Small Wars Journal

Cautious Optimism

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Editor's Note: This paper was originally published by Marine Corps University’s Middle East Studies Department as an “Insight Paper.” It is reprinted here with permission.

The approaching withdrawal of international forces by the end of 2014 officially concludes the current mission of the United States in Afghanistan under the International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) mandate. The U.S. plans to transition to a smaller remain behind force tasked with assisting the government of Afghanistan (GIRoA) in maintaining a secure environment. What will happen beyond that date is still yet to be determined, but legions of groups and media pundits are warning of a Taliban return and/or a renewal of the chaos that gripped Afghanistan during the civil war (1992-1996) and Taliban (1996-2001) eras. Such predictions are based on experiences following the withdrawal of the Soviet Union and the United States so called “abandonment” of the country when the threat of communist expansion was eliminated. [1] Here I will take a short, historically based examination of the era of Soviet departure from Afghanistan during February of 1989. Thereafter, I will briefly compare the condition of the Afghan government and overall stability in 1991 and 1992 to what the United States will be leaving behind when current operations cease on December 31, 2014. Based on core variables with a specific historical perspective of military, political, and economic development, I argue that GIRoA is considerably better equipped today than it was in 1992 to maintain central state authority.

GIRoA is functioning and developing in an uneven but consistent manner. A successful polity is certainly not pre-ordained, but money and support committed by the international community provides Kabul latitude to expand influence and grow in three key areas. First, the professionalism of the security forces will develop. Consequently, the insurgency continues to face stronger, better- equipped, centrally loyal armed forces, which will gain considerable legitimacy in the eyes of the Afghan people as western forces withdraw. Second, Kabul’s government is present in most of the 364 districts in the country and Kabul has significant influence in the 34 provincial capitals. The current political system, although experiencing numerous challenges, is comparatively pluralistic and relatively absorbing of the various competing interests of the diverse nation. Third, the international community led by the United States is committed to providing needed funds while helping Kabul achieve increasing degrees of economic independence. From the perspective of military strength, political stability, and economic growth, conditions in Kabul today compared to the situation in 1992 when President Najibullah turned over the country to a United Nations led interim government are considerably more stable. For these reasons, despite the countless mistakes, a violent resistance and billions of wasted dollars, the established governmental system in Afghanistan will endure the current hardships and unevenly develop into a stable regional actor.       


The Geneva Accords, signed on April 14, 1988 paved the way for the Soviet departure from Afghanistan and a U.N. led process to a transitional government led by the Islamic resistance (Mujahedin) parties based in Pakistan. Soviet forces began departing in May of 1988 and on February 15, 1989; the final Soviet soldier left Afghan soil. Remaining was a military of questionable loyalty, thousands of militias fighting an established enemy with a legitimate cause, an unresolved divided and contested political climate, dwindling funds, and an uninterested international environment more focused on a crumbling Soviet Union than mitigating perceived local disputes in Afghanistan. Afghan President Najibullah continued to receive support from the Soviet Union as Pakistan and the U.S. colluded to create a unified polity from the seven Pakistan-based resistance groups to the communists. The Soviet aid enabled a functioning government that held out extensively longer than anyone predicted. The end of 1991 however, witnessed the enactment of a mutually agreed suspension of funds both from the Soviets to the Najibullah regime and from the United States to the resistance parties via the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence. Without economic incentives to purchase loyalty amongst the numerous armed groups, Kabul fell within months. In April of 1992 President Najibullah officially turned the country over to a UN sponsored interim government. He was never able to leave the country, trapped in the UN compound in Kabul. The competing factions could not come to agreement and the UN interim government crumbled nearly as quickly as it was created. So was the political environment prior to the civil war of 1992-1996.      

Military Comparison

In early February of 1989 the Soviet Union left behind a large and relatively competent military capable of securing population centers and key lines of communication. Despite predictions of a quick disintegration of the security forces and the communist government, Najibullah’s regime endured and defeated a major insurgent offensive in Jalalabad during March of 1989. The $3-4 billion annual Soviet aid package proved sufficient enough to hold the military together. By 1990 however, foreign funding decreased by 40 percent and at the end of 1991, ceased completely.[2] Consequently the outcome of the 1991 Battle of Khost was different.  Much of the army deserted and the Mujahedin scored a major battlefield victory. With the dwindling of funds, the loyalty of thousands of soldiers and officers disappeared, the majority of whom ultimately were absorbed into various ethnic groups competing around the country. With no centralized and paid security apparatus, lawlessness amongst the competing ethnic groups broke out, and the rural areas fell under the control of local warlords.

In comparison to the disappearance of funds in 1991, the current environment looks considerably different. The Security Partnership Agreement signed in May of 2012 commits the United States to Afghan stability and development well into the future. The international community has committed to funding the 352,000 members of the Afghan security forces at $6 billion annually until 2018. The current Afghan Army consists of five corps located strategically around the country. These forces will continue to be funded, equipped and advised by the international community led by the United States. The Afghan army’s performance has been admirable fighting against the insurgency. Despite concerns regarding ethnic factionalism, the Afghan National Army has increasing representation at the highest levels from all ethnic groups. With the required funds provided and the strengthening security forces receiving sufficient arms, the Taliban face an extended battle against a professionalizing force scheduled to take the lead in all military operations throughout the country during the spring of 2013.[3]             

Political Comparison

The political situation in Kabul in 1991/2 is unrecognizable compared to today. When President Najibullah announced his resignation from power in March of 1992, the UN scrambled to consolidate the various resistance parties into an organized system that could rule peacefully. The Peshawar Accords signed April 26 were bound to fail as the two primary Mujahedin parties of Jamiat-e Islami and Hizb-e Islami of Gulbudin Hekmatyar (HIG) never fully agreed on the power sharing agreement. By May, HIG forces were rocketing Kabul, and before the end of the summer of 1992, over 1800 civilians had been killed in the lawlessness that engulfed Kabul.[4] The communist government had initially been so exclusive and brutal that many tribes and potential members of the government were driven to the insurgency. Najibullah and the communists were incredibly unpopular in the countryside. Thus, the resistance enjoyed wide-spread support and legitimacy.

In contrast to the exclusive and brutal nature of the communist regime, the current Afghan political system enjoys substantially more participation. Twenty-one political parties are represented in the lower house of parliament, none of which are allowed to identify themselves based on ethnicity.[5] Many of the former “warlords” of the Mujahedin era currently work within the government in either elected or appointed positions. Although struggling and still a minority, civil-society groups made up of intellectuals and businessmen are gaining influence and a voice in politics. The Taliban maintain limited support and legitimacy and attract minimal sympathy for their resistance to the government.[6]    

Economic Comparison

As the Soviet Union declined and eventually crumbled, international aid to the Afghan state ceased. The limited amount of revenue the government collected from customs and indirect taxes was quickly consumed by rampant corruption among the leadership ensuring meager sums trickled down to the Afghan people. In addition to fund shortages, basic commodities such as food and fuel were increasingly scarce, further limiting the ability of the central government to project any influence and the military to conduct operations. “In the end, the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul was not defeated in the field, rather it disintegrated when it became clear it was running out of resources.”[7]

The economic situation in Kabul today is greatly improved, but not yet fully stable. 95 percent of the nations GDP is sourced from foreign aid, and GIRoA predicts that $10 billion in annual aid will be required until 2025.[8] During the Tokyo Conference of July 2012, international economic support was promised through 2017.  To transfer the aid-dependent economy to a licit independent one, the international community is placing high priority on curbing corruption and integrating Afghanistan into the regional economy with development and investment in the transportation, telecommunications and mining sectors holding priority. International donor aid combined with a growing economy, and development in key sectors at a minimum will provide sufficient revenue to keep the government working, the security forces loyal, and the bureaucracy intact.


Throughout history, creation of modern nation-states is a complex, uneven, and with few exceptions a violent undertaking. Afghanistan’s development will be no different. One thing for certain is Afghanistan will progress in its own way and in line with the traditional norms of acceptable behavior. These norms cannot be injected from outside social engineers, but must be organically accepted. Although each nation develops in its own way, certain structural aspects promote future stability. A strong, centrally-loyal military, a broadly legitimate political system, and a source of revenue to provide financial opportunities all exist in Afghanistan and with the assistance of the international community, will strengthen vis-à-vis potentially spoiling actors. 

This piece is admittedly limited and perhaps even a bit simplistic in scope and predictions. In no way does it intend to mask the incredible challenges yet to be confronted by the Afghan state, but aims to provide a sobering perspective on the doomsday scenarios being widely predicted. The underpinnings of a nation-state are established in Afghanistan. Political growth and development in Kabul and a strengthening military, in the context of an economically committed international community combine to provide the foundations for a reliable nation-state in a historically insecure region.

[1] Diego Cordovez and Selig S. Harrison, Out of Afghanistan: The Inside Story of the Soviet Withdrawal (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 260-270. Although it can be debated, the term “abandoned” assumes that the United States provided aid to the Mujahedeen via the Pakistani government in order to assist the Afghan nation in the first place. In fact, U.S. policy was limited and clear. The U.S. aided and armed rebels via Pakistan in order to stop the spread of communism into Afghanistan. The Declaration of International Guarantees contained in the Geneva Accords clearly stipulates that the U.S. and the Soviet Union “Undertake to invariably refrain from any form of interference and intervention in the internal affairs of the Republic of Afghanistan and the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.” Such a stipulation was believed necessary to guarantee the Soviet Union would cut off arming and aid to the Najibullah government.   

[2] Antonio Giustozzi, War, Politics and Society in Afghanistan: 1978-1992 (Washington: Georgetown University Press, 2000), 274.

[3] Kenneth Katzman, “Afghanistan: Post-Taliban Governance, Security and U.S. Policy,” Congressional Research Service Report for Congress RL30588, April 9, 2013, 26-34.

[4] Barnett Rubin, The Fragmentation of Afghanistan: State Formation and Collapse in the International System 2d ed. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002), 272. 

[5] Kenneth Katzman, “Afghanistan: Politics, Elections, and Government Performance,” Congressional Research Service Report for Congress RS21922, November 30, 2012, 5.

[6] Mohammad Osman Tariq et al., Afghanistan in 2011: A Survey of the Afghan People (The Asia Foundation, 2011), 48-52.

[7] Giustozzi, War, Politics and Society in Afghanistan, 237.

[8] Katzman, “Afghanistan: Post-Taliban Governance, Security and U.S. Policy,” 58.


About the Author(s)

Brad Fultz is a Marine Major currently stationed at Marine Corps University and member of the AF/PAK Hands Program


Madhu (not verified)

Mon, 07/28/2014 - 11:32am

For discussion, because I don't know and, as I've said, I won't pretend that I do:

<blockquote>This is not the first time that Kerry’s done a solid for Afghanistan when things looked as bleak as Rosie O’Donnell’s TV career. And the Afghans I’ve talked to (“Wait…what…you don’t want chai? So…RUDE!) in the last couple of days have pretty strong feelings on the World Cup (Lots of Germany fans here, kids.) and on the course currently plotted for the heretofore deadlocked Afghan elections.

But it is the first time that Kerry’s essentially undoing what the Americans helped set up when the constitution was adopted in Afghanistan in 2004. That’s not to say that this is a bad thing: it’s the best possible outcome that could be imagined for the current situation.

And going forward it has the potential for Afghan national-level governance to develop along more stable lines. But patting one’s self on the back for undoing something your country helped set up in the first place is a touch…disingenuous.</blockquote>…

<blockquote>Fourth, the AFPAK boundary is not notional (except to GIRoA). Eastern tribes ‘consider Pashtuns from beyond the Durand Line as first and foremost Pakistanis. [The] border is increasingly acknowledged as a clear line and not just an undefined frontier where the influence of one state wanes and that of another gradually begins.’28
Note Rubin's homogenization of 20+ million Pashtuns. He fails to account for myriads of differences in customs and practices, where certain Pashtuns do not recognize Pashtunwali; and where Islamic beliefs diverge substantively, from mystical/cultic practices to Sunnism to Shiism; the dominance of Pashtu/Urdu or Urdu/Pashtu as first/second language in Pakistan, and Pashtu/Dari in Afghanistan, and so on.</blockquote>…

<blockquote>US has done a great service to Afghanistan by intervening at this juncture. In Democratic Politics such compromises are normal. Look at Pakistan, why MQM is being wooed by all governments whether it was PPP or now PMLN. They don’t need their votes n center or Sindh but still neither removed MQM governor, Why? The alternate was a civil war. The compromise that US has brokered is not ideal but is much better than the alternate which would have been a Civil War in Afghanistan. Some Governors of Abdullah Camp had announced they would forcibly take over Presidential Palace. This is not good but democracy will come slowly and gradually. More than Ashraf Ghani or Abdullah, Afghanistan needs a peaceful transfer of power and continuation of the democratic system. Opposing something just because Americans have done it, is not a very mature approach. Even in Pakistan Saudi Arabia is known to broker deals when there is apolitical impasse. A Stable Afghanistan is in the best interest of Pakhtuns everywhere. Any way its not a Pakhtun versus Non Pakhtun issue in Afghanistan as is portrayed by certain circles in Pakistan and elsewhere. Abdullah has Pakhtun supporters and Ashraf Ghani has even more non Pakhtun supporters, Rasheed Dostum and Ahmad Shah Masood's family stands by Ashraf Ghani while Zalmay Rasul stands by Abdullah.</blockquote>…

Last link via Omar Ali

Madhu (not verified)

Fri, 05/02/2014 - 2:00pm

There is a piece over at the libertarian site antiwar-dot-com similar to this, strangely enough. Sort of along the lines that it is threat hyping to say everything is going to all apart.

I am not going to pretend that I know what might happen because I don't. I'll link it when I get the chance. Just for a contrast to a lot of what is written.

Madhu (not verified)

Tue, 12/10/2013 - 9:33am

Looking over my old comments in this thread, I sure do come across as kind of a nutjob, don't I?

I prefer "enthusiastic" and "a passion for knowledge," but I can understand other interpretations....

Madhu (not verified)

Sat, 06/08/2013 - 12:26pm

In reply to by Madhu (not verified)

So it's probably safe to say that after the euphoria of their lobbying victory has died down, Indian officials will probably feel Holbrooke's breath on their neck. Some Indian analysts are already predicting this. C. Raja Mohan writes in the Indian Express that "reworking the India-Pakistan relationship will be an inevitable and important component" of Holbrooke's plans. "Whether India likes it or not, Washington will devote substantive diplomatic energies towards the subcontinent, and New Delhi will be drawn into this dynamic."</blockquote>,8599,1874627,00.html#ixzz2Vdk2…

The inability of our system to focus when we have so many troops in harms way in Afghanistan. NATO and COIN and nation building and Iraq and we will "solve the problems between India and Pakistan although we suck at it and have no credibility because of our wierd relationship with China" and so on and so on....

It all reminds me of the following:

<blockquote>When we look at the objectives of the Vietnam War, we see that Hugh Arnold of the University of Nebraska found twenty-two separate objectives for why we were in Vietnam, several of which were mutually exclusive. So there was never any clear-cut political goal to be obtained. And because there was no political goal, the military strategies and policies built on that foundation -- someone said it was "a great logical edifice built on a foundation of gas" because there was just nothing there. The great tragedy of the Vietnam War was all of this military effort, great bravery and sacrifice and everything else, was totally unfocused because of the lack of a goal. And because it was unfocused, it failed to achieve the objectives of US foreign policy.


The military has to figure out what tactics to marry up with the larger operational and strategic picture of a campaign but it seems we get all confused these days and go off in one direction and then another.

No, I'm not taking back my "cautious optimism" in the title piece sounds good, I'm just saying that our system has trouble focusing, that is a good thing because we are a republic, and maybe we ought to recognize that even within the messy realm of stability operations.

How exactly, well, that's easier said than done....

Madhu (not verified)

Sat, 06/08/2013 - 12:04pm

In reply to by Madhu (not verified)

You know, if I try to step back and look at the situation clinically instead of emotionally or through one particular point of view, it seems pretty much everyone in the region has at least some reason to be a bit upset with everyone else, although, you know, a lot of people also don't know how to listen when a party says, "hey, we are worried about that and we mean it":

<blockquote>In an address to Congress, Ms. Bhutto also urged the United States to continue military and economic aid to Pakistan and to keep resisting efforts by the Soviet Union to exercise influence over Afghanistan.

Her appearance came after National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft told reporters the United States will sell Pakistan 60 additional F-16 jet fighters, for a total force of 100 of the sophisticated warplanes.

Applause repeatedly punctuated the prime minister's address and it was loudest and most prolonged when she said her nation does not intend to become a nuclear-weapons power and will work with the United States to ''prevent the catastrophe of a nuclear arms race in south Asia.''

The United States has long expressed concern that Pakistan is on the verge of acquiring nuclear weapons. Ms. Bhutto said her nation will not go down that path.

''Speaking for Pakistan, I can declare that we do not possess nor do we intend to make a nuclear device; that is our policy,'' she said.

''We are committed to a regional approach to the nuclear problem and we remain ready to accept any safeguards, inspection and verification that are applied on a non-discriminatory regional basis,'' she said.

Ms. Bhutto said Pakistan has long advocated creating a nuclear weapons-free zone in south Asia and added: ''A first step in that direction could be a nuclear test-ban agreement between Pakistan and its neighbors. ... We are prepared for any negotiation to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons in our region.

''We will not provoke a nuclear arms race in the subcontinent,'' she said.

The prime minister mentioned no other country by name. But Pakistan's regional rival, India, which detonated a nuclear device some 15 years ago, has resisted agreeing to test-ban and nuclear weapons-free zones unless such arrangements also include China, a nuclear-weapons state.

On Afghanistan, Ms. Bhutto said her country and the United States must not abandon their long struggle to end Soviet influence.</blockquote>…

The State Department's historical 1950's understanding of the region as a dyad instead of a triad that must at minimum include China is very strange, IMO, at least the inability to update the notion of key relationships as times change.

PS: I keep going on about these subjects because the way we viewed Afghanistan can't be divorced from our larger regional understanding and how we have viewed various regions.

Madhu (not verified)

Sat, 06/08/2013 - 10:46am

In reply to by Madhu (not verified)

On narratives, late twentieth century and attempts to create a truly independent 21st century American strategic understanding:

<blockquote>Aller's defiance made him a legend at Oxford. The night he wrote his draft board and officially became a resister, Clinton and Reich, who both belonged to University College, threw a party for Aller in Reich's rooms, a raucous gathering that was partly a mock wake.

"Frank sort of became everyone's alter ego," says Robin Raphel, a college girlfriend of Aller's who was at Cambridge while he was at Oxford. "It was like a mantle on his shoulders, put there by people who didn't really understand where he came from."

Raphel, now the political counselor at the United States Embassy in New Delhi, says that Aller was ill suited to the role of anti-establishment martyr and that it pained him more than anyone knew. "Others were able to live their own need to resist through Frank," she says, "but even thinking about rebelling didn't come naturally to Frank." </blockquote>…

This is all for discussion, I really have no idea where I am going with any of this.

Madhu (not verified)

Sat, 06/08/2013 - 10:20am

A good piece that highlights the very different strategic realities for the United States and her allies today.

We are in a different situation. I believe the larger strategic realities outside of Afghanistan have the potential to be quite good for the US, as long as we remain cautious and attempt to maintain good relations with a variety of nations in the South and larger Asian context.

I've mentioned this before but the US is playing two historical roles, in one sense similar to the Soviet Union, but in another more important sense, ourselves in the 1988-92 period as the first Bush administration didn't quite know what to do with the situation.

I am glad that you mentioned what I think is a false narrative of abandonment of Afghanistan.

The United States had contradictory and varying policy throughout that time which is a better narrative than abandonment and explains how the US got to today, IMO.

There was worry even at that time about the intelligence agencies we worked with in the 80's and what they might do after we left and there are news articles from the period discussing Benazir Bhutto's stated worries in that regard. There is also a sort of fight over selling F16's and Dick Cheney and Benazir Bhutto play a role; the NYT archive has many good articles on this period.

Finally, there is the switch from the first Bush to the Clinton presidency and possible conderations or discussions for putting various groups on anti-terror lists or sanctions for nuclear weapons is supposedly dropped as new people take over South Asia policy and there is an old friend of the Clintons, Robin Raphel, at the South Asia State Department Desk.

Dr. Vali Nasr does not mention this in his much discussed Foreign Policy article, but the same official was on Holbrooke's or the State Dept. team and was a lobbyist in the region before taking on a role in the State Department for the current administration.

Had there been a focus on the changes in proliferation, terrorism, and China policy in the 1992 period (I believe Tom Donilon was also at the State Department at that time?) there might have been a different understanding of the region and how NATO envisioned the campaign in Afghanistan.

PS: Woops, vet that stuff I wrote above, I really should have more coffee or something. On Donilon, from the NYT: "When Bill Clinton won in 1992, a Carter-era mentor, Warren M. Christopher, became secretary of state and made Mr. Donilon his chief of staff."

Not playing gotcha or being partisan. I believe that is an understudied time that goes against the narrative we first drew, that our abandonment of Afghanistan caused problems when it was a series of contradictory policies that prioritized trade, one way of looking at proliferation, and relationships with China, etc., that lead up to various events today. At any rate, an understudied area, IMO.

The State Department tends to underplay its role in making the region 'feel' more insecure during this period.

<blockquote>5. It was during her tenure as the Assistant Secretary of State that the Clinton Administration declared Jammu & Kashmir as a “disputed territory” and started calling for the resolution of the dispute between India and Pakistan over the Kashmir issue in accordance with the wishes of the Kashmiri people. This refrain has once again been taken up by the Obama Administration.

6. Towards the end of 1993 , during a non-attributable discussion with some Indian journalists in Washington DC she reportedly defended this formulation and contended that the US considered the Kashmiri territory transferred by Pakistan to China in 1963 when Ayub Khan was the President also as disputed territory, whose future was yet to be decided.</blockquote>…

The point is not to "relitigate" this period but to understand that we tap into a whole host of narratives in that region and arouse suspicion or raise hopes when we do things a certain way. Again, Dr. Nasr didn't fully develop that argument in his article.

This is an interesting comparative study. Though many have exhausted the Soviet vs. US methods in conducting operations in Afghanistan, not nearly as many have weighed the post-Soviet outcome with the potential endstate for the US.

Though I think you reinforce your points with adequate data, I remain a little more pessimistic about Afghanistan's future absent ISAF. More than anything, I believe the economic future is much bleaker than anticipated, and, as already stated in the comments, I think the country's future is precariously placed in the hands of foreign aid. You're correct in asserting that Afghanistan does have certain signs of functioning as a state, but I believe most of these to exist superficially.

Your point on desperately needed social change coming from within Afghanistan is well made.


Wed, 06/05/2013 - 9:08am

Most governments can maintain security if they have the funding to pay for it. Afghanistan is no different in this regard.

The question is, what happens when the money runs out? If foreign governments are funding the opposition heavily things tend to go badly (Vietnam, all of the final colonial conflicts in Africa, Nicaragua). If foreign governments stop robustly funding the opposition things tend to mush into a violent, if stable, peace (Central America and to a lesser degree Indian Kashmir).

Granted narcotics money and the current bunch of Saudi funded jihadi idiots can make life miserable for a solvent government (Colombia and virtually every government in the Middle East), they generally are not a threat to the viability of the state without an outside government heavily supporting them (Libya and increasingly Syria).