Afghanistan: Progress - Success - Failure

Prologue: Afghanistan is on its way to becoming a forgotten and irritating issue. I have been in Afghanistan since 2003 and looking back with impartiality and without exaggeration has become difficult. Nevertheless, we should think again about how it all began1 and to what extent the expectations in the military intervention of 2001 have been fulfilled. The Afghan people do not deserve to be marginalized before giving their society a chance to recover from an ambiguous attempt to give them a state, and allowing it to get on the path to a self-determined future. 

By the end of this year, ISAF combat troops will have pulled out of Afghanistan. Half of all the German contingent’s heavy military equipment has already been shipped homeward, and the remaining troops are preparing to exit. But is it really all’s well that ends well? The Afghanistan intervention, beginning with the War on Terror vanguard of Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) in 2001, has become the longest war in US history, and for the Europeans lasted longer than WWI and WWII combined. The German general public did not perceive the intervention as war until 2010, even though the informed public and many experts had long termed the stabilization mission a “war”2. For most parliamentarians in the German Bundestag, extending the mandate of the German forces was never a problem, even though a significant majority of the public increasingly opposed the mission. Ever since 2010 when President Obama fixed the exit date for the end of 2014, the period of “transition” has been used to prepare for an Afghan state without massive foreign military protection. The next ten years are set to be a decade of “transformation” with a full scale development policy under Afghan ownership. This is, at least, what the Bonn conference in 2011 and the Tokyo conference in 2012 set out as a framework under which foreign assistance would continue to stabilize the country. It is fair to say now we are in the “endgame” for Afghanistan3. It is also an appropriate time to ask: what has the intervention ultimately achieved? Has it been a success or a failure?

Afghanistan today is a country that has survived more than 30 years of violence and war. It has suffered multiple waves of displacement4. Many people returning from exile to their country haven’t returned to their home villages or regions, but remain internally displaced. Many people in this war-ridden nation have no idea what it means to live in “peace”; many are traumatized and have been victims of violence and abuse. For others, the military intervention has brought economic success and a new status. But all have been affected by the intervention and will be affected by the changes that the period of transformation brings to the country. The intervention has thoroughly and irreversibly changed Afghan society, beyond changes to the structure and capacity of the state or its government. One could term it a society of intervention5. Before attempting to evaluate the outcome of the Western intervention of 2001, it must be noted that this was not the first international invasion (the Soviets had occupied the country between 1978 and 1988) and the country had been under the heavy influence and subversion by Cold War super powers as far back as the early 1970s. Thus, the ousting of the Taliban regime by the Northern Alliance in early 2001 (with support from Western powers but without foreign troops) was only one chapter; events were thoroughly re-interpreted following the events of 9/11 when Afghanistan became a target of new policies - the War on Terror - because it had provided a safe haven for Osama bin Laden for a time. The rationale behind Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) was quite different to that of the ISAF (International Security Assistance Force), which effectively began to operate in 2003. That came in the midst of what we call the “Golden Hour”6: the period after a ceasefire when civil society re-emerges and the options for a fresh start of state-building flourish under conditions of relative peace, goodwill and a significant increase in freedom and liberties. In Afghanistan, this Golden Hour lasted until 2005, when the resurfacing of Taliban and violence changed the climate of expectations and brought everybody back to the sober reality that the road to democracy, wealth and good governance would be a long one. I consider this Golden Hour to be a bitterly wasted period during which all kinds of opportunities for effective nation building were squandered or insufficiently used. When, under President Obama, the ComISAF General McChrystal 7 started the counter-insurgency (COIN) effort in 2010, the moment for correcting the mistakes of the past was long overdue, but his population-centered[d1]  approach at least offered some options that had been ignored in the past. All military operations under his successors were conducted under the prospect of exit in 2014, and can thus only be interpreted as provisional. The US and Germany forged bilateral agreements on future cooperation in 20128. But one of the pivotal aspects of any future transformation was the signing of a troop agreement with the United States on the deployment of some thousand troops during the upcoming period; the Germans have made their plans for a future contingent on the signing of this agreement by the Afghan president. These agreements with their attached conditions for the Afghan government are one of several uncertainties ahead in 2014. Another is the presidential election in April and May 2014: There has been a lot of speculation, as well as threats and options discussed openly and in secret about possible candidates and their chances. At least 11 candidates are through to the final stage; by now, only three are hopeful (Abdullah, Ahsraf, Rasoul); someare regarded as contenders for the vice-presidency. Even for experts, it is extremely difficult - and risky - to make predictions. Many of President Karzai’s security advisers expect any new president to sign the troop agreement immediately after taking office; some do not even rule out a signing taking place earlier. A third, very likely development will be the leap in unemployment when foreign troops leave the country. Not only will many experienced and qualified people lose their job, they will also lose the protection of their employers. Many of them are seeking asylum in the countries of the intervening powers, which may protect their lives, but means a further professional drain on Afghanistan.

Two topics have regularly featured in the dialogue between the intervening powers and the Afghans over the last ten years: the drug economy and corruption. While drugs have become an overriding element of the country’s local and national economies and are also determining parts of its unofficial foreign relations, corruption is much more difficult to deal with. This highlights the difficulties that a nation under intervention has in building a sovereign regime of good governance, while struggling with internal problems and the impact of intervention. The major domestic problem for the central government is to bring the violence in the country under control, while introducing minimal institutions that can implement the rule of law, a welfare system and security. The central government has fallen short at many levels and in many fields of governance, leading to Western politicians very often to attribute the failure of poor governance to corruption. But things are more complicated than that. Not every malfunction is simply down to corruption in the narrowest sense: the entire Afghan system of patronage and a resistance to dysfunctional measures by the intervening powers, donors and other foreign influence (often seen as a threat to values) also contribute to the poor achievements. Since lowering all their moral and humanitarian aims from initial ambitious goals, and due to a reality overshadowed by ongoing violence that seems to make it impossible to reach these lofty goals in such a short period of time, the intervening powers themselves now consider good enough governance to be sufficient. This is true in particular with regards to human rights, women’s emancipation and the protection of individual lifestyles and minority positions.

External influence is also a hindrance to the potential development of Afghan sovereignty. The ongoing conflict with Pakistan is a dominant obstacle to consolidation. As long as the West, i.e. the US, fails to adopt an unambiguous policy towards their volatile ally Pakistan, Afghanistan will remain under extensive pressure, from its disputed borders and trans-border drone attacks to invasion by Pakistan-trained Afghan and other mainly Taliban insurgents. In other words, a sustainable peace is unfeasible without a resolution of this bi-national conflict, and Afghanistan does not have the means and power to play a strong role in this game. Another external problem is certainly Iran, despite recent signs of easing in its relationship with its Western adversaries. Other regional problems should not be overlooked either: the Istanbul Process (which has held three meetings since November 2011) has yet to gain momentum and make any headway. This process focuses on neighborly relationships in the region rather than on continuous impact by the main global players. The conditions set by the main international partners and donors for extended cooperation after 2014 - as set out in the conferences of Bonn in 2011, and Kabul and Tokyo in 2012 - remain stymied by failed attempts to fight corruption, halt the drug economy, establish good governance and comply with the rules of mutual implementation of cooperative programs under Afghan ownership. Yet, such compliance depends on further cooperation to be able to establish and consolidate the real powers of effective statehood through good governance. On its own, Afghanistan will not be able to comply - it requires strong support in all sectors of governance.

This is the right time to ask if intervention was a success or a failure. Of course the question is ambiguous and the answers depend on one’s perspective. From the Afghans’ point of view, the intervention has certainly been partially successful: there has been undeniable, albeit unevenly distributed progress in the modernization of infrastructure, the modest reinvigoration of business and trade, improvements in the school education and health systems, and the remarkable reconstruction of the ANSF (Afghan National Security Forces). At the same time, the intervention has partially impeded the rebuilding of a self-confident, sovereign nation state able to stimulate future societal changes without the impact of foreign hegemony in matters of culture, security and welfare, and, above all, human rights. A certain “return of the state” in the perception of rural communities can be observed; this means that expectations of statehood and good governance are being projected onto the state and not (only) local powers. We have yet to observe the growth of a strong urban middle class, but there are indicators of such development (Daxner 2011b).

In any assessment of the intervention, one must accept two exceptional circumstances: firstly, only very few situations or constellations in Afghanistan can be assessed and validated to a “nation-wide” extent: i.e. we are reliant on disaggregated data and impact studies. Therefore we need to be very discerning about what level we are evaluating - governments, official statements, elite opinions or the everyday situation of average Afghans. Most studies in political ethnology, sociology or interdisciplinary studies into the effects of intervention would be much more comprehensive than simply offering generalizations that in effect only mirror the wishful thinking or legitimacy of the elites.

In the German evaluation of the Afghanistan intervention, there is yet another constraint: Germany is not acting as a fully sovereign state in Afghanistan particularly with regards to matters of security and military operations. The US still heads military operations. Within this framework, the official guidelines on the final stage of the intervention can be followed in the regular progress reports that have only been published since 20109. It is remarkable that after the Bonn conference of 2001 there was no real inceptive information for parliament and the German public, and therefore the general public was rather poorly informed about the intervention. The US - in particular the Congressional Research Service (CRS) and United States Institute of Peace (USIP) - provided much better and more comprehensive information from the beginning10, and other countries also began assessing the intervention earlier, e.g. Canada (cf. Sorenson 2008). Progress is ambiguous however: one can “progress” towards success and failure. Of course, the German Foreign Office, in its attempt to inform parliament, has increasingly been inclined to state the successful developments and outcomes of intervention, since this adds legitimacy to the casualties and costs of the past as well as the handover of responsibility to the Afghans after 2014. This was very much more the case in the first report in 2010 than in 2014, where very little assessment is presented apart from about Germany’s pre-conditional contributions to the transformation period after 2014. It is understandable that security by far outweighs other fields of nation building and reconstruction. But one understated reason for security being given little assessment under the norms of governance is that up until at least 2013, the intervening powers established both the institutions (rules) and facts. The Afghan “ownership” of security, and therefore the government’s accountability for success and failure of national security has only become more prominent more recently. In other fields, such as governance, economic and cultural development etc. the same arguments are heard more or less again and again: progress is being made but could be improved and accelerated if corruption were reduced, if measures of good governance and responsible policies were intensified, and if certain standards and rules as set by the international community, i.e. the intervening powers, were better implemented.

It is surprising what little serious discussion there is in the German reports on the failures and erroneous assumptions on the part of the intervening powers. We know from many independent sources, such as AAN or impartial observers, how inevitable errors and incompetence on the part of the intervening powers have contributed to an unsatisfactory outcome of the intervention. By comparison, the US assessment is clear: in his last report as SIGAR (Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction), John Sopko quotes the Pentagon:

“Effective governance, rule of law, and sustainable economic development are all necessary for long-term stability in Afghanistan. However, these are hindered by multiple factors, including widespread corruption, limited formal education and skills, illiteracy, minimal access by officials to rural areas, lack of coordination between the central government and the Afghan provinces and districts, and uneven distribution of power among the branches of the Afghan government. (…) The Afghan government is highly centralized, with revenue, budgeting, spending, and service delivery authority residing with the central ministries in Kabul. This level of centralization limits the efficiency of service delivery at the provincial and district levels. Development of capacity at local levels is slowed by limited human capital as well as by delays in enactment of structural reforms by the central government. (…) While Afghans are increasingly capable of solving near-term issues, they still lack a systematic and proactive planning method for strategic planning, budget development, and sustainment processes”. (US Department of Defense, November 2013)

This is present in many German reports, albeit far less explicitly. Critique is often scientific or journalistic, barely political (cf. recently (Ruttig 2014)). One can only assume that the US, being the military and financial international leader in the intervention, is more interested in meticulously analyzing its own practices, even if some of that adds to international and domestic discomfort, e.g. over the flagrant abuse of human rights, or when military strikes hit many civilians. Meanwhile Germany downplays flagrant mistakes, such as the bombing of the trucks in Kunduz with over 90 casualties11. The Western intervention in Afghanistan following 2001 represent an irreversible break with its past. What the intervening powers have failed to do is to restore an Afghan identity and a spirit of social belonging that is worth defending. There has been modernization, the traditional life of Afghan has undergone some changes and there are elements of state building that allow hope. But how can we expect more security in a democratic state, when the ingredients of civil society and social coherence are still very weak?

The major aims of intervention have not been achieved: terrorism’s center of gravity has simply shifted instead. Afghanistan is yet to become an independent and sovereign player with rewarding relations with its neighbors. The costs for the intervening powers have been so high that the US cannot afford to fight another war, and many of its allies will not either. But one result of the Afghan intervention is the much heavier burden within NATO and the security alliances that the Western allies will have to bear. In future, it is obvious that the coordination between all donors and contributors to reconstruction be much better organized than in the past.

 Good enough governance with downgraded demands for human rights and women’s emancipation has replaced the quest for good governance. This is one reason that the intervention and German participation has lost so much public acceptance. Another reason is that so far no intervening government has been able to explain who the “enemy” was, if it was a war that happened! Even recently many Americans have spoken of a war that can still be won, but what does winning this war mean? Finally, the security and well-being of the Afghan people has never been given the attention that has been paid to the protection of the intervening powers from terrorism and the protection of their own troops. Afghanistan can become a successful and normal nation again, if circumstances are allowed to develop in a democratic and self-determined manner. But it is likely that many players in the intervention theater will have to take on new roles first before they can contribute to this success. It is a whole nation that is engaged in an intervention, not only military and diplomacy. There is a need of better division of labor among the international interveners; and within one interveners state there must be a better coordination among the diverse actors, civilian and military. Until now, this is obviously not the case in Germany.

Postscript: My cool and condensed report does not reveal the suffering of the Afghan people; 30 years of war and 13 years of intervention are impossible to cover fully here. Afghanistan is the litmus test in the serious pursuit of one of the new leading principles of global policy: interpreting and practicing the responsibility to protect (R2P). Afghanistan shows how little sovereignty and national ownership count in global conflicts. What we have learnt there in more than a decade is that security cannot be bought, peace cannot be ordered and development cannot be forced without people learning who they are themselves and how they want to live. What is needed is not only a new state, but a new society, and this will take much more time than “transformation”.


1 This is the title of a very instructive essay by Thomas Ruttig: Ruttig (2013)

2 Merkel nennt es Krieg: Headline in FAZ from 19/12/2010. This was the official endorsement for a term previously considered incorrect by the German government cf. Daxner/Neumann (2012): p.19.

3 Cf. Daxner (2013), Neumann et al. (2012)

4 Marsden (2003); Secretary-General (2008); Schetter (2011); Rollin (2009)

5 Cf. Daxner (2010b)

6 The term has been established in intervention research i.a. by James Dobbins, cf. Dobbins et al. (2007) p.15.

7 McChrystal (2009)

8 Bundesregierung (2012a); Government (2012)

9 Bundesregierung (2010); Bundesregierung (2011); Bundesregierung (2012b); Bundesregierung (2013); Bundesregierung (2014)

10 Katzmann (2009)

11 Cf. Daxner/Neumann 2012: 60ff. The acquittal of Col. Klein, now General Klein, from prosecution has been considered as erroneous and damaging to German interests by most German newspapers: pressekompass 2013/12/12


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