An unforeseen result of the U.S. military's stunning success in Afghanistan was the overnight suspension of that country's vicious, 23-year-old civil war. Afghanistan's futureincluding whether it again degenerates into a terrorist basenow largely depends on what is made of this precious opportunity.
In countries recovering from civil war, the most critical requirement for long-term peace is the demobilization of the formerly warring parties and their integration within a unified military. Angola and the former Yugoslavia provide cautionary tales about the difficulties of military reintegration; Mozambique and South Africa give more hopeful examples of how building a cohesive army can help solidify peace after a national conflict.
In Afghanistan, the process of military integration has barely begun, but it is already close to collapse. Not only are perennial ethnic, factional, and religious disputes hampering progress, but the political elements of postwar transition are moving ahead without the requisite military corollary. Indeed, the interim administration inaugurated in December 2001 never answered basic questions about the size, composition, and tasks of a national army. Meanwhile, the international community remains ambivalent about how it will assist, and what little aid it has promised has been slow in coming.
The dangers of continued delay are growing by the day. The U.S. and allied forces entered Afghanistan to rout the Taliban and al Qaeda; demobilizing the country's many warring factions was not on the agenda. Thus, the operations may have abruptly suspended the civil war, but they have created only a tacit truce without dismantling the full war-fighting capabilities of the armed groups. Many of these groups may now be tempted to either reject the peace process or manipulate it to their advantage. If they do, Afghanistan could plunge straight back into war.