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Is Afghanistan on the brink of civil war?

The withdrawal of foreign forces could leave Afghanistan on the brink of social, political and economic collapse. Is there still time to avoid disaster?

Afghanistan civil war 2011 11 23Enlarge
Afghan National Army soldiers look on during a ceremony to commemorate the 1992 toppling of a Soviet-backed regime in Kabul on April 28, 2010. (Massoud Hossaini/AFP/Getty Images)

BOSTON — The bad news on Afghanistan just does not stop. With the prospect of significant troop cuts over the next year, analysts on all sides of the debate are warning of ominous developments ahead.

The most common fear is that Afghanistan is heading for a civil war between the Taliban-led insurgency and their foreign backers, on the one hand, and the Afghan government, backed by the Afghan National Security Forces, on the other. Few hope for a positive outcome with such an alignment of forces.

Former Interior Minister Hanif Atmar made the rounds in Washington last week, using his considerable urbane appeal to make the case for continued US involvement in Afghanistan. If the foreign forces leave too soon, warned the UK-educated Atmar, “The state will disintegrate … It is the perfect scenario for a proxy-led civil war,” which he said would include Pakistan and Iran.

Atmar, who lost his job last year in the wake of a security incident at the president’s Peace Jirga, has just founded a new political party, Right and Justice, and observers say he might be trying to drum up support for his own oppositionist coalition.

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But the warning resounded in Washington, which is already nervous about the troop cuts announced for next year by US President Barack Obama.

The World Bank has just issued dire predictions about the Afghan economy, which, it says, could completely implode without the aid money that the foreign intervention has brought into the country.

None of this is startling news to those who follow Afghanistan, or to the millions of Afghans facing an uncertain future. They have been voting with their feet and their wallets for many months now, causing property prices in the capital, Kabul, to fall by more than 40 percent over the past year. Many Afghans are looking for an exit.

But how likely is it that Afghanistan will suffer a repeat of its dark history?

“If the current political process continues, where people lose trust in their government, by 2014 the current government will be unable to take responsibility for Afghanistan either militarily or politically,” said Haroon Mir, head of the Center for Research and Policy Studies in Kabul.

But according to Michael Semple, a leading expert on Afghan politics and the Taliban at Harvard University’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, the worst might still be avoided.

He cautions against “woolly assumptions” that Afghanistan is inevitably headed for a repeat of the 1990s, when the power groups formed to battle the Soviets turned their anger, and their guns, on each other.

“We should not underestimate war fatigue among Afghans,” he said. “They are determined to avoid a civil war, even as it is staring them in the face. But it is a very serious prospect.”

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One of the main problems, said Semple, is that the promise of 2001 has not been realized. When the Taliban regime collapsed, it was time for Afghans to renegotiate their social contract, to decide just who was going to play which role in the new Afghanistan.

Instead, they were given a system in which the largest ethnic group, the Pashtuns, felt marginalized, in which some of the more nefarious actors from the civil war years were given a large share of power, and where ethnic and regional divisions were allowed to fester.

“I am not sure people have appreciated how dangerous the failure of the political process over the past 10 years has been,” Semple said. “In 2001, the task was to establish a functional pluralism in a country where the ‘ancient regime’ had disappeared in 1978.”

Afghanistan has been in conflict since Prime Minister Daud and his family were overthrown and murdered in a communist-led coup in April, 1978. According to Semple, reestablishing a system in which all segments of Afghan society can feel that they have a place is of paramount importance.

But since 2001, when the international forces sent the Taliban packing and installed Karzai as the head of the interim government, things have gone badly awry in Afghanistan.

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Some would argue that the country is not much better off now than it was before the US-led intervention.