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Afghanistan: Between Hope and Despair

Col. Rajeev Agrawal is Research Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • October 20, 2012

    The current US-led international military presence in Afghanistan completed 11 years on October 7, 2012. This has already made it the longest ever military exercise by an outside force in Afghan history — in fact, it is 32 months longer than the Soviet intervention. It has also become the longest military engagement in US history, surpassing even the Vietnam War, and is costing US taxpayers nearly $100 billion per year, a sum roughly six times larger than Afghanistan’s annual gross national product of around $18 billion. Despite all this, the situation in Afghanistan remains fragile, with no clear winner in sight.

    The winter of 2012 is fast approaching and with it will end the final full-fledged summer campaign in Afghanistan. Already, 30,000 US troops have been de- inducted as part of the declared drawdown plan. French troops too are scheduled to leave by December, and 2013 is scheduled to witness a steady withdrawal of combat troops from other countries as well. As regards the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), efforts aimed at their build-up and capacity-building have been marred by hindrances, to say the least. Although ANSF has been able to achieve its surge-target of 352,000 troops by October 2012, their capability remains suspect. As per the last assessment in April 2012, only 13 battalions out of total of 179 had attained the grading of CM-1, implying that they alone can conduct operations independently. Added to the worries is the suspension of a major training programme for ANSF by the United States and other Western allies in the face of an unprecedented rise in ‘Green on Blue’ attacks this summer. Already, 54 international troops have died this year in such incidents. Such attacks are clearly an unacceptable situation and have resulted in a huge trust deficit. It has led to the ISAF instructing its troops to watch their backs in the form of ‘Guardian angels’. Meanwhile, a new trend witnessed this year was ‘Green on Green’ attacks, wherein Afghan troops have committed fratricide and killed their comrades. Already 53 have died in 35 such incidents this year.

    Taliban, on the other hand, remain resilient. Though the international forces were successful in diluting the Taliban’s hold in their heartland of Helmand and Kandahar, the latter have expanded elsewhere in the North and West. Their ability to conduct spectacular strikes remains intact and they have been able to penetrate the fortress of security, i.e., Kabul, with impunity. Their multiple strikes in Kabul on the diplomatic areas on 15 April 2012 to signal the start of the summer offensive, the strike within hours of President Obama’s surprise visit on 2 May, the strike at the Lake Resort on the outskirts of Kabul on 22 June, etc., significantly showcased their capability.

    Governance issues continue to plague the Karzai administration with corruption, non-delivery of public services and security remaining the major concerns. The dismissals of the defence minister and the interior minister in August have also fuelled speculations about the possibility of infighting. The assassination of governors, district and provincial police chiefs and High Peace Council members including its chairman Burhanuddin Rabbani in September 2011 and another member Arsala Rahmani in May 2012 have added to the overall sense of insecurity and instability. As regards transition, phase 3 was announced in May 2012 after which more than half of Afghanistan and two thirds of the population would be under Afghan government control. It includes Taliban strongholds in Helmand, Kandahar and even eastern provinces, which have borne the brunt of Taliban attacks in the past year. Although ceremonies have taken place to mark the transition, there are hardly any areas that are truly under Afghan control.

    Despite the gloom and despair, some remarkable developments have indeed taken place in Afghanistan since 2001 and especially after 2007. Education and health services have grown by leaps and bounds. Trade has multiplied manifold, mineral and oil wealth have been discovered and thanks to the internet and technology, general awareness among the population has increased. There is a prominent youth bulge and the youth are aspiring to better things in life and have no appetite for civil war. Women are seen more and more in the public arena with increased participation in all fields of life. In fact, according to one study, the Afghan parliament today has the largest number of women legislators in the region with 69 MPs constituting 28 per cent of the total seats, a figure larger in percentage and numbers than in India (60 MPs and 11 per cent). One of the provinces, Bamyan, even has a woman governor, a situation unthinkable only a few years back.

    Other social and economic indicators too point in the positive direction. Health services have improved manifold as reflected in the 2012 report “Save the Children's 'Mothers' Index”. The infant mortality rate is at 106 per 1,000 births, much better than 257 in the 1990s. The number of schools has gone up to 13,000, a number that includes 2,000 girls’ only schools. The number of children attending school is now 7.1 million out of a total population of 26.5 million. During Taliban rule, girls were not permitted to attend school, but now an estimated 2.7 million girls attend school. The number of universities offering higher education has gone up to 24 where 64,000 young scholars are being trained today by 3000 professional teachers. As compared to only one Ariana Afghan Airlines in 2001, there are now eight foreign airlines operating from Afghanistan and the number would only grow. Against the recognition by only three countries (Saudi Arabia, UAE and Pakistan) of Taliban rule, there are now more than 40 embassies in Kabul and a similar number of Afghan missions abroad. These and many other social and economic factors offer hope for Afghans.

    With 2012 almost gone, there is just about over a year left for Afghans before the international combat mission in Afghanistan ends. As the Afghans and the world look towards a new dawn on 1 January 2015, there are some things that stand out clearly and have to be recognised by both the Afghans as well as the international community.

    • Often while discussing Afghanistan we forget that the country is a mosaic of ethnic, religious, and tribal factions, all with internal and external sources of support. Together, the “pieces” of the mosaic compose an image of what we call Afghanistan. The mosaic, however, is only loosely bound by a weak central government. Any effort to strengthen the role and influence of the central government or any one of the factions will upset the balance, threatening the entire mosaic and likely to provoke one or more external players to covertly or overtly intervene. Therefore, an effective strategy for Afghanistan would be one that moves to stabilize the internal mosaic and not remake it or disrupt the precarious balance. Consequently, power sharing between the centralized government and the multitude of internal factions is not just an expedient but an imperative.
    • Also, Afghanistan cannot be expected to be transformed into a modern state by 2014. It is a process that will be long drawn with numerous hurdles and setbacks.
    • Taliban is a phenomenon that cannot be wiped out from the map of Afghanistan. Somewhere and in some form, they would need to get integrated into Afghan politics, society and even government.
    • Taliban is no longer as monolithic, cohesive and influential as it was in the late 1990s. There are frequent reports of fissures within the leadership as well as discontent among lower and mid-level cadres. Mullah Omar too has sounded reconciliatory notes in his traditional Eid address. It is therefore unlikely that the Taliban can ride to power as in the 1990s.
    • Afghans have to learn to accept the country’s geography. Given the country’s geostrategic location in the region, external influences will remain and a way has to be found to govern Afghanistan.
    • Pashtuns cannot be seen as the sole representatives of Afghanistan. Given the presence of three other major ethnic tribes, i.e., Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara, a sense of mutual acceptance and co-existence has to develop to overcome internal differences.
    • Given the geopolitical payoffs of remaining in Afghanistan, the United States is unlikely to leave Afghanistan soon. The combat mission may end, but there are likely to be substantial military equipment, assets, intelligence mechanisms and approximately 25,000 troops in a training and advisory role.
    • Finally, too many Afghans have been exposed to the fruits of modern life during the past decade. Education, health care and increased awareness will not let them succumb to the traps of a Taliban-like movement again soon.

    Post-2014 Scenarios

    Afghanistan’s scenarios after 2014 are more dependent upon developments between 2012 and 2014, than developments post-2014. Therefore, any scenario will depend upon the following crucial factors— strengthening of ANSF and other institutions and the success of stabilization efforts by 2014, the nature of the engagement of US and other international forces in Afghanistan post 2014, integration of the Taliban into the political system and last, but not the least, Pakistan’s game plan. 2014 also presents another interesting problem. The Afghan Presidential elections in August-September 2014 will coincide with the withdrawal of all international combat troops by December 2014. With Karzai ineligible for a third term and no clear alternative on the horizon, the December 2014 deadline could be a huge political gamble.

    Afghanistan today stands at a crossroads. Most of the issues have to be thought over, debated and resolved by the Afghans themselves, the most important of these being developing a climate of mutual acceptance and space between various ethnic groups and stakeholders. Good governance and corruption are next in importance. As one Afghan scholar put it, there is an urgent requirement for ‘Depoliticizing the ethnicities’ and ‘De-ethnicizing the political awareness’ in the country. It would finally be up to Afghans themselves to build on the positives, develop a climate of progress and learn to live within the complex framework of internal and external dynamics.

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