Afghanistan has suffered from ongoing and intense conflict for over a quarter of a century. Internal coups and factional power struggles supported or opposed by neighbouring states, Soviet invasion, international isolation, and most recently a US-led bombing campaign and invasion have left the country bereft of basic infrastructure, a functioning economy, civil society and a stable government with a monopoly of military power. The Islamic state suffers from a divisive ethnic mix, with Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks and lesser minorities concentrated in separate areas. Regional chieftains protect ethnic interests and operate significant militias, while a multinational NATO-based force (the International Security Assistance Force: ISAF) is able to provide security only in the capital, Kabul.
Remnants of the previous Taliban regime continue to wage an insurgency against the government and US forces, while US troops are engaged in pursuit of supposed Al-Qaeda adherents in the southern and eastern areas. Much insurgency is attributable to the Afghans' historic antipathy to foreigners of any sort, and many attacks on US troops automatically attributed to Al-Qaeda and/or the Taliban have been no more than normal tribal reaction to invasion of their lands. A massive and expanding trade in narcotics is fuelling instability, and the country remains dangerously near the brink of civil war or state collapse. President Hamed Karzai's Transitional Authority of Afghanistan (TAA) is unstable and weak, in spite of October 2004's largely successful presidential elections.
Ethnic divisions, a perceived over-representation of Tajiks, and a pro-US policy have greatly reduced the government's legitimacy. A lack of military power means the TAA lacks any authority beyond Kabul, while underfunding and an inability to enforce taxation collection further reduce the ability of the government to function. Parliamentary and presidential elections, initially scheduled for June 2004, were postponed owing to administrative difficulties and the pervading lack of security, reflecting the impotence of the central government.
Parliamentary elections are expected to take place in April 2005. The re-emergence of warlords, some of whom were for varying periods supported by bribes and other inducements by US agencies following the invasion of the country in October 2001, has become a major factor in weakening the government. Local chieftains are independent rulers with almost complete loyalty from their tribes and/or clans. They accept the authority of central government only when accompanied by guarantees of non-interference in their regional affairs (including blatent illegality) and by grants of money.
Conflict between the warlords has once again become common as they vie for influence and territory. The fact that warlord militias are far superior in number, training and motivation to government forces means such violence often goes unchecked. In August 2004 three local chieftains launched a simultaneous offensive on the western Herat province under the control of Ismail Khan, although the fighting was short lived. The following month Karzai 'promoted' Ismail Khan to a cabinet appointment, thus automatically relieving him of his provincial governorship. The consequences of this bold action may be severe.