Five years after the ouster of the Taliban regime, Afghanistan remains in flux with an ongoing insurgency and a weak government that many analysts say is in danger of losing public confidence.
The latest round of violence between coalition troops and Taliban rebels has been dubbed the worst since the fall of the ruling Taliban regime in 2001. Fighting has intensified in recent months in the southern part of Afghanistan.
In May, thousands of Afghan and coalition forces launched a sweeping campaign to hunt for Taliban rebels. Now, some experts worry the Taliban resurgence may destabilize President Hamid Karzai's government.
But international security analyst P. J. Crowley of the Washington-based Center for American Progress says the Taliban rebels don't have the means to overthrow the government.
"The Taliban is somewhat resurgent. I'm not sure it necessarily has the power and the influence to overthrow the Karzai government," says Crowley. "But certainly, it has the ability to extract a price in terms of stability and in terms of the confidence the Afghan people have in the Karzai government. It is a destabilizing force to be sure, although not necessarily an existential threat."
Eroding Public Support?
Continuing instability has cost Afghanistan foreign investment and the international assistance necessary for economic development and reconstruction. Many analysts fear that slow progress along these lines is eroding the confidence and support of the Afghan people for President Karzai.
Post-conflict and stability operations expert Beth DeGrasse of the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington says many Afghans who had high expectations after the fall of the Taliban are disenchanted with the government for making little progress. But she faults some international donors for not meeting their pledges or for sending their money and resources elsewhere.
"If you don't have resources, you don't have money," says DeGrasse. "Karzai has no money. So he's been able to rack up these successes over time, establishing a central government in Kabul. But now it's like the emperor has no clothes because he has no ability beyond the city of Kabul."
DeGrasse adds that several factors are contributing to the current difficulties in Afghanistan. "You have an uncontrolled border in the south. It's like the Wild West. You have the perennial problem in these postconflict situations where the international community failed to build the police force and the judiciary. So you have no rule of law. You have no governance beyond Kabul, except for warlords and drug traffickers. All that is a recipe for a total disaster on the security front."
Opium Fueling the Taliban
The drug trade, in particular, poses a daunting challenge. Analyst P.J. Crowley of the Center for American Progress says it is feeding the insurgency and robbing the government of badly needed income. He adds, "One of the most fundamental aspects in terms of getting Afghanistan right is reducing, or ultimately eliminating, the illegal economy fuelled by drugs. And ultimately, while part of this is building institutions of government, part of it is building up and expanding the ability of Afghanistan to deploy its security forces."
A Fork in the Road
But some of Afghanistan's allies question whether the government is strong enough to control the security situation, even in the capital. They have taken issue with President Karzai's approach to political appointments, as The Heritage Foundation's James Phillips, a Middle East and South Asia specialist, points out.
"There is pressure on President Karzai to select governors and other officials who are very effective in support of democratic rule, respect for women and other values that may be perceived by some Afghans as western oriented," says Phillips. "I think he [i.e., President Karzai] is constrained by Afghan politics, where he feels the need to distribute jobs and other government services by balancing different Afghan groups off against each other."
In response, President Karzai has said that some of Afghanistan's international allies have ignored his pleas for help in rebuilding the country's security forces. He has also called on coalition forces to reassess their military campaign against the insurgency and look beyond Afghanistan's borders for its causes.
But former Interior Minister Ali Jalali, now a professor at the U.S. National Defense University in Washington, says these statements should not be seen as an indication that President Karzai is at odds with the international community. "What he said recently was to get strategically involved in fighting terrorism and the insurgency. He means that instead of seeking military solutions, the effort should be focused on the roots of terrorism and the insurgency. And also to look at regional solutions to the problem, meaning cooperation from Afghanistan's neighbors in order to stop cross border attacks in Afghanistan," says Jalali.
A Long Way to Go
Despite these challenges, some analysts point out that efforts aimed at dealing with Afghanistan's problems are evolving and that nation building takes time.
And, according to Beth DeGrasse of the U.S. Institute of Peace, there is plenty of room for optimism. "It's not all bleak. Afghanistan's economy grew by 14 percent last year. Close to five million refugees have returned since the Taliban fell. There's a new constitution. There's a new parliament. There's a new president. And there are women in office. There's a lot to celebrate," says DeGrasse.
But most Afghanistan watchers say that the country has a long way to go. They argue that while it is crucial to put an end to the Taliban insurgency before the violence spirals out of control, Afghanistan also needs solutions that encourage development and economic growth.
This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.