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Afghanistan: Reconstituting a Collapsed State

Authored by LTC Raymond A. Millen. | April 2005

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Over 2 decades of incessant warfare destroyed Afghanistan as a functioning state, fracturing its institutions and devastating its economy. In the maelstrom of incessant internecine fighting in the 1990s, the Taliban clawed its way to power and installed a medieval regime, providing stability through brutality. The Taliban regime likely would have defeated the last of the resisting warlords and continued its rule had Osama bin Laden?s al Qaeda not provoked the United States into a war with the Taliban as a result of September 11, 2001 (9-11). The swift expulsion of the Taliban and al Qaeda militants resulted in yet another regime change, but it did not ameliorate the fundamental malaise afflicting Afghanistan?warlordism. Because of their power and wealth, Afghan warlords and their militias represent the greatest challenge to Afghanistan?s rehabilitation as a functioning state, but any strategy which seeks a direct confrontation with them will likely ignite a war. Ultimately, resuscitation of Afghanistan lies with the Afghan people, and government policies must be geared towards garnering their loyalty and trust.

It would be a mistake to demonize the warlords, however. Without a doubt, they and their militias had a hand in the ruination of Afghanistan, but they are also regarded as patriots and providers of security and livelihood. One must recognize that xenophobia, regionalism, and distrust of centralized authority are entrenched in Afghan society. It therefore follows that the warlords will attempt to safeguard their powerbase by maintaining a well-armed militia, profiting from the opium market, and preserving the allegiance of their constituents. President Hamid Karzai certainly recognizes the dynamic tensions keeping Afghanistan intact but could just as quickly tear it asunder if he miscalculates. In this sense, it would be more prudent to view each warlord as a latent insurgent rather than a mere nuisance to the central government.

Recognizing warlordism as Afghanistan?s salient challenge requires no radical shift in strategy. For the most part, the resources are in place; they simply need a shift in emphasis. This monograph proposes a slight shift in coalition strategy, placing greater stress on three approaches: 1) initiating a sophisticated public awareness campaign to win the war of ideas; 2) weaning Afghan society off the opium market; and 3) ending the culture of warlordism without sparking an insurgency.

The public awareness campaign must be an open and public enterprise, and should not carry any hint of subterfuge. In this nation of Madison Avenue and Hollywood certainly, the various information media have no qualms with unabashedly influencing American cultural behavior, so marketing ideas in support of policy objectives would be no great leap. A sophisticated public awareness campaign requires the marrying of marketing experts with the expatriate Afghan artists in order to entertain Afghan citizens first, and foremost, then inform and persuade them, as well as rebut adversarial propaganda. Once firmly established in the Afghan society, the media can be adapted to address any variety of issues? Islamic extremism, the opium trade, warlord oppression, and the virtues of the Afghan National Army.

The failure of the counternarcotics strategy for Afghanistan reflects fundamental inattentiveness to the economics of the opium culture, the potential ethical and social forces, and the opiate processing nodes. The central actors in weaning Afghanistan off opium are the farmers. Persuading the farmer to grow legitimate crops requires crop subsidies that permit profits equal to opium and access to foreign markets. Although subsidies may be exorbitant, given that 75 percent of the world?s opiates come from Afghanistan, it is actually cheaper to pay off farmers as compared to the costs associated with national and international drug interdiction, law enforcement, and criminal prosecution. Permitting greater access to global markets is a matter of lifting trade barriers. Because nearly all the heroin in Europe originates in Afghanistan, a major incentive to relax Europe?s agricultural trade barriers with Afghanistan exists. Moreover, the United Nations (UN) can assist in providing special access into Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

Addressing the ethical and social aspects of poppy cultivation is a powerful tool in targeting Afghan behavior. In this regard, a public awareness campaign would be particularly effective in reaching the greatest audience. Making an appeal that narcotics violate the tenets of Islam and are dishonorable will likely resonate with the deeply religious Afghan citizens.

The British and American forces in Afghanistan are assisting in training and supporting Afghan drug interdiction forces. In view of the limited opium processing plants and smuggling routes, the central government can apply pressure against the warlords and their lieutenants without hurting the farmers directly. This approach is less volatile than attempting to eradicate poppy growth directly. In view of the ease and speed with which poppies are grown, as well as the financial investment farmers have in their fields, focusing on interdiction will likely be more effective over time than hunting for will-o-the-wisp poppy fields.

Ending the culture of warlordism would represent the culmination of effort in Afghanistan. In order to end this culture, an alternative must be available. Warlords provide two commodities for their constituents?security and a livelihood. The central government and coalition can assume both commodities using the Afghan National Army (ANA) and the Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRT). The ANA has only recently achieved the necessary numbers to establish a presence in the provinces. Some may decry this use of the ANA as a diversion from its main task of providing security (e.g., fighting insurgents). The fact is that the coalition has been managing the Taliban/al Qaeda insurgency for the past 4 years, and for practical purposes, this insurgency is defanged. Although insurgent remnants may continue low level activities for years, the Afghan police forces should be able to shoulder a greater part of the burden in 2005. Under these circumstances, the ANA can bolster the legitimacy of the central government by establishing security and participating in local projects that resonate with the people, such as reconstruction, agricultural events, and ceremonies. The increased interaction between the ANA and the local Afghans will enhance recruitment of quality soldiers and provide a tangible association with the central government.

Correspondingly, the coalition PRTs are an excellent vehicle for introducing the ANA and perhaps police forces into the provinces, as well as providing local employment through reconstruction projects. The number and size of PRTs can increase, with the increase of ANAsoldiers into them. PRTs may be the best method for transforming international financial aid into reconstruction and local vocational training. Providing labor and skills to local individuals is an effective way to help the Afghans help themselves. In the long term, providing manual labor tools for dozens of workers and supervising the work projects over a period of weeks may yield a greater payoff than a PRT conducting reconstruction with bulldozers, backhoes, and other equipment in a matter of days. The use of PRTs with ANA soldiers offers an unobtrusive way to increase the presence and influence of the central government without a direct confrontation with the warlords. Their use also provides a benign way for Afghanistan to permit the passage of warlordism into history.


  • Adapt ways and means to support the main objective?the legitimacy of the central government in the eyes of the Afghan people.
  • Invest resources for a public media campaign and test it in Afghanistan. Adapt it to other operations in the pursuit of the global war on terror.
  • Wean Afghan society off the opium market by targeting the economics of the trade, emphasizing the un-Islam dimensions of illicit drugs, and interdicting the trade before it leaves Afghanistan.
  • Invest heavily in PRTs and then populate with ANA soldiers and coalition cadre.
  • Remain cognizant of Afghanistan?s propensity towards xenophobia, regionalism, and conflict when executing sector security reform and supporting stratagems.


Every insurgency is unique, requiring a unique counterinsurgency strategy. The most egregious error in conducting a counterinsurgency campaign is to attempt a cookie-cutter approach from one insurgency to another. Afghanistan?s uniqueness stems not from the series of insurgencies that have plagued the state for over 2 decades; rather, it is the state of commonplace lawlessness that challenges the central government, coalition, and the United Nations (UN).

The collapse of Afghanistan as a state can be traced to events leading up to and including the Soviet Union?s invasion in December 1979.1 During their 1980-88 war to destroy the mujahidin insurgents, the Soviets destroyed the socio-economic fabric of Afghanistan by killing 1.3 million Afghans, expelling another 5.5 million, destroying crops and irrigation systems, bombing granaries, razing villages, mining pastures and fields, and killing livestock.2 The withdrawal of the Soviet army in 1989 led to a further descent into chaos as mujahidin insurgents continued to fight the communist government, which slowly lost control of Afghanistan over the next 4 years.3 The mujahidin, or more accurately at this stage in the conflict, the warlord militias, did not discriminate between combatants and noncombatants. From 1992 through 1994, militia forces killed between 40,000 to 50,000 noncombatants in the course of fighting around Kabul alone. Their sheer rapacity throughout Afghanistan simply ravaged the economy.4 The rise of the Taliban in 1994 only exchanged rapacity for a medieval reign, but the civil war continued until the U.S.-supported Afghan Militia Forces (warlord militias) ousted the Taliban in late 2001.5

By the time President Hamid Karzai?s Islamic Transitional Government of Afghanistan was established as a result of the December 2001 Bonn Agreement, Afghanistan was in the worst sense a collapsed state as described by William Zartman.6 Afghanistan could no longer perform the basic functions of a sovereign government. It no longer possessed a decisionmaking center of government; centralized law and order were nonexistent, and social cohesion only existed at the tribal level; it was no longer a symbol of identity, as the inhabitants reserved their allegiance to their warlords or tribal chiefs; and it had lost its domestic legitimacy as it could not provide any socioeconomic services to the citizens.7 Twenty-three years of war had destroyed all vestiges of state functions.

Regarding the road to rehabilitation, Zartman recommends reversing the process of collapse as follows: 1) the central government must gain control of its state agents (functioning, uncorrupt military and police forces, subordinated to the government); 2) government authorities must practice positive politics (elections, platforms, and legislation); 3) the central government must make progressive reforms (not eschew difficult decisions); 4) the central government must expand its political power base beyond the immediate circle or capital; and 5) the central government must extend its authority throughout the state so that local warlords and neighboring states do not fill the vacuum.8 Technically, Zartman is correct in his assessment, and technically, the UN-mandated International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) is attempting to reverse the process with its Sector Security Reform (SSR) strategy.9 However, rebuilding Afghanistan?s sovereignty is not a matter of putting the pieces back in place and hoping Afghanistan will reanimate automatically as a functioning state.

It may surprise some to know that the main purveyors of Afghanistan?s continued lawlessness are the warlords and not the Taliban/al Qaeda militants. Because of their power and wealth, Afghan warlords and their militias represent the greatest challenge to Afghanistan?s rehabilitation, but a confrontational strategy with them will likely lead to widespread fighting. Coalition strategy must not forget that the ultimate medium for change resides in the Afghan people, and every aspect of SSR must nurture their allegiance towards and trust in the Afghan central government. Afghanistan?s domestic legitimacy necessitates this recognition. For the most part, the needed resources for strategy implementation are readily available and only require a change in focus.

This monograph proposes a slight shift in coalition strategy, placing greater stress on three approaches: 1) initiating a sophisticated public awareness campaign to win the war of ideas; 2) weaning Afghan society off the opium market; and 3) ending the culture of warlordism without sparking an insurgency. As this monograph will seek to demonstrate, all elements of this strategy are mutually supporting and synergistic. This strategy not only creates a compelling methodology for restoring Afghanistan as a functioning state, but it also possesses tools useful for similar nation-building efforts elsewhere.


Turning Afghanistan into a functioning state would be a very difficult enterprise, even without an ongoing insurgency, illicit opium market, and powerful warlords. As current trends portend, SSR will not fail catastrophically per se, but neither will it achieve the desired end state. Warlords remain the most virulent obstacle to Afghanistan?s future as a self-functioning and sovereign state. Because an open confrontation with the warlords would likely spark a widespread insurgency, which the Taliban, al Qaeda, and HIG would exploit, the coalition must seek imaginative stratagems to divorce Afghanistan from warlordism. Winning the hearts and minds requires an investment in a public awareness campaign, weaning the society off opium, and providing security and legitimate sources of livelihood which give Afghans hope in the future. These programs must complement and supplement SSR.


1. The military coup by Mohammed Daoud in 1973 created discontent as a result of his harsh rule. Following his assassination on April 27, 1978, Afghan communists seized power and created the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan. The influx of Soviet advisors and communist-inspired reforms created a backlash throughout Afghanistan, leading to greater Soviet involvement until it concluded that only an invasion could stabilize the communist government. Stephen Tanner, Afghanistan: A Military History from Alexander the Great to the Fall of the Taliban, New York: De Capo Press, 2002, pp. 229-241.

2. The Russian General Staff, The Soviet-Afghan War: How a Superpower Fought and Lost, Lester W. Grau and Michael A. Gress, trans. and eds., Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 2002, p. xxv; Tanner, pp. 255-256.

3. Tanner, pp. 271-276.

4. Christian Parenti, ?Who Rules Afghanistan,? The Nation, November 15, 2004, p. 13, internet; Tanner, pp. 277-279.

5. Tanner, pp. 279-287.

6. William Zartman, Collapsed States: The Disintegration and Restoration of Legitimate Authority, Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1995.

7. Ibid., p. 5.

8. Ibid., p. 10.

9. Sector Security Reform is a lead-nation approach to rebuilding Afghanistan as a sovereign state. The five pillars of the strategy are: establishing the Afghan National Army (United States); establishing the judiciary system (Italy); establishing law enforcement agencies (Germany); disarming, demobilizing, and reintegrating the Afghan Militia Forces into society (Japan); and counter-narcotics (United Kingdom).