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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?

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.