The Taliban’s brief takeover of the northern city of Kunduz in September this year was a reminder of the ongoing fragility in Afghanistan, almost 15 years since the international intervention in the country. Professor Ali A. Jalali, who served as Afghanistan’s interior minister from 2003-2005, said a vacuum resulted from the slow development of the nation’s security institutions, which were expected to build on the light footprint of international forces.
“That vacuum was filled after 2005 by a regrouped Taliban, who came from across the border where they had established sanctuaries. This caused many actors— both Afghans and international forces—to rush toward quick solutions, which further undermined the development of national security institutions,” said Mr. Jalali, now a Distinguished Professor at the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies.
Nonetheless, he said the Taliban was no longer in a position to overthrow the Afghan government, with national army and police forces sufficiently developed to guard against this.
Speaking with the Global Observatory Assistant Editor James Bowen, Mr. Jalali said efforts to rebuild state-society relations in Afghanistan needed to overcome the previous lack of coordination with and among the international community.
“International forces interacted with communities rather than the government in many areas,” he said, “I think that once there is a stable situation, you can easily create a contract between the government and society. When there are so many actors, it is very difficult.”
This interview, which has been edited for clarity and length, took place on the sidelines of a recent International Peace Institute forum on 21st century peacebuilding.
You created new national and border police forces and a nationwide stabilization program to extend government authority in post-Taliban Afghanistan. What were the challenges of implementing these completely new structures of governance and working to ensure trust among local Afghani populations?
There were many challenges that emanated from the situation Afghanistan was in after 2001. The country was also in a civil war for many years before that, as well as being impacted by the Soviet invasion in the 1980s. The legal or formal institutions of the government collapsed during that time, and many factional militias emerged during the civil war. The challenge was how to disarm and demobilize these militias to build formal state institutions.
At the same time, security sector reform—which was supported by the international community—was not a unified process because different countries were building different aspects. Coordination was a challenge and different countries were coming with different levels of investment and commitments. Afghan state institutions were built despite all this, though the progress was uneven. With the help of the international community we were able to build a 50,000-member police force and a 12,000-member border police in five years. The authority of the central government was also expanded to the country’s peripheries.
More than a decade after the creation of the new government and institutions, many parts of Afghanistan remain unstable and subject to Taliban attacks. Why do you think this is the case?
In the past 10 years the situation has changed drastically, following a period of relative stability. To begin with, the international forces had a very light footprint in Afghanistan. The International Security Assistance Force were only deployed in Kabul and later on the Provincial Reconstruction Teams to the provinces. Meanwhile, development of Afghanistan’s national security institutions was very slow, which created a vacuum. That vacuum was filled after 2005 by a regrouped Taliban, who came from across the border where they had established sanctuaries. This caused many actors— both Afghans and international forces—to rush toward quick solutions, which further undermined the development of national security institutions.
However, today the Taliban are not in a position to overthrow the Afghan government. They can attack here and there but they are not able to overthrow the government. This is because during this period the Afghan national army and Afghan national police developed to the extent that they can, if not defeat the Taliban immediately, at least ensure the survival of the state. And the longer the state survives, the less chance the Taliban will have to have their way.
Could you provide one or two examples from your experiences, of state-society relations being effectively developed and nurtured to create an effective pathway to peace and stability?
I think the state-society relationship in Afghanistan was very healthy before the Soviet invasion in 1978. In those days, there were two centers of authority. One was the formal government and the other was the traditional authority, which was the village, the tribe, the mosque, and so on. These operated in peace with each other; the government provided whatever it could, and the rest was provided by communities. The communities would not challenge the government, despite the fact the government did not always have the capacity to provide services to them. It was a very complementary relationship. For example, the customary justice sector worked side by side with the formal justice sector. I myself was once involved in settling a dispute of two tribes and used both systems: customary justice through the jirgas [traditional assemblies], and also the formal courts. However, there were many other centers of authority created by the Soviet invasion and the civil war, through assistance from patrons outside the country, and this relationship deteriorated.
What do those experiences and your research of a highly fragile area tell you about how to create new social contracts between states and societies following periods of great instability?
I think that the development of the contract between state and society needs to be looked at in the context of the political and security situation in the country. Today in Afghanistan it is not a state and society one, and in the past 12 years it has not been a state and society one. It has been between the state and the international forces and donor countries, and the society has been fragmented. For example, for many years after 2001 Afghanistan’s government did not have control over security or military operations, or over the money that came in to help the country. This money went to contractors outside the government and outside the government budget. Afghanistan also did not have full control over its development priorities. International forces interacted with communities rather than the government in many areas. I think that once there is a stable situation, you can easily create a contract between the government and society. When there are so many actors, it is very difficult.