Picking up the Pieces
With rebuilding efforts underway, Afghanistan will continue to pose a challenge for the international community and regional powers even after troops withdraw in 2014.
T he Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG), in its recent report on Afghanistan, focused on what has been the subject of discussions from common Afghans to the closeddoor meetings of diplomats: what is going to happen to the country after 2014? This will be a decisive year for Afghanistan and the global community as international troops begin withdrawing after handing over full charge of the country’s security to nascent Afghan security forces.
The report titled, “The Long, Hard Road to the 2014 Transition” paints a bleak picture of the future of an already struggling nation. It mentions a government crisis likely to emerge from the failure of the existing administration to hold presidential elections on time and free of fraud as reported during 2009 as well as ethnic divisions among the Afghan civil society. Most troubling, however, is that the report questions the capability of the Afghan security forces to absorb shocks from various ethnic groups in case of a political crisis and from the Taliban and other armed groups, anxiously awaiting international withdrawal.
The Afghan government angrily reacted by terming the ICG report as “nonsense and garbage.” A government spokesperson, in an apparent bid to dispel the despair expressed in the report, said that NATO withdrawal in 2014 is not going to make any difference provided the international community fulfils its pledges of future support. The spokesperson is right to some extent as the procommunist government in Afghanistan lasted for three years instead of three months as was predicted by many observers following the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan in 1988 and collapsed only when the aid pipeline from the crumbled USSR dried up.
Equally encouraging are the remarks from President Hamid Karzai stating that he would not stay a single day beyond his constitutional term in office and would hand over power to the one who emerges successful in the next general elections. Let’s believe the Afghan government spokesperson for a moment that the 350,000 security forces, where the desertion rate is 20 percent right now, would stay intact and fight the Taliban. Let us also trust President Karzai when he says that he is not going to stay in office beyond his constitutional term. There still remain several ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ which irk the minds of President Karzai’s political opponents and the international community.
What if the president supports a member of his family and uses his influence to elect him as the next leader of the war-torn country thus providing an excuse to the minority Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras etc to challenge the process, mirroring what happened during the 2009 presidential elections? And who will guarantee that the desertion rate of the Afghan security forces will drop after the withdrawal and local troops will be in a better position to defend their land against the emboldened Taliban? Additionally, the years of war and civil strife have created serious divisions in the Afghan society, leaving people with a major trust deficit. Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks, and others seem more interested to safeguard the rights of their respective communities and rally behind their ethnic leaders instead of standing behind a national character.
But this is only one side of the picture. Apart from the several ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ connected with the existing political and security situation in Afghanistan, some encouraging signs do emerge. Despite the increasing number of Taliban attacks, the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) are very much intact and are often praised by the officers of the international troops in their fight against the Taliban. Apart from a few green-onblue attacks over the months, there is no news of mutiny by units or a bid by officers to overtake the government.
Young leadership is emerging in the country and new political parties and alliances are being formed illustrating a growing trend towards ballot instead of bullet. It is a fact that several functionaries of the Afghan government and a number of parliamentarians are on the list of human rights organizations for violating human rights during the civil war and are accused of still possessing their piles of arms and private militias. The other side of the coin shows that voices are being raised against such people from time to time by the Afghan society.
Afghan parents, who were once proud of their children serving as holy warriors, are now more conscious of arming them with modern education, skills and knowledge. This change in mindset can be judged from new strategies. The Taliban who once openly spoke against girls’ education now say that they are not opposed to the education of women “if that is in line with Islam.”
That Afghanistan has not achieved stability with leaps and bounds is no doubt a fact, but expecting this would require a deeper look into ground realities. Afghanistan finds itself in a precarious situation, marred by three decades of war, huge manpower living abroad, a population impoverished by war and interference by neighbors as well as regional and super powers.
Though the ICG warning of “time is running out” may be meant for the Afghan government and the Afghan people, time is essentially running out largely for Afghanistan’s neighbors to stop interfering and let Afghans decide which way they would like to be governed. Time is running out for regional powers to stop defeating each other on the Afghan turf and harness cooperation instead of confrontation. Time is also running out for NATO partners to stop imposing a solution of their choice and support Afghans to find a realistic solution to the crisis while preventing regional dominance.
In the face of mounting Taliban strength in Pakistan’s tribal areas, a failure in stabilizing Afghanistan would not only prove to be a mammoth waste of blood and money but will also invite more destruction in the region, endangering peace in the greater South Asian region.