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Afghanistan: Realistic Expectations

by Louis A. Delvoie

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The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has decided to invest its resources and its prestige in a multifaceted endeavour to rescue Afghanistan from its failed state status. Among NATO allies, Canada has decided to make Afghanistan the showpiece of its so-called 3D approach to the reconstruction and re-habilitation of failed states, harnessing to the task the instruments of defence, diplomacy and development. The stated purpose of these activities is to create in Afghanistan a secure, stable and democratic state, featuring, among other things, the rule of law, gender equality, and reasonable prospects for socio-economic development. It is hoped that once this has been achieved, Afghanistan will never again become a sanctuary for international terrorists, and will cease to be the world’s largest exporter of opium and heroin. As well, it is hoped that the miseries endured by the long-suffering Afghan people can be brought to an end, and that Afghans will be able to enjoy a somewhat brighter future.

In the formulation of these purposes and intentions, most of the Western governments concerned tend to stress that the achievements of these objectives will necessitate overcoming formidable challenges, and will require a very long-term commitment of personnel and resources. What is far from clear, however, is whether these governments have fully explored and appreciated the true dimensions of the challenges involved. Indeed, a ‘back to basics’ approach might have led them to formulate their objectives in somewhat more modest and realistic terms. A brief examination of a few salient features of Afghanistan’s history, geography, demography, and society may serve to illustrate the point.

Even though it came into existence as a vaguely recognizable geographic entity nearly 200 years ago, Afghanistan has never been a ‘normal’ nation state, as that term is generally understood in the West. Rather, it emerged as a collage of four major and some 10 minor ethnic groups, many of which broke down in turn into clearly identifiable tribal groupings. None of the ethnic groups enjoyed clear majority status in the population at large. The largest of the ethnic groups, the Pachtuns, managed to assert for many decades a certain pre-eminence, and to secure control of the central government – but theirs was a negotiated pre-eminence, not one imposed by state authority. Pachtun rulers stayed in office by playing a constant domestic balance-of-power game, and by never overestimating the extent to which they could exert direct control over the tribes.

The divisions created by demography were compounded by Afghanistan’s topography. Crisscrossed by mountain ranges, deserts, rivers, and valleys, the country consisted of numerous pockets of population, many of which had very little contact with each other. Not only did this hinder the development of any sense of national identity or common citizenship, it also meant that much of the population was virtually inaccessible to the representatives of the central government. Indeed, for many Afghans, the only recognizable and recognized authority was the tribal or regional chieftain. This reality was to give rise to a piece of shorthand to the effect that the writ of the central government ran no farther than 50 miles outside of the capital. Or in more contemporary terms, this has given rise to the description of President Hamid Karzai as ‘the mayor of Kabul.’

The effects of the divisions among ethnic groups in Afghanistan are accentuated by certain aspects of tribal culture to be found throughout much of the country. Thus, physical courage is prized above all other virtues, and it is inculcated in children as part of their upbringing that to be without courage is abhorrent. This is central to the Afghan’s code of honour. “Aside from courage there are two aspects to this code – vengeance and hospitality. The need to secure revenge for any slight, any insult has been part of the Afghan’s life throughout his history. Blood feuds between individuals, between families, and between clans or tribes are endemic. The Afghan will never turn the other cheek.”1 This aspect of Afghan culture takes on particular meaning when associated with another feature of Afghanistan: the prevalence of weapons and their use. “An Afghan man rarely goes unarmed, even in peacetime. To him his rifle is part of his body, a piece of clothing without which he feels uncomfortable.”2 In short, Afghanistan is, in many ways, a warrior society, or perhaps more accurately, a conglomeration of warrior societies.

Afghanistan has also long been a distinctly ‘backward’ country in terms of its socio-economic development. In its Human Development Report (HDR) for 1996, the United Nations ranked Afghanistan in 169th place out of 174 countries listed in its Human Development Index. This ranking was based upon the following statistics: an average life expectancy of 43.7 years, an adult literacy rate of 29.8 percent, and an annual per capita Gross Domestic Product of only $800, even when calculated on the basis of purchasing power parities.3 These figures are appallingly low. They could indeed be even worse today, but the UN has been unable to include Afghanistan in the HDR for the last 10 years for want of any reliable statistics. That in itself is a telling commentary on the current state of affairs.

Afghanistan’s fundamental fault lines as a nation have been aggravated by events of the last quarter century, starting with the Soviet invasion of December 1979. Not only was the country divided between supporters and opponents of the Soviet-installed Afghan government, but also the ensuing insurgency and war took a terrible toll on its population and infrastructures. It is estimated that more than 700,000 Afghans were killed, while five million (one third of the population) were forced into exile, living as refugees in Pakistan and Iran. Further dislocation was created as hundreds of thousands of Afghans fled the countryside for the relative safety of towns and cities. Already by 1983, it was estimated that 50 percent of the country’s schools, 60 percent of its hospitals, and 70 percent of its agricultural cooperatives had been destroyed.4 

For even the most robust and sophisticated of societies, the task of reconstruction following the Soviet withdrawal in 1989 would have been daunting. But the Afghans were not even provided with an opportunity to begin such initiatives, since the country was plunged immediately into seven years of intense and bitter civil war, during which the destruction continued apace. This was followed by five years of government by the Taliban, which proved dogmatic and divisive, but also erratic and ineffective. Finally, in late 2001, this was all topped off by aerial bombardments by the United States Air Force, and a land campaign by the so-called Northern Alliance. The cumulative effect of all of these calamities was the creation of a calamity called Afghanistan.

If the domestic realities of the country tend to inspire only modest hopes for Afghanistan’s future, the regional dimensions of its demography and political geography only tend to reinforce these sentiments. Four of Afghanistan’s neighbours have strong ethnic or religious links to its four main ethnic groups, and they take an ongoing interest in its politics and policies. They have not hesitated to interfere, sometimes quite blatantly, in Afghanistan’s internal affairs whenever they felt their interests, or those of their Afghan allies, were threatened. Some 10 years ago, an American scholar specializing in Afghan affairs wrote:

“The region around Afghanistan is itself going through the turmoil of revolution and state building. Iran, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, (and) Tajikistan – all are to different degrees insecure states, warily eyeing each other. Any power shift in Afghanistan disquiets some and pleases others. The resulting security dilemmas render extraordinarily difficult the construction of a demarcated domestic political arena in Afghanistan, let alone a stable one.”5

Little has occurred in the last 10 years that would tend to invalidate this judgment.

Against the background briefly sketched out here, it seems only prudent to ask the question: Can Afghanistan be reasonably expected to emerge as a thriving liberal democracy and modern state in a matter of a few years, or even in a few decades? After all, it took England some 700 years to complete the trajectory from first seeds to full-grown plant, from Magna Carta in the early 13th Century to universal adult suffrage in the early 20th Century. While modern knowledge and technology undoubtedly can be relied upon to foster more rapid political evolution now and in the future, they are, however, incapable of overcoming all and every deeply-rooted obstacle in a relatively brief period of time. It is no accident that the notion of miracles holds more sway in the domain of theology than in the realm of social engineering.

Does this mean that all hope should be abandoned of rescuing Afghanistan from the chaos that made it a failed state? Not at all. What it does suggest is that the time perhaps has come to abandon idealistic dreams about the country’s potential future and to hearken back to its less than perfect, but acceptable, past to find solutions. This would involve the restoration of a fully functioning, but not particularly powerful, central government, which would have to reach accommodations with regional chieftains and recognize their authority in local matters (i.e., an Afghan version of federal-provincial conferences). At the local level, it would probably result in the perpetuation of systems of administration and justice, which owe more to tribal custom and the Sharia than to the Western ideals embodied in the national constitution, but which might be amenable to liberalization over time. Because of the vested interests of so many regional leaders, it would probably also mean abandoning hopes for the early or total eradication of opium and heroin production, but would not preclude serious efforts at crop-substitution over the longer term.

On a more positive note, the restoration of a somewhat more traditional system of Afghan government, with modern improvements, might well be sufficient to ensure a significant degree of security and stability – a return to the type of Afghanistan that existed in the 1950s and 1960s. This would make possible the pursuit of a major program of socio-economic development, including the reconstruction of the infrastructure destroyed in the last 25 years – schools, hospitals, roads, irrigation systems, and so on. Not only would this enhanced security and stability be immensely valuable to the Afghan people, it would also make it far less likely that the country would ever again become a sanctuary for international terrorists of the al Qaeda variety.

Even the achievement of these more modest objectives will require a sustained and consistent effort by Western countries over many years – a military effort to combat and crush the Taliban insurgency, and a financial and technical effort in reconstruction and development. Western governments will be called upon to expend considerable resources and to display considerable political will if they want to ensure a positive outcome in Afghanistan. But in this process, the formulation and promulgation of more realistic objectives would have two significant benefits. First, it would permit NATO and its member states to formulate serious exit strategies. Second, it would avoid Western governments being exposed to public criticism and accusations of failure when they eventually have to withdraw from Afghanistan having achieved something less than an unachievable ideal.

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Louis Delvoie, a retired Canadian diplomat, is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for International Relations, Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. He was Canada’s High Commissioner to Pakistan from 1991 to 1994, with diplomatic responsibility for Afghanistan.


  1. Mohammad Youssaf and Mark Adkin, The Bear Trap: Afghanistan’s Untold Story (London: Leo Cooper, 1992), p. 34.
  2. Ibid., p. 35.
  3. United Nations Development Program, Human Development Report 1996 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), p. 137.
  4. All the figures cited in this paragraph are drawn from an excellent study of the Soviet occupation by a distinguished Canadian political scientist. See Jacques Lévesque, L’URSS en Afghanistan: De l’invasion au retrait (Brussels: Editions Complexe, 1990), p. 186 and pp. 259-260.
  5. Barnett Rubin, The Search for Peace in Afghanistan: From Buffer State to Failed State (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), p. 145.


DND photo AT2006-P008 0044
by Sergeant Lou Penney TFA Op Athena Imaging Services

Light Armored Vehicles provide a relatively secure mode of transportation for Canadian soldiers on patrol in Afghanistan.