By Ravi Sawhney
AAKROSH. July 2012. Volume 15. Number 56
As Afghanistan approaches the 2014 deadline slated for the completion of the drawdown process, there is a palpable anxiety amongst the stakeholders, especially the United States and its allied powers, along with the regional countries as to the trajectory Afghanistan could take in the postwithdrawal phase. Concerns about the ability of the current dispensation to be able to function effectively and remain in control against the likely onslaught of the Taliban, aided and abetted by Pakistan, have heightened. The drawdown plan and the consequent disengagement process in Afghanistan, if accelerated, might not only largely erode the gains accrued to that country since 2001 but also open the possibilities for the outbreak of a civil war. There is, therefore, a need for the principal actors involved in Afghanistan to apply due diligence to work for long-term peace and stability in this country. It would also have to be ensured that political processes, security structures and mechanisms for transition, reconciliation, integration as well as economic development are Afghan owned and Afghan led but duly supported and encouraged by the global as well as regional players.
Pakistan’s politically dominant military seems confident that its Afghan processes are on the way to victory. It perceives a politically weak Afghanistan as its best insurance against external incursions. India, in conjunction with several countries with a stake in the region, fears that a U.S.-NATO drawdown will precipitate a destabilising return of the Taliban or, perhaps even more troubling, result in Afghanistan’s next civil war.
To be fair, Afghanistan has definitely made considerable progress in last ten years, since the ouster of the Taliban regime. Imperfections notwithstanding, institutions of state have been put in place and attempts made to revitalise them, thus restoring a modicum of stability in the country. While there is a need to further consolidate these gains and keep Afghanistan on an upward development trajectory, there is substantial reason to believe that these gains could be temporary if Taliban and Islamic radicals regain a dominant political position in Kabul and provinces. To this end, the global as well as regional countries have an obligation to ensure that investments made so far in Afghanistan, both in terms of financial and human capital, by every stakeholder involved are saved from being wasted and Afghanistan remains a state standing after 2014 with sufficient capacity to contain insurgent threats and is not further exploited as a base for terror.
An independent, sovereign, pluralistic and viable Afghanistan that does not provide shelter to any terrorist groups remains the cherished objective of the international community. However, the strategic shift in the U.S. position from the one taken earlier in 2001 is increasingly leading countries around the globe to think more in terms of what is achievable rather than what is desirable in Afghanistan, viewed especially against the backdrop of the 2014 deadline. A few important facets are as follow:
There is no military solution envisaged to the conflict in Afghanistan, only a political one. Forced (albeit lured) reconciliation is unlikely to result in sustainable peace. Reconciliation, even though it offers an ideal solution, remains a nonstarter, with most Afghan protagonists viewing it with suspicion or a ploy to hand over the reins of power to the Taliban. The prospects of this process do not look good, particularly after the Rabbani assassination. Efforts by the Afghan government have been ill conceived and haphazard. Amid fundamental disagreements over the meaning of reconciliation, the government appears focused on political accommodation with a variety of unsavoury powerbrokers. The rhetorical clamour over talks about talks have led to desperate and dangerous moves to lure purported leaders from the three main insurgent groups—the Talibans, Hizb-e-Islami and the Haqqani network—to the negotiating table. This state of confusion has started fears amongst ethnic minorities that the aim of Karzai’s reconciliation policy is primarily to share up this constituency among conservative Pashtun elites at the expense of hand-fought protection for Afghan citizens. U.S. attempts at talks have also not brought in any results. It is felt that a lasting peace accord will ultimately require far more structured negotiations under the aegis of the UN than are presently being pursued. The Security Council should mandate the Security General to appoint a small team of mutually agreeable mediators as soon as possible to ensure that critical stakeholders are fully consulted and remain engaged in the negotiation process.
SECURITY FORCES AND TRANSITION
In the initial year after 2001, the international community neglected the imperative of providing Afghanistan with a well-trained and well-equipped army and police. Over the last couple of years, this lacuna has started being addressed, and substantial results are now being directed into developing the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), building new facilities and investing in its education and training. While these efforts and investments appear to be yielding dividends, it remains a work in progress that is unlikely to be complete by the time of the 2014 deadline.
Here are some of the salient issues that merit attention:
Shape and Composition of ANA:
The regional dimensions as well as the lack of resources impose a serious limitation on the Afghan National Army’s (ANA’s) ability to respond to threat on its own at present or in the foreseeable future. It is unlikely, for example, that ANA would be able to confront the threat from terrorist safe terrains in Pakistan’s border areas without significant assistance from U.S. intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets in the region. In addition, ANA just cannot afford a modern air force. U.S. and NATO forces would be required to provide air cover for quite some time to come.
Recruitment and retention policies as well as attracting quality people who are suitable, committed and educated both in the ranks as well in officers cadre would continue to pose difficulties. Given the low levels of education facilities in Afghanistan, it is not surprising to find that approximately 70% of ANA is functionally illiterate. To mould it into an effective army would be a challenging task. There is also an essential imperative of having an ethnically diverse army. A rough estimate indicates that while the presence of the Pashtuns at all levels corresponds to their general proportion of the population, the Tajiks continue to dominate the officer and NCO ranks. In contrast, the Hazaras, the Uzbeks and other minorities are significantly underrepresented. These discrepancies fuel factionalism and deepen patronage politics.
Logistics and Administration:
The existing logistics systems are underdeveloped and less than efficient. Insufficient logistics and supply chains often hinder operational effectiveness. This serious lacuna must be immediately addressed. In their quest to have a modern army, the Afghan legislature and executive must be assisted in adopting a comprehensive body of law or decrees to define the army’s role as well as its administrative structure.
The medium-term viability of the ANSF depends critically on funding being available beyond 2014. Undoubtedly, the Afghanistan government will not be in a position to fund the ANSF. Rough estimates come to 3–4 billion dollars a year. This amount would be insignificant compared to the savings that would accrue especially to the United States after the drawdown of their forces. NATO would also have significant savings with the withdrawal of their combatants from Afghanistan in 2014. There should, therefore, be an agreement drawn for an annual grant for ANA for at least 10 years, to be reviewed at the end of this period. India is expected to contribute in a major way by training and equipping the ANSF as outlined in its agreement with Afghanistan.
Afghanistan’s Security Structure:
There is an immediate need to create/strengthen as well as institutionalise a cohesive security structure that should evolve policies regarding important questions such as the ultimate force size, equipment and infrastructure expenditure. At the moment, such vital decisions are being taken mostly on an ad hoc basis. There is a requirement to further prepare the Afghanistan government’s Office of National Security Council (ONSC) as a lead coordinating body in charge of prioritising security sector policies and expenditure.
DEVELOPMENT AND ECONOMIC SUSTENANCE
Despite billions of dollars being poured into Afghanistan since 2001, it remains one of the poorest countries in the world. Nevertheless, there is a sea of improvement on almost all parameters of human development compared to the dark period of the Taliban. Seven million children are in schools, with nearly 30%–40% of them being girls. Health facilities, roads, bridges, power lines, dams, telecommunication services, industries, construction, almost every field of activity have seen remarkable improvement.
But there has also been a downside to the development process, not the least of which is the resurgence in the narcotics economy. Equally bad is the impression that much of the boom has resulted in Afghanistan developing into a “war economy.” Over the last decade, there has been far too much reliance on international donors to fund the business of the Afghan government and little effort to develop indigenous sources of revenue. The overdependence on foreign sources for funds has skewed development priorities. Making the situation worse is the fact that much of international assistance has been poorly conceived and implemented and lack of robust monitoring has led to massive leakages and misappropriation of funds by both local and foreign contractors and consultants.
The withdrawal of the foreign forces will almost certainly have a major impact on the Afghan economy. Even if the Taliban and the uncertain security situation are wished away for a moment, the big question of how the Afghan government will meet its expenses and obligations if and when the foreign funding starts to drop remains unanswered. Things are, however, not as bleak as they appear at first sight. No doubt the Afghan state will need external funding for both security and nonsecurity activities for at least a further decade after 2015. But with tax revenues rising and the prospect of increased revenue from mineral exploitation and revenues from transit charges on possible gas pipelines, Afghanistan might be able to reduce its dependence on external aid sharply after 2020. In order to make Afghanistan self-sustaining after 2014, it should be allowed to become an economic bridge between south Asia and central Asia and beyond through multimodal corridors and allied infrastructure projects. This would not only generate enormous transit revenues for Afghanistan but would also facilitate investments in Afghanistan, at the same time giving an enormous fillip to its trade, commerce and economic activity.
STRATEGIC PARTNERSHIP AGREEMENT BETWEEN THE U.S. AND AFGHANISTAN
The strategic partnership agreement signed by Kabul and Washington marks a new phase in the political evolution of the northwestern subcontinent amidst the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan.
The agreement is meant to demonstrate the long-term U.S. commitment to the security and stability of Afghanistan. Sceptics in the region and in Washington, however, will wonder how long the current American policy might survive amidst the uncertainties in Washington and Kabul. One proposition, though, appears definitive. Contrary to the popular assumption in the subcontinent, the U.S. military role in Afghanistan is not coming to an end in 2014. What stops in 2014 is the direct participation of American troops in Kabul’s war against the Taliban and its associates with sanctuaries in Pakistan. The indications now are that the U.S. will retain a significant military presence in Afghanistan after 2014 to help Kabul defend itself against its adversaries. The size of this American presence, the legal basis for it and its full range of the military missions are being negotiated between Kabul and Washington. On his part, U.S. president Barack Obama is signalling that America will not abandon Afghanistan the way it did in the late 1980s when the Soviet occupation came to an end. Obama also wants to protect American interests in the region. These include preventing the al-Qaeda from regaining a home in Afghanistan after U.S. withdrawal and disrupting its current networks in Pakistan.
Thanks to the withdrawal of most American forces currently in Afghanistan (about 90,000), the new U.S. commitment to Kabul will involve only a small fraction of the current expenditure, in blood and treasure. Therefore, in theory at least, the new American commitments should be politically sustainable in Washington, where the appetite for a prolonged war in Afghanistan has begun to evaporate.
VIEW FROM PINDI
Besides the credibility of the Western promises, the big question is about Pakistan’s attitude towards a long-term U.S. military presence in Afghanistan. Until now, the principal patron of the Afghan insurgency, the Pakistan army had bet that Kabul might be a pushover after the U.S. forces stopped fighting in Afghanistan by the end of 2014. The Pakistan army’s recalibration of its Afghan strategy will depend on how robust the U.S. strategy appears in Rawalpindi. A rapidly deteriorating economic condition and the unfinished threat from the Pakistani Taliban might, optimists hope, compel Rawalpindi to be more cooperative with the United States. The pessimists will insist that Rawalpindi has invested far too much in the Afghan insurgency to be able to pull back and support a genuine reconciliation in Kabul.
ROLE OF EXTERNAL POWERS OTHER THAN THE U.S.
All countries in the region barring one want peace and stability in an independent and sovereign Afghanistan. Russia is most concerned about drug trafficking from Afghanistan besides fears of a Taliban-like ideology gaining ground in the region with spill-over effects in southern Russia. It is cooperating with NATO in logistics in Afghanistan but has concerns about some undercurrents of U.S. truck with Islamists. It has concerns about the implications of a long-term U.S. presence in Afghanistan as part of America’s Greater Central Asian Policy.
Iran is suffering the most from the drug-trafficking problem. The extremist Sunni ideology of the Taliban is anathema to the Shias of Iran. For Iran, the continued presence of the United States in Afghanistan with a beefed-up military base close to its border is a threat to its security. For the time being, Iran finds the situation manageable from its point of view, with some vested interest in the Taliban insurgency to exact costs from the United States. But Iran is ready to discuss hedging strategies if the Taliban looks like being in power once again in Kabul.
The central Asian states are deeply opposed to the Taliban ideology and would not support its return to power.
China, as usual, is an enigma. It is concerned about the Uighur insurgency and its linkages with extremists in Pakistan. It is well entrenched in central Asia and has plans to invest in Afghanistan’s natural resources. Its geopolitical strategy seems to be to integrate central Asia, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan, especially the northern areas, into its circle of political and economic influence, countering potentially the U.S. presence and the Russian influence.
The only country with disruptive intentions in Afghanistan is Pakistan. It is surprising that the Western countries are willing to accept Pakistan’s claim that Afghanistan should either have curtailed sovereignty or that the government in Kabul must be friendly to Islamabad. The West must fundamentally change its approach as the most powerful external actor in Afghanistan. It should not make a failing state its principal partner in finding short-term solutions in Afghanistan.
Unlike Pakistan, India has no notion of strategic depth in Afghanistan. India’s benign influence in Afghanistan, using essentially a soft power approach through development of infrastructure projects, aimed at stabilising Afghanistan has earned her international accolades. India has indicated that it will be expanding its own efforts to support Afghanistan in its national development strategy, covering social, economic, security, state-building and many other sectors. The recent strategic partnership agreement between India and Afghanistan is a step in the right direction and, therefore, a positive development. Despite being the largest donor in civilian assistance outside the NATO, it has refrained from getting militarily involved in Afghanistan.
The drawdown by the ISAF after a surge in the recent years in Afghanistan has created apprehensions about security and stability in Afghanistan after 2014. Political and economic compulsions are dictating the discourse of the ensuing disengagement and transition process in Afghanistan. Though much progress has been made in social, security and economic sectors in Afghanistan, these gains remain “fragile and reversible.”
The international community, in conjunction with the United States, has contributed to building Afghan capabilities in a significant way, but much remains to be done. Political, ethnic and tribal divisions among Afghans have militated against bringing peace, stability and security to Afghanistan. Poor governance, weak administrative structures, poor enforcement of law, narcotics trafficking, weak economy and a still-growing ANSF add to the apprehensions of stakeholders about the viability of Afghan state after 2014. The final phase of the drawdown would also be coinciding with crucial presidential elections, smooth and secure conduct of which needs to be ensured.
Reconciliation and integration of the Taliban elements into the mainstream has taken a beating after the assassination of Rabbani. However, a political solution is the only alternative within the political process that is Afghan led and that respects the constitution, women’s rights and disarming of militants. There would be continuing need for a strong ANA and ANP to maintain a benign security environment so that development programmes can be executed in a peaceful and stable environment. ANA would need the United States’ and NATO’s intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and other military assets for many years to come. An international military/security commission to oversee the development of the ANSF would be able to address issues of developing the ANSF more realistically. Terrorist safe havens need to be wiped out, and stronger international instrumentalities are needed to enforce compliance by the countries that violate international norms. Further, there is a need to evolve meaningful mechanisms to curb the spread of small arms, explosives and movement of funds.
Similarly, an international mechanism to oversee development and efforts to improve the economy, including capacity building, could be thought of. Moreover, regional countries also need to do the burden sharing for bringing the Afghan state on an even keel. Linking central Asia and south Asia through multimodal corridors is expected to promote trade and commerce and generate revenue for Afghanistan in a considerable measure. Shaping the future of Afghanistan will not be an easy task, and the forthcoming Bonn Conference throws up an opportunity to do the same.