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Mainstream, Vol. XLIX, No 13, March 19, 2011

Failures of Western Countries and UNO in Afghanistan

Saturday 19 March 2011, by Gilbert Etienne


Very rarely in contemporary history can one come across such an accumulation of wrong assessments, poor judgements, ignorance as shown by the Western countries and UN interventions in Afghanistan after the collapse of the Taliban in December 2001.

A review of such mistakes may help avoiding their repetition in future.
No doubt a number of difficulties have been boosted by the shortcomings of the Afghan authorities: weak administration, corruption… but the reconstruction and fight against the Taliban could have been much more efficient in spite of the Afghan weaknesses.

The Challenges at the end of 2001

1. Unlike disturbances in former Yugoslavia in the 1990s or in Rwanda in 1994, the situation in Afghanistan had a most negative impact in the country, on the region and also most dangerous implications through worldwide terrorism, culminating in New York on September 11, 2001.

2. The country had suffered enormous human and material losses following 22 years of civil and international wars.

3. Afghanistan had become the major producer of opium and heroin.

4. Disturbances in Afghanistan prevented any economic integration between Central Asia, South Asia, Iran, which would have brought considerable benefits to all concerned countries.

For all these reasons, the reconstruction should have been massive and quickly delivered. It could have hindered the revival of the Taliban. As for the fight against the Taliban, it should have been led in a much more efficient way.


1. Lack of preplanning for reconstruction which could have started in October 2001, when the US armed forces started their intervention, but the Americans did not consider such a necessity. Then they neglected Afghanistan in favour of Iraq.

2. Lack of concentration and emphasis on economic issues: agriculture, irrigation, infrastructure, industry, trade. People were more interested in rapid, better living conditions than in costly elections bringing into Parliament a number of dubious characters, including warlords, drug barons, fundamentalists not far from the Taliban.

3. Lack of coordination of aid, lack of a single command under a strong personality able to lead operations on a war-footing. Instead one comes across 2000 NGOs, international donors and bilateral agencies…

4. Delays, cumbersome procedures and lack of funds. In 2003, (the Rand Corporation) aid per Afghan amounted to $ 50 versus $ 814 per head in Kosovo, while the latter had a very limited impact on world affairs. Between 2002 and 2005 only $ 15 billion of aid was supplied, against a commitment of the 25 billion. Besides, according to the World Bank representative in Kabul, 35-40 per cent of aid not adequately spent. (Quentier)

5. Tendency to bypass Afghan authorities in the supply of aid; hence there is Afghan frustration. This is a lasting trend until today.

6. Delays in the creation of a proper civil service recruited on merit.
There have been, however, some positive features, like food aid which prevented a famine in 2002, progress of education, especially in Kabul, and health.

Drug Issue

THE Taliban drug barons, possibly businessmen benefit from such a traffic which also contributes to the growth of the economy.

For long, the US and other armed forces refused to deal with the matter; hence the complaints of representatives of the US Drug Enforcement Administration in Kabul.

One could have also, from 2002 onwards, stimulated the reconstruction of wine yards and orchards to discourage farmers to grow poppy. It is well known in Afghanistan since many years that modern apple and other fruit trees bring substantially higher returns than poppy. Planted in 2002, the trees would have started producing fruit after four-to-five years.1 In 2008 the US finally recommended that the armed forces destroy heroin workshops and drug convoys. However, Germany, Italy and Spain refused to commit troops for such activities (caveat, see below) because they feared that such steps would create animosity against their soldiers.

The War

1. When Bin Laden was discovered with Arabs in the caves of Tora Bora (December 2001) near the Pakistan border, instead of sending Marines, as suggested by the CIA officers, General Franks sent Afghan militias. As a result Bin Laden and 600 Arabs could escape to Pakistan after paying each $ 1200.

2. Refusal to commit ISAF troops (International Security Assistance Forces) outside Kabul in 2002 against the advice of the UN resident.

3. In 2003-04, the Taliban reopened fighting yet Dick Cheney, Vice-President of the US, declared in Kabul on December 7, 2004: “There is no more tyranny, terrorists are broken up and people are free.”

4. ISAF (nearly 40 nations, including US) depended on SHAPE in Belgium. (NATO) Special US anti-terrorist forces depended on command in Tampa, Florida, leading to a lack of coordination. In September 2003, some ISAF officers requested a single command without success. It was only in 2009 that ISAF and US forces were put under the single command of General McChrystal.

5. Lack of equipment and troops while the Taliban were getting stronger (2004-05). September 2004: the decision to increase ISAF, the decision confirmed in June 2005 by NATO, 25,000 more troops, 18,000 in the field in July 2006. In November 2009 the US decided to send 30,000 more troops, NATO 5000 more. 2010: around 100,000 US, 40,000 others.

6. “Caveat” meaning reservations raised by several governments concerning their troops. Germany, Italy, Spain forces only devoted to reconstruction and not to war operations.

7. Slow training of the Army and Afghan Police until recently. In 2004, 40 Germans to train the police. In 2008, lack of 3000 foreign instructors for the Army.

Some Progress

SINCE 2009, one notices progress in the conduct of the war and the training of Afghan security forces, Army and police.

More efforts appear in the reconstruction and development of the economy. Since 2009 (at last!), the supply of electricity has become normal in Kabul. A number of qualified Afghans have returned from abroad and opened businesses. Others have joined the administration.

These trends are welcome but if the economy had started moving faster and earlier, if the war had been better conducted since 2003, the overall situation of Afghanistan would be considerably better today.


International Crisis Group, Afghanistan’s Endangered Compact, Kabul/Brussels, Asia briefing, no. 59, 2007.

Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Afghanistan: a new start?, Washington D.C., April 2008.

G. Etienne, “Les carences de l’Occident en Afghanistan”, Le Monde, September 9, 2002.

A. Giustozzi, Koran, Kalashnikov and Laptop, New York, Columbia University Press, 2007.

A. Monsutti, Guerres et migrations (Hazaras d’Afghanistan), Neuchâtel, Institut d’Ethnologie, 2004.

G. Peters, Seeds of Terror: heroin, the Taliban and Al-Qaida, New York, St Martin Press, 2009.

Ariane Quentier, Afghanistan au coeur du chaos, Paris, DeNoël 2009.

A. Rashid, Descent into Chaos (Pakistan, Afghanistan), London, Penguin, 2008.

Afghanistan Info (Quarterly bulletin), editor Micheline Centlivres-Demont, 51 Avenue de la Gare, CH-2000 Neuchâtel.


1. The Swiss Agency for development refused in early 2003 my proposal to start a large scale project of reconstruction of orchards and wine yards in the plains North of Kabul. Later on the Swiss Government sent to Kabul two experts in constitutional law.

Gilbert Etienne is a Professor Emeritus, Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva. He can be contacted at e-mail: anne.etienne

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