Barnett Rubin: In Afghanistan, A 'Vicious Cycle'

 Afghan National Army soldiers prepare to enter a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter in Khowst, Afghanistan. (Staff Sgt. Joshua Gipe/Deapartment of Defense)

In November-December 2001, Barnett Rubin served as special advisor to the UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Afghanistan, Lakhdar Brahimi, during the negotiations that produced the Bonn Agreement, which Professor Rubin helped to draft. He is considered one of the world's foremost experts on Afghanistan and the surrounding region, as well as on conflict prevention and peace building.

Professor Rubin is the author of several books on Afghanistan and conflict prevention, including Blood on the Doorstep: The Politics of Preventing Violent Conflict (2002); The Fragmentation of Afghanistan: State Formation and Collapse in the International System (2002; first edition 1995), Calming the Ferghana Valley: Development and Dialogue in the Heart of Central Asia (1999, co-author with Nancy Lubin), and The Search for Peace in Afghanistan: From Buffer State to Failed State (1995).

In this interview with The Asia Society Professor Rubin discusses, inter alia, the likely success of the Bonn Agreement, the security and humanitarian situation in Afghanistan, opium production and trade, Islamist movements in Central Asia, and America's geo-strategic interests in the region.

Professor Rubin was formerly the Director of the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations and is now Director of Studies at New York University's Center on International Cooperation.

Professor Rubin's books are available for sale here.

Do you agree with claims that the agreement reached in Bonn regarding the establishment of the present interim administration for Afghanistan gave disproportionate power to the Northern Alliance, particularly given the fact that the most powerful portfolios in government (foreign affairs, defence and interior) were retained by Northern Alliance members? What are the implications of this for the second round of implementation commencing June 2004?

First the disproportionate power did not go so much to the Northern Alliance, which is a broad coalition of militarized factions, but to one particular faction, the Supervisory Council of the North, which was the name that Ahmed Shah Massoud gave his military-political organization based in northeast Afghanistan. It was members of this group, primarily from the Panjsher Valley, who controlled the centers of power. It is not accurate to say that the Bonn Agreement gave them that power. The Bonn Agreement recognized that the Panjsheris had this power and there was no way that they could be deprived of it by holding a meeting in Germany! They had that power because they had the best military organization of the anti-Taliban groups. They received a large amount of US financial and military assistance. They were the force that was based closest to Kabul.

Although the Panjsheris had said throughout the campaign that they would not enter Kabul, they did so after the Taliban abandoned it. According to some accounts, they did so not entirely of their own volition but because the US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld asked them to. According to the reports - which are mostly speculative - he did so because no one wanted to leave a power vacuum in Kabul; the alternative would have been either to send US and coalition troops into Kabul to maintain order or to ask the other military force that was nearby to do so. The present Administration, and Secretary Rumsfeld in particular, has never wanted to use the US military in Afghanistan to maintain security. And he certainly did not want to do it at that time; he preferred to have local forces take care of it.

Of course people in the US government had been extensively warned about the political consequences of allowing one faction to take control of Kabul. For this reason, the Bonn Agreement called upon the Security Council to authorize the deployment of international forces in Kabul, what later became the International Security Assistance Force, so that the security of Kabul would be guaranteed by a neutral, international force rather than by a particular faction. The Bonn Agreement also states that the participants in the meeting agreed to withdraw all military forces from Kabul. However Marshall Fahim, the Minister of Defense, from Panjsher, has refused to withdraw his factional military forces from Kabul in contravention of the Bonn Agreement. The presence of ISAF dilutes to some extent - or partly compensates for - their presence in the city, and that is very important.

Many Afghans and international observers had expected the loya jirga to correct the main imbalance in power. Of course it did so only very partially through the resignation of Mohammad Yunus Qanooni as the Minister of the Interior, but he was replaced by a very ineffective émigré. There is now a much more effective, non-factional person in charge at the Ministry of Interior.

It is now becoming evident to many people, including the Bush Administration, that it will not be possible to proceed to the next steps in the implementation of the Bonn process, such as the demobilization of militias, the approval of the Constitution, and the holding of elections, as long as the security of the capital is so much in the hands of one faction, as long as the Defense Ministry is in the control of one faction, and as long as this imbalance in power continues. And I know there are very active discussions underway about how to remedy this.

You have said elsewhere that Afghanistan's Ministry of Defense, under Marshall Muhammad Qasim Fahim, is considered by most Afghans to be little more than another of the many factional armies spread throughout the country. Can you explain why?

When you become Minister of Defense in Afghanistan now, since the splintering of the army when Najibullah fell in 1992, you do not become so by being appointed to an office and thereby gaining control over an existing military. Fahim came into the city with his troops and then he moved into the Ministry of Defense; he brought his own army with him. The Taliban did the same thing, and Massoud did the same thing before the Taliban. The Communists transformed the national army into a factional army which then fell apart in 1992.

At the moment, all the levers of power in the military, in the Defense Ministry, are controlled by people who are personally allied with Fahim, and who are either from Panjsher or from nearby areas. Fahim has also stated that he does not believe in institutions. He says it will be a long time before "zawabit replaces rawabit in Afghanistan" (that is, until institutions replace personal relations). He clearly intends to rule on the basis of those personal relations. If he were a social scientist, you might say he was right, but in this case, his believing that is very important in making it true.

Afghans of course see this. For instance, I spoke to a military commander from eastern Afghanistan who said that he wanted to give up his weapons. He said, "We hate guns, we hate war." But he and many Afghans like him will not give up their weapons to this Ministry of Defense because doing so for them would be like handing over their weapons to a rival faction (who might use those same weapons against them), rather than to a national army which will protect them.

Usually the problem of factionalism and militias in Afghanistan is conceived of as the problem of the warlords. The warlords are defined as the people who are controlling the provinces, not handing over the revenue and so on, and who should be subordinated to the central government. But the people in the provinces see the central government as dominated by just another warlord or faction leader, namely Fahim. Unless they see a national government which is run more by rules rather than just by personal relations, and peopled by one district or even just a part of one district, they will not see that as a national state that they can integrate with.

This is not undoable. It does not mean that nothing can happen until corruption, nepotism, and all other things in Afghanistan have been eliminated. Afghanistan used to have lots of corruption and nepotism but it did not have an army that was controlled by people from one district and that was just perceived as a faction.

The International Security Assistance Force is still limited to Kabul and its immediate environs, despite the fact that Lakhdar Brahimi - among others - has long expressed the urgent need to provide security elsewhere in the country. It is widely believed - both among Afghans as well as among multilateral organizations operating in the country - that the lack of security is the greatest problem confronting Afghanistan. How would you characterize the situation now and what are the constraints involved in expanding the mandate of ISAF?

There are two sources of insecurity in Afghanistan now, and it is important to understand both of them: the first source is the enemies of the government, and the second is the members of the government.

The enemies of the government include the Taliban, remnants of Al-Qaeda - although I think Al-Qaeda is not that interested in Afghanistan anymore - and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar (the former mujahideen commander who was under house arrest in Iran but is now fighting against the government along with some elements of the Taliban).

The Taliban have actually greatly stepped up their activities in the provinces along the border with Pakistan. Clearly they are receiving support from some quarters in Pakistan. The governments in the provinces that border Afghanistan are dominated by Islamist parties who were really the godfathers of the Taliban. The Taliban have sympathy there and of course the tribal territories are not under government control (or at least the government can say they are not when it suits them to say so). But of course the Taliban are also drawing on the dissatisfaction of Pashtuns who feel excluded from the government and have not seen any real benefit from the new administration. It is a vicious cycle: in areas where there is a lot of such fighting, it is not secure enough for reconstruction to begin. This cycle must be broken.

The second problem, and I personally believe this is a more serious problem for the future of Afghanistan, is the insecurity that results from the behavior of the commanders nominally allied with the government who hold most of the reigns of power in the rest of the country. Of course since the state administration has decayed enormously in the past 25 years, there is virtually no functioning court system or police system, and there are hardly any passable roads to many parts of the country. Only 10 of the 32 provinces are apparently even linked to the capital by telephone so they can only be reached by satellite telephone, and so on.

So the powers are the local men with guns who, in most cases, have been around for quite some time but receive their new supplies of guns through the assistance that the US and the coalition gave them as part of the war against the Taliban. Ismail Khan, for instance, has very large forces under his command, and is running a rather authoritarian, dictatorial state. At the same time he is also providing some kind of security and reconstruction in his area (largely because he takes all the money from customs revenues that belongs to the whole country and keeps it for Herat, and therefore has the best-funded government in Afghanistan, much better funded than the central government).

Other examples would be areas in the North where there are two armed, major commanders: Abdul Rashid Dostum and Atta Mohammad, who are fighting one another over the control of factories, opium-trading routes, customs posts and so on. This fighting has led to a great deal of violence and resulted in many innocent deaths in the area. In other areas, there are just a lot of small commanders who are not under any particular control at all. So this is the so-called problem of "warlordism."

In many cases the governors of the provinces that have the most income - mainly through customs revenues, which is the main legitimate source of income for the Afghan government - are not turning those customs revenues over to the national government. Until there is some combination of incentive and pressure on these people, the government will not be able to establish itself in the rest of the country. That does not mean it should be a very centralized government - this is probably impossible in any case - but it should at least be an existing government rather than a non-existing government.

It is the lack of order under these commanders in fact that drives some people to support the Taliban. Part of the solution to this problem, not the whole solution, is something that, as you mentioned, the UN, the Afghan government, NGOs, and many Afghans have been calling for: namely, the expansion of ISAF. If the International Security Assistance Force were to be extended to some other major regional centers, the government and the international community would have greater leverage over these people. Interestingly enough, the major commanders or warlords have indicated that they would accept such a deployment. They are not going to fight against it.

The expansion of ISAF would not entail a very large deployment. I believe Mr Brahimi has spoken of several hundred soldiers in each location so the total would maybe double the current ISAF deployment (which is 4,500 or 5,500) to a total of 10,000.

The US has not actively supported this proposal. At the same time, the military commanders on the ground do see this as a problem and they see how it is preventing reconstruction. Lt.-General Dan McNeill, the outgoing commander, has repeatedly said that reconstruction is "necessary for the success of my mission." In other words, he does not see so-called nation-building as something extraneous to his military mission.

I think it is the pressure coming from the commanders on the ground that has led the Pentagon to develop various plans over the past year or so for creating what they call the "ISAF-effect without ISAF". The first attempt to do so was by deploying small units of Special Forces with each of the major warlords to try to monitor them and keep them from fighting each other. That does not seem to have worked very well. Certainly it is not the kind of deployment that can provide security for reconstruction efforts or for the Afghan people.

The second effort was to develop what were first called Joint Regional Teams, and what are now called Provincial Reconstructions Teams (PRT), which are joint military-civilian units under coalition command that are to be deployed as an expanded ISAF would be to major regional centers. They include US and coalition military, USAID, supposedly State Department, Treasury Department (to help with collecting taxes), and would work very closely with the UN and with local government authorities. They hope that the combination of military and civilians will, as they say, "jumpstart" reconstruction. They have an aid budget for this program of $18 million.

So far they have established PRTs in three places: Gardez in eastern Afghanistan, where there is a lot of Taliban activity; Bamiyan in central Afghanistan where, as far as I understand, it has been the most successful because they were deployed with some units of the new Afghan national army and succeeded in disarming and pacifying one district that was in very bad condition; and Kunduz, which I have not heard much about.

Recently the British announced that they are going to start a PRT in Mazar-i-Sharif where something like that is very badly needed. From what I have seen of the British plans, they conform more to what many people think such PRTs should do; namely, it gives the military more the task of providing security than of engaging directly in the reconstruction activities. But in any case, these teams are rather small, and they have quite a small budget. The UN and Afghan government are of the view, of course, that all efforts to provide more security and reconstruction in the provinces are welcome, but the PRTs are still inadequate. In particular, the teams have no mandate to support or participate in the demobilization of forces - which is supposed to start next month - because the Pentagon does not want them involved in that.

It still seems that the expansion of ISAF to other areas would be the main solution to the problem of insecurity. Mr Brahimi called for it again in his report to the Security Council. However, I should note that it would be unfair to say that only the United States is standing in the way of such a project because the countries that might contribute to ISAF have also indicated fairly clearly that they do not want to. Turkey and Germany for instance made it a condition of their agreeing to be the commanders of ISAF that ISAF not be expanded.

Although it must be said that if the US changed its mind and decided ISAF expansion was necessary, then, especially in the current environment where everybody wants to make up with the United States, they probably could manage to recruit people to do it. The reality of the situation - namely that it would not be possible to implement the political roadmap of the Bonn Accord without a serious improvement in security - is beginning to dawn on everyone.

What is the extent of the American military presence in Afghanistan now and what precisely is their mandate?

As I understand it, there are a total of about 11,000 coalition troops, of which 8,500 are US troops. The main mandate of US troops, as always, is to fight and win the nation's wars; that is, to destroy the Taliban regime, and rout out Al-Qaeda. They are continuing to fight Taliban and Al-Qaeda increasingly alongside Afghan forces.

They now estimate that the insecurity of the first type - insecurity caused by the enemies of the government - is decreasing and is confined to a relatively small part of the country. Therefore they have decided to move to what they call Phase IV, which is a phase where more of the military's assets are used for what they call 'stability operations' rather than for war fighting. In fact the establishment of the PRTs is a major manifestation of that change.

There have been widespread reports recently of significant numbers of Taliban fighters returning to Afghanistan from Pakistan. Is this true, and if so, how is this possible without the knowledge of Pakistan's intelligence services and border security forces - or indeed of the Americans?

A few weeks ago there was a fight in Spin Boldak, which is an area in Kandahar province, directly across from Chaman, Baluchistan, in which there were apparently 60-80 Taliban fighters fighting as a unit. It was in fact the largest unit coalition forces had encountered since the end of 2001. It is not such a huge number, considering the high volume of traffic across a largely unmonitored border.

What is perhaps more notable is that the Taliban are openly having meetings in Quetta to organize the overthrow of the government of Afghanistan; weekly meetings, in well-known places, which have been reported in the press. In fact former Taliban who are in Pakistan have reported to UN officials that they are under pressure from Taliban leaders and from some Pakistanis to rejoin the Taliban. They are caught in a bind because they might like to go back to Afghanistan and support the government but at present anyone who was formerly with the Taliban is in danger of being arrested either by the US or by the Afghan government and possibly being sent to Guantanamo. Whether it is true or not, people in Afghanistan believe that this is being used for private vendettas; a powerful person who wants to get rid of someone can just tell the Americans that this fellow is a terrorist, and have him sent off to Guantanamo. You can be held in Guantanamo for a very long time without anyone investigating you, with no access to a lawyer or family members or anything, except three good meals a day and a mosque.

Have the objective conditions under which most Afghans live improved perceptibly since the (formal) conclusion of the American military operation in Afghanistan? How would you describe the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan now?

Most Afghans say that their living conditions have not improved. In Kabul, many Afghans with some kind of education or who know English have gotten jobs with aid agencies and the UN. This does have a trickle-down effect because every Afghan with a job is probably supporting at least 20 people.

There are also terrific disparities in the salaries which cause all sorts of resentment. There was a demonstration in Kabul on May 6th in which people denounced the "dog and cat washers." This phrase is taken from the stories of Tanveer, who used to be the representative of Hizb-i-Islami in the Netherlands, and wrote a number of funny stories about Afghans in the West. These Afghans would get menial, very dishonorable jobs (from an Afghan point of view), washing dogs and cats, for instance. They would then write home to their families about how they had established successful businesses. So "dog and cat washers" is a pejorative term for Afghans who have come back from the West and gotten good jobs that they are not really qualified for.

People in Afghanistan have been saying, "I haven't been paid, I have no food. If the Taliban come back and pay me, I'll join them."

But it is not true that nothing has been accomplished. Millions of children have gone back to school. You can see buildings, at least in some parts of Kabul, which have been refurbished. There are little projects in lots of places with schools and health clinics that have been refurbished but it is still very small.

A lot of the money that has been spent has gone on humanitarian assistance, which is part of the reason most people see no concrete benefits. There were 2 million refugees who returned to Afghanistan whereas they had planned for 800,000 refugees in the first year and that flow is continuing, if on a reduced scale. There have been new displacements because the warlords and commanders in north Afghanistan for instance have expelled tens of thousands of Pashtuns from that area who have gone to the South and are living in displaced persons camps. There are displaced people who are returning to areas that were destroyed by the Taliban, who receive humanitarian assistance and so on. And this of course keeps people alive but does not make tangible improvements in people's living conditions.

Foreign aid provided for reconstruction in Afghanistan amounts to about $40-50 per capita as against the $200-300 per capita provided in Kosovo and East Timor. To make matters worse in the last year, more than 50 per cent of the assistance provided went to humanitarian aid making the provision for reconstruction about $20-25 per capita in a country that was far more devastated than either Kosovo or East Timor. How would you account for this discrepancy?

The most recent data from the Afghan Assistance Coordination Agency is that donors disbursed $64 per capita in 2002 and have pledged $50 per person per year through 2006, which is a quarter to a fifth the per capita expenditures in other post-conflict countries. If you take four countries, Rwanda, Cambodia, East Timor, and Kosovo, the average per capita annual expenditure is $250 per person per year. But that is not really the relevant point because a lot of that money was wasted. If you talk to people who worked in Kosovo, they are not going to say that their aid program should be duplicated elsewhere. It was a very top-heavy program, a huge amount of that money was spent on white cars and salaries for a huge number of expatriates. This is one thing they are trying to avoid in Afghanistan.

The real measure is what the goal is, what they are trying to accomplish. The goal is not to reconstruct Afghanistan - whatever that means - because they are not trying to reproduce whatever existed in 1978. The goal is to build an Afghanistan that will contribute to rather than threaten global security. The government of Afghanistan has estimated - based on the planning process that they go through for their annual budget, which is still obviously in a very rudimentary stage and this estimate could be wrong -that the cost of such a project is $15-20 billion over 5 years. That means $3-4 billion a year, which is two to three times what Afghanistan is now receiving. That money would be for reconstruction alone; it does not include humanitarian assistance at all. Much more of it would have to go to or through the Afghan government in order to build up capacity.

The point is not whether donors are being stingier or more generous with Afghanistan than with some other country; the point is whether they will accomplish their goal. At the current rate in Afghanistan, they will not.

The campaign to destroy the poppy crop in Afghanistan has ground to a halt because local governors have refused to allow the officials to proceed until adequate compensation is paid to the farmers. What is the relative rate of opium production and export now compared to previous years?

For governors to say that is a bit disingenuous. These governors, who are often commanders or warlords who are profiting from opium production, of course do not want opium production stopped because the income from the opium production is the basis of their illegal exercise of power. That is the main obstacle to the eradication of opium.

It is also true that opium production has made a big comeback now although it is not as high as it was during the top year under the Taliban (which was 1999). Afghanistan is once again clearly the world's top producer. For some inexplicable reason, given the rate of production, the price of opium is also at an all-time high ($500-600 per kilogram for raw opium). It seems also that more processing is going on in Afghanistan which means that Afghans are getting much more money out of it than they were before, because processed opium is worth a great deal more than raw opium. However Afghans do not control the opium outside Afghanistan; there is no Kandahar cartel that controls the opium trade all the way through to the streets of New York.

Opium is also the main source of credit for farmers because they are guaranteed a market for it in hard currency. They can sell futures contracts for their opium (when they plant it) to the wholesalers in the bazaar, who give them cash which they can use to buy food over the winter. There is no other operating rural credit system at this point.

Opium is also a major source of employment because harvesting is a fairly skilled and highly labor-intensive activity. There are groups of young men who travel from place to place harvesting opium. (It could be a good employment-creating activity for demobilizing young men out of the armed forces except for the fact that the opium income helps to maintain those same armed forces.)

There are very few, if any, successful international efforts in opium eradication or in crop substitution. It seems that the only way people stop producing illegal crops is when the economy develops to a point when they can sustain themselves through legal economic activity. This is not just a matter of giving them cottonseed instead of opium-seed; the two are not comparable at all. Another aspect of opium is that it requires no storage; it can be stored at virtually no cost with no refrigeration for years and the quality does not deteriorate. In that sense it is very different from cut flowers or fresh fruit, which are also high-profit agricultural commodities but both of which require much more sophisticated marketing techniques.

So there is no short-term solution for opium production in Afghanistan. In fact as long as the demand is there, the supply will be there to meet it. The developed countries, who constitute most of the demand, are perhaps not quite right in exporting all of their problems to the poorest countries.

You have expressed skepticism about claims regarding the threat posed to the West by the growth of militant Islamist movements in Central Asia, notably in the Ferghana Valley. Can you explain why this is the case?

There is a growing militant Islamic movement in Central Asia, in particular Hizb-i-Tahrir, which is a globalized movement - it is not indigenous to Central Asia. Thus far it does not appear to be a militarized movement, though the government of Uzbekistan has charged it with being so. It has a very virulent, extremist ideology but it appeals to a lot of the disenfranchised, radically dissatisfied youth of that area. It is a problem for the governments there. It reflects the lack of economic development, the way that security concerns have impeded development, the lack of basic freedoms and democracy, including religious freedoms, in these areas. But it should be addressed in those terms as a political problem; in no way does it pose a military threat, or a threat of terrorism to the West. It is hard to imagine a scenario right now where it would develop into one either.

Its predecessor, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), developed from similar roots and was only able to become a militarized movement because it could emigrate to Tajikistan and Afghanistan and organize itself militarily under the conditions that existed in those countries. Even then the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan did not pose any threat to the West. That was not their agenda, and some of their emissaries met with US diplomats from time to time to try to explain that to them.

Al-Qaeda did of course prove a threat to the West. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan got, in a sense, driven into the arms of Al-Qaeda because they had no way out of Afghanistan in part because of the complete refusal of the government of Uzbekistan to open any kind of dialogue with them. We can see that the Islamic movement in Tajikistan did not get driven into the arms of Al-Qaeda because the government of Tajikistan opened a dialogue with them, negotiated with them, and enabled them to go back to Tajikistan, where they are now part of the government and part of the society.

Again this is really a political problem. We should not conceive of it as a terrorist problem.

Some observers have linked the wars in Afghanistan and now Iraq to the US Energy Policy formulated under Vice-President Dick Cheney in mid-2001 (before September 11), arguing that these wars form part of a geo-strategic plan to militarily secure access to energy resource-rich regions (Central Asia and the Middle East). The 9/11 attacks it is argued were merely a pretext for this imperial game-plan. In your view, is this theory credible?

I actually don't even understand what this theory is supposed to mean. It would make sense if the United States government intended to behave like a 19th century imperial, pirate-power, go seize the oil fields, pump the oil for itself and not pay anybody for it. But this is not possible today because you cannot insure oil tankers if you are stealing the oil.

In addition, as far as I know, Saddam Hussein never refused to sell oil to the United States; Iran has also not refused to sell oil to the United States. In fact the two countries are complaining that the United States is refusing to buy their oil because of the sanctions regime imposed on both. They want to sell their oil so there is no need for the United States to send troops there in order to gain access to the oil. All they have to do is buy it.

The strangest part of this theory is the idea that the United States sent its troops to Afghanistan in order to make it possible to build a gas and oil pipeline from Turkmenistan to Pakistan. If they had wanted to build that pipeline all they had to do was recognize the Taliban because the Taliban wanted to build that pipeline. They came to the United States several times to campaign for it. They certainly did not have to overthrow the Taliban to do it; the war cost much more than anybody could ever conceivably make out of that pipeline. So it was a bad business deal.

I think oil is relevant but in the opposite way because income from oil strengthens regimes. So what made Saddam Hussein so threatening was the fact that he had oil income with which he could build an aggressive regime capable of manufacturing weapons of mass destruction - though as far as we can tell, he actually had none at the time of the war. If he had succeeded in seizing Kuwait, then he would have had a highly educated, skilled, urbanized population and a huge amount of oil, which together he could have used to make Iraq into a real strategic contender in the Middle East and a center of resistance to US geo-strategic and political goals there. So the purpose was to destroy a regime that could use these resources for geo-strategic purposes against US interests, not to seize the oil for its economic benefit.

Interview conducted by Nermeen Shaikh of The Asia Society.