Weekly Insights and Analysis

Afghanistan’s Growing Security Challenge

January 7, 2009

By Seth G. Jones

The current security challenge in Afghanistan is part of a troubling era of instability that has plagued Afghanistan for three decades. In December 1979, the Soviet military invaded Afghanistan, triggering a brutal war that involved Pakistani, United States, Saudi Arabia, and other states that backed the Afghan mujahideen. When the Soviets finally withdrew in February 1989, the country was devastated. An estimated 1 million Afghans had been killed, more than five million had fled abroad, and as many as 3 million people were internally displaced. Nearly 15,000 Soviet soldiers were dead and 35,000 wounded. The Soviet period was followed by a bloody civil war among Afghan militia forces. In Kabul, Beirut-style street fighting erupted and the city was savagely bombarded with rockets, mortars, and artillery. Out of this chaos, the Taliban emerged in Southern Afghanistan and promised to establish order and justice. But their brutal tactics and extremist interpretation of Islam created new hardships and challenges for the country. In 2001, U.S. and Afghan forces overthrew the Taliban, ushering in a renewed hope among Afghans for peace and stability. As Hamid Karzai noted in January 2002, “although the Interim Administration has been in place for only one month, we have already agreed on a vision for the road ahead. Our vision is of a prosperous, secure Afghanistan.”

But this hope has been fleeting. In addition to criminal activity and other localized violence, half the country is engulfed in a violent insurgency. The Taliban, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hezb-i-Islami, Jalaluddin Haqqani’s network, al Qa’ida, and other groups are involved in a sustained effort to overthrow the government and coerce foreign troops to leave. This chapter examines security ” and insecurity ” in Afghanistan using The Asia Foundation 2008 survey data. It adopts a bounded definition of security that focuses on personal safety, and asks three major questions. What are Afghan perceptions of the security environment? How do these perceptions vary across the country? And how do Afghans feel about their security institutions, especially the Afghan National Police (ANP) and Afghan National Army (ANA)?

The chapter argues that Afghans continue to believe that the security situation is the most significant problem facing their country, and that insecurity currently engulfs over half the country in an arc that covers much of the Western, Southern, and Eastern portions of the country. The chapter is divided into five sections. The first examines the concept of security and its impact on the local population. The second section examines Afghan perceptions of security: What are they? And how have they changed over time? The third assesses the security environment across Afghanistan’s 34 provinces. The fourth section explores perceptions of Afghan security forces. And the final section offers brief conclusions.

Security and the Center of Gravity Security is the cornerstone of a viable, effective state. The German sociologist Max Weber defined the state as “a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory.” A monopoly of force involves overcoming groups that threaten the state and its population, such as militant groups, criminal networks, and other “spoilers.” In addition to personal safety, some have broadened the definition of security to include “human security,” which can involve a range of other issues such as political security, community security, economic security, food security, health security, and environmental security. The Human Security Report 2005 divides human security into two types. The first focuses on “violent threats to individuals,” while the second argues that the “threat agenda should be broadened to include hunger, disease, and natural disasters because these kill far more people than war, genocide, and terrorism combined.”

This chapter focuses on a bounded definition of security to include issues related to personal safety rather than broader conceptualizations, for the following reasons: First, establishing a safe environment is a critical precondition for accomplishing other goals in states like Afghanistan that are engaged in state-building and counterinsurgency. As Maley, Dalton, and Ruparelia and Rennie all point out in this volume, other objectives, such as economic growth, effective democracy and state legitimacy generally require security as a precondition. The absence of security makes it difficult to rebuild political, economic, and other sectors. In the health sector, for instance, a lack of security can impede progress in the construction of hospitals and health clinics, slow immunization campaigns, and affect the labor force if healthcare providers are intimidated or threatened with kidnapping. Patients can also be deterred from seeking health care because of security concerns. Second, a bounded definition of security allows us to focus more deeply on aspects of safety, such as how conditions vary between geographical areas and the quality of security forces, that would be skimmed over in a broader study.

To read the remainder of the chapter and the other five essays, click here:

Seth Jones is a Political Scientist at RAND Corporation and a contributor to The Asia Foundation’s most recent report, “State Building, Security, and Social Change in Afghanistan,” which is a collection of six essays that analyze in-depth the findings of the largest public opinion survey ever conducted in Afghanistan. Below is an excerpt from his chapter, “Afghanistan’s Growing Security Challenge.”

Related locations: Afghanistan
Related programs: Strengthen Governance


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