The Contemporary History of Afghanistan

War and conflict have characterized Afghanistan’s near history. In 1973, the king was deposed in a coup. In 1979, the country was invaded by the Soviet Union After the Soviet-backed Democratic Republic of Afghanistan collapsed in 1992, Afghanistan was thrown into a civil war between competing mujahedin warlords.

The Islamic fundamentalist movement of the Taliban eventually emerged as a force capable of bringing order to the country. The Taliban proclaimed Afghanistan as an Islamic emirate in 1996, and from 2000 the Taliban controlled most of the country.

Osama bin Laden, the leader of the al-Qaeda terrorist network, was allowed to use Afghanistan as a training camp for his fighters, and became an important supporter of the Taliban regime. October 7, 2001, the United States started bombing in Afghanistan. The intention was to annihilate the Taliban that housed Osama Bin Laden and al-Qaeda, the network behind the attack on the United States on September 11 of that year. Together with the Northern Alliance, they mourned the fall of the Taliban two months later.


The invasion in 2001

On September 11, 2001, the United States suffered a terrorist attack in which nearly 3,000 people were killed. Al Qaeda’s leader, Osama bin Laden, was believed to be the chief of the attack. Even before the September 11 attack, the Taliban leadership realized that their cooperation with Osama bin Laden could cause them problems. But partly because the United States did not recognize the Taliban, it was impossible to establish a dialogue about what to do with bin Laden.

Following the terrorist attacks, US authorities demanded the al-Qaeda leader be extradited, but the Taliban rejected this on the grounds that there was no evidence of bin Laden’s involvement in the attacks. The Taliban suggested that the Islamic Conference should consider legal action against bin Laden, but the proposal was rejected as unreliable by the United States. The Taliban also suggested that bin Laden should be tried before an Afghan court, provided evidence was presented to him. In American terms, this proposal was also rejected.

In October 2001, a comprehensive US-led military operation, Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF), was launched in Afghanistan. The goal was to strike al-Qaeda and the Taliban, who were considered accomplices because they had allowed al-Qaeda to use the country as an operational base. The campaign started with intelligence and military mobilization, and continued from October 7 with a bombing raid. In the first place, these were aimed at areas where the Taliban and al-Qaeda were believed to have their bases. The military action was authorized by the UN and broad international support, and several NATO countries provided military equipment and personnel. This applied to Norway, among others.

The United States gradually provided military support to the Northern Alliance, an umbrella organization of several groups fighting the Taliban regime. Within a month, large parts of the Taliban’s forces were defeated and taken off days, other parts surrendered. The Northern Alliance gained control of Kabul on November 12. However, Osama bin Laden was not located.

New government

The basis for a new Afghan state and new democratic institutions was laid at an international conference organized by the UN in Bonn in December 2001. An Afghan interim government led by Hamid Karzai, and a loya jirga, a traditional meeting of the heads of state and transitional government, were appointed. It was decided that presidential and parliamentary elections should be held within two years of the establishment of the transitional government.

At the same time, military operations in Afghanistan continued, with so-called “coalition forces” of approx. 11,500 men, who hunted bin Laden and the remnants of the Taliban militia. The actions were led by the United States, but received support from other NATO countries. Norway participated in a six-month period with F-16 fighter aircraft from a base in Kyrgyzstan, as well as with smaller special forces in the coalition forces until autumn 2003.

Alongside the US coalition forces, a NATO-led international force, the International Security Assistance Force ( ISAF) operated. ISAF was posted in Kabul in December 2001 to protect the Provisional Government and maintain order. ISAF was later granted an extended nationwide mandate.

New Constitution

In 2004, Afghanistan was given a new constitution. A presidential state form was established with a bipartisan National Assembly; Upper House (Meshrano Jirga) and Lower House (Wolesi Jirga). Presidential and National Assembly elections were held in 2004 and 2005, respectively. Hamid Karzai was elected president through a 2004 Democratic election. The turnout during the presidential election was 70 percent and a highlight of Karzai’s presidential career.

The 2005 parliamentary elections were more problematic, and former military commanders and members of the old Mujahedin parties quickly secured access to committees and leading positions in the National Assembly.

The Constitution of Afghanistan states that the country consists of 34 provinces and 398 districts, with a decentralized administration. However, the governance structure is weak, with no separate budgets at the provincial or district level. Power is centralized and person-focused. Provincial governors (Wali) and district governors (Uluswal) are nominated by the president and are under his authority. The central ministries in Kabul have little capacity to provide services to the locals outside the capital.

The Constitution provides a legal framework for promoting human rights. The Constitution gives women equal rights to vote in elections, and women are guaranteed 25 percent of the seats in the National Assembly. In 2005, there were more women in the National Assembly than ever before in Afghanistan’s history. Women comprised 68 out of 249 members in the lower house and 23 out of 102 members in the upper house, partly thanks to a quota system. But the women did not form a united group and were dominated by conservative and religious forces.

International organizations that wanted to promote women’s positions emphasized the government’s obligations under the UN Declaration of Human Rights and the UN Convention on Women (CEDAW). After a long discussion, the law to prohibit violence against women, including after pressure from Norway, was signed by Karzai in 2009.

Drug Economy

While the Karzai government, with foreign aid, tried to rebuild state governing bodies, conditions were uncertain and dangerous in parts of the country. In several provinces, it was lawless conditions with rival warlords fighting bloody battles. Drug traffic and other crime showed a growing trend. Dramatic growth in opium production was of particular concern. The 2003 opium crop was estimated at 3600 tonnes by the UN drug program, 76 percent of the world’s total production.

In 2007, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) released a report showing that drug trafficking revenues accounted for 53 percent of gross domestic product. The forces behind the drug economy were numerous and powerful, and the drugafia’s network extended far into the Afghan government, the police and the judiciary. The drug sector represented a huge illegal power structure, which kept alive crime, corruption and violence and undermined the state-building process.

Reconstruction and foreign support

The period from 2002 to 2005 was characterized by progress in building institutions in Afghanistan. The regime change triggered a desire by the UN and the international community to support the Afghan state building. In March 2004, a conference was held in Berlin where the Afghan authorities presented a transition plan for the country after the conflict. At the conference, donors – a number of countries and organizations – pledged to provide financial support for rehabilitation and reconstruction projects over a three-year period (2004–07). Subsequent international conferences should add new and growing grants to the Afghan military and to civilian development and administration.

Foreign aid helped to create dependency early on, and a large part of the funds were channeled outside the Afghan authorities in the first years. Nevertheless, the economy became more stable and the financial system strengthened, and programs for social development, especially in health and education, were implemented. However, both the drug economy, the rapid growth in foreign aid and the increase in contracts awarded by foreign organizations and military forces, led to widespread corruption. Karzai was unable to take anti-corruption measures or to oust corrupt ministers. Of 168 countries rated by Transparency International for public sector corruption in 2015, Afghanistan was ranked # 166, and the widespread corruption has blunted the state-building project.

Strengthened Taliban and increased conflict

The Taliban, which emerged as defeated in 2004, regrouped in border areas between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the conflict intensified again in 2005. From 2006, it became clear that the Taliban had built up considerable military capabilities. The expansion of ISAF’s operation area to southern and eastern areas of the country unexpectedly faced strong resistance, and the increase of international and national soldiers strengthened the level of conflict. Many Pashtunians believed they were fighting an occupation of foreign forces in the face of ISAF. The Taliban insurgency also had support in neighboring Pakistan which wanted to maintain the Taliban as a political actor, although the situation was complicated.

In 2014, the uprising was stronger than ever after 2001. This year, the Taliban carried out ground offensive that secured territorial control, and various sources assume that the Taliban today (2016) control about 30-60 percent of the country.

National strategy for development

In 2008, Afghanistan’s first national development strategy ( Afghanistan National Development Strategy, ANDS 2008-2013 ) was approved by Parliament. This was the first of a series of national strategies developed to meet the nation’s needs as a nation. Among other things, the strategy should provide a plan to reduce poverty ( Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper ), contribute to an “Afghanisation” of the board in the country, and provide a transition to stability, sustainable growth and development.

The main pillars of the strategy were investment in security, good governance, law and justice, human rights and economic and social development. Six transversal areas were defined as central to achieving Afghanistan’s “Millennium Development Goals”: drug fight, anti-corruption work, capacity development in most sectors, gender equality, sustainable natural and resource management and regional cooperation. The cost was estimated at US $ 50 billion, of which 87 percent was expected from the international donor community.

Elections in 2009 and 2010

A new round of presidential and provincial council elections was held in 2009. Although the presidential election was debated, Hamid Karzai was re-elected for a second, and last term, as president. In September 2010, elections for a new parliament were held. For the first time, the elections were conducted by Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission (IEC).

The 2010 parliamentary elections, and the subsequent inauguration of parliament, caused tensions between ethnic groups following allegations of electoral fraud, especially in southern parts of the country. It was claimed that the country’s largest ethnic group, the Pashtuns, was given too little representation, which almost led to a constitutional crisis.

The Kabul Process in 2010

2010 was an important year for Afghanistan. In January, a conference was held in London, hosted by the UK, UN and Afghan authorities, where foreign ministers and representatives from more than 70 countries and international organizations met. It was agreed to prioritize the main objectives of the 2008 strategy (ANDS).

The follow-up took place at an international conference in Kabul in July of that year, also called the “Kabul Process”. This process resulted in the development of 23 National Priority Programs (NPPs) with the goal of better economic growth and job creation. Later that year, the NATO Summit in Lisbon began discussions on reducing the presence of international military forces in Afghanistan.

Withdrawal of forces

The regional “Istanbul Process” started in 2011. It resulted in 13 countries agreeing to support Afghanistan in the development of a number of activities to stabilize the country by 2014, when the foreign military forces were expected to withdraw. The aim was, among other things, to combat drug trafficking, terrorism, poverty and extremism, and to agree on a plan that included everything from road and rail construction to strengthened border controls. At a meeting in Kazakhstan in 2013, a declaration was adopted supporting the withdrawal of international forces by 2014.

The NATO alliance wanted to withdraw foreign forces by the end of 2014. In 2011, ISAF began the process of transferring security responsibilities to Afghan National Security Forces and police, later followed up at the NATO conference in Chicago in 2012. This led to that both the authorities and international partners place greater emphasis on the prerequisites for long-term development. At a conference in Tokyo the same year, the parties involved agreed that extensive support from international donor countries was needed over the next four years. Most of the obligations were in areas of good governance, law and justice, financial responsibility and social and economic development.

Presidential elections 2014

In April 2014, Afghanistan’s third presidential election was held. Ashraf Ghani was declared the winner but the election was disputed and followed by protests from Abdullah, the closest competitor to the presidential race. After a US-led negotiation and a lengthy process, Ghani was appointed president, and Abdullah was recently appointed Chief Executive Officer (in practice prime minister, a position not found in the Afghan Constitution).

However, the process diminished the Afghan people’s confidence in the government, and further weakened state institutions. Establishment of the unity government “National Unity Government” prevented political collapse, but at the same time established a power structure with unclear responsibilities, and led to internal power struggles.

In 2014, ISAF withdrew its international forces from all military bases, transferring responsibility for national security to Afghan security forces and authorities. Despite training and training, the Afghan military is still weak, and therefore not well equipped to assume responsibility.

In 2015, Ghani, Abdullah and President Barack Obama met in the United States. Following this, Obama announced a new agreement on the continued presence of 10,000 soldiers until 2016, as opposed to 5000 as previously agreed.

Peace talks with the Taliban

Despite major civilian and military investments in Afghanistan, the Taliban’s influence and support has increased in several provinces. The reasons include people’s dissatisfaction with government policy, poverty, widespread corruption, lack of law and right and opposition to Western influence. Another reason is that Afghan security forces are unable to contribute to enhanced security and protection of the local population during a period of increasing discontent and tension intensity.

In 2010, then-President Karzai created “Afghanistan’s Supreme Peace Council” (The Afghanistan High Peace Council, HPC) to lead talks with the Taliban. Members also included Taliban members. The Council has played an important role in attempting formal and informal talks with the rebel groups for reconciliation and reintegration.

The Taliban political office was established in Doha, Qatar 2013 in connection with the peace talks with Afghanistan. However, several attempts to negotiate with the Taliban have not progressed, partly because of divisions within the Taliban. Until 2015, a relatively unified group within the Taliban ruled its operations in Afghanistan from the border areas of Pakistan, based in Quetta. But the confirmation of Mohammad Omar’s death in 2015, and the appointment of new leader, Akhtar Mohammed Mansour, led to increased tensions in the organization.

In 2016, the Quadrilateral Coordination Group, made up of representatives from Afghanistan, China, Pakistan and the United States, was formed to revive the peace process between the Afghan authorities and the Taliban. The first meeting was held in Islamabad in January. So far, the talks have yielded little results. The split in the Taliban was further intensified after the new leader, Akhtar Mohammed Mansour, was killed in a drone attack in Pakistan in 2016, and Haibatullah Akhundzada was elected as the new Taliban leader. Akhundzada is a religious scholar, known for giving public statements that justify the Taliban’s existence, and the group’s struggle against the Afghan government and the presence of foreign forces in the country.

Social development and security

The UNDP’s Human Development Index (HDI) shows that aid efforts in the period 2001-14 have produced some measurable results. Infrastructure, access to health services, education and food were far better in 2014 than in 2001. Life expectancy has increased, and maternal and child mortality has been significantly reduced. More children now have access to education than ever before in Afghan history.

According to figures from the World Bank (2011), gross domestic product doubled in Afghanistan from 2001 to 2011. Public administration changed and inflation remained low. Economic growth lifted many Afghans out of poverty. But growth was unevenly distributed, much of it based on Western presence. Political instability and the withdrawal of foreign forces contributed to a sharp reduction in economic growth, and according to UNDP, the percentage of poor people was 59 per cent in 2015. Figures from the World Bank in 2016 indicate that unemployment has risen from 25 per cent in 2014 to 40 per cent in 2015.

Afghanistan has a very young population, according to the ILO, 68 percent of the population is under 25. Unemployment in this group is very high. Poverty, unemployment, conflict and hopelessness cause many young unemployed men to emigrate. In 2015, 150,000 Afghans fled the country, and 800,000 are registered as internally displaced in their own country.

The security situation has also deteriorated considerably. The UN registered 11,000 killed or injured civilians in 2015, the highest number since the UN began registration in 2008.