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4. Security and politics in Afghanistan: progress, problems and prospects


I. Overview

II. Background

III. The situation in Afghanistan in early 2009

IV. International institutions on the ground

V. Conclusions


Read the full chapter [PDF].


The debate about Afghanistan’s future takes place against a backdrop of increasingly confident insurgent attacks, slow political and economic progress and negative perceptions about the country’s prospects. Although the efforts and commitment of international organizations remain crucial for Afghanistan, their lack of coordination and strategy hampers progress and frustrates the Afghan Government and people. In 2008 there was a significant media and analytical shift towards perceiving the war as ‘unwinnable’. The long-term prospects for Afghanistan continue to look bleak.


It is encouraging that the international community, and the United States in particular, is reassessing motivations, goals and resources. The sense of international war-weariness and willingness to compromise on expectations appear strong. Despite optimism following the election of US President Barack Obama, judgement is only being temporarily suspended. The ‘new’ strategy looks very similar to old ones and much depends on how effectively the Obama Administration can apply itself over the next year or two, before individual states start to withdraw their troops.


The wavering commitment of the international community is not going unnoticed by the Afghan Government, the Afghan people and, perhaps of most concern, the insurgents. The next two or three years may well see a redefinition of ‘success’ that will enable international forces to start to pull out. A rushed declaration of Afghan Government and security force capability followed by a hasty international exit would risk leaving behind a dangerously messy political and security situation.


Regrettably, Afghanistan’s fate over the next few years still looks to be finely balanced. Progress will continue to be slow, flawed and fragile. Any number of factors, such as a political assassination, a mass-casualty incident (whether caused by the International Security Assistance Force or Afghans) or a shift in warlord allegiances, could individually or in combination quickly cause progress to unravel. Although much of the Obama Administration’s encouragingly ‘regional’ thinking on Afghanistan hinges on Pakistan, there are arguably even greater problems in that country.


Perhaps the only real guarantee for the new US strategy, based on the international community’s experience over the past seven years, is that future political, military and development efforts in and around Afghanistan will be more complex, will take longer and the results will be more fragile than the original expectations.



Tim Foxley (United Kingdom) is a Researcher with the SIPRI Armed Conflict and Conflict Management Programme.

Tim Foxley