Afghanistan’s Future is Hanging by a Thread
Last year’s presidential elections were a huge achievement for Afghanistan’s infant democracy. Yet, will President Ashraf Ghani’s national unity government be able to face the challenges posed by US troop exit, Taliban peace talks, and the Afghan economy?
A lot was at stake for Afghanistan during President Ashraf Ghani’s first official trip to the United States since coming to power in September last year. During his week-long visit at the end of March, a number of key issues were on the agenda including the withdrawal of US troops, peace negotiations with the Taliban, and the country’s economic situation. The security in the war-torn country remains a major concern, aggravated by the limited presence of foreign marines since the withdrawal of most of NATO combat troops in December 2014.
The good thing is that unlike his predecessor Hamid Karzai, President Ghani has cordial relations with the administration of President Barak Obama, hence a breakthrough on at least some conflicting matters was expected.
And indeed, at the end of Ghani’s first day in Washington, President Obama announced that he would slow down the pullout of US troops from Afghanistan. The US will keep its current posture of 9,800 troops in the country through the end of 2015.
Under the previous departure plan, Washington wanted to gradually decrease the troops’ level to a US Embassy presence by the end of next year, when President Obama leaves office. The plan had come under sharp criticism from Republicans in Congress and various other US officials who favor a significant US military presence in Afghanistan for an indefinite time. They argued that such a strategy would reverse the gains the West made over the past 13 years, especially in the face of an alarming ISIS threat and a much stronger Taliban insurgency.
Thus, the US announcement to slow the pace of the withdrawal did not come unexpected. It means that the troops expected to leave the South Asian country by the end of this year will likely be staying into next year. The US military bases in the Afghan cities of Kandahar, Jalalabad, and Bagram will in all likelihood remain operational for some time, and that the international coalition will maintain a regional presence as opposed to an exclusively Afghanistan one.
ISIS poses a serious threat to Afghanistan
Afghanistan is concerned about the dwindling number of foreign troops because it fears that its own Afghan National Army might not be able to deal with the new and old security challenges by itself. Ban Ki-Moon, Secretary-General of the United Nations, recently acknowledged that the war-torn country is far from peaceful and stable since the withdrawal of NATO combat troops in December 2014.
The UN Secretary-General’s report also talked about the seriousness of the ISIS threat in Afghanistan, but emphasized that the main security threats still emerged from armed regional groups: “The principal security challenges from insurgent groups remain the Afghan Taliban and other experienced insurgent entities, notably the Haqqani Network, the armed faction of Hezb-e Islami Gulbuddin, Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan affiliates and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, particularly in the east of the country.”
In a briefing to the UN Security Council, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Afghanistan, Nicholas Haysom, also expressed the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan’s (UNAMA) concerns about the rise in civilian deaths in the South Asian nation. UNAMA also points out that the threat posed by ISIS to the country should not be taken lightly.
The main objective of the remaining foreign troops in Afghanistan is restricted to advising and training the 350,000-strong Afghan national forces, and to provide limited counterterrorism support. But largely, it is a non-combat mission that is not in the country to fight a war against the insurgents. Hence, it is mostly up to the Afghan army now to secure their country. However, it is yet to be seen whether they can effectively do that.
To avoid more confrontation with the extremists, Ashraf Ghani’s government has been aggressively trying to make peace with certain factions of the Taliban to improve the security situation and also to impede an ISIS expansion in the country. Pakistan’s support in this regard is also considered highly valuable and crucial, and that is why President Ghani said before embarking on the US trip that peace in his country could not be established without Pakistan’s support.
The Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Transformation Index (BTI) confirms that Afghanistan has intensified its regional cooperation in recent years and is today party to several blocs and initiatives such as the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO), and the Triangular Initiative with Iran and Pakistan. However, the BTI also notes, “the country has to overcome a trust deficit to make these regional ties more effective in the coming years.”
That is not an easy task. Some experts are of the view that Islamabad, for instance, is still backing a number of militant groups in Afghanistan, and will likely use them as a bargaining tool to expand its influence in Kabul in the months to come. This might make things complicated for Ghani’s administration.
National unity government is a novel political setting in Afghanistan
Last year, Afghanistan witnessed a transfer of power from one elected president to another, which should be viewed a huge achievement for the nation considering the fact that the country has been devastated from protracted conflicts for more than three decades. The BTI currently ranks Afghanistan 122 of 129 countries on quality of democracy and market economy.
Last year’s presidential elections weren’t without controversy: the voting fraud tarnished the otherwise largely peaceful polls. Since September 2014, when US Secretary of State John Kerry brokered a deal between Ghani and his electoral rival Abdullah Abdullah – who is now Afghanistan’s Chief Executive Officer – things have slightly improved, but the political situation is far from stable.
It took President Ghani more than hundred days in office to announce his cabinet in early January 2015. It is true that corruption is rampant in Afghanistan, but the real reason for the delay was the national unity government, which is a new political setup in the country.
The Afghan economy still needs international support, but it is slowly picking up. In order to reduce its dependency on foreign aid, the Afghan government is trying to tap into the country’s natural resources to improve its economic condition. According to Afghan authorities, the country possesses some three trillion dollars’ worth of resources, including rare minerals, lithium, iron, tungsten, copper, lead and zinc, among others.
But it will be difficult for the Afghan authorities to attract the amount of infrastructure investment required to develop these resources, particularly in light of the prevailing fragile security situation in the country. Some economic experts believe, though, that by controlling corruption and spending the money on the right projects, the Afghan economy could become more self-sustained in the next five to ten years.
Shamil Shams works for Deutsche Welle’s Urdu and English services in Bonn, Germany.
Study: BTI 2014 Report
Political Management in International Comparison