Afghanistan faces a critical year ahead as the NATO-led war draws down after twelve years and an impasse in U.S.-Afghan negotiations leaves uncertain the future of Western military support. A drop-off in aid and elections slated for April, which could deliver the country’s first democratic transfer of power, will also test Afghanistan’s stability. Five experts offer their forecasts.
The end of the U.S. war in Afghanistan should not be confused with the end of the Afghan war, writes the International Crisis Group’s Graeme Smith, as Afghan troops cannot yet secure the country on their own. Yet even viable security forces cannot ensure stability if President Hamid Karzai’s successor lacks broad-based support, writes RAND’s Seth Jones, or if state institutions fail to become self-sufficient, says Clare Lockhart of the Institute for State Effectiveness. Nader Nadery, of the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, warns that an economic downturn threatens to reverse a decade of social progress, while CFR’s Daniel Markey notes that neighboring Pakistan will continue to influence Afghan affairs.
Afghan Forces Cannot Go it Alone
The biggest misconception about the Afghan war is that the conflict is ending. President Barack Obama encouraged this view in his 2013 State of the Union address, declaring: "By the end of next year, our war in Afghanistan will be over." He repeated a similar claim on Veterans Day. If the president was reading the Pentagon’s reports to Congress, it’s easy to see how he got the wrong idea. The U.S. military’s assessment is that violence has fallen and "Afghan security forces are now successfully providing security for their own people."
Such rhetoric paves the way for a U.S. exit, but it doesn’t help Afghans. If local forces were successfully securing their people, we would not be seeing more civilian deaths. In fact, the United Nations reports that civilian casualties rose 16 percent in the first eight months of 2013.
Fierce battles this year also saw local security forces endure record casualties. Across the country, the UN found a rise in violence—up 11 percent this summer. Other analyses by Western experts show even greater escalation.
This reality on the ground refutes the Pentagon’s picture of a war that is cooling down. I’ve been studying transitional areas for the International Crisis Group as we prepare a report on the insurgency, and have found that security worsened in many places as foreign troops pulled back. The situation has calmed in some locations, but local elders warn that insurgents still control large parts of the countryside and may be waiting for a better time to attack.
Why does this matter? President Hamid Karzai must sign a bilateral security agreement with the United States. The Afghan government may not have the firepower to stand without a deal in the short term. Also, the United States and other NATO countries need to stay engaged on security issues after 2014. Afghan forces have a fighting chance, but they need significant help—helicopters, logistics, and many other kinds of assistance—to keep the insurgents at bay.
Presidential Candidates Need Multiethnic Consensus
As Washington and Kabul continue to negotiate the terms of a bilateral security agreement, another looming milestone will also have momentous implications for both: the 2014 Afghan presidential election. While many policymakers and analysts focus on who will be the next president, the more important question may be whether Afghanistan’s Pashtun, Uzbek, Tajik, Hazara, and other major constituencies will support the election’s outcome.
The election, tentatively scheduled for April, faces numerous challenges. It will almost certainly be marred by violence and corruption, as was the 2009 presidential election. Perhaps most concerning, the election could further weaken the state if substate actors, especially power brokers from northern and western Afghanistan, lose faith in the central government and accelerate efforts to rearm. These fissures would undermine the cohesiveness of the Afghan National Army and other security agencies, as well as affect the scope and degree of support from neighboring states. India, Russia, and Iran would likely increase lethal and nonlethal support to anti-Taliban forces in the north and west, while Pakistan would support the Taliban and other Pashtun groups in the south and east.
The United States should promote multiethnic coalitions rather than individual presidential candidates and encourage the appointment of cabinet ministers and senior officials who represent each of Afghanistan’s main constituencies.
Several Pashtun presidential candidates have already courted ethnic-minority running mates to demonstrate inclusivity and secure the support of minority constituencies, but candidates can change their running mates at any point up to the election. Prospects for security will improve if the next president and his team receive support, however grudging, from the broad range of political and ethnic groups in Afghanistan.
The United States should also provide financial and other support to ensure poll workers are adequately screened and trained, expand observer missions at voting centers, and move the vote-counting process from voting centers to provincial offices.
An election outcome that is accepted by Afghanistan’s main constituencies is critical for long-term stability in Afghanistan. Without a political consensus, no amount of American manpower after 2014 can stabilize the country.
Economic Downturn Threatens Social Gains
Twelve years ago this month, the U.S. war in Afghanistan initiated a transition from Taliban rule, one of the darkest periods in its recent history. The transition Afghanistan faces in the coming year will prove equally decisive.
Afghan security forces will become the nation’s only defense, and the April election, promising the first democratic change of administration, will pose a critical test to Afghanistan’s constitution.
What impact will these security and political transitions have on the social and economic gains made during the past decade? The withdrawal of Western forces will be accompanied by the drawdown of international development agencies, the reduction of aid, and an uncertain investment climate. The immediate effects will be capital flight, heightened risks for investments, and the collapse of drivers of economic growth such us reconstruction, logistics, and transportation. Progress on women’s rights and economic participation, which has been a focus of the post-Taliban government, may fall victim to conservative backlash and diminished political will, further stunting development.
The dangers will become greater if political elites fail to provide certainty regarding Afghanistan’s long-term partnerships—especially in security sector—with the United States and other countries. A recent study by my Kabul-based think tank, the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, found that widespread lack of confidence in the future has already contributed to a crash in property values in Balkh province, one of Afghanistan’s strongest economies. Conflict-affected provinces in the south and east, which receive the most international military spending, will be hit even harder.
Economic downturn can shock even the most developed nations; the destabilizing effect a recession would have on a fragile state like Afghanistan would be more devastating. Development initiatives such as the rural-based National Solidarity Program promote self-government, small enterprises, and job creation. Such programs would be thwarted by an economic downturn in Afghanistan, which already has one of the world’s highest unemployment rates. Some young, frustrated Afghans with means would seek refuge in the West, contributing to brain drain, while those without means may join the Taliban or other terrorist groups.
Afghanistan’s well-being requires Western donor states to shift their focus from short-term, visibility-driven development projects to sustainable, long-term programs. Failing to do so will undermine our shared sacrifices to deny terrorists a space in Afghanistan.
Stability Requires More Than Security Commitments
There is every chance that Afghanistan can weather the three transitions—in security, politics, and economics—in 2014 and sustain the gains that have been made over the last decade. Security commitments are a necessary condition for post-2014 stability, but the other critical pillar is an election that delivers a new government that can build consensus and deliver on expectations. Assuming that such a government is elected, stability beyond 2014 will rest on its ability to tackle the following five challenges:
First, state institutions beyond the security sector must be viable; a well-functioning army is insufficient to govern a country. Vital state functions include maintaining a public-finance system; providing health services and education; planning infrastructure for transportation, communications, irrigation, and energy; and managing sources of revenue, including municipalities, tenders, and licenses. A reform agenda needs to address corruption and ensure services work not only in the major cities but also in the towns and villages.
Second, Afghanistan can no longer rely on open checkbooks from the rest of the world. The sooner it moves toward revenue self-sufficiency, the sooner it can wean itself off international aid. This will require a clear-eyed look at what’s needed to grow important sectors—including agriculture, extractives, and light industry—and link them to markets inside and outside the country. It will also entail a focus on corruption and reducing revenue losses to middlemen.
Third, Afghanistan needs a politics of inclusion, in which individuals and groups agree on a national agenda and work across historical boundaries to govern together. Though a majority of the country wants to live in peace and stability, the perception and reality of disenfranchisement has been a significant driver of violence. The spring 2014 election is an opportunity both to address grievances and to rally the country’s citizens through national debate and interethnic coalitions. Mechanisms must be established for citizens to come to terms with the grave injuries of the past.
Fourth, Afghanistan and its neighbors have a historic opportunity to move beyond zero-sum politics to find a regional framework for cooperation on political, security, and economic tracks, and cease to use one territory to destabilize another. Such an agreement was possible in Bonn in 2001, and diplomats from each regional country have expressed a desire to revive such a framework.
Fifth, Afghanistan’s new generation—tolerant and talented—is the future of the country. This new generation is full of energy and resources to tackle its country’s challenges. As Afghanistan navigates the complex road ahead, these aspirations and voices must not be sidelined.
Pakistan Will Continue to Meddle
Pakistan’s role in Afghanistan in 2014 is likely to be defined by strategic continuity, as Islamabad’s goals have changed little over the years. Yet because Islamabad will feel that it must respond to decisions made in Washington and Kabul, as well as to conditions as they unfold on the ground, Pakistan’s specific policies will be marked by tactical opportunism.
Since Pakistan’s independence in 1947, its leaders have harbored anxieties about Pashtun irredentism, exacerbated by Kabul’s refusal to accept the Durand line as a legitimate border. With the rise of the Pakistani Taliban in Pakistan’s own tribal areas, Islamabad is worried that this latest incarnation of violent militancy will gain strength from within Afghanistan itself. Its concern is that this will be either fueled by local anti-Pakistani sympathies among Afghan tribes or could be part of a Machiavellian strategy by the Afghan intelligence services to play its own version of Pakistan’s old game of violent proxy war. As long as Islamabad perceives this threat, it will exert diplomatic pressure and undertake overt and covert operations of its own.
Another of Islamabad’s concerns is to keep Afghanistan from becoming a base for Indian influence on Pakistan’s western front. Pakistani fears on this score seem hyperbolic to most American observers, yet there is little doubt that Pakistan will try to diminish India’s presence, even if that makes Afghanistan less secure. Pakistan will retain ties to the Afghan groups with which it enjoys the greatest influence, Mullah Omar’s Taliban and the Haqqani network among them, even though any sweeping victory for these groups inside Afghanistan would harm Pakistan’s own security over the long run.
Islamabad will view Afghanistan’s political processes with these longstanding anxieties in mind. The desire to influence the composition of Afghanistan’s future leadership has already led Pakistan to play a facilitating role in "reconciliation" talks between the Taliban and Kabul and the United States. And as Afghan elections heat up, Islamabad will identify candidates it considers friendly, and may attempt to tip the scales in their favor through assistance, pressure, or covert manipulation of the voting process itself.