The U.S. intervention in Afghanistan to oust the Taliban and al-Qaida is the latest manifestation of a conflict that has been running for nearly three decades. While their removal and the close engagement of the international community has created the best opportunity in years for Afghanistan to find peace, a great many pitfalls remain. Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries on earth, it is riddled with drugs and guns and its people - not least women - have some of the lowest levels of health and education anywhere. Ethnic rivalries run deep and war lords once again control much of the country. Afghanistan not only needs to revive its economy and establish a functioning government but it will need to rebuild all its institutions, including a military and a judiciary. Millions of mines will have to be removed and millions of refugees returned to their homes. The scale of the country's problems are vastly greater than those of such places as East Timor or Kosovo.
Pakistan's prospects have become entwined with those of Afghanistan. The country has experienced three decades of corruption, drugs, military rule rising Islamist extremism and a general decline in education and health standards. It has seen a continuing conflict with India over Kashmir, which now risks escalating into a nuclear war. Once again the country is ruled by the military and much needed reforms to its economy and government have faltered. Religious extremists play an increasingly important role in providing education and other services to the poor, resulting in the radicalisation of areas of the country. Drugs and unemployment have become blights among young men. Prospects for stability in Pakistan are poor but well-directed assistance and a thorough shake-up of the country's bureaucracy could alleviate some problems.
The International Crisis Group opened an office in Islamabad in January 2002 to provide policy analysis of both Afghanistan and Pakistan in conjunction with ICG's Central Asia Project and its Middle East Project. The project will examine ways for the international community to assist both countries as well as identifying emerging problems and tensions in the region.