The South Asia Channel

Afghanistan at a Critical Juncture

Much has been written and said about "the longest war," initiated 10 years ago (under a United Nations mandate) in retaliation for the tragedies of 9/11, as part of an effective U.S. and allied air offensive, backed by Special Forces and anti-Taliban Afghans on the ground to strike against al Qaida and oust their Taliban ...

Allan Tannenbaum-Pool/Getty Images
Allan Tannenbaum-Pool/Getty Images

Much has been written and said about "the longest war," initiated 10 years ago (under a United Nations mandate) in retaliation for the tragedies of 9/11, as part of an effective U.S. and allied air offensive, backed by Special Forces and anti-Taliban Afghans on the ground to strike against al Qaida and oust their Taliban hosts from power. But for Afghans, that initiative did not end the ongoing conflict that is now in its fourth decade, affecting three generations of a frustrated, yet resilient nation.

Today, Afghanistan stands at a critical juncture: one path leads down to the abyss of more warfare and unforeseeable predicament; the other offers a sliver of hope along a slower and windier road to what Afghans hope will be durable stability, peace and prosperity. But to get to this point, Afghanistan must deal with four key issues: Pakistan and broader regional rivalries, persistent governance shortcomings, future economic prospects, and sources of tension and worry in the international community.

The geo-political dilemma

While Afghans have not given up on their aspiration for a just peace, they are highly suspicious of any vaguely defined policy of reconciliation that does not reflect a national consensus and does not call into question Pakistan’s intentions, as well as accusations of complicity with Afghanistan-focused militant groups. The recent assassination of former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani, and head of the country’s High Peace Council, was the final straw, forcing President Karzai, under public pressure, to reassess the flawed political mechanism at work since 2008.

In a thinly veiled criticism of Islamabad’s posture, hours before leaving for his pre-arranged two-day trip to New Delhi on Tuesday, Karzai lamented, "after all the destruction and misery, the double-game towards Afghanistan and the use of terrorism as an excuse still continues."

On Wednesday, after signing a wide-ranging agreement with India, he reassured Pakistan that "this strategic partnership is not directed at any country." A few hours later, Afghan security officials made a surprising announcement that they had disrupted a plot allegedly led by the Haqqani Network and al-Qaeda to assassinate Karzai and attack sensitive installations in Kabul, arresting six men who officials allege were trained in Pakistan.

Despite Karzai’s attempt at calming Pakistani nerves, this latest twist in a series of dramatic events is surely going to increase the trust deficit between the two countries, and further strain Afghan-Pakistani relations. On Tuesday, Rahmatullah Nabeel, acting head of Afghanistan’s intelligence agency, the NDS, told Afghan Senators that he has evidence that more than a dozen different Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI)-backed terrorist cells have been involved in the assassinations of key tribal elders, religious scholars, and political and security officials. 

Ironically, while the rhetoric from Islamabad is about political talks and multi-track diplomacy, Pakistan has to date been unwilling or unable to present a preferred end-game in Afghanistan, or articulate an alternate strategy for engaging all relevant sides on the country’s future. Pakistani leaders have also failed to elucidate their vision of Afghanistan’s and their own role in the region. Instead, as has been the case for the past four decades, it has used repeated denials and deceptive tactics, preferring to covertly use extremist groups as proxy assets, and stoke ethnic tensions between Pashtuns and other groups.

Moreover, there is growing angst in Kabul about media reports that some U.S. officials have used back-channel contacts to meet with Haqqani Network representatives, with help from the ISI, at the end of August, reflecting policy contradictions or a lack of coherence and coordination in political outreach efforts to militants.

On the upside, recent tensions have generated a nascent debate and introspection of alternate strategic choices within segments of the Pakistani intelligentsia. This can be construed as a positive development. One observer recently wrote "there is a growing body of opinion in Pakistan itself that the time for our strategic games is up…[The Haqqanis] are assets for the future, our strategic grandmasters will say. Haven’t we played enough of Afghan games and isn’t it time to let that unfortunate country be on its own?"

To this end, the United States and NATO need to clearly lay out a policy that does not swing between "appeasement" and scolding of those who are using non-state terrorist actors as strategic assets against Afghan and international forces.

While the pursuit of a coherent and coordinated political track is necessary, building up good neighborly relations based on non-interference, sovereign rights, and mutual interest is the only win-win option left. This counter-approach will require an added effort on the part of the United States and NATO, but also other concerned interlocutors, including the Chinese, Saudis, Russians and Turks, to make use of collective diplomatic leverage to push for a cessation of hostilities, and seek a resolution that is in line with past U.N. resolutions dealing with Afghan sovereignty and outside interference.

Achilles Heel: Governance

Afghans have experienced several bloody episodes of regime change over the past four decades: A stable but slowly progressing system was brutally transformed into a failed Marxist-Leninist experiment, followed by various strands of political Islam framed by a chaotic environment and influenced by regional rivalries. Consequently, Afghans, especially the under-30 majority, today yearn to see the strengthening of a traditionally pluralistic, moderate, fair and accountable system that is neither overly centralized, nor too diffuse and ineffective, one that respects the population’s basic mores and values, yet manages to stay connected to the global village.

The current system is viewed as fragile and handicapped by patronage, corruption and inefficiency. Good governance is a key to implementing much-needed reforms. That process starts with individuals, their skill-sets and their value systems, and moves on to institutions, acquiring a sense of professionalism and service delivery. Afghans want and deserve better-quality leaders and administrators, and more responsive and competent institutions. The cost of fixing the governance flaws now through fast-track training, quality education, and capacity building might end up being a fraction of what current expenditures would be later.

The engine of growth — social and economic development

Besides the tremendous inflow of aid and reconstruction money (estimated by some sources at more than $40 billion in non-military expenditures) over the last decade, most of which has been channeled through non-Afghan government institutions, other factors such as the entrepreneurial spirit of the Afghans, their hard work ethic, and ironically, the illicit drug business, have also helped keep the country afloat. But recent statistics are alarming, as unemployment hovers around 40 percent and more than a third of Afghans earn less than $1 per day.

While a small, yet growing, urban middle class is emerging across the country, economic growth in the years to come will depend on security, good governance and rule of law. As long as people are living in fear of attacks and corruption, local and foreign investment outlays will suffer, and more money will leave the country through illegal pathways. Although other indicators such as yearly Gross National Product (GNP) per capita (which has almost tripled since 2001 to more than $500) and government revenues have experienced exponential growth, economists forecast a drop in Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of 30 percent by the end of 2014 when international forces are expected to hand over security to Afghans and leave. To offset this dramatic shock, the country needs to accelerate the development of its promising mineral and agricultural potential, as well as call on learned economists and other specialists to pro-actively propose alternate solutions.

Since Afghanistan’s position as a land-bridge between central Asia, China, Iran and South Asia, allows it to facilitate multi-directional trade and transit, it is essential that other nations in the region with high demands for raw material, natural resources or trade corridors appreciate the importance of promoting regional integration and revitalization of projects such as the "New Silk Road" initiative with the United States, China, India, Central Asian nations and other interested parties.

The sectors that have experienced spectacular progress in the past decade, and are in need of special attention and protection, are civil society and media development, whose activities have experienced strong capacity building and the introduction of new technologies, especially through profitable telecommunications and Internet businesses. Not only are these sectors dynamic and productive, but they also play an integral role in connecting the country, acting as a fourth pillar of information exchange and public discourse. They provide the much-needed checks and balance module that is lacking in the rest of state structures, and are essential for the protection of democratic rights, as well as women’s rights.

An uneasy partnership: The international community

Gains over the last 10 years could not have occurred without the significant contributions and sacrifices made by the international community. But these gains are fragile and ultimately unsustainable. The Bonn II conference scheduled for December in Germany is yet another occasion for the Afghans and the international community to redefine the contours of their partnership for the next decade. The onus should be on the viability of the democratic process, the build-up of security institutions, social and economic development, governance, rule of law, gender rights, and regional and international cooperation. And we know now that none of the aforementioned tasks can be fully realized unless the insurgency is brought under control.

Relations with key donor nations, especially the United States, have been strained since flawed presidential elections were held two years ago. Contested parliamentary elections last year did not help ease political tensions inside the country, and put the international community in an awkward position. The internationally-supported big tent policy, under the slogans of national unity and Afghan political inclusiveness, has been reduced to a mediocre gazebo, as fringe groups and divisive agendas have been allowed to weaken the political center of gravity, and sour important partnerships. A concerted effort is required by all sides, especially by Karzai himself, to sincerely engage constructive elements within society and the loyal opposition, to agree on a way forward, based on common sense and common denominators defining fundamental national interests.

As fatigued NATO partners contemplate their exit strategies, some key stakeholders such as the United States, the United Nations, Britain, NATO, and the European Union either already are, or may soon negotiate terms of reference for their respective post-2014 strategic engagement with Afghanistan. These arrangements will provide the much-needed impetus for critical mission follow-up through aid and technical contributions in key security and development sectors. They will also send the consequential signal to regional spoilers that the international community is not entirely walking away, yet, from an unfinished mission that it considers crucial.

Omar Samad is the former Ambassador of Afghanistan to France (2009-2011), Canada (2004-2009) and Spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (2001-2004).

NEXT: Andrew Exum, Struggling to Build Afghan Security

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