November 11, 2013
Whither the Afghan Project from 2014?
By John Duncan vs. Daniel P. Fata
Resolution: Afghanistan will be a source of global instability after 2014.
John Duncan (in favour): History suggests that Afghanistan will be an indubitable source of serious instability after 2014. During much of the 19th century, Afghanistan was the centre of struggle between the forces of imperial Britain and Russia for control of Central Asia. During most of the second half of the 20th century, the two superpowers - the USSR and the US - vied for the allegiance of Afghanistan, eventually resulting in the fateful Soviet invasion of 1979, which initiated the last major hot conflict of the Cold War.
For nearly a decade, the USSR, on the one hand, and the US and regionally backed Mujahideen forces, on the other, fought a brutal war for Afghanistan. After the USSR withdrew, Afghanistan proceeded to spiral into a bloody civil war led by its regionally backed former Mujahideen warlords, each competing for exclusive control of the country. Partly in reaction to the ongoing lawlessness and internecine slaughter of the civil war, the Taliban rose out of the area straddling the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan - an impossible border drawn by the imperial British through the middle of the traditional lands of the Pashtun nation - which itself, with the support of important Pakistani state forces, has continually supported the Taliban.
During the 1990s, the Taliban took over and ruled Afghanistan according to an ultra-conservative and ruthless Islamic ideology and Pashtun code. Of course, Afghanistan under the Taliban became the crucible of the international emergence of Al Qaeda, which brought with it the massive terrorist attacks on the US in September 2001. Those attacks caused the single remaining superpower to enter a major international war that is now 12 years old. The US is scheduled to hand off sole control of Afghanistan to the Afghans in 2014. The handoff will be largely nominal, because the Afghan forces that the West has been supporting would fall quickly without Western finances, training, logistics and hardware - not to mention Western soldiers. Thus, internationally backed national struggle in the sensitive region will continue.
Not only has Afghanistan been a site of major instability in the recent past, but that instability has itself co-generated other theatres of instability, such that the West now fights not only the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, but also these same groups plus their proxies and imitators in Pakistan, the Middle East, and Africa. The instability is spreading.
In response to the 9/11 attacks, the US invaded not only Afghanistan, but also Iraq, drawing the world into two inconclusive wars. The resulting dozen years have exacerbated tensions in the Middle East and Central Asia, generated shockwaves in Iran, the Arab Spring countries, Pakistan, India and beyond, and seriously diminished the credibility of the US and the West worldwide. NATO and even the UN took sides. Not only have both institutions dirtied their hands in Afghanistan, but both now find themselves at the centre of a maelstrom that continues to generate instability in the region and beyond. With the perspective of history in mind, as the 2014 nominal handoff approaches, it is clear that stability is not on the horizon.
Daniel P. Fata (against): I am becoming increasingly optimistic that Afghanistan, after 2014, will not return to the Afghanistan of the pre-2001 period. While Syria, Iran, Russia, the fate of Obamacare and the budget debates in the US Congress are dominating current news cycles, tens of thousands of US, European and other partner nations continue to serve on the ground in Afghanistan, helping to secure the country for the Afghan people, as well as ensure that the terrorist breeding ground and lawless state that existed before 2001 does not return.
The conditions that existed in 2001 when the US and allied forces liberated - not invaded - Afghanistan do not exist today. This is not to say that the conditions on the ground throughout the country or the governing structures in Kabul are ideal; they are not. I would argue, however, that today's Afghanistan has been largely transformed from the Afghanistan of a decade or so ago.
I argue from the following four premises. First, the large international military, political, humanitarian and donor presence on the ground has brought many changes to ordinary life for people throughout the country. These are changes - in technological, medical, educational, agricultural and financial terms - that a significant proportion of the Afghan population will not wish to lose or do away with.
Second, the international community, via the 2012 NATO Summit in Chicago and the follow-up donors' conference in Tokyo, pledged military presence and financial assistance to varying degrees and for various purposes through to 2017. Afghanistan will clearly require some level and degree of international attention for some time following the end of ISAF combat operations on December 31st, 2014 because the overall project and mission are not yet complete.
Third, Afghanistan will have elections in the spring of 2014 to replace the current president, Hamid Karzai. There is already great effort and time being spent in the country to try to determine who will succeed Karzai, and what the vision of the future of Afghanistan needs to be. The post-2014 stability of Afghanistan will depend on how the country's elected leaders, appointed governors and tribal chiefs are able to reconcile their differences and differing visions for Afghanistan. In many ways, this is the most important reconciliation that there can be within Afghanistan - a reconciliation between the Pashtuns and the Northern Alliance (which is even more important than the reconciliation between the ruling government and the Taliban). How the different factions in Afghanistan come together to support a candidate or two for the 2014 election and, arguably more importantly, whether and how they accept the outcome of a presumably fair election, will be crucial in determining whether Afghanistan is on track toward a stable future.
Fourth, unlike the pre-2001 period, there is some degree of foreign investment into Afghanistan today. To be sure, this investment is relatively small and largely focused on the extractive sector. However, there have been infrastructure improvements in roads, rail, airstrips, cellular towers, irrigation systems, and power grids with distribution lines. These have all been built with international assistance and cash since 2001. These developments have helped to leapfrog Afghanistan into at least the 19th century in terms of the infrastructure and ingredients necessary to create the essentials for a functioning economy. Of course, if it gets there at all, Afghanistan is decades away from being able to enjoy a robust, self-sustaining economy. The country will likely continue to remain a ward of the international community. That does not mean, however, that Afghanistan is ripe a for return to the breeding ground that it was pre-2001. Those conditions no longer exist today.
JD: Has the Western donor presence in Afghanistan significantly improved the lives of Afghans? Has it generated sufficient improvement for Afghans to seriously consider defending the Western legacy in their country, and to do so against the insurgency? According to the UN Development Program's Human Development Index (HDI), which measures development in relation to national health, education, and income levels, the answer is no. Data and analysis are provided from 1980 to the present, throughout which period Afghanistan has been both in the lowest country category of human development, and well below that category's average. For 30 years, then, Afghanistan has been at the bottom of the bottom category of countries worldwide.
According to the 2012 numbers, Afghanistan's HDI rank was 175th out of 187 countries, with a score of 0.374 - significantly below the average of 0.466 for the category of low-HDI countries, well below the average of 0.558 for the category of countries in Afghanistan's region, and far below the world average of 0.694. Overall, although there has been improvement since 1980, the rate of improvement has not exceeded the rate of improvement worldwide, with the result that the country has not been raised from the bottom of the bottom category. Bref, the Western legacy has amounted to nothing worth defending in Afghanistan.
What can be said about the pledges arising out of the Chicago and Tokyo conferences? These and other ongoing pronouncements of support are simply too vague and fluid to allow useful analysis. In a recent report for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Anthony H. Cordesman pulls no punches when he criticizes almost every major aspect of the current path forward, suggesting that "the US and its allies need to examine their reasons for staying in Afghanistan, and understand that they cannot succeed with half measures or on the cheap." Cordesman calls the funding numbers that have come out of official talks both "guesstimates," and likely seriously inadequate. We have to say "likely" because, in point of fact, "official reporting on the war has been filled with too much spin and too many omissions to make it possible to predict the course of the fighting." The development situation is worse. Choruses of reports about cherry-picked transitional tactical and training successes have not relieved the deep concerns of serious Afghanistan watchers. The Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) will not be ready for full transition before 2016-2017, and we are blindly underestimating what needs to be done in the country for the next decade.
If the US $7 billion that the US is spending each month in Afghanistan is reduced to something closer to $4 billion per year - the current guesstimate - after 2014, then it is anybody's wager as to how the transition will work. Guessing that it will be a stable transition would be a long shot. Sensing the real and formidable challenges ahead, some analysts have resorted to conditionality threats to the effect that, if Afghanistan does not fix itself - that is, if it does not field a national security force that can replace nearly 100,000 of the world's most advanced and well-supported troops currently in the country, and if it does not clean up its notoriously corrupt government - it should be left to transition on its own. But such threats are idle. There is clearly no possibility that the ANSF will be ready to stand alone, or that corruption will be cleaned up by 2014.
What can we expect from the spring 2014 Afghan presidential elections? With the elections set in the context of the withdrawal of NATO forces, Afghanistan is said to be approaching a crucial crossroads. Although President Karzai recently ratified electoral reforms (after long delays), the major problems in past elections were not due to a lack of positive law. Already, as in the past, millions of illegitimate voter cards are in circulation. Only about one-sixth of the female election officers needed for the security of female voters is available. If left unremedied, this deficiency will exclude many women voters.
Insurgent groups, for their part, show no sign of setting up political wings to run in the elections. This all but dooms the elections in two ways. First, it is a sign that the insurgents will disrupt the elections with violence. Indeed, a senior election official in Kunduz was assassinated in September of this year, and the election commission has recently determined that half of the country's polling stations face conspicuous security concerns. Second, although few in the West have been able to imagine that significant elements of the local population may have interests more similar to those of many insurgents than to those of Western soldiers, it is true that elections that do not include the chief rivals for power in the country are not likely to lead to stability. Although it is said over and over again that a political solution is necessary, and although elections are political, the Taliban is not fielding candidates. War will therefore continue after the spring of 2014.
Elections are one way in which we have told ourselves a story about the reform of Afghanistan - to wit, about its democratization. The truth is that, over the last few years, Afghanistan has became one of the most corrupt countries in the world, ranking first in a tie with North Korea and Somalia in 2012, according to Transparency International. The upcoming elections will therefore take place in the most corrupt country on Earth, and will be disrupted by an insurgency that the most powerful military alliance of all time has been unable to quell in 12 years. This is not a promising combination of facts.
President Karzai has stacked the Independent Electoral Complaints Commission with political appointees (including its head), presumably to investigate any allegations of electoral fraud - such as the ones that undermined the legitimacy of his last election. Karzai is barred from running again, but all eyes are on his brother and former chief of staff as possible successors to maintain his factional hold on power.
Finally, real economic growth in Afghanistan - that is, growth beyond the artificial stimulus given by the intervention - is seriously restrained by corruption, the drug trade and insecurity. Many hopes are pinned on the extractive sector - the leading example of which is the Chinese-owned Aynak copper deposit, one of the largest in the world. However, Aynak has been targeted by insurgents, is likely subject to renegotiation and downsizing, and remains many years away from production. Development of the huge Indian-owned Hajigak iron deposit - a few years behind Aynak - will most likely run into the same problems. Afghanistan's major highway, between Kabul and Kandahar, is largely at the mercy of the Taliban, with several attacks on convoys every day. The country has been ranked 168th of 185 counties on the World Bank's list of the easiest places to do business. More and more Afghans are turning to growing opium, and the UN expects Afghanistan to supply some 90 percent of the world's opium again in the coming year.
Ultimately, more Western funds for, and investment in, Afghanistan amount to continuing fundamental dependence on the West which, although an existential necessity for any pro-Western government in Kabul, will do little to stabilize Afghanistan in the short or medium term. Long-term predictions that deviate from the country's historical and recent record of serious instability are worthless. As such, an internationally backed belligerent regime in Afghanistan, with resulting ripple effects throughout a highly sensitive region, will continue.
DF: You have clearly done your research, and the data points, when presented as you have chosen to present them, certainly do paint a bleak picture. However, when one visits Afghanistan, one sees a different story. I do not know when you last visited Afghanistan, but I have been there 10 times since 2006 (when I was in the Pentagon). During my 10 visits, I travelled to Kabul, Mazar, Kandahar, Uruzgan, Helmand, Zabul, and parts of western and eastern Afghanistan. I saw roads being paved, grass being watered, buildings being erected, more and more cars on the streets, children wearing uniforms to school, cell phone towers becoming operational, irrigation systems being dug, and markets becoming increasingly full of economic activity. While the data that you present may not point to Afghanistan having moved far from the bottom of certain indicator lists, I can tell you from first-hand knowledge that the lives of many millions of Afghans have improved during the past decade. I honestly believe that, having had a taste of modernity, average Afghans will not want to go backward. They will therefore fight (possibly with arms) to ensure that at least the new status quo is maintained.
In respect of the issue of donor pledges being too small or too general, yes, you and Cordesman are probably correct. These are just guesstimates, and it may well be too little to bring about a 2.0 version of Afghanistan. Still, I am not sure that this is the responsibility of the international community. Our collective goal should be to ensure there is no significant backsliding in Afghanistan's movement toward some limited degree of self-sustainability and self-governance. We know that transitions from non-democratic rule to democratic rule have road bumps. We know that creating a market economy from the ashes of a command economy is challenging. Trying to do both simultaneously in Afghanistan, where a government from Kabul has never been successful, and where no true cash crops (other than poppies) or resources exist for sale, makes this all the more difficult. However, the international community recognizes this and has made pledges to help the post-2014 transition. Pledges can be increased if necessary. What is most important to the international community, however, in respect of these pledges is that Afghan government (at all levels) respect transparency, human rights and anti-corruption practices. Benchmarks, metrics and standards have been imposed by the international community on Afghanistan in order for the financial assistance to be disbursed.
As I noted in my first intervention, in many ways, the key to Afghanistan not returning to a pre-2001 lawless strip of geography is how and whether the Afghan people seize the opportunity shaped and presented to them by the blood, sweat, cash, and sacrifice of the international community.
Regarding the post-2014 security situation, the ANSF will not be left alone to defend the country. In fact, while NATO is ending its combat operations as part of ISAF, there will likely still be approximately 5,000 to 10,000 NATO and allied troops on the ground in Afghanistan carrying on with training duties to ensure that the Afghans continue to remain up to task and prepared to defend their country. Moreover, there will likely be a follow-up counterterrorism mission to assist the elite Afghan forces in engaging what remains of the enemy on Afghan soil. The international community will continue to have security equities in Afghanistan, and will remain in some capacity on the ground for the remainder of the decade.
In terms of underfunding the ANSF at US $4 billion per annum, most people are not factoring in the fact that the ANSF will be a significant recipient of the gear and equipment that the US and its allies will not bring back home. Ownership of this gear and equipment will be transferred to the Afghans. This will give the ANSF a huge advantage in terms of having modern equipment to defend Afghanistan. There will be a challenge to make sure that what is given to the ANSF is sustainable, usable and controllable.
Finally, regarding the elections, there is no one who pretends that elections in Afghanistan will be completely free and fair. That is not the gist of the point that I was trying to make in my earlier intervention. The point that I was trying to convey is that what will make the elections successful is whether, as mentioned, the Northern Alliance and the Pashtuns can put aside and reconcile their differences enough to support the winning candidate and ensure that Afghanistan embarks to the greatest degree possible on a unified political path toward the future. If the parties and tribes break down and a government cannot be formed in Afghanistan - such as was seen in Iraq - the greater the likelihood that Afghanistan will become destabilized. This is probably the most important factor in determining Afghanistan's ability to succeed in the years ahead. If reconciliation and post-election unity does not happen, then the international community will likely walk away sooner rather than later, the fighting with the Taliban and possibly among and between tribes will intensify, and the people will lose hope that there is a better future for them.
JD: On the one hand, it is difficult to counter the authority of eyewitness accounts: you saw evidence of progress between 2006 and 2011. On the other hand, it is easy to find eyewitnesses - indeed, authoritative eyewitnesses - who disagree. For example, Graeme Smith devoted more time to southern Afghanistan than any other Western journalist between 2005 and 2011. He has since taken up residence in Kabul as a senior analyst for the International Crisis Group. In The Dogs Are Eating Them Now: Our War in Afghanistan, published this past September, he concludes that "Afghanistan was an unsuccessful laboratory for ideas about how to fix a ruined country. [...] At best, we are leaving behind an ongoing war. At worst, it's a looming disaster."
It is just as easy to find sound data-based analyses to critically challenge eyewitness accounts of progress. With respect to crucial indicators of security, for example, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) documented steady year-over-year increases in civilian deaths due to the conflict from 2007 to 2011. The grim result was that, in 2011, twice as many civilians were killed as in 2007. In September 2012, in The Long War Journal, Thomas Joscelyn and Bill Roggio analyzed the available data and came to the following conclusion: "Overall, one thing is clear: the Taliban-led insurgency remains capable of maintaining an extraordinary level of violence throughout Afghanistan, far worse than prior to the surge. This demonstrates that the jihadist hydra is anything but a spent force and could easily recapture more territory as Coalition forces withdraw from the country."
There were some claims about dips in violence in 2011 and 2012, but these were subsequently shown to be the result of selective reporting, and of a failure to identify geographical shifts in the fighting or the effects of anomalous seasonal weather patterns. This fall, as they take over more and more of the actual fighting, the ANSF are suffering record casualty rates that "approach rates we took in Vietnam," US Lieutenant General Mark Milley recently said. These rates may prove unsustainable - not least because ever year, the Afghan military loses about one-third of its fighting force to resignation, desertion, injury or death.
In respect of efforts to "ensure the Afghans continue to remain up to task [...] to defend their country," there are serious concerns about the ANSF beyond attrition. There are numerous reports of ANSF brutality, corruption and, most troubling of all, collaboration with the insurgency. For example, in late 2010, an International Council on Security and Development survey of 1,000 men in Kandahar and Helmand found that 69 percent of respondents thought that Afghan soldiers were helping or would end up joining the insurgents, while 81 percent thought the same about the police. ANSF corruption (from deep involvement in the drug trade and illegal arms sales to insurgents, to predation vis-à-vis the population) and brutality (including torture) have been continuous issues. Alas, for serious country watchers, these reports are no longer surprising.
The case of the warlord Abdul Raziq is perhaps eye-opening to the less jaded. As Matthieu Aikins reported in The Atlantic in September 2011, Raziq is a very brutal and very corrupt official, but the West has protected him because he is effective according to some limited military metrics. Clearly, as powerful officials like Raziq increasingly take the lead in the counterinsurgency (with Western blessings), we must abandon arguments to the effect that Afghans are ready to defend any Western legacy of self-governance. We know from a 2008 leaked diplomatic cable that senior British officials suggested that the best solution for Afghanistan was going to be an "acceptable dictator" within a decade or so. A regime led by a strongman dependent on, and sympathetic to, the West is far from the legacy of self-government that the West has been touting. Indeed, a brief look at the various strongmen in power in the long prelude to the Arab Spring should make us question the longer-term sustainability of Western-backed dictatorial regimes in the wider region. Perhaps our collective goal should be, as you say, "to ensure that there is no significant backsliding in Afghanistan's movement toward some limited degree of self-sustainability and self-governance."
Still, the governance being left to Afghans is self-governance in name only. If we turn to sustainability, it is difficult to see what significant backsliding is possible - not because of the resilience that the country has achieved, but rather because of the resilience that it has failed to achieve. The cost of maintaining the massive ANSF, on which the country depends fundamentally (because it is at war), is easily twice the annual national revenue of Afghanistan. Even if backsliding from the current level of 'self-sustainability' could be mitigated, the result would still be utter unsustainability. Indeed, the country was far more capable of self-sustainability before September 2001 than it is now. Therefore, if that is the only relevant metric, we would have to admit failure. Bref, what we are looking at in Afghanistan is a dependent and authoritarian state - that is, an extremely "limited degree of self-sustainability and self-governance" from which backsliding is practically impossible, and ahead of which instability is virtually guaranteed.
The counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy employed by ISAF in Afghanistan strove to protect the population from the insurgents so as to both isolate and neutralise the latter, and develop the allegiance of the former to the state. Development projects were thrown at the country, and "cash is a weapon" became the mantra. Cell phone towers, roads, modern prisons, alternative crops, irrigation and hydroelectric dams, among many other projects, were fast-tracked in order to win hearts and minds, and also to isolate insurgents. Unfortunately, but also predictably, many of the rushed projects were never completed, failed because they lacked sufficient local knowledge, or merely lined the pockets of corrupt Afghan partners. The two massive dam refurbishment projects in the south serve as signature examples, with the Kajaki hydroelectric and Dahla irrigation dam projects nowhere near completion as 2014 approaches. Their futures are uncertain at best.
Promoted by many Westerners, COIN failed to convince most Afghans - the majority of whom always lived largely beyond the reach of the state, and saw no virtues in the oppressive governance, unreliable security, and misguided or incomplete development on offer.
Despite so many failures, many analysts are inclined to argue that complete withdrawal from Afghanistan would lead to catastrophe. Although the doctor has done very little for the patient, many call for the continuation of the treatment. Ironically, with respect to a country that is often said to be at a medieval stage of development, it is the West's incapacity to treat countries that is arguably medieval. It would be useful to reflect on the maxim 'do no harm' when considering what has amounted to so many pre-scientific experiments in nation-building. The West's capacity is certainly great, but not nearly sufficient or adequate for purposes of nation-building, and so intervention on this scale is as likely to harm as it is to heal. Afghanistan remains deeply unstable. Neither the continuation of the last 12 years of treatment, nor complete disengagement, will bring an end to the instability.
DF: Everything in your argumentation validates your position that a post-2014 Afghanistan will be one of major instability. What you do not convincingly argue is what to do to prevent, mitigate or lessen this allegedly fast-approaching instability. It is easy to find the data to support the argument that all is lost in Afghanistan. It is harder, however, but essential that we find ways to not make this nightmare scenario an inevitability.
Therefore, it is essential that the following occur. First, the negotiations over the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) between the Afghan government and the US must be concluded immediately. Both parties must sign the document. If there is no BSA or legal framework document that spells out how and under what conditions US and foreign troops can operate on Afghan soil and in concert with Afghan forces post-2014, then the 'zero option' becomes instantly real and your predictions become largely true. If there is not a US and allied presence on the ground at least through to 2017, as currently pledged, then the operational and independent action risk to the ANSF may be overwhelming in the short term. This could very well lead to medium- and long-term failure of the force.
Second, once the BSA is signed, the NATO allies and partners must define specifically what the 'Resolute Support Mission' (RSM) is and how many forces and advisers will make up this mission. It is imperative that the US and allied forces remain on the ground in some reasonable number, and with clearly defined rules and missions, for some period of time in order to further assist the ANSF. Also, given some of the counter-terrorism issues that persist in Afghanistan, it will be necessary for the US and allied forces to have smaller units working with the Afghan Special Forces to pursue and undertake action against those elements that would seek to destabilize the new 2014 government in Afghanistan. Along with RSM planning, it will be important for US and allied forces to expedite and complete their equipment and materiel withdrawal plans so that nothing extra is left behind for the enemies to use against the ANSF or allies.
Third, the international community should ensure that the money and assistance that it has collectively pledged is disbursed expeditiously and in accordance with the terms and conditions established at Tokyo. The international community made clear that it was willing to fund a wide range of infrastructure, development, economic and other projects through to at least 2017 in order to ensure that the Afghan people have a reasonable chance for independent survival. Yes, most nations have accepted the reality that Afghanistan will be a ward of the international community for years - and likely decades - to come. However, that does not mean that Afghanistan should receive carte blanche donor aid without some agreed set of conditions on how the money will be released to the Afghan government. As part of the Tokyo pledges, the Afghan government signed bilateral agreements with many partners stating that it would honor and respect the human rights of all peoples, tackle corruption, and seek to find ways to establish greater forms of self-sustaining economic activities. The international community must continuously stress Kabul's obligations, and enforce metrics and measures in order to demonstrate that progress is being made (or not made).
Finally, no matter how much work is done from the outside world in Afghanistan, it is truly up to the Afghans to bring about change. As I mentioned, I believe that your average Afghan believes that he/she is better off today than he/she was in 2001. I believe that most Afghans, having tasted technology, greater personal independence, education for their children, access to better health care, and some improvement in their material and financial condition, will opt to do whatever they can to keep Afghanistan moving forward. In order to do this, tribal leaders will need to work with mayors, governors, police chiefs, and the national government in Kabul. This is no small undertaking. The new government that will be elected in 2014 will have a massive task on its hands as it tries to consolidate the resources and capacities of the state to deliver on a brighter future for Afghans. For its part, the Western world should do its part to ensure that Afghanistan does not return to its erstwhile status as a magnet for global instability. But I repeat: it is up to the Afghans themselves to determine what the next decade and beyond look like for them.