Is Afghanistan on the brink of civil war?

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.</p>

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.

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. Semple argues that the reality is more nuanced.

“The comparison should not be between Afghanistan now and Afghanistan in 2001,” he said. “Afghanistan in 2001 was a miserable place. What we should be comparing are the hopes and expectations of Afghans in 2001 with what we have achieved by 2014.”

This will not necessarily lead to a more optimistic assessment, he cautions: “What we are seeing now is the death of hope,” he added.

Lucy Morgan Edwards, who has just written a book called “The Afghan solution: The Inside Story of Abdul Haq, The CIA, and How Western Hubris Lost Afghanistan,” is less convinced that civil war can still be staved off, and she is not shy about pinpointing blame.

According to Edwards, international ignorance and arrogance are largely responsible for the dire state in which Afghanistan finds itself today.

“The key word is legitimacy,” said Edwards, speaking from her home in Geneva. “There is none. What we have done over the past 10 years is build a house of cards that is about to collapse.”

The United States and its allies did not understand the underlying reality of what they were doing, Edwards said.

“It has always been a civil war,” she insisted. “We intervened on the side of the Northern Alliance,” the collection of commanders, mainly Tajik and Uzbek, who battled the Soviets in the 1980s, each other in the early 1990s, and the Taliban from the mid-1990s until 2001.

By installing Karzai, a man who before 2001 had minimal following in Afghanistan, the United States and its allies prepared the ground for the present morass. Bringing the Northern Alliance back into the government alienated the Pashtuns, especially those in the volatile south, preparing the ground for the present insurgency.

“Karzai was just a figurehead for the Northern Alliance,” Edwards said. Attempts to bolster the security forces as a way out have failed miserably, she added. The army, with its largely Tajik officer corps and minimal representation from southern Pashtuns, is much more part of the problem than a solution.

“We have spent $46 billion on the Afghan security forces over the past 10 years,” she said. “This was money very badly spent.”

According to both Semple and Edwards, Karzai’s recent spate of often bizarre policy speeches are an attempt to soothe the Pashtun base.

Karzai has just finished a major exercise in public relations at a gathering of elders known as a Loya Jirga, called to drum up support for a strategic partnership agreement with the United States.

Opening the gathering, he delivered a rambling speech aimed at stirring national pride.

“Even if old, sick and feeble, a lion is still a lion!” he said. “We are lions, the United States should treat us as lions, and we want nothing less than that. We therefore are prepared to enter into a strategic agreement between a lion and America … A lion hates a stranger entering his home; a lion dislikes a stranger trespassing its space, a lion does not want his children taken away at night … the lion is the king of his territory and he governs his own territory.”

Karzai is insisting that the United States and its allies cease night raids and kill/capture missions as a condition for signing any sort of agreement. But the foreign forces have shown little inclination to heed Karzai’s warnings; they say that night raids are an essential tool of their counterinsurgency mission.

For the embattled president, however, perception may be more important than reality.

“Karzai plays to a strong sense of Pashtun nationalism,” Semple said. “His anti-foreign stance is essential for this. The Pashtuns love it.”

The United States is a bit less enamored of Karzai’s increasingly virulent attacks on the foreign presence. But, as Semple points out, they are stuck.

“The United States has no obvious way to extricate itself,” he said. “It would pay a very high price if it were to turn away from Afghanistan. There are international military networks who still harbor plans to attack the West. They are committed to diminishing the United States’ standing in the world. If they can create the perception that that the United States is disgraced and defeated in Afghanistan, it will be an iconic victory for them.”

Abdul Qayum Suroush contributed to this report from Kabul.