The South Asia Channel

A Strategic Scorecard For Afghanistan

With Monday’s inauguration of Ashraf Ghani as the new Afghan President, Afghanistan has the chance to move forward.  Whether that movement will be toward disaster or success will be determined by outcomes on five critical issues: Political Transition, Afghan National Security Forces, Regional Diplomacy, Economic Progress, and Peace Process. The red on the scorecard is ...

WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP/Getty Images
WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP/Getty Images

With Monday’s inauguration of Ashraf Ghani as the new Afghan President, Afghanistan has the chance to move forward.  Whether that movement will be toward disaster or success will be determined by outcomes on five critical issues: Political Transition, Afghan National Security Forces, Regional Diplomacy, Economic Progress, and Peace Process. The red on the scorecard is forward-looking at issues that need to be addressed, rather than backward-looking at past progress.Follow-on articles will examine each issue.

 

First, Afghanistan needs a successful Political Transition.  This consists of three factors: the election, transfer of power, and political reform.  With the election process finally completed, Afghanistan has only jumped the first and lowest hurdle.

Transfer of Power includes the formation and efficacy of a new government. The inauguration of the new government on Sept. 29, which saw Afghanistan’s first-ever democratic transfer of power, was an important milestone.  But it was only a first step.  Agreement on leadership for ministries such as Defense, Interior, Economy, Intelligence (NDS), Finance, and the Independent Directorate of Local Governance (IDLG) will likely be contentious. 

More importantly, the government needs to govern.  A National Unity government sounds good in theory; it is quite difficult in practice.  Such governments have the potential to balance rival parties and interests.  They also have a history of being held hostage by them. 

Adding to the challenge, this government must implement critical reforms that will affect powerful vested interests.  Electoral reform is the most obvious and is part of the national unity agreement.  So are merit-based appointments and anti-corruption.  Dismantling the deeply entrenched kleptocracy of the planet’s most corrupt government (on par with Somalia and North Korea, according to Transparency International) will take extraordinary political will.

Second, the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) must perform competently and confidently.  This depends significantly upon the political transition.  The ANSF will perform far better if defending a government the country respects.

The ANSF have performed well since taking over lead security responsibilities in June 2013.  Their casualties in 2013 and 2014 have been substantial, leading some senior officials to question their sustainability.   With the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) signed, NATO will provide advisors at the corps level until the end of 2015 and at the ministerial level for an additional year.  They have pledged to bankroll the ANSF through 2017, with Afghans assuming full financial responsibility by 2024. 

An outright military victory for either the Afghan government or the Taliban is unlikely.    As the latter have stepped up their attacks, the ANSF have bent — but not broken.  The Taliban are reportedly gaining ground in rural areas of the south and east, but not nearly enough to be decisive.  The ANSF will need to fight the Taliban to a favorable stalemate well before advisors depart and funding declines.

Regional Diplomacy is a third area that requires attention.  Afghanistan lives in a difficult neighborhood.  Regional powers have often competed with one another for influence in the land-locked country.  The India-Pakistan rivalry manifests itself there.  Iran aims to promote its interests in western Afghanistan and among the Shi’a population.  Russia maintains ties former Northern Alliance factions and seeks to undermine competing influence.  China seeks economic advantage.

The Istanbul Process was created in an effort to promote regional cooperation, but has largely failed due to competing interests.  While all parties recognize the benefits of cooperation toward a stable Afghanistan, none have been prepared to make substantive concessions to achieve it.  Members will need to develop a consensus vision and develop a mechanism that promotes transparency and management of competition.  Cooperation may follow later.        

Progress toward greater economic self-reliance is the fourth variable.  According to World Bank data, Afghanistan is nearly 100% dependent upon foreign aid.  As foreign troop levels decline to zero by the end of 2016, interest in Afghanistan is likely to decline.  Donors will be increasingly unwilling to bankroll a kleptocracy engaged in a never-ending conflict. 

Afghanistan must make far greater progress in revenue generation and cost-cutting.  Afghanistan’s estimated trillion dollars in natural resources will require decades to develop.  Revenues from telecommunications, transportation, and customs offer high potential for greater near-term revenues, but this requires the political reforms mentioned above.  An estimated $4bn per year is paid by Afghans in bribes, enough to cover the entire ANSF budget

Fifth, a dignified, inclusive, and responsible Peace Process that enables Afghanistan to emerge from over 35 years of conflict needs to begin by 2015 and make gains by 2016.  With donor fatigue at high risk by 2017, Afghanistan runs the risk of a fiscal crisis that unravels the government and brings about another civil war.  Critically, a peace process is needed rather than a peace deal.

Responsible Afghan leaders on all sides of the conflict want to avoid that outcome.  The Taliban hard-liners will need to be shown that the ANSF and new government are resilient.  Former Northern Alliance leaders will need to come to grips with the fact that the Taliban will not collapse as foreign forces withdraw.  Regional and international powers should encourage the Afghan government and the Taliban and others to begin a peace process, and may need to apply appropriate pressure to keep them engaged in effort.

Afghanistan has a real chance to succeed.   Ashraf Ghani has the right vision for these issues.  Abdullah Abdullah has the consensus-building skills to gain the necessary support.  They could complement each other well.  Whether the two rival leaders can make an effective, reformed, national unity government that is greater than the sum of its parts will determine the extent of success or failure over the next five years.

 

Christopher D. Kolenda is the Senior Military Fellow at King’s College London and the President  & CEO of Kolenda Strategic Leadership, LLC (www.kolendastrategicleadership.com) which helps NGO’s maximize their impact in conflict zones.  He has been as a key advisor on Afghanistan and Pakistan to three Secretaries of Defense and four ISAF Commanders, to include serving four tours in Afghanistan. 

Christopher D. Kolenda is the President and CEO of Kolenda Strategic Leadership. He commanded paratroopers and then served as senior advisor to the Department of Defense senior leadership and to three commanders of international forces (ISAF) over four tours in Afghanistan. He is the author of Leadership: The Warrior’s Art and The Counterinsurgency Challenge.