responsible for overseeing and supporting the Afghan police.”

An Afghan National Police (ANP) force was belatedly sanctioned in April 2003 by presidential decree. Recruited in haste and rushed through training, the ANP only exacerbated the local capacity- building challenge. An International Crisis Group report of August 2007 substantiates this claim: “The state of the Afghan National Police (ANP) nearly six years after the fall of the Taliban reflects the international community’s failure to grasp early on the centrality of comprehensive reform of the law enforcement and justice sectors. In the absence of a dependable local police force, criminals had a field day. The Taliban couldn’t be far behind, but no one realized it until the Taliban revival became public knowledge.”3

(To be continued)


  1. Understanding Operation Enduring Freedom by Col. Harjeet Singh (Pp117)
  2. The Taliban Revival by Hassan Abbas (Pp 85-95)
  3. The Taliban Revival by Hassan Abbas (Pp89-92)