More than thirty years after the Soviet invasion and almost a decade after the invasion and occupation by US-led coalition forces, Afghanistan is suffering from insecurity and underdevelopment as a consequence of those events. Nearly ten years have passed since the Taliban were removed from power in Afghanistan, yet the country is still struggling with instability. The security situation in Afghanistan continues to deteriorate, causing real concern and a demand for an urgent solution. The conflict today is not limited to the Afghan government and insurgent groups but also involves the United States, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), Afghanistan’s neighbors as well as other countries in the region. Obviously, bringing stability was a goal in the short term strategy of the US and its allies when they interfered in Afghanistan; but since then, the long-term strategy to uproot the insurgency and rebuild the country has been seldom raised or addressed effectively.

According to some analysts, such as Giustozzi Masadykov and J. M. Page, instability in Afghanistan, rather than being due to local traditions, is the result of decades of conflict – beginning with the Soviet invasion in 1979 and the intentional dismantling of traditional structures, thereby leaving extremist groups to fill the social, political and security vacuum.

Throughout its long and turbulent history, Afghanistan has looked more like a tribal confederacy than a cohesive nation-state. Nine-tenths of Afghanistan's population lives outside of urban areas. The country’s historical legacy and present situation have prompted some experts to propose a federal system as being more appropriate for local conditions than the present centralized government

Lack of Clarity in US Aims and Policy 
Under the Obama Administration, Afghanistan has remained at the centre-stage in US foreign policy. Although Obama’s new Afghanistan policy has re emphasized the military approach, but it has generally been vague from its inception and left further clarification dependent on developments. The new US Afghan policy was embodied in a statement by Obama in March 2009 and the NATO Lisbon Summit Declaration of November 2010. It was re affirmed in the Afghanistan and Pakistan Annual Review in December 2010.

The current policy approaches of the USA and its allies are vague and not clear about what they are really hoping to achieve in Afghanistan. In addressing this issue, the director of the Afghanistan-Pakistan Program at the US Institute of Peace Andrew Wilder says "… there’s this urgent need to re-clarify what we’re in Afghanistan for, and then commit resources to promote that objective." 

Since US Special Forces killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Pakistan last month, the debate on Afghanistan in Washington has fundamentally shifted. Bin Laden's death has given critics from both political parties in the US ammunition to argue that the Obama administration must narrow down American goals in Afghanistan more sharply.

On June 22, President Barack Obama announced that he will withdraw 10,000 troops from Afghanistan by the end of the year and a total of 33,000 soldiers by the end of next summer. In short, the president has opted to leave the job in Afghanistan half-finished because of political expediency and war weariness on the part of the American electorate. “We will not try to make Afghanistan a perfect place. We will not police its streets or patrol its mountains indefinitely,” said Obama. That was indeed a strange statement given the tens of thousands of civilian casualties and millions of refugees caused by the US-led war. 

In reality, if the drawdown is carried out, it will only lead to the withdrawal of the 33,000 troops that Obama sent to Afghanistan 18 months ago in the first place. The second round of troop withdrawals is set to take place on the eve of the 2012 US presidential election. Still, by the end of 2012, twice as many American troops will remain in Afghanistan compared to when Obama took office in the beginning of 2009.

The withdrawal date of troops from Afghanistan has become a controversial issue in the Obama Administration. The military establishment, along with several senior politicians, hold the view that the operational goals set out by Obama for Afghanistan cannot be achieved within the declared timeline. In this regard, it has been reported that outgoing US Defence Secretary Robert Gates gave assurances to General David Petraeus, outgoing commander of the US-led forces in Afghanistan, that the drawdown plan was conditional and that ‘the president will decide whether changes are to be made in the strategy’. Obama’s decision to order a drawdown was seen as being in direct opposition to what the vast majority of his military commanders had recommended.  What Obama referred to as success in regards to the “refocus on al Qaeda” and “reversal of the Taliban’s momentum” has, by most objective standards, been only partially met. And some analysts say that  by withdrawing combat forces while the security situation is still unstable in key parts of the country, the US president is gambling that the Afghan army and police can step up and perform as expected – something they have failed to do up to this point. Apparently, General Petraeus has refused to endorse the president’s withdrawal plan, while Gates has only reluctantly backed it. On the other side of the debate, Vice President Joe Biden emerged victorious as he and several key national security aides had been arguing since the decision to initiate a troop surge in Afghanistan in 2009 that a smaller force was needed.

There are not only diverging views among civilians and military elites in the US concerning the troop withdrawal but among senior Administration officials as well. Referring to the military surge and Afghanistan's development needs, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says “the aim of the civilian surge was not, nor was it ever designed to solve all of Afghanistan’s development challenges.” “Let’s not forget,” she said, “an entire year of civilian assistance in Afghanistan costs Americans the same amount as 10 days of military operations.”

It must also be noted that the withdrawal timetable announced by Obama was motivated in part by domestic political considerations; not only in the United States, but also in other coalition members, including the Netherlands, Germany, and Canada. A Pew Research poll released recently found a record 56 percent of Americans favor bringing US forces in Afghanistan home as quickly as possible. Still, the situation on the ground in Afghanistan is worrying. Obama is also mindful of the American public's lack of support for the war as he looks to his 2012 re-election campaign.

Under these circumstances, the US administration has embraced efforts to find a political settlement with the Taliban although American officials acknowledge that a peace deal may be far in the future even if one could be had, and announced a timetable for a troop withdrawal from Afghanistan.

The Issue of Military Bases
In concurrence with troop withdrawal plans,  the idea of establishing permanent military bases in Afghanistan is gaining support within the US Administration. Although Robert Gates has previously ruled out the establishment of permanent military bases in Afghanistan, he has indicated that the US is interested in keeping a military presence in this strategically important country beyond the planned end of combat in three years. Obviously, the idea of permanent US military bases in this highly geostrategic area would raise concerns in China, Russia, Iran, and other countries. Some pundits, like Bill Van Auken, think that "Washington is seeking such bases not to wage a 'war on terrorism' or to promote democracy in Afghanistan… The aims pursued by US imperialism are of a geo-strategic character. They are centered on the determination to exert American hegemony over oil-rich Central Asia and to obtain a military beachhead against its principal rivals in the region: China, Russia and Iran."

Washington’s attempt to strike a strategic military pact with Kabul to set up six permanent military bases in Afghanistan is opposed by Iran and other neighbors of Afghanistan including China, Russia and Pakistan. The United States’ decision and its attempts to do the aforementioned are reported to have been the focus of talks when the presidents of Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan met in Tehran on June 25. In the trilateral talks, the implications of US and NATO forces’ drawdown in Afghanistan were also discussed. A statement released later indicated that the three leaders “expressed concern over a rising lack of security, extremism and terrorism, and insisted on the need for cooperation to combat these phenomena.”

The Geopolitical Factor
For years, Afghanistan has been a kind of imaginary terrain for geopolitical projections. There is a view that identifies the disruption of the traditional balance of power and the competition of foreign powers in Afghanistan as one of the the main sources of instability. In this vein, it is advocated that for the resumption of peace and stability, Afghanistan’s status of neutrality should be restored and guaranteed by major powers.  Principally, every country's interests favor a peaceful environment.

As a neighbor of Afghanistan, Iran has good reasons for wanting to see a more stable Afghanistan; both to tackle the problem of refugees—Iran is host to approximately 2 million registered and unregistered refugees—and to block the flow of drugs produced in the war-torn country. Given Iran’s considerable clout in Afghanistan, some political and military leaders in the West have acknowledged that initiating any regional approach without engaging Iran would be meaningless. Iran is deeply engaged in reconstruction activities in Afghanistan and supports an expanded Afghan role in regional trade and transit. Tehran benefits extensively from the stemming of narcotics production in Afghanistan and the defeat of the Taliban’s ideology. Hence, it is not surprising that on several key issues, Iran’s aims converge with those of many countries engaged in Afghanistan - including the United States.

As another influential neighbor of Afghanistan, Pakistan has suffered greatly from the presence of violent extremism emanating from the conflict raging in Afghanistan. On the other hand, Pakistan is keen to deny India, its traditional rival, to have influence in Afghanistan. With Pakistan set to play a central role in any political settlement of the Afghan war, India has few options to counter its bitter rival’s influence in Afghanistan due to Islamabad's sway over the Taliban. India has sought to win the support of Afghans through gigantic development projects to build roads, power lines and other civilian projects.

Development Plans
The international community had a golden opportunity to help Afghans build an effective government capable of providing its population with the most basic public services. The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) was mandated by the UN Security Council after 11 September 2001 to take on a range of responsibilities, from managing relief, recovery and reconstruction activities, to holding elections as well as providing political and strategic advice for the peace process. UNAMA faced difficulties from the beginning in carrying out its duties. The main obstacle that persists is lack of a coherent policy and unity in the chain of command between ISAF and peacekeepers under the Special Representative of the UN Secretary General.

The intricate conflict in Afghanistan calls for a complex multi-party peace process. The United States has the largest contingent among the coalition forces in Afghanistan, with a strategy to fight insurgency. That strategy has suffered in the past from a lack of realistic approaches and proper planning on the one hand, and neglect of the geopolitical realities of the region and the role of regional players on the other hand. A viable peace in Afghanistan is more likely to be realized through a regional approach, in which the strategic and economic interests of neighboring and regional countries are also taken into consideration.

On the whole, there are serious concerns within the international community that without the required change in the US' unilateral approaches, including a military presence beyond 2014, Afghanistan might once again plunge into civil war or become a scene of geostrategic competition between foreign powers. To avoid those grim scenarios, it has been suggested that the US should launch serious confidence-building measures to encourage countries in the region to take a more active role in development planning and peacebuilding in Afghanistan within the framework of the United Nations.

* This paper is a shortened and updated version of the following article:
Nasser Saghafi-Ameri, "Prospects for Peace and Stability in Afghanistan", SIPRI Afghanistan Regional Dialogue, June 2011.