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Security and Nation Building
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For many Americans, Afghanistan has long since become the "forgotten war." The same might be said for the American government, which currently has 26,000 troops deployed to Afghanistan compared to the 150,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, a country that is smaller both in the size of its land and its populace.1 Approximately half of U.S. forces in Afghanistan are under the command of NATO, which has a total contingent of 42,000 troops. However, soldiers from countries other than the U.S., Great Britain, Canada, and the Netherlands often have restrictions placed upon them by their home governments, preventing them from deploying to the provinces where they are needed most. Although Hamid Karzai's government has a tenuous hold on much of the northern and eastern sections of the country, attacks by the Taliban and other anti-government forces have been on the rise, especially in the southern provinces. Many of the U.S. troops are tasked with training the nascent Afghan National Army and police forces; however, the small number of government and coalition troops, a weak, cash-strapped, corrupt government, and significant challenges of poverty, the drug trade, prying neighbors, and infrastructure destroyed during nearly 30 years of war make this one of the most daunting nation-building projects in which the international community (and the United States) has ever engaged itself.

Afghanistan is a land-locked country in central Asia with a population of 30 million, over half of whom live in poverty. In fact, Afghanistan is the only country outside of Africa to rank in the bottom five on the United Nations global human development index, which measures education, health, and economic prosperity. The country has a nascent but meager army and no air force or navy to speak of, and the United Nations estimates that opium production accounted for 46% of Afghanistan's diminutive GDP in 2006.2 After the 9/11 attacks, the United States renewed its interest in the country due to its position at the center of the Al-Qaeda network, which was hosted by the ruling Taliban regime. The campaign that followed became the first in a new "Global War on Terror" launched by the world's lone superpower. Unlike the subsequent Iraq war, Operation Enduring Freedom was supported by all of America's major allies, many of whom made significant contributions to the effort, which revolved around a combination of indigenous ground forces like the Northern Alliance, U.S. airpower, and CIA and special forces units deployed in country.3 After the cessation of major combat operations by the end of 2001, the U.S. and it allies began the challenging task of rebuilding a country wracked by over 25 years of civil war. Afghanistan has become a key test of American's willingness and ability to democratize and rebuild a Muslim nation as well as defeat the Taliban and Al-Qaeda remnants that remain in and around the country. At the beginning of 2008, results on all counts are mixed at best, due in part to a wavering commitment of focus and resources.

Security and Nation Building

  • U.S. Military Forces
    • Secretary of Defense Robert Gates authorized the deployment of 3,200 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan in mid-January 2008, which will bring the total to 30,000 U.S. troops in country4
    • Approximately 16,000 of those troops will operate independently from NATO, with their focus on counterterrorism and the training of the Afghan National Army and police forces5
      • Al-Qaeda leadership remain at-large along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border; however, some U.S. officials believe the isolation of Bin Laden and Zawahiri has prevented them from directing operations, leaving them with little more than the ability to issue audio and video tapes to drive recruitment and anti-American sentiments
      • There remain few reliable police forces in the more remote provinces, significantly limiting the reach of the national government as the well as the security environment in these regions, which is a necessity for their successful receipt of resources for development
    • The NATO troops generally have rules of engagement that only allow for "pro-active self-defense" (fire when fired upon), while U.S. troops can initiate attacks (such as bombing Taliban formations)6
      • It is unclear that NATO, the U.S. and the Afghan government can establish stability in Afghanistan with such a low ratio of troops relative to the population they need to control and protect
  • NATO Forces
    • This is NATO's first mission outside the Euro-Atlantic area
    • The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), the named used for coalition forces made up largely by not exclusively by troops from NATO member nations, are deployed across the country
    • The ISAF's strategy, agreed to in December 2005, establishes regional commands in North (Mazar-e-Sharif), East (Kabul), South (Kandahar), and West (Herat)
    • ISAF and OEF (led by the U.S.) have separate mandates and missions: "ISAF will continue to focus on its stabilization and security mission whilst OEF will continue to carry out its counter-terrorism mission."8
      • As Fred Kaplan points out, renewed fighting with the Taliban has blurred this distinction as NATO troops find themselves in a shooting war, not the peaceful rebuilding their politicians signed them up for9
  • U.S. and Coalition Casualties

Coalition Military Fatalities By Year

Period US Other Total
+ 2008 5 6 11
+ 2007 117 115 232
+ 2006 98 93 191
+ 2005 99 31 130
+ 2004 52 6 58
+ 2003 48 9 57
+ 2002 49 20 69
+ 2001 12 0 12
Total 480 280 760


U.S. Military Wounded

Period Total
+ 2007 206
+ 2006 401
+ 2005 267
+ 2004 214
+ 2003 97
+ 2002 72
+ 2001 35
Total 1292



    • After small decreases in opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan in 2005 (the first decreases since 2001), poppy cultivation exploded in 2006, from 104,000 to 165,000 hectares, an increase of 59% in what was already the world's leading poppy producer.11 This massive increase occurred despite a 210% increase in eradicated poppy fields, from 5,000 to 15,300 hectares. Production of opium experienced a similar explosion, from 4,100 to 6,100 metric tons.
      • Afghanistan now accounts for 82% of global poppy cultivation (up from 62% in 2005) and 92% of opium production (up from 87% in 2005)
    • One major problem for the US, NATO, and the UN in their attempts to reduce poppy cultivation: the monetary yield from a hectare of opium is nearly ten times that of a hectare of wheat
    • See the World Drug Report for a number of outstanding tables, charts, and maps on all aspects of the opium trade in Afghanistan12
    • Production has exploded in the southern provinces, but held steady or decreased in areas around Kabul, indicating that government control of regions may play significant role in discouraging poppy cultivation
      • This development is of particular interest to the U.S., since the resurgence of the Taliban in the south during 2006-2007 seems to have been fueled at least in part by an alliance with the poppy traffickers13
        • Fred Kaplan notes that the Taliban never really left the south, it was the coalition that did after OEF wound down, and their return to the region has sparked clashes with the Taliban14
    • Vanda Felbab-Brown's Audit of the Conventional Wisdom, "A Better Strategy Against Narcoterrorism," makes important suggestions for a U.S. counternarcotics strategy in Afghanistan



Political Map
Click to enlarge

Source: University of Texas Library (

Relief Map
Click to enlarge

Source: Information on Map (

Ethno-Linguistic Map
Click to enlarge

Note Afghanistan's ethno-linguistic diversity, as well as how each group "bleeds" across the border into neighboring countries (a major reason for their historic meddling in Afghan affairs)

Source: Coalition Task Force Phoenix (

Bibliography/Recommended Reading

Afghanistan Before 9/11

Steve Coll, Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001 (New York: Penguin, 2004)

      • Coll offers the best account of American involvement in Afghanistan pre-9/11

Lester Grau, The Bear Went Over the Mountain: Soviet Combat Tactics in Afghanistan (London: Frank Cass, 1998)

      • Grau offers insight into the conduct of the Soviet-Afghan war of 1979-1989 from the Soviet perspective

Ali Jalali and Lester Grau, The Other Side of the Mountain: Mujahideen Tactics in the Soviet-Afghan War (Fort Leavenworth: USMC Studies and Analysis, 1994)

      • Jalali and Grau offer insight into the conduct of the Soviet-Afghan war of 1979-1989 from the mujahideen perspective

Operation Enduring Freedom

Michael O'Hanlon, "A Flawed Masterpiece," Foreign Affairs, Vol. 81, No. 3 (March/April 2002), 47-63.

      • O'Hanlon offers a basic critique of the Afghan Model

Stephen Biddle, "Afghanistan and the Future of Warfare," Foreign Affairs Vol. 82, No. 2 (March/April 2003)

      • Biddle assess the external validity of the Afghan Model and argues that OEF is neither a model for the future nor an anomaly

Gary Schroen, First In: An Insider's Account of How the CIA Spearheaded the War on Terror in Afghanistan (New York: Ballantine, 2005)

      • Schroen describes his experience as the leader of the CIA's Jawbreaker team, the first group of Americans to enter Afghanistan for OEF

Gary Berntsen, Jawbreaker (New York: Crown Publishers, 2005)

      • Berntsen, who picked up where Schroen left off when he took command of the Jawbreaker team in early November 2001, does the same with his book, which follows the campaign through Tora Bora

Sean Naylor, Not a Good Day To Die: The Untold Story of Operation Anaconda (New York: Berkley Books, 2005)

      • Naylor, who was embedded in Afghanistan, offers a blow by bow account of the planning, conduct, and aftermath of Operation Anaconda, the final major military operation of OEF (March 2002)

Philip Smucker, Al-Qaeda's Great Escape: The Military and the Media on Terror's Trail (Washington, D.C.: Brassey's, 2004)

      • Smucker provides a journalist's account of the hunt for Bin Laden during OEF

Benjamin Lambeth, Air Power Against Terror: America's Conduct of Operation Enduring Freedom (Santa Monica: RAND, 2005

      • Lambeth provides an in-depth assessment of the conduct of OEF with a focus on the role of U.S. and Coalition airpower

Afghanistan Today

Sarah Chayes, The Punishment of Virtue: Inside Afghanistan After the Taliban (Penguin, 2006)

Barnett R. Rubin, The Fragmentation of Afghanistan: State Formation and Collapse in the International System, Second Edition (Yale University Press, 2002)

Barnett R. Rubin, Afghanistan's Uncertain Transition from Turmoil to Normalcy (Council on Foreign Relations, Dec. 2007)

International Crisis Group, Afghanistan.

United Nations 2007 World Drug Report, UN Office of Drugs and Crime, .

    • UN World Drug Report offers numerous facts and figures on Afghanistan's massive drug problem

"NATO in Afghanistan: Press Factsheet" Website for NATO in Afghanistan

"Revised operational plan for NATO 's expanding mission in Afghanistan", December 8, 2005,


1. "Gates authorizes 3,200 more troops for Afghanistan," San Francisco Chronicle, January 16, 2008,

2. United Nations 2007 World Drug Report, UN Office of Drugs and Crime,

3. Stephen Biddle, "Afghanistan and the Future of Warfare: Implications for Army and Defense Policy," .

4. "Gates authorizes 3,200 more troops for Afghanistan," San Francisco Chronicle, January 16, 2008,

5. Max Boot, "NATO's Afghanistan Challenge," Los Angeles Times, June 21, 2006,,0,7078228.column?coll=la-news-comment-opinions.

6. Fred Kaplan, "Knitting Together an Afghan Strategy: NATO Tests the 'Ink-Spot Theory,'" Slate, June 20, 2006,

7. "ISAF Troop Contributing Nations,"

8. "Revised operational plan for NATO 's expanding mission in Afghanistan", December 8, 2005,

9. Fred Kaplan, "Knitting Together an Afghan Strategy: NATO Tests the 'Ink-Spot Theory,'"

10. United Nations Development Program, "State Building and Government Support Programme: Afghanistan," April 5, 2006, 3.

11. United Nations 2007 World Drug Report, UN Office of Drugs and Crime,

12. Ibid.

13. Fred Kaplan, "Can Freedom and Opium Coexist?

14. Winning Afghan Hearts and Minds One Poppy Farmer at a Time," Slate, June 21, 2006,

15. Pamela Constable, More Than 100 Afghan Rebels Killed in Southern Provinces," Washington Post, June 25, 2006,

16. Ibid.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology