Fundamental Roadblocks to development in Afghanistan

Afghanistan may be independent, but is it free? It has a state, but does it have a nation? A nation-state is not just a territorial entity. It is also an idea, a habit, a lived experience. What is the idea of Afghanistan?

During the last 100 years, Afghan elites faced the fundamental dilemma of how to develop a coherent national identity that would unite the diversity of Afghanistan, to create a political order but faced opposition to their reforms due to which they retreated from their script. They started defining the Afghan nation exclusively in their image and succumbed to the false comfort of a singular, uncontested, immutable national identity instead of entertaining diverse, often competing, versions of Afghan identity. Conceptions of national identity are, however, rarely fixed and unchangeable. National identity is a form of an evolving narrative, a continuous exercise in storytelling about who “we” are and aren’t.[1]

 Afghanistan is a state deprived of statehood. The country contains about a dozen ethnic groups, there is no coast to attract people and trade. Its unity and stability have been severely challenged by linguistic, ethnic, and religious divisions within the State. It not only has all of these divisions, but it also borders with other States that have linguistic, ethnic, and religious affinities with different parts of Afghanistan such as the Pathans (Pashtuns), concentrated in south and east have with their fellows in Pakistan separated by Durand line. The Uzbeks and Turkmens have acquaintance with bigger communities beyond the northern border, while the Balochis, down in the south-east, maintain ties with their kinsmen in Pakistan and Iran. These affinities scorn the country’s frontiers as were drawn by British and Russian officials around the turn of the 20th.

Image source: Pixabay

The anomalous idea of state of Afghanising led scholars to offer another key conversation starter, “Why does Afghanistan even exist?” Kings, monarchs, emperors created this state without any reference to ethnicity or nationalism. Thus, the kingdom of Afghanistan was forced to fit itself in the domain of a modern state merely to suit the strategic and territorial manoeuvres of the two mammoth empires i.e. the Czarist Russia and the Imperial Britain. It acted as a buffer zone between the two empires to contain their expansionist manoeuvres. And hence, The Treaty of Westphalia, which spearheaded the formation of modern nation-states didn’t apply to the Kingdom of Afghanistan.

The central cultural fact about Afghanistan is that it is constituted of tribes. Not individuals, not Western-style citizens—but tribes and tribesmen. The answer to the problems that face the Afghan people, as well as other future threats to US security in the region, will be found in understanding and then helping the tribal system of Afghanistan to flourish. Afghanistan has never had a strong central government. The tribal system in Afghanistan has taken a brutal beating for several decades. By supporting and giving some power back to the tribes`, situations can improve. Americans are losing the war in Afghanistan, because, simply put, they are not “winning.” All the Taliban has to do is not lose.

Afghanistan shares an exceptionally debatable frontier with Pakistan called Durand line which is a political fiction. Since this settlement was forcibly done, Afghan government at different stages has openly expressed, they don’t perceive this line and rather, attest claims over domains that lie between the line and the Indus River. This line partitions The Pathan populace keeping 60 % on the Pakistan side and just 40 % on Afghanistan, which implies there are more non-Afghans in Afghanistan then there are Afghans, which is where the roots of the problem lie. Because the Pathans feel that they have a right to rule and therefore both Summer capital (Kabul) and winter capital (Peshawar) of old Afghanistan belongs to them. They even demanded that Pashtuns living on the Pakistani side of the Durand Line be given the right to self-determination. So, the Taliban at the moment is just a religious front for the Pathan desire to capture the govt. in Kabul. The Taliban has become an armed force of the entire Pathan population including Pathans on Pakistan side as well. But because the Pathan leadership is hidden under the framework of being called the students of Islam, the Taliban’, so they are pretending it’s a religious thing.[2]

Thousands of terrorists have crossed the Durand Line from Pakistan over the last decade and killed large numbers of Afghans. The minimal U.S. troop presence in the south has ensured that the rugged and porous 2,450 km border between them does not even constitute a speed bump to extremist groups such as the Taliban and al Qaeda seeking to expand their networks of support and increase their influence among the Pashtun tribesmen in Afghanistan. The Pakistani army has shelled areas in eastern Afghanistan, claiming they were shelling Pakistani territory.[3] Afghan government loses revenue each year as thousands of people—mainly Afghans—illegally cross the border without a visa, avoiding taxes. Tons of illegal goods are smuggled across the border annually, a further loss for the Afghanistan economy. Strikingly, numerous government authorities guarantee that this arrangement was legitimate for hundred years, which in any case are over now. This territorial dispute needs to be seriously checked because there can be no prosperity without security.

Image source: Amber Clay

Since 2001, the international community, and particularly the US and NATO countries, have lost many lives and invested an enormous amount of money in Afghanistan—an amount that could have transformed Afghanistan into a sort of Switzerland of Central Asia.[4]Instead, economic prospects are bleak, corruption is outrageously rampant, and a war economy dominates. Afghanistan is overflowing with money, which not just belittle the chances of ceasing a war, rather prolongs it because everyone’s chasing it.

Development in war zones is not that easy. You can flood a country with money, but it is worthless as long as there is political instability. Things get blown up or not used. Deep rooted corruption in Afghanistan is daunting. For example, schools don’t always open because teachers won’t come to such dangerous areas. Or so much money is drawn off, there’s not enough to pay them. Secondly, bribing is another road blocker. On the entire way, everyone takes a cut. So, when Congress gives $10 billion for development, up to 40 percent can stay in or returns to US companies to manage the projects. That’s $3 billion or $4 billion! In the end, only 10 cents to 40 cents of each dollar gets to the projects.[5]

According to the Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid, electoral process in Kabul has been much emphasised and not even nearly enough been done on bread-and-butter or nation-building the basic infrastructure and its agriculture sector has been particularly ignored after Soviet invasion.

There are a few fundamental loopholes which can be attributed to the Afghanistan governance in particular and its societal structure in general.

The belief that Afghanistan and its people are inherently ungovernable has become unfortunate conventional wisdom that drives policy decisions [6]

In the aftermath of 2001, model of government that attempted to restore a direct- rule model remains at odds with the realities of Afghanistan, especially rural Afghanistan because the Afghanistan society is inherently a tribal society, and the Kabul government lacks the military and administrative capacity to implement it. A democratic government respecting the will of its people would be more naturally compatible provided it replaces premodern forms of coercion with political accommodation. Kabul needs to recognize that the menu has changed by popular demand. Afghanistan is governable, but it requires a government adapted to its needs.

For a progressive or at least a stable society that Afghanistan starves for since decades, it requires a strictly efficient political leadership. Afghanistan’s political leadership is reluctant to work for a common Afghan vision and are only unified by one thing: political survival. The moment they realized that the link between their ambitions and their counterparts weakened, their alliances fell apart and they formed destructive alliances against each other. They had an inspiration gap. The Afghan government and its warlord allies were corrupt and treated Afghans poorly, fomenting grievances, and inspiring an insurgency. They often tricked U.S. special operations forces into targeting their political rivals. In a post-war situation and in a unique case like that of Afghanistan, political leaders are of particular importance as they will eventually determine the fate of reconstruction efforts.[7]

The difference between the political leadership of Afghanistan and their counterparts in other developing states seems to be their ‘perception of tools’ for preserving their power. The former sees tainted alliances with drug barons and warlords and reliance on interveners as their salvation. The latter saw economic growth and social progress as their salvation because it earned them the support of their constituents.[8]

Furthermore, Afghanistan is a rentier state because it is surviving on donations from foreign parties. But it was not always the same. Kabul used to be an essential trade point earlier. But now, as typically the case in aid-receiving countries, the Afghan government is completely driven by the interests of aid- providing countries. Hindu Kush has enormous economic potential to drive out Afghanistan from the tag of rentier state, but it still awaits liberation. However, that largely depends on the homecoming of peace and stability in Afghanistan which doesn’t looks like happening in the near future. Pakistan waits in the wings to extend its influence through heightened intervention, on account of the fanciful demons that continue to haunt it. Through all this, it will make renewed but futile efforts for the acceptance of the Durand Line as the border.

Image source: AP

Pakistan is always suspected of a foul play and its strategy in Afghanistan has always been shaped in large part by the Indian-Pakistani rivalry and a fear of a two-front war. It has long sought to exert influence in Afghanistan, guided by its desire for “strategic depth” on its northern border. Pakistan’s western border provinces, Northwest Frontier (NWFP) and Baluchistan, and especially the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) have produced disenchanted groups who have used Afghanistan for guerrilla training and to pursue their violent agendas. It eventually became an attractive base and a crucial spoon feeder for terrorists and extremists. 

Afghani extremism is abetted by Pakistani intelligence. Major attacks on schools, hospitals, embassies in Kabul have been played out into the hands of ISI. Probably the single most effective step in combating Islamic extremism in Afghanistan would be purging Islamic radicals from Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Bureau, the country’s intelligence and spy agency. It helped create the Taliban, and it reportedly continues to support them. [9]

And it isn’t just the ISI but also the Pakistani military who funded the Taliban, granted them a haven, ran training camps, and advised them on war planning. It also harbours “a degree of self-disgust for selling themselves” to the Americans. They are still angry with the US for abandoning them after the Afghan jihad, and for sanctioning them over the nuclear program. [10]

Despite these widely-held sentiments and the evidence against a strong alliance, US diplomats and generals have tried to sustain the image of close cooperation. The US should restrict some military assistance to Pakistan until the nation ends its support of militant groups operating on its soil. US strategy is focused too much on carrots and too little on sticks. Of course, at the heart of the problem lies Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. How many American, Afghan, Pakistani, European casualties are worth keeping this Catch-22 policy alive?[11]

Image source: Pixabay

Other than these, numerous key factors have complicated the stabilisation and development of Afghanistan. The political and regional environment has always prevented successful peacebuilding efforts. Indo-Pak rivalry, US occupation of Iraq and Afghan economy’s lopsided focus on opium and heroin trade obstructed regional development. Furthermore, the international community is handicapped by the loss of credibility in the Afghan population. Due to enormous civilian casualties, low compensations to the victims, humongous reports of human rights violations and the distortion of the economic playing field led to worsening of the situation.

The cost of War is too high in the blood, treasure, and opportunities, for not just Afghanistan but the whole region. Afghanistan wants to become a ‘centre of cooperation’ not the ‘battleground of confrontation’ of regional or global actors. It is tired of that and paid so dearly for the last 40 years. If peace is being sought in Afghanistan, there must a consensus on what Afghans wants to see as a result of that peace deal and whether that ‘end state’ is defined by values such as human rights, women’s rights, rule of law, political inclusion and democracy.

Apart from substantial rebuilding and consolidation of the economic and political institutions, the key to long term stabilization is likely to be found at the diplomatic level. Sustainable progress will hardly be achieved unless efforts for conflict resolution are increasingly regionalised by involving Iran, India and especially Pakistan.[12]  Stabilizing Afghanistan is a long-term task that demands an integrated use of political, military and law enforcement and economic instruments as a part of the networked society concept, as well as a better coordinator between the various institutions involved.   


[1] Who Is an Afghan? – The Diplomat

[2] Opinionated by Retd. Col Gautam Das

[3] Pakistan has become the face of international terrorism: India at UN

[4] AISS | Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies

[5] Matthew Hoh’s Afghanistan: An Insider Talks | The Nation

[6] Barfield, Thomas J, Afghanistan: a cultural and political history, (Princeton University, USA: Princeton University Press, 2005), p 337

[7] Political Leadership in Post-Taliban Afghanistan

[8] Political Leadership in Post-Taliban Afghanistan: The Critical Factor


[10] Our Strange Dance with Pakistan | by Elizabeth Rubin | The New York

[11] Our Strange Dance with Pakistan | by Elizabeth Rubin | The New York

[12] The difficult stabilisation of Afghanistan, CSS Analysis in security policy, Volume 2-No.11-April 2007

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The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Kootneeti Team

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Aarti Bansal

Aarti Bansal is a Former Journalism Intern at The Kootneeti

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