international analysis and commentary

Afghanistan’s turning point: feedback from a ground mission

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After exhausting negotiations, US Secretary of State John Kerry and Afghan President Hamid Karzai finally reached a preliminary agreement on a Bilateral Security Pact (BSP), aiming to keep some US forces in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of foreign troops by the end of 2014. Thus, Kabul would maintain a degree of security from potential external attacks. Washington, however, insists on retaining legal jurisdiction over the troops that will remain on site, which would give them immunity from Afghan law.

In the coming weeks the Loya Jirga, a traditional Afghan assembly of elders, leaders and other influential people, is expected to gather and decide whether to accept such conditions: it is a sticking point since the Afghan government already rejected an initial US proposal on immunity in early 2013. The failure to reach an agreement could drive the US to withdraw all its troops (the so-called “zero option”) by the end of 2014.

A brief trip to the Western regions of Afghanistan, embedded with the Italian contingent of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), confirmed that a genuine turning point is fast approaching.

The BSP is part of the decade-long security transition process carried out by the ISAF, which was launched by NATO in 2001. Since then significant improvements have been made both at the political and the security level. Insurgents, however, still inflict heavy casualties on the Afghan National Security Forces. According to the defense committee of the Afghan parliament, 6,000 national soldiers and police officers have been killed since March 2013. Given high unemployment and poverty rates, it is still easy to recruit, but it is far from certain whether Afghanistan will be capable of managing its internal issues autonomously. Now that the ISAF has progressively transferred the leadership to the national forces, the Afghan military will face a huge challenge – leading the operations in the next “fighting season”.

Afghan society remains fragile and unstable. Governance continues to lack credibility as local authorities show little loyalty to the government in Kabul. More than half the country still relies on tribal dynamics, offering a breeding ground for the Taliban, whose leaders have taken refuge in Pakistan. The past continues to affect the present, thus mortgaging the future.

The Italian and US military personnel I met in RC West (Regional Command West) obviously consider 2014 a turning point. They deeply believe in their mission, aware of the huge achievements made in this long-suffering, beloved yet cursed country. It is still a land with a thousand “unknowns”. National reconciliation is the common denominator of all of Afghanistan’s challenges; thus, it is imperative that a political leader who enjoys a strong popular mandate emerge from the 2014 elections.

National reconciliation implies dialogue between the central government and the local authorities, between the different branches of the armed forces, between the main tribal groups and, most importantly, between the government and the Taliban. A power-sharing agreement between Kabul and the Afghan Taliban would help prevent the cross-border insurgency from worsening. However, talks with the local jihadist movement are not going well, and it looks increasingly improbable that a settlement will be reached before 2014.

This, however, would not be enough. Neighboring countries should also be involved in negotiations on the future of Afghanistan. I refer not only to those linked to Afghanistan directly, such as Pakistan (Washington counts on Islamabad’s stability to protect Kabul from jihadist movements), but also to those more concerned with post-2014 instability (especially Tajikistan, but more generally the countries in and around Central Asia).

Last but not least, the ongoing rapprochement between the US and Iran could undermine the Taliban (Teheran’s historic enemies), leading to a possible compromise on a “post-NATO” order. All players involved in the transition should commit to productive talks and negotiations.

The Afghan army, set up only a few years ago, can now manage national security, by and large. In several respects, however, a basic lack of experience and coordination reduces its effectiveness. “Be careful, do not stay too close to him, he’s an Afghan soldier”: this sentence, referring to a young national army soldier who seemed a bit clumsy, resounded in my ears while I was walking in Farah. Furthermore, a lack of trust in the security forces amongst Eastern and Southern Afghans, coming from areas where the Taliban are strongest, remains a key problem.

Huge improvements have indeed been made in key regions, such as in former Taliban strongholds, Kandahar and central Helmand. But safety is still not fully guaranteed on all roads that are strategic for communication: these areas currently remain the main target for improvised explosive devices. A substantial mentoring mission from the larger headquarters and training centers will be necessary. US officials have raised the possibility of a “zero option”, but the question remains of how a complete withdrawal would be possible without nullifying the efforts made so far.

Economic transition is even more difficult. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund maintain a pessimistic view on the country’s future. Its current GDP growth rate (8.4% in 2010) is foreseen to fall to 4.1% in 2017 (the closure of the Bagram base alone will result directly in about 50,000 Afghans losing their jobs). Promises made by the international community will hardly soften the backlash. Furthermore, without ISAF protection and surveillance the exploitation of mineral resources such as lithium, marble and copper – whose value amounts to nearly a trillion dollars – also looks risky. Even the more ambitious companies are therefore discouraged from directly investing in the country. Afghanistan also fears an interruption of financial flows from the West, which amount to more than $4 billion a year – the largest military assistance program in the world. The US and EU governments may cancel their aid once NATO troops no longer oversee how the money is spent on site. This will be an additional good reason for the Afghan government to fully accept the security pact with Washington.

Another critical challenge will be the upcoming national elections, scheduled for April 5, 2014. According to some Afghan officials, the date is premature, but a delay may facilitate insurgents in disrupting voting. The 2009 vote was marked by fraud and irregularities. In 2014, the ISAF will provide some assistance but will not take on surveillance tasks. Therefore, the Afghan security forces will have to control the polling stations while showing restraint and good judgment in case of provocations or possible threats.

Afghanistan has been ranked by the Transparency International as the third most corrupt country in the world, just after Somalia and North Korea. Even the United States, carrying out sensitive anti-terrorist operations in the south, has resorted extensively to local private security services (contractors), using an intelligence system based on kinship ties and tribal networks. During his ten-year presidency, Karzai has strengthened this system, relying on “warlords” and limiting the influence and effectiveness of political parties.

Though the outgoing President has been highly criticized, most presidential candidates seem unfit to address the country’s key challenges. Among the 20 presidential candidates, only two seem capable of competing, both being former Pashtun foreign ministers, namely Zalmai Rassoul and Abdullah Abdullah.

Stability remains a mirage in Afghanistan. After decades of Islamic dominance, a viable alternative has yet to emerge. Unless a modicum of stability can be ensured by the domestic constellation of forces produced by the next elections, Afghanistan will continue to be not only a regional issue, but an international security problem.