The Future of Afghanistan

Stephen P. Cohen
Stephen P. Cohen
Stephen P. Cohen Former Brookings Expert

November 7, 2001

The shooting has started in Afghanistan, but what will follow it? The administration may not have decided on a course vis a vis other terrorist-harboring states, notably Syria, Iraq, and Iran, but it has calculated that the September 11 tragedy compels a new approach to Afghanistan and Pakistan. This is not merely a question of humanitarian relief, but will be necessary to prevent the re-emergence of radical Islamic terrorism in Afghanistan, and to prevent Pakistan from going down that same road.

Reconstructing Afghanistan

Several key members of the Bush administration were “present at the destruction” of Afghanistan. They helped manage the assault on Soviet-controlled Afghanistan in the 1980s, and then saw the country fall into calamitous disarray in the 1990s. By then Afghanistan had become a Pakistani project as Islamabad sought to exclude Iranian and Indian influence and to extend its writ over the country. Its strategists fantasized that having “won” the war against the Soviets that Pakistan could become a Central Asian power in its own right. This led to Pakistan’s support for the Taliban in partnership with the Saudis, and later with Osama’s Al Qaeda. We now know the consequences.

The administration’s military strategy is to deconstruct the Taliban-Al Qaeda forces into its components (the Arab brigade, the radical Taliban core, and quite a few opportunistic tribal chieftains), and then defeat or co-opt each of them. The process will be accelerated if the senior leadership of Al Qaeda and the Taliban can be located and destroyed, but Washington is digging in for a war that could last at least through next spring. While the Al Qaeda and hard-core Taliban units are expected to fight to the end, the assumption is that the many Pushtun groups that signed up with the Taliban can be separated out, and that they will defect once it is evident that the Al Qaeda-Taliban are going to lose.

Running parallel to this military operation is a political strategy and humanitarian assistance program designed to offer the Afghans a meaningful alternative while holding mass starvation at bay.

The political strategy has not shown quick results, but these are still early days. The original expectation was that some kind of coalition could be put together, drawing from elements of the Northern Alliance, Pushtun tribes, and even the exiled king, Zahir Shah. The king turned out to be unimpressive, Pakistan wanted to exclude any elements from the Northern Alliance, members of the Northern Alliance were dead set against the inclusion of “moderate” Taliban forces-if any could be produced, and Iran seeks a role for the Hazara (largely Shi’a) minority.

After two months of political jockeying, it is clear that the Afghans cannot be united easily, nor will they willingly come together on their own. Past Afghan regimes have been designed and imposed from the outside. That is likely to be the case in the next Afghan government.

However, there is a consensus that that the new Afghanistan government will have to include all major linguistic and tribal groups in Afghanistan. If the key regional countries surrounding Afghanistan stick to this commitment, then it is possible that a weak, but more or less representative government can be established in Kabul.

This government could serve as the channel for massive assistance for the reconstruction of Afghanistan’s shattered highway system, its ruined canals (vital in this arid land), and basic health and educational services. This operation will require American support, and will have to be coordinated with the termination of the war and the emergence of a new Afghan political order. Ironically, an American administration that once cautioned against “nation building” finds itself planning a massive state-building project in Afghanistan, possibly in collaboration with the United Nations.

Salvaging Pakistan

No less important than clearing Afghanistan of its terrorist parasites is a preventive operation that will help ensure that Pakistan, a nuclear weapons power with a significant military capability, neither “fails” nor falls under the control of Islamic zealots.

Pakistan is regularly described as a “failed” state, and it is the site of a raging civilizational war between moderate and radical Islam. There are also sectarian clashes, and radical Sunni gangs have recently engaged in the systematic assassination of Shi’a doctors in Karachi and the murder of Christians elsewhere in the country. Politically, Pakistan is stranded midway between military autocracy and incompetent civilian democracy. The only coherent political organization in the state is the army, and, reversing the usual civil-military question, the army sees the problem as one of establishing effective, if subtle, military control over the civilians, viewed by the “khakis” as unruly and incompetent.

Washington lost much of its influence on Islamabad, after it terminated military training, sales, and economic assistance in 1991. Another set of sanctions was applied in 1998, to punish Islamabad for its nuclear tests. In the political equivalent of “bouncing the rubble,” still further sanctions were imposed in 1999 after Pakistan reverted to military rule.

Recognizing that Islamabad’s cooperation would be vital to any operation in Afghanistan, the Bush administration quickly lifted nuclear sanctions against Islamabad, and suspended the “democracy” sanctions. In response, Pakistan has provided significant assistance to the war effort, and no less important, President/General Musharraf removed from positions of influence many of the hard-line officers who were at the forefront in the effort to maintain the Taliban.

This is not a minor reshuffling of officers: it has put Musharraf in the same, pre-eminent position that Zia ul-Haq attained in 1980 (ironically, also due to a war in Afghanistan), only in this case it could mean that Pakistan is pointed in a more liberal direction, both in its dealings with the Afghans and at home-and conceivably, with New Delhi. Zia’s personal inclinations were to support and develop the “Islamic” side of Pakistan, Musharraf is quite a different person-his background and his personal inclinations are towards a more liberal interpretation of Islam, and a more gentle application of Islamic principles to Pakistan. Parenthetically, it should be noted that It was not Zia, but the “secular” Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, that took Pakistan in an “Islamic” direction, Zia merely built upon what Bhutto had started.

If Musharraf sticks to this path, then we have witnessed a fateful turning point for Pakistan. There were signs that he was headed in this direction a month before September 11, when the government ordered the collection of guns from extremist elements and the banning of several radical groups in Pakistan itself. These had directly challenged the authority of the army. Many of these groups were subsequently swept away by Pakistan’s security forces-with the widespread support of the mainstream political parties.

Adding to America’s leverage vis a vis Pakistan was the realization that the United States had developed a credible regional alternative in the form of a new U.S.-India relationship. As much as the fear of economic disaster, this led Musharraf to give in to the inevitable. Having done this, the U.S.-Pakistan relationship is now reset to “normal.”

The new relationship is notable by the absence of grandiose rhetoric. Both sides realize that they have concocted a limited strategic partnership. This partnership is important for the United States, but vital for Pakistan, since Islamabad remains a vulnerable state. The new relationship salvages Pakistan’s self-respect and has turned President Musharraf into a surprisingly statesmanlike figure.

The US time also clears the way for American influence in Pakistan on other decisions. These include the holding of democratic elections (scheduled for October 2002), further restraints on Pakistan’s small nuclear arsenal, the maintenance of a free press in Pakistan (one of the best in Asia, and certainly in the Muslim world), a new emphasis on reviving Pakistan’s educational and administrative institutions, and a fresh attempt to begin a dialogue with India over Kashmir and other issues. As he was firing or sidetracking the hardline generals, Musharraf contacted Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, requesting that the India-Pakistan summit process be restarted. These are all developments that Washington has been urging on Pakistan, it may be that September 11 indirectly made them possible.

Towards a Regional Peace Process

With near-normal relations with both India and Pakistan, Washington is no longer seen as a sanctions-obsessed superpower. Musharraf has thrown in his lot with the United States and India still hopes for a larger strategic relationship with Washington. New Delhi is also urging the United States to use its influence in Pakistan to persuade the latter to moderate or end its support for terrorist groups operating in Kashmir.

If the Bush administration can overcome its aversion to “peace processes,” it has an opportunity to facilitate one between India and Pakistan. This process will consist of small, baby steps at first, but this could lead to more substantive discussions in the near future. If it does not bring peace to Kashmir, it might bring a more normal relationship between India and Pakistan, and reduce the risk of a larger, catastrophic war between the two new nuclear states.


Can the Bush Administration go three for three in South Asia—reconstructing Afghanistan, stabilizing a more moderate, even democratic Pakistan, and facilitating a regional peace process? The state-building process in Afghanistan requires the active cooperation of the region’s middle powers, and their willingness to moderate their influence in a post-war Afghanistan. A UN framework, backed by China, Russia and the United States, with funding from interested European powers and Japan, might be the best hope for salvaging Afghanistan—a country that has a finely developed sense of nation-hood, but lacks the rudimentary institutions of a state.

The resurrection of Pakistan as a truly moderate and progressive Islamic state will require a long-term commitment by some of the advanced industrial powers. They will have to cooperate in again educating a generation of Pakistani scholars, professionals, and administrators, repairing the damage done by twenty years of military dictatorship and ten years of corrupt democracy. Any assistance program for Pakistan must emphasize the rehabilitation of civilian institutions. The dominant role of the Pakistan army will not disappear overnight, but Pakistan will never be a normal state until its civilian political, educational, and cultural institutions are resuscitated. This is not impossible, given the essentially moderate quality of Pakistani society, the eagerness of Pakistanis to join the world economy, a strong commitment of many overseas Pakistanis to their homeland, and the rich reservoir of talent that exists in these communities in Great Britain, the United States, and other countries. The need is there, the desire is there, but recent Pakistani governments have been unable to repair the country’s educational and political infrastructure, partly because of the budget crisis, but also because they did not think it to be important compared with their obsession with India and other security issues.

None of these tasks will be easy, but there will never be a better opportunity to tackle them. The Bush administration should plan for the reconstruction of Afghanistan, take steps to stabilize Pakistan, and be more proactive when it comes to India-Pakistan relations, while the momentum for change is in the right direction. While the war on international terrorism will inevitably shift to another theater, it would be foolhardy to “win” it in Afghanistan militarily, without creating the conditions that would prevent a revival of totalitarian extremism in its Islamic guise in that country, or to take steps to prevent such extremism from overcoming the even larger and more important Pakistan.