While Western media and public have been focusing their attention on the Lebanese crisis and to a lesser extent on the chaos in Iraq, Afghanistan seems to have faded from the media screens. However, all is not well in Afghanistan. The growing number of British Army casualties in Helmand province indicates that the fight against the Taliban insurgents is far from won. In spite of the facade of successful democratisation since 2001 which includes the drafting of a new constitution and successful Presidential and parliamentary elections, Afghanistan remains an extremely poor and weak state with a deeply divided and fractious society. There is a real danger that Afghanistan will revert to being a failed state affording incubation space for the most radical Islamist terrorist organisations.
Some critical problems:
1. Resurgence of Taliban and Al-Qaeda
The failure to annihilate the remnants of the Taliban and of Al-Qaeda following the allied invasion, and the support for these groups among Pashtun tribesmen, have enabled them to regroup and attack allied and regime targets. The Taliban operate pretty freely in Pakistan's North West Frontier Province and Baluchistan with open support from Islamist Pakistani organisations and covert support from Pakistani intelligence. The insurgents are turning Afghanistan into an Iraq-like situation, with the low level insurgency turning into a general uprising. With civilian casualties mounting and economic reconstruction in many areas stalled by inadequate security, the central government is in danger of losing the battle for Afghan hearts and minds. The Taliban are receiving advice, recruits and materiel from Iraqi veterans. Afghan insurgents have been sent to Iraq and returned with new combat experience and training. There has been a change in Taliban attacks using tactics such as suicide bombings and improved "shaped charged" roadside devices that point to direct input from the Iraqi insurgency.
2. Corruption in Central government
The growing strength of Islamic radicalism is coupled to endemic corruption at all levels, including the government. Powerful ministries operate more as a collection of gangs than democratic institutions. Ministers appoint cronies to important posts and various factions divide the spoils of government access to power and resources between them. Many are involved in the drug trade and bribery is rampant. Competition between individuals and factions within government can spill into shootings, kidnappings and killings.
3. Warlords and their militias
Powerful warlords still operate on the national and regional level in spite of efforts at co-optation into the government system. Each province has hundreds of smaller-scale leaders with armed followers. Armed fights over resources are common. Warlords do fill a power vacuum in protecting local inhabitants, kinship networks and tribal and ethnic groups from the many chaotic forces central government can't control. While most Afghans would like warlords to disappear, they need them as protectors and prefer them to total anarchy in spite of the misuse of power for personal enrichment.
4. Opium and the drug trade
It is estimated that Afghanistan produces 87% of the world's illicit opium and that it supplies 90% of Europe's heroin consumption. Income from the poppy trade equals half of Afghanistan's legal economy. Opium growing and the drug trade dominate the political and economic life in Afghanistan and are seen by some as the greatest threat to building a stable and secure state. They fuel corruption at all levels of government and finance warlords, insurgents and criminals, creating a vicious circle of insecurity that could swamp the democratic structures of state and society. The Taliban are closely involved with the drug barons in their effort to destabilise Afghanistan. The Taliban have distributed letters in Helmand province threatening farmers with reprisals if they did not sow opium and offering their protection against government eradication programmes.
5. The strength of traditionalist and Islamist sentiment
Islam is still a main identity marker for most Afghans and Islamism, including the radical jihadi type, is still a powerful force at all levels, including government, parliament and the judiciary. There is still a deep vein of anti-US and anti-Western feelings in Afghan society that is easily manipulated by Islamist extremists who manage to shift the public mood to a violent anti-infidel mode. Violent demonstrations and riots have erupted fairly regularly following perceived slights to Islam by non-Muslim infidels. These include the alleged desecration of a Qur'an by American guards in Guantanamo; the Danish cartoons depicting Muhammad as a terrorist; the Lebanese crisis in July-August 2006 perceived as an infidel war against Islam.
Possible worst-case scenario
The marked increase in the level of successful insurgent attacks significantly harm the development of the new regime and its legitimacy and induce disgruntled sectors of society to join the insurgency. Insurgency successes, the breakdown of law and order, ethnic and religious friction, economic failures, the failure of promised foreign support to materialise, the growing impact of the narcotics trade, and foreign intervention might all combine to tip Afghan society in the direction of a failed state syndrome and civil strife. This could initiate a backlash against all foreign non-Muslim presence in the country, endangering all expatriates and the US and NATO forces. The warring factions would finance themselves by an upsurge in the narcotics trade, other criminal activities and foreign support. Direct foreign intervention and a breakup of Afghanistan along ethnic and sectarian lines might be a possible outcome. The Pashtun south would most likely revert to Taliban control backed by Pakistan. The destabilising affects on Central Asia, South Asia and the Middle East would be catastrophic.