Afghanistan’s Deep Challenges and Transition Opportunities

Editor’s Note: In “Afghanistan in 2013: On the Cusp… or on the Brink?” published by Asian Survey, Vanda Felbab-Brown reviews the key security, political and economic developments in Afghanistan in 2013 and their implications for Afghanistan’s crucial 2014 transitions.

The continued withdrawal of ISAF forces and the handover of responsibilities to Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) along with a strong Taliban military push dominated the security realm. The ANSF did not cede any territory to the Taliban, but suffered many, and likely unsustainable, casualties, including as a result of poor logistics and medevac capacities. Critical enabler deficiencies and ethnic and patronage rivalries and fissures continue to plague the ANSF and pose serious dangers to Afghanistan’s post-2014 security. While a deterioration in security is most likely, just how severe it will prove remains yet to be seen and is contingent on whether and what kind of military and financial assistance the United States and the international community continue to provide Afghanistan after 2014. Yet deep external and internal uncertainties over Afghanistan’s security and political future persisted primarily as the Government of Afghanistan refused to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) permitting the continued presence of US forces after 2014.

President Karzai’s refusal to sign the BSA, even after his hand-picked Loya Jirga approved it in November 2013, caught both foreign diplomats and Afghan politicians and the public by surprise, leaving only the Taliban and pro-Iran groups to applaud the decision. It will now be up to the next Afghan president, to be elected in 2014, to sign the agreement. Yet if claims of fraud, demands for recounts, complicated political bargaining, and insecurity delay the two rounds of elections and the formation of a new Afghan government until the fall of 2014, the timeframe for the new government and the United States and subsequently NATO partners to sign the status-of-forces agreements will be precariously short. Karzai’s refusal to sign the BSA encapsulates the deep and growing estrangement between the Afghan president and the United States, reflecting strongly divergent strategic mindsets: Excluding a narrowly defined anti-terrorism (predominantly anti-al-Qaeda) mission combined with highly-constricted assistance to ANSF, the White House increasingly sees a military engagement in Afghanistan as a strategic liability. President Karzai, however, continues to be persuaded that the United States cannot walk away from Afghanistan, needing the country as a platform for a New Great Game against Russia and China in Central Asia. Further strains in the relationship were generated by what seemed as a breakthrough in the stalled negotiations with the Taliban in Doha in June 2013, Afghan resentment against actions by U.S. Special Operations Forces, the Government of Afghanistan’s disenchantment with U.S. inability to deliver Pakistan’s cooperation, Afghan intelligence forces anti-Pakistan ploys, and an attempt by the Afghan government to extract billions of dollars from ISAF forces in custom fees for the withdrawal of military cargo.

The April 2014 presidential and provincial council elections in Afghanistan dominated the country’s political life in 2013 and have continued to do so into 2014. Whether the elections are seen as broadly legitimate to the Afghan people or trigger a deep political crisis and potentially first round of infighting will be at least as crucial for shaping Afghanistan’s future as whether any Western military forces remain in Afghanistan after 2014. On the one hand, a successful election process could serve as a platform for renewal of a political system that is seen as widely illegitimate because of the incompetence, corruption, nepotism, and power abuse of the Afghan government and associated powerbrokers. It could seize the political energies that Afghanistan’s young, but fragile and in many ways up-for-grabs civil society exhibited in 2013. On the other hand, the extensive fraud, an insecurity-related sense of disenfranchisement among Pashtuns, or a refusal by losers in the elections to accept the results could trigger a prolonged political paralysis, turbulence, and violence, also eviscerating the already weakened support for a continued engagement in Afghanistan among Western governments and publics. Paradoxically, a weak person without a political base to threaten established powerbrokers has the greatest chance to become a consensus candidate, and resurrecting the legitimacy of the political system in Afghanistan also requires the willingness, adroitness, and political power to take on the powerbrokers and start improving governance in Afghanistan. Moreover, if and when a new government is formed, in the still extremely personalistic and patronage-based Afghanistan political system, layers and layers of institutions will likely change and potentially disrupts processes the West has sought to inculcate.

2013 was a difficult year for Afghanistan economically. As a result of economic contraction due to ISAF withdrawal, capital flight, and dried-up foreign investment caused among other reasons by security uncertainties, the country’s GDP shrunk to 3.2% from 14.4% in 2012. With all political energies consumed by the upcoming elections, governance in 2013 came almost to a halt, with crucial laws, such as on key revenue-generating mining, in limbo. With a growth of only 3.5% and further job losses expected also in 2014, Afghanistan’s short-term economic future is hardly peppy. Even into the medium term, Afghanistan will continue to be highly and precariously dependent on external economic assistance, while its poppy economy will remain deeply entrenched.

Afghanistan in 2013 and into 2014 thus offers a complex mixture of deep and multifaceted challenges to stability and some important opportunities for a new phase of rebuilding. As December 2014 approaches, it is not yet clear whether Afghanistan is approaching the brink of severe security deterioration, including potentially another round of civil war, and economic collapse, or the cusp of political renewal and sovereignty. Much will depend on whether Afghan leaders and society manage to overcome the fissures and misgovernance that plague the country and whether the United States and the international community remain steadfast in their commitment to the country.

Get the full Asian Survey article, available for purchase »