Editor’s note: This article was originally published in Slovak by Pravda on September 19, 2012.
2014 will mark a critical juncture in Afghanistan. After more than a decade of arduous fighting and political involvement, the U.S. and international presence there will be significantly reduced. The growth of the Afghan security forces has become the lynchpin of the U.S. and NATO strategy to achieve success in Afghanistan and extricate themselves from the Afghanistan war. As yet, however, the Taliban and its jihadi cohorts — the Haqqanis and Herb-i-Islami — remain entrenched and robust. Although degraded by the 2010 “surge” of U.S. military forces, they still exercise substantial sway over large parts of the country. The Afghan security forces are clearly making progress, but they continue to be dependent on NATO’s assistance for critical assets and capacities. Dangerous ethnic rifts and competing patronage networks persist within the Afghan forces. Negotiations with the Taliban, difficult for Washington to swallow, have so far amounted to talking about talking.
The post-2014 economic condition of Afghanistan will also be precarious. Afghanistan is almost certain to experience a severe economic shock as a result of the contraction of international resources. Afghanistan has enormous mineral riches. But their extraction requires good security. And for the mineral resources to promote stability and economic development, the revenues need to be invested in infrastructure expansion, human capital, and local community development, and not usurped by the privileged few. Similarly, visions of a potential New Silk Road to take advantage of Afghanistan’s location on the crossroads of the Middle East and Central and South Asia are predicated on overcoming the rivalries that continue to plague the region.
Most dangerously, Afghans have become disconnected and alienated from the national government and the country’s other power arrangements. They are profoundly dissatisfied with Kabul’s inability and unwillingness to provide basic public services and with the widespread corruption of the elites. They intensely resent the abuse of power, impunity, and lack of justice that have become entrenched over the past decade.
Yet despite all of these negative developments and problematic trends, despite the deep anxiety with which many Afghans look at the 2014 transition, a failure of the international effort to leave Afghanistan with a stable government is not preordained. Afghanistan is a complex place, where local realities are often highly diverse. There are glimmers of hope. Security has improved in some parts of the country. Afghan security forces exhibit growing capabilities, even as they continue to be challenged by many deep problems.
And a new generation of Afghans is rising that is motivated to take on the problematic powerbrokers, rise above ethnic cliques, and institute a rule of law. The ideas Afghan reformers put forth include devolving power from Kabul to provinces and districts, such as via local taxation and elections of lower-level government officials. They call for reforms to end the current distortive electoral system, to foster the formation of political parties, and to reduce electoral fraud. They also call for ending the current culture of impunity and bringing warlords, powerbrokers, and criminals, including those in the Afghan government, to justice. Obviously, however, should the reformers ever be in a position to implement their aspirations, they will constitute a huge threat to powerbrokers and businessmen who benefit enormously from the current system.
The United States and the international community still can – and should – attempt to empower those Afghans who are determined to privilege the broader interests of the people over narrow power and profit maximization. The challenges that Afghanistan faces are daunting. The chances for progress are moderate at best at this point. But given the international community’s stakes in Afghanistan, it is imperative that the United States and the international community do their best with whatever influence they have left not just to build up Afghan security forces, but also to promote better governance practices in Afghanistan.
The objective of this kind of [safe zones] project may be described as fundamentally humanitarian, but the reality is that any number of parties, starting with the Assad regime and the Islamic State, are going to see it as a threat, and that’s going to make it a target instead of a safe place.