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4. Afghanistan and the new dynamics of intervention: counter-terrorism and nation building



I. Introduction

II. Background

III. Defeating the Taliban and al-Qaeda: Operation Enduring Freedom

IV. The Bonn process, ISAF and UNAMA

V. Conclusions


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In the wake of the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks, the US-led intervention and subsequent international peace-building efforts in Afghanistan marked a significant shift in patterns of international military intervention. A new focus on counter-terrorism and regime change now runs alongside the longer-standing challenges of peacekeeping and nation building.


The al-Qaeda terrorist group, which had its primary base in Afghanistan, was widely viewed as responsible for the September 2001 terrorist attacks on the USA. After the withdrawal of Soviet forces in 1989, Afghanistan was fractured by civil war. In the late 1990s the fundamentalist Islamic Taliban regime came to power. Al-Qaeda’s leader Osama bin Laden moved to Afghanistan in 1996 and a close relationship developed between the Taliban and al-Qaeda.


After the September 2001 terrorist attacks, the Taliban refused to break its ties with al-Qaeda or surrender the organization’s leaders. As a result, on 7 October 2001 the USA launched military operations against Afghanistan. The action was justified on grounds of self-defence, in order to prevent further attacks. Rather than deploy large numbers of ground forces, the USA relied on local Afghan allies (the Northern Alliance), supplied with Russian arms and supported by relatively small numbers of special forces. The combination of highly accurate US airpower, the Northern Alliance allies, special forces on the ground, and the military weakness of the Taliban and al-Qaeda resulted in the dramatic collapse of the Taliban regime in November and early December. Senior Taliban and al-Qaeda leaders and significant numbers of fighters, however, escaped and fled into the mountainous Afghan–Pakistani border region. Some of these forces have continued to fight a low-level war against US forces and its local allies in southern and eastern Afghanistan.


The US-led intervention raised important ethical and legal issues. Intervention to remove a state’s government and attack a terrorist organization it was harbouring went significantly beyond traditional interpretations of self-defence. The subsequent debate over the legitimacy of intervention in Iraq highlighted the controversial nature of the Bush Administration’s doctrine of pre-emptive intervention and the precedent set in Afghanistan. Reports of human rights abuses, atrocities and possible war crimes committed by Northern Alliance forces raised questions about the ethics of relying on local allies with poor human rights records. The capture of hundreds of Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters and the reluctance of the US Government to grant formal prisoner-of-war status to these detainees raised questions about the legal status and rights of non-state terrorist groups. More generally, the US-led intervention raised difficult questions about the applicability of the existing international laws of war to counter-terrorist operations.


The collapse of the Taliban made the development of a new political and security framework for Afghanistan an urgent priority. The December 2001 Bonn Agreement, signed by representatives of the majority of non-Taliban groups, established a multi-ethnic Interim Administration and laid out a political process for the country’s development. A Loya Jirga (Grand Assembly) was held in June 2002, bringing together over 1500 delegates from across Afghanistan and establishing a new Transitional Authority to govern the country. Despite the establishment of a theoretically multi-ethnic government and the selection of Hamid Karzai (a member of Afghanistan’s Pashtun ethnic majority) as president, the government is dominated by the Tajiks and Uzbeks of the Northern Alliance and most of the country is under the control of regional warlords. Violent incidents and human rights abuses continue, the rule of law is non-existent and in the south and east there is significant Pashtun resistance against the central government and the continued US military presence.


The international community has provided an International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) of about 5000 troops, a small United Nations Assistance Mission (UNAMA) and a commitment of about $5 billion in aid over six years. ISAF’s mandate is, however, limited to the capital, Kabul. Critics argue that the international community has not done enough to provide for security, law and order, and socio-economic reconstruction. The situation remains extremely fragile: the central government is weak, regional warlords are the dominant force in the country, sporadic low-level violence continues and renewed conflict could break out.


The US and wider international interventions in Afghanistan show that it is possible to use military force to counter and disrupt terrorist groups. However, they also illustrate that terrorist groups cannot be defeated by military means alone.



Andrew Cottey (United Kingdom) is Jean Monnet Chair in European Political Integration in the Department of Government, University College Cork. He previously worked at the Department of Peace Studies at the University of Bradford, the EastWest Institute, Saferworld and the British American Security Information Council, and was a NATO Research Fellow and a Research Associate at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. His publications include East-Central Europe After the Cold War: Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary in Search of Security (Macmillan, 1995); Subregional Cooperation in the New Europe: Building Security, Prosperity and Solidarity from the Barents to the Black Sea (Macmillan, 1999), as editor; and New Security Challenges in Postcommunist Europe: Securing Europe’s East (Manchester University Press, 2002), Democratic Control of the Military in Postcommunist Europe, Guarding the Guards (Palgrave, 2002), and The Challenge of Military Reform in Postcommunist Europe: Building Professional Armed Forces (Palgrave, 2002), as co-editor.