Originally posted December 2009

Afghanistan has been plagued by war for 30 years. The conflicts that have occurred during this time have involved major world powers, Afghanistan’s neighbors, and various Afghan factions. The cumulative toll of these conflicts on the country and its people is enormous. Yet, despite three calamitous decades of death and destruction, peace and stability is achievable.

Afghanistan’s Calamitous 30-Year War

In the decade following the Soviet invasion in 1979, 1.5 million Afghans were killed, another million were injured and disabled, 6.2 million fled to Pakistan, Iran, and the rest of the world, and 2.2 million more were internally displaced. The monetary damages sustained by Afghanistan during this period were estimated at approximately $644.8 billion.[1]

The Soviet invasion also triggered a proxy war between the United States and the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. One of the critical factors contributing to the Soviet withdrawal was the failure of the Afghan Marxist regime to bring into its fold people in the villages, districts, and provinces of Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the informal coalition among Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, China, and the United States empowered the mujahidin, as did US-supplied Stinger shoulder-fired missiles, which could shoot down Soviet helicopters.

During the period immediately following the Soviet withdrawal (1992-1996), the Rabbani and Hekmatyar mujahidin factions began to clash — drawing the rest of the Afghan warlords into the fray, destroying the capital city of Kabul, and inflicting death and destruction upon thousands of civilians. Since the Afghan resistance against the Soviet Union had been organized along ethnic lines, in the post-Soviet era, each of the ethnic ally-based mujahidin groups pursued their own narrow interests, seeking wealth and power at the expense of national unity and reconstruction. The Rabbani regime was characterized by stalemate and disarray. The “governance gap” fostered the conditions in which Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) created the Taliban and then assisted them in their rise to power.

However, having consolidated their power in 1996, the Taliban implemented draconian domestic policies and also provided a safe haven for Usama bin Ladin and al-Qa‘ida. 9/11 brought an end to the reign of the Taliban, when their leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar, refusing to heed the advice of the Loya Jirga (Grand Assembly) he had convened, rejected then-US President George W. Bush’s demand to either turn over Bin Ladin to the United States or order him to leave Afghanistan. In the ensuing military intervention, US forces allied with the Northern Alliance routed the Taliban.

In November 2001 the United States and representatives of regional powers, most notably Iran and Russia, selected Hamid Karzai as President of the Transitional Administration of Afghanistan. Subsequently, the traditional Afghan procedure of Loya Jirga was employed to choose the President, and a US-style constitution was promulgated. This was followed by a presidential election in 2004, and the election of the Parliament. Rich countries met in Tokyo, London, and Paris to pledge economic aid. US forces were supplemented by the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in which some 40 countries participated.

The initial objective of the US invasion of Afghanistan was to capture Bin Ladin. Subsequently, however, other objectives were added, including establishing a stable democratic state with the ability to sustain and defend itself, and the prevention of the return of the Taliban to power and Bin Ladin to Afghanistan. However, during the period 2001-2009, even as more foreign troops were deployed, security conditions deteriorated. By the end of 2009, the number of US and NATO soldiers climbed to over 100,000, but security conditions nonetheless worsened.

During the same period, economic conditions also deteriorated, as unemployment exceeded 40% and poverty was widespread. The production of poppies in Afghanistan exceeded 90% of the world’s total, and governance reached its lowest point, as warlords and drug lords grew in power. Finally, the August 2009 presidential election was marred by allegations of widespread fraud.

More importantly, the conflict intensified, marked by a rising number of increasingly sophisticated guerrilla-style attacks on US and NATO forces, resulting in mounting casualties. This, in turn, caused popular support for the war in the United States and other NATO countries to erode.

Who is to blame for the debacle? One view is that the Soviet invasion and occupation (1979-89) traumatized and disrupted the social system so badly that it never recovered. After this, intra-mujahidin rivalry exacerbated Afghanistan’s weakness, and Usama bin Ladin exploited this. Some argue that the US decision to launch the Iraq War in 2003 diverted resources and attention away from Afghanistan. Others fault the Afghan government of Hamid Karzai for failing to extend its influence, power, and economic development programs to the areas where 80% of the population resides — namely in the 36,000 villages beyond the capital.

Wherever the blame truly lies, precious time has been lost. The chief beneficiaries of this debacle have been the Iranian and Pakistani intelligence services and those Afghan strongmen on their respective payrolls. The insurgents have plenty of funds to recruit and pay suicide bombers and foot soldiers.

What is to Be Done?

To bring an end to the 30-year war in Afghanistan, several players would have to change the rules of engagement. It is not clear whether any single Afghan player can effect such a change. None has shown a propensity to negotiate, compromise, and put national interest above narrow personal and tribal objectives.

Nevertheless, there are many approaches that can be employed for various key players to reach to transform the conflict, including their agreeing to rule according to some other workable model, such as the Swiss model, whereby a few representatives choose a leader for a limited time based on performance. Alternatively, educated expatriate Afghans who are not involved in politics could play a constructive role in bringing the disparate parties together to craft a cohesive national approach by means of an Intra-Afghan Dialogue. Yet another option is for cultural and tribal leaders (not warlords) to launch a process of negotiation, compromise, and settlement.

A number of additional measures could be undertaken to support whichever of these political options is adopted, including a massive media blitz in favor of ending the war; the implementation of small- and medium-scale economic development projects; the participation of university students in the process of reconstruction and development; the acceleration of the training of the Afghan army and police; the possible reinstatement of conscription; and the inclusion of non-insurgent Taliban in future electoral and other processes. In the final analysis, all classes of Afghans must acknowledge and accept full responsibility for their future.

However, the international community also must assume responsibility for Afghanistan’s transformation from war to sustainable peace. The United States government has acknowledged that the Pakistani ISI, the Iranian intelligence service, and Arab funds are supporting the insurgent Taliban. It follows that as a first step the United States must neutralize al-Qa‘ida in Pakistan not only through their own counterterrorism activities, but also by persuading the government of Pakistan to close insurgent sanctuaries and the ISI to cease clandestine operations in Afghanistan. Likewise, the Iranian government also must be put on notice to terminate their support of insurgents or face stiff retaliation by the United States.

More importantly, the broader issue of the Afghanistan drama is a deep conflict that has been brewing among Pashtuns over the past eight years. In the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the United States regarded the Taliban as the enemy that had offered a sanctuary to Usama bin Ladin and al-Qa‘ida. Unfortunately, this view was extended to the Pashtun tribes at large (as the Taliban are predominantly Pashtuns), and US forces subsequently took punitive measures, including air strikes, in most of the Pashtun villages in the west, south, and eastern part of the country. It follows that the United States must mend ties with the Pashtun tribes.


As the Obama Administration adjusts its strategy toward Afghanistan, the critical issue that will determine its success or failure is how Afghans — from ordinary villagers to leaders — perceive US intentions and deeds. Earning the Afghans’ acceptance and support requires that the policy itself resonate with them. That policy should therefore be geared toward fostering peace and reconciliation, reinstating farming, and rebuilding businesses, infrastructure, and commerce. Above all, a greater effort must be made to inform and consult Afghans at all levels and at every stage of the policy process.

The recent US strategic shift is designed with a significant new focus to shorten the Afghan war and make it possible for American and NATO soldiers to withdraw from Afghanistan. Afghan leaders should capitalize on this opportunity and provide moral authority, working assiduously to help end Afghanistan’s 30-year war.


[1]. It should be noted that the government of Russia, geopolitical successor to the Soviet Union, has refused to consider the payment of war reparations to Afghanistan.



The Middle East Institute (MEI) is an independent, non-partisan, non-for-profit, educational organization. It does not engage in advocacy and its scholars’ opinions are their own. MEI welcomes financial donations, but retains sole editorial control over its work and its publications reflect only the authors’ views. For a listing of MEI donors, please click here.