The future of Afghanistan? 27 May 2013

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Since late 1979, most Afghans have experienced enormous and extraordinary levels of violence, disruption and insecurity.  The biggest question now confronting this nation is how will it fare after the 50-nation International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) withdraws during 2014?  Will high levels of violence and instability continue, or will Afghanistan become stable?

In 2014, three major events will take place concerning Afghanistan.  First, on 5 April, there will be a Presidential election.  This could be a positive process, provided that campaigning and the elections are conducted in a free and fair way, a factor that many Afghans increasingly seemed concerned about.  Fear will be another factor, with many Afghans worried about participating in the next election either as a candidate or, more pointedly, as a voter.  (See The Asia Foundation’s ‘Afghanistan in 2012: A Survey of the Afghan People’.)  Similarly, all parties will need to accept the result.

Second, during 2014, the bulk of ISAF’s 100,000 forces will leave Afghanistan.  (Some will remain to mount special operations, and to support or train Afghan forces.) The 195,000-strong Afghan National Army (ANA) and the 157,000-strong Afghan National Police (ANP) will then be responsible for Afghanistan’s security.  However, non-Afghans will need to fund these security forces that ISAF has massively enlarged until Afghanistan’s weak economy can pay for them.  A huge risk for Afghans post-2014 is that the United States and other Western nations involved in ISAF will quickly lose interest in Afghanistan, like they did after the mujahideen defeated the USSR in 1989.  Afghans then endured considerable violence and instability until the Taliban took control in 1999 and established peace, albeit brutally, particularly for women.  It also was in this religiously austere and regimented environment that ‘terrorists’ such as al Qaeda flourished.

Post-ISAF, the Afghan security forces might struggle to control Afghanistan.  The ANA and ANP are ‘low tech’ bodies that lack ISAF’s significant military assets, including operational helicopters, night goggles, strong anti-explosive capabilities, heavy weaponry, and state-of-the-art medical evacuation facilities.  This differential partly explains why 2,986 Afghan military and 6,890 Afghan police have been killed between 2007-2012 compared with 3,261 ISAF personnel between 2001 and-2012.  (See Brookings ‘Afghanistan Index’, 19 March 2013.)  Both bodies also apparently suffer from high attrition rates, from some members being more motivated by having a job than by mounting security operations, and by corruption, nepotism and drug abuse.

Conversely, the Afghan security forces’ opponents, who potentially comprise an unknown number of both Taliban and/or warlord elements dispersed around Afghanistan, appear to be better organised, more mobile and more motivated.  These opponents, particularly the chameleon-like Taliban, also are battle-hardened.  Conversely, the ANA and ANP have not yet had to engage single-handedly in sustained security operations throughout Afghanistan.  These two bodies almost certainly will not be able to prevent Taliban retribution against Afghans perceived to have assisted ISAF.  They probably also will struggle against tough, capable Afghan warlords operating locally in their strongholds.  However, given that some 52 per cent of Afghans consider that, since 2001, Afghanistan has been moving ‘in the right direction’ and that the economy has developed, as a result of which many Afghans feel better off, the Afghan security forces will have strong Afghan support to prevent a full Taliban return to power.  Whether these forces have sufficient will to successfully oppose the Taliban will be a big test.

Third, regionally, there have been, or possibly will be, changes that will impact on Afghanistan, with post-ISAF Afghanistan likely remaining a ‘playground’ where foreigners feel the need to meddle.  China has new leaders, as does Pakistan.  The former will want stability in Afghanistan so that China can exploit Afghanistan’s natural assets, especially its minerals.  (One Afghan I know has mused that China will be the next ‘empire’ to invade Afghanistan and ‘bite the dust’ there.)  The latter will want to ensure that Pakistan’s influence in Afghanistan is paramount and that India’s is minimal.  For Islamabad, this will mean supporting pro-Pakistan warlords, such as the Haqqanis or Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, and the Taliban.

Iran’s Presidential elections on 14 June and India’s general elections before the end of May 2014 also could be important.  The victory of more strategically strident candidates in either nation could impact on Afghanistan, plus make relations with Pakistan difficult.  Certainly, both (Shia) Iran and (secular) India will not want the (hardline Sunni) Taliban to return to power.  Both nations also will want to minimise Pakistan’s influence in Afghanistan—as possibly does Kabul, with President Karzai recently giving New Delhi a military ‘wish list’. That said, all surrounding nations want a stable Afghanistan.  None really wants this nation to fail.

Post-2014, Afghanistan is likely to be unstable for some time.  Some Afghans seem to agree.  There is an increasing and significant movement of money and wealthy Afghans from Afghanistan to safer, more stable places.  ISAF personnel are not the only people choosing to leave Afghanistan.

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