360° Analysis

Afghanistan Coming Undone


September 19, 2011 06:57 EDT

An analysis of the transitional process in Afghanistan and its struggle to attain stability.

There have been 10 years of debate, discussion, dispute, and deliberation over the world’s most important war. Yet, the question for Afghanistan remains the same: How will this war end? What’s certainly disconcerting is that the international community, so heavily invested in this war, seems nowhere closer to finding an answer to the question. While the International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) and the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) have fought valiantly to limit the Taliban insurgency to only some pockets of the country, the bottom line is that violence still continues. The people have little respite from the endless fighting.

However, through some trials, and lots of errors, progress has been made in this war-torn nation. Now, as the international community and Afghanistan take their first steps towards undertaking a complete transition of authority to the Afghan government, its chances of success are worthy of discussion.

Because security is the foremost preoccupation of the international coalition, and of the Afghans, NATO has made an immense effort to persuade more Afghans to join the right side of the fight. After facing a great deal of challenges, the report card is beginning to look better. Numbers of soldiers in the ANA (Afghan National Army) and officers in the ANP (Afghan National Police) have risen to the occasion. As reported in the March 2011 NATO factsheet Media Backgrounder, Afghan National Security Forces, NATO’s Joint Coordinating and Monitoring Board announced new troop targets for the ANA (171,600) and ANP (134,000), to be reached by October 2011. As of May 2011, ANA troop numbers were up to 164,000 and ANP numbers were up to 126,000, according to a US Department of Defense press announcement; this was an increase from approximately 50,000 and around 21,000, respectively, as stated in NATO’s Report on Progress in Afghanistan in 2011. 

Apart from simply increasing the quantity, NATO’s Training Mission in Afghanistan (NTM-A) reports positively about improved leadership training (16,000 Non-commissioned officers in 2011, compared to only 1,950 in November 2009), improved marksmanship of the troops (ANA weapons qualification has increased from 35% in 2009 to 95% in 2011) and improved literacy rates among the troops (50% of all ANSF troops will be literate by the end of 2011) in Media Backgrounder.

One of the biggest achievements of the ANSF was the successful execution of Operation Moshtarak in 2010, a massive counter-insurgency offensive carried out in Marjah in Helmand province, a town which was entirely under insurgent control. NATO’s report Media Backgrounder, Marjah: 1 year On, published in March 2011, indicates significant improvement in the province, including construction of schools, health clinics, as well as the institutionalization of a local police force and election of 20 government officials. It represents a fine example of the comprehensive civil-military approach that NATO has been using.

The international coalition in Afghanistan has also succeeded in establishing a democratic system of government. Indeed, this was one of the objectives of the Bush administration’s launching Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan in 2001- apart from hunting down Bin Laden and destroying Al Qa’eda. Afghanistan is in fact a democracy today- albeit a flawed one. This system should make it easier for the international community to assist and help rebuild Afghanistan, post the ISAF pull-out and throughout the transitional process. After all, democracies are natural allies, and some of the emerging key players in this conflict, such as India, will definitely find it an easier country to deal with, as long as it remains democratic. This was reasserted in NATO’s Conference on Afghanistan held in London in 2010, which adopted a strategy for transition called ‘Inteqal’, which, as enumerated in Media Backgrounder, Transition to Afghan Lead: Inteqal, highlights the role the Afghan government will need to play for a favorable transition.

Another commendable gain has been  the effort to rebuild the nation.  According to the CIA Factbook, Afghanistan has some of the worst indicators of human development in terms of population living in poverty (36%, 2008), population’s access to sanitation (63%, 2008), infant mortality rates (149.2 deaths/ 1000 births, 2nd highest in the world, 2011) and among the lowest female literacy rates in the world (12.6%, 2000). A large and challenging part of rebuilding Afghanistan has been trying to inhibit its massive opium production and consequent illegal narcotics trade. As Gilles Dorronsoro explains in his article Afghanistan: The Impossible Transition, The Carnegie Papers, the size of the opium industry has crippled the Afghan economy by providing opportunities for corrupt officials to further expand their wealth and undermine the progress made with respect to security. A recent report by the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR), says that the U.S. has poured in 70 billion dollars in security and aid since 2001. Billions more have been poured in from other countries to get Afghanistan back on its feet. Efforts range from building Afghanistan’s physical infrastructure, such as improving access to water, sanitation and electricity, to improving Afghanistan’s political and social institutions, as well economic recovery initiatives in areas that have been stabilized and secured. As noted by the CIA Factbook, some tangible improvements of this enormous international development effort include a rise in adult literacy rates to 28.1%, the steadily improving growth rate in GDP to  8.2% in 2010. In addition, opium cultivation per hectare is reducing gradually from a record high of 193,000 ha under cultivation in 2007, down to 123,000 ha in 2010, according to UNODC, Afghanistan Opium Survey, Summary Findings published in September 2010.

In spite of these gains, it is no hidden fact that Afghanistan is still in shambles. In terms of governance and security, Afghanistan remains tremendously weak. Those aspects of stability are so fragile that it is no surprise that Afghanistan ranked 7th on the Failed States Index in 2011, as is pointed out in Dorronso’s article.

According to Dorronsoro’s recent paper on the transitional process, apart from the insurgency, we are also witnessing the progressive “deconstruction” of the state, at least in cases where institutions were initially functioning. The report mentions that the functioning of certain institutions is increasingly disconnected from the political control of populations. Thus, the National Solidarity Programme (NSP), clinics, and schools are operating in rather large areas, often outside of government control. Furthermore, the weakness of the governance and political structures in place and the inability of the government to intervene outside of district capitals largely limit its relevance in daily life. For example, for months, Kapisa has had no governor. These circumstances give an impetus to, rather than hinder, the narcotics industry in Afghanistan. A spike in opium production in certain border provinces is another sign of the lack of government control, Dorronso notes. The only supporters of the government today are largely independent border tribes that are protecting their contraband trade and former commanders who continue to be major players in the political game.

In addition, Afghan security forces (i.e. the police and the army) are far from capable containing the insurgents on their own. The ANA forces are not autonomous, nor are they highly motivated to fight the insurgents. Dorronso also points out that they lack important skills such as mine detection and capacities such as air support, which makes them unable to leave their bases. In fact, NATO’s Afghan National Security Forces article argues that much of the problem is related to the fact that to date, the ANA has been an infantry-centric force. The bottom line is that in spite of efforts to improve the ANA, the forces are unable to stabilize the security situation. The ANP inspires even less confidence in security. The deaths of prominent politicians in the south such as Ahmed Wali Karzai and Jan Muhammad Khan are a clear indication of this. In 2009, one of the most pressing issues facing the ANP was that the majority of Afghan Uniformed Police (AUP) were recruited and assigned to duty without formal training. This has led the Afghan population to perceive the AUP as corrupt and inept.

This precarious governance and security environment undoubtedly dulls the chances of a successful transition of power from the coalition to the Afghan government. Thus, the aspirations that the international community had for Afghanistan in 2001 remain largely unaccomplished in 2011. Disappointing as that may be, it’s much more upsetting to see the hopes of 29 million Afghans being shattered, repeatedly.

However, even in this bleak scenario, there is some hope. The coalition and the Afghans can overcome both hurdles—battling the insurgency and subsequently facilitating a successful transition—through  one sustained and committed effort after engaging in a dialogue with the Taliban. This step is imperative, although it has been long neglected by members of the international community engaged in Afghanistan. By reinvesting itself in direct and secret talks with the Taliban, the U.S. has realized, rather belatedly, that diplomacy is pivotal. Since the objectives and the outcomes of the talks are mostly left to speculation, we can only assume that one certain possible outcome could be a power-broking deal: to accommodate the Taliban leaders in Afghanistan’s future government and overall political process. This is no doubt crucial to end the insurgency. The end of the insurgency could also lift much  pressure from the Afghan government, the ripple effects of which could reduce corruption and the illicit narcotics trade. Reaching a diplomatic solution with the Taliban could also mean a much more facile environment for the international community’s continuing development efforts.

However, if these talks were to be a success, and the Taliban were to win a place in Afghan politics, one must ask, who loses? Clearly the biggest losers would be the people of Afghanistan. After nearly ten years of war, they would be left with a highly corrupt government, in charge of a volatile security situation, comprised of the very enemy they wanted to see ousted. Of course, Gilles Dorronsoro points out that the Afghan peoples’ affiliations have also oscillated between the coalition forces and the insurgents as the two sides fought over winning hearts and minds in the war against terror. However, for Afghans, it may have always been a case of choosing the lesser of two evils. Indeed, Afghans may never have been presented with a legitimate choice for determining their future during the last 10 years. The messy process of ‘nation-building’ has left all social institutions in nebulous and fragile condition. Citizen-driven choice seems to be a privilege rather than a right in democratic Afghanistan. Unlike the people of the Arab nations revolting against their repressive governments, Afghan society has been left so feeble that such a type of grass root movement is improbable, if not impossible.

Thus, it is quite likely that this war will not end well. In fact, the mistakes the coalition has made in the course of the last ten years will cost them very dearly in terms of making a successful transition. The failure to adequately build stable political and social institutions in order to improve security, empower the people, and rebuild the nation implies a tortuous and disorganized transitional process. Once again, the biggest losers will be the citizens of Afghanistan, left with no choice but to contend with their fate.


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