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  • Reclaiming Afghanistan:Moving Toward Nationhood?
  • Michael Daxner (bio)

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Between 2003 and 2007, I visited Afghanistan 10 times in my capacity as an advisor to the Afghan Minister of Higher Education, and as an independent academic researcher examining relations between the NATO-led intervention forces and local people. Each visit provided plenty of opportunities to witness a stagnant state-building process that never failed to fall below expectations. The same was true of my most recent visit, a 10-day research trip that ended in March. I can report that the situation in Afghanistan has not improved since the end of 2009, when President Obama announced a timetable for the withdrawal of Western military forces, to commence in July 2011 and be completed in 2014. Indeed, in many ways, things have gotten worse. [End Page 69]

As a social scientist with a great deal of empathy for the Afghan people, I have always supported the military intervention of 2001 and the broader missions of NATO and the United Nations—though not in an uncritical manner. Through my work, I have tried to support the restoration of higher education and the reconstruction of civil society in a country that has not known peace for more than 30 years. Yet those primarily responsible for the intervention after 2001 seem to have lost interest in the country and its future. They do not want to learn from their own mistakes and failures, and seem unable or willing to play a constructive, non-hegemonic role in the wider Central Asian region.

For years, Afghanistan has been a kind of imaginary terrain for geopolitical projections. This was the place where the al-Qaida attacks of September 11, 2001, had been planned and set in motion. Hence, the initial intervention was focused on stripping the terrorists from their sanctuaries and safe havens. But little by little, nation-building came to define the mission. A massively ambitious effort to reconstruct a tortured and war-torn country gradually replaced a war of retribution.

The killing of Osama bin Laden in May served as a jarring reminder of just how far the war in Afghanistan has moved beyond its initial goals. One can only wonder how different the war might have been had bin Laden been killed or captured back in 2001, before he managed to slip across the border into Pakistan, where he apparently spent the last decade. His death has sparked a crisis in U.S.-Pakistan relations, and has led to a debate in American policymaking circles about whether an even more rapid pull-out from Afghanistan might be justifiable—or at least more politically palatable.

But whatever effect bin Laden's death proves to have on these considerations, the fact remains that the Afghan Taliban have become largely independent of al-Qaida in recent years. In this respect, bin Laden's passing hardly changes the reality on the ground in Afghanistan. The "Golden Hour"—the period between 2001, when the Taliban was initially ousted, and 2005, when the major American military buildup began—is a distant memory. The once-defeated Taliban have recovered. The Afghan people have become numb to the endless flow of empty promises to help them, sustainably, into a better future. Since 2005, suicide attacks, an increasingly well organized insurgency, and an accelerating pace of violence have buffeted a society that has never been terribly well governed. The state's institutions remain weak. And external powers struggle with questions at home about the legitimacy of a seemingly futile peacekeeping and counterterrorism operation.

Still, for the first time in at least five years, I have the sense that there is a genuine movement among Afghans toward taking the initiative and reclaiming a role in determining their country's future. This is a crucial development, one that leaves me with a grim kind of optimism. At this point, there is really no way to "win" the war in Afghanistan, because it has become [End Page 70] impossible to say who is fighting against which enemy and to what end. But it might be possible to achieve a "cold peace" with a minimum of exit costs and a low...


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