International economic contributions and conferences on Afghanistan would have ensured economic stability and a sanguine future for the country, if not for the Afghan leadership's inability to overcome corruption and the weak implementation of the rule of law. Now, a new mechanism is expected to put the economic commitments of Chicago (2012), and Tokyo (2012) to good use.
2014 is nearing and two important milestones are awaiting Afghanistan. First, international troops are to withdraw from the country, marking the entire security transition from International Security Assistance Force (ISAF)to the Afghan security forces. Second, the upcoming presidential election will transfer political power from President Karzai to his successor. The Chicago Summit of May confirmed the former, and determined that the NATO and United States’ combat mission would end by mid 2013. Public rumours still anticipate whether the election will be held a year prior to 2014, or whether Karzai will insist on staying in office beyond his tenure, despite the Independent Election Commission's concerns that the presidential election will be held two months before Karzai's term ends in 2014. Willy-nilly and irrespective of the few projections over major or minor changes, these two important milestones are nonetheless due.
While the above events are soon to take effect, the political situation of the country remains unpredictable. The Taliban's recent acceleration of violence around Kabul and elsewhere in tandem with their rejection of peace talks with the Afghan government, have undermined optimism for the future. There are growing speculations and doubt about whether the Taliban might take over, or be compromised within the government upon NATO’s military departure. Fear has permeated the population, especially in women’s groups and civil society networks that are well aware of the ills of the Taliban's rule. Besides, the fraud and violence that had marred the election of 2009 has still remained a concern that is impairing the electoral transparency for 2014. Thus, mistrust and suspicion of the elections, as well as doubts about the ability of local security forces to stand their ground, seem pertinent.
NATO had a cause when it initially deployed troops in Afghanistan, but now its mission seems adrift. It successfully aimed at combating the Taliban led insurgency, but fell short of filtering out insurgents. One of Obama's objectives for sending 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan in 2010 was to break the Taliban's momentum. This was not achieved and the insurgency has instead acquired more momentum. NATO’s decision to pull its forces out comes in the midst of a volatile situation in which Afghans are worried of at least three issues. One, that the reconciliation process with the Taliban is an ill-fated mechanism, and that this would cause further confusion and uncertainty. The government’s agenda also seems to lack a clear definition of the Taliban and the enemy. Second, that the presidential election of 2014 will coincide with the withdrawal of the NATO forces, which will make it difficult to expect the election's regulation in a secure, safe, and transparent manner. Finally, the international economic support beyond 2015 is now conditional and based on an accountable and effective use of the $16bn aid that was committed for Afghanistan in the Tokyo Conference of July. There is little expectation that the Afghan government will use this amount in a way the international community has conditioned. Afghans are thus afraid of losing international economic support for future needs.
Taking a look at the current structure of the problems in Afghanistan, it appears difficult to achieve what is expected. Corruption is rampant in the government, and the institutions combating this daunting phenomenon are even weaker, and at times, are blamed of political biases. In addition, the Afghan leadership lacks consistent domestic and foreign policies. It has neither properly identified its enemies, nor given due recognition to its friends. By placating the Taliban, President Karzai condemns the US for political interference while at the same time encourages legislators to approve of a strategic pact with the same. He fiercely condemns Pakistan for its vivid role in encouraging insurgency and promises his people revenge, while at the same time considers Pakistan an honest ally, and vows to stand beside it in case of any threat posed to it by the US or another entity. President Karzai's multi-sided diplomacy has led his people to confusion, and he has been unable to ease public concern.
Efforts to promote peace seem to have reached nowhere. The establishment of a High Peace Council (2010) has even caused security downturn. The government authorities usually point to the reconciliatory joining of a few Taliban members as an achievement. However, much more has been lost ever since the council started functioning. Many influential figures have since been killed. Last year, it cost its chairman, the former president of Afghanistan, his life when a Taliban suicide emissary blew himself up at the chairman's residence during a peace meeting. The government has aggravated problems by courting the Taliban by releasing their prisoners, and at the same time combating their groups with NATO and local forces. In such a dubious political climate, the country suffers from diluted boundaries between friends and enemies.
The national army and the police that constitute the defensive backbone of the country are trapped in these political complexities. At times, elements from the Taliban have found abodes in these institutions, and have attacked the coalition forces while dressed in formal uniforms. In such situations, it is unclear whether the NATO withdrawal is indicative of NATO’s success or whether it is simply an exit strategy. If NATO’s strategy in Afghanistan were successful, it would have been far better if forces had withdrawn in 2005 when Afghanistan enjoyed better security.
Besides security problems, Afghanistan's economy is dependent on aid agencies. Despite the exorbitant amount of money pledged during the past decade, the country has an unsustainable economy. With the departure of the international troops, the economic problem will be exacerbated further as hundreds of local employees will go jobless. People have already started fleeing Afghanistan: 2011 witnessed the highest rate of Afghan asylum seekers over the last ten years. Between January and November 2011, more than 30,000 Afghans are said to have applied for political asylum worldwide, which is reported to be more than triple the level four years back. And the statistics solely consider the amount of registered refugees. Coupled with those unregistered, the number of asylum seekers may be remarkably higher. The discovery of mineral deposits in various parts of Afghanistan, which are the only sources of economic hope, are unlikely to be extracted in a fair and legal manner.
Potential Scenarios and the Way Forward
If the Taliban do not cease their violent missions and if the Afghan government maintains its current levels of corruption, two main scenarios are probable post 2014. Either the Kabul regime might collapse and a civil war in an internationally recognized form will break out or, the Kabul regime might remain stable, and an oligarchy of power sharing with the Taliban will take shape. Both scenarios sound unpleasant. The former will repeat an intolerable history, while the latter will suppress certain achievements -- such as a freer media, human rights, women's freedom, and democracy -- upon which Afghans have diligently worked over the last decade.
To avoid the twoif clauses, and to stave off the two unpleasant scenarios beforehand, the current Afghan leadership and its international allies must focus on two issues: security and good governance. Peace will not flourish in Afghanistan unless the safe sanctuaries of al-Qaeda and its associates are uprooted in Pakistan. Likewise, good governance will not be possible until Afghans tackle the problems of fraud and corruption in their institutions.
Pervez Musharraf’s dismissal by the parliament of Pakistan in 2008 had created a sense of hope among Afghans that the new Pakistani leadership would adopt an honest role in dealing with the Taliban's safe havens in Pakistan. However, much to the chagrin of observers, Pakistan's position vis-a-vis insurgents, and its diplomacy with Afghanistan and the US, has remained the same and the tension in its relations with these countries has increased. This was exacerbated by the finding and killing of Osama bin Laden in a military town near Islamabad. NATO should convince Pakistan to give the insurgent groups a deadline by which to leave their sanctuaries and to destroy their training camps.
However, destroying terrorist camps in Pakistan will be one part of the solution. The Afghan leadership should clearly define national interests and to offer a strategy to combat corruption and fraud. Simple enticement of the Taliban by releasing their prisoners will not be a lasting solution. Neither will it please any human rights activists. A lenient policy towards the violators of human rights, of women's freedom, and of democracy has endangered the very existence of the country and will cause further damage if necessary steps are not taken.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.