Crossroads: Afghanistan

The summer of 2016 finds Afghanistan, once again, at crossroads – multiple crossroads. Decisions taken at each crossroad, by both the Afghans and the international community, will define success or failure over the next five to ten years.  Afghans must make crucial decisions about the country’s political future, both in terms of structure and personalities; they must come to grips with the deteriorating security situation, along with their partners and, most importantly, with their contiguous neighbors; and Afghans must make key decisions and investments, once again in conjunction with international partners and neighbors, to stave off the persistent economic recession before it devolves into a full-blown depression, all the while coming to grips with a demographic tidal wave which makes the problem increasingly difficult with each passing year.

3D8F251D-108E-4D46-BFA8-875CCA6534D0_mw1024_s_nThe National Unity Government of President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Officer Dr. Abdullah Abdullah is nearing the two-year mark, the limit of the agreement brokered by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in 2014.  The original target date of late 2016 for Parliamentary elections is now impossible to execute, and even the government has announced an intention to delay the elections.  Electoral reform is stagnant, with reforms either unsupported by the Parliament or caught in a perpetual tug-of-war between the Ghani and Abdullah camps.  There has been no progress towards convening a Loya Jirga to debate any changes to the form of government or to ratify the CEO position.  In short, the National Unity Government has brought neither unity nor governance to Afghanistan.

State-of-the-Union-Obama-800x450This lack of progress on the governance front is beginning to erode confidence and support from the international community. The decisions by United States President Barack Obama to retain a U.S. military force of 8,400 through at least the end of his term in January 2016 and the decisions by NATO contributors to stay engaged in Afghanistan, primarily the train and equip missions, are as much, if not more, about protecting the U.S. and Europe from the potential security risks of a failed Afghanistan as they are about supporting Afghanistan for Afghan’s sake.

Which brings us to the security crossroads.  As mentioned, major decisions have recently been taken in the U.S. and NATO regarding continued support to the Afghan National Security and Defense Forces.  The continued presence of 8,400 U.S. troops, in additional to several thousand NATO soldiers as well as several billion dollars of assistance each year will go a long way to reassuring President Ghani, CEO Abdullah and the Afghan people of U.S. and NATO resolve.  It also sends a strong message to Afghanistan’s neighbors, particularly Pakistan and Iran, that the U.S. remains committed to the region. But let us not fool ourselves:  less than 10,000 NATO troops in Afghanistan are not sufficient on their own to defeat a reinvigorated Taliban, a DA’ESH/ISIS presence that may (or may not) be making some inroads, and a porous, ill-defined cross-border security situation with Pakistan. However, the international forces are key to enhancing the training, equipping, and improving the tactical and operational effectiveness of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces.  Meanwhile, the strategic effectiveness of the ANDSF depends on the other instruments of state power including political unity and good governance.

On the economic front, the governance and security situations have taken a heavy toll.  Largely due to the contraction of the artificial “wartime economy” fueled by the large international military and contractor presence which reached a peak in 2011 (130,000 military and probably 150,000 contractors), Afghanistan now finds itself mired in a debilitating economic recession.

Unemployment – already a huge problem for Afghanistan, particularly for younger men – has worsened and the poverty rate remains somewhere around 36 percent.  Lack of reliable transportation infrastructure coupled with a weak or non-existent (some might even say hostile) transit trade arrangement with neighbors all but guarantees anemic GDP growth and minimal economic opportunity for average Afghans.

The economic situation is further exacerbated by a demographic tidal wave descending upon Afghanistan.  Some political demographers warn that if current population growth rates continue unchecked, Afghanistan could explode from a current population of roughly 28 million to as many as 90 million in the next 30 years.  Such growth is unsustainable and would in and of itself create a potential horrific humanitarian crisis absent some transformative economic opportunities.

As a result of many of the factors noted, many Afghans have once again decided to leave the country.  Either intimidated by the worsening security situation, discouraged by the lack of improvement in governance, or the paucity of jobs and economic opportunity, Afghans are leaving the country in numbers reminiscent of the 1980s and 1990s.  According to IRIN, Afghans are the second largest number of refugees entering Europe (behind Syrians); Afghan arrivals by sea to Greece peaked at almost 64,000 in October 2015 alone.  Afghans are now being turned away in high numbers, further compounding the social crisis.

But the Afghans are a proud and resolute nation.  There are ways to emerge from these crossroads and set a better course for the future.  In the near-term, several strong and decisive actions taken primarily by the Afghans themselves can put the country on a better path.

First, President Ghani should announce that he and CEO Abdullah have signed a binding agreement to maintain the National Unity Government arrangement until 2019 – the end of the current 5 year presidential term.  Such an agreement removes the looming deadline artificially imposed by the 2014 agreement and allows time to set the remaining necessary steps in place.

Second, the National Unity Government – President Ghani and CEO Abdullah together – must announce that the elections originally intended for the fall of 2016 have been officially and permanently postponed until September 2017.  A delay until that time is absolutely necessary to set the conditions for free, fair, and transparent elections.  The current parliament has already been extended beyond its legal, constitutional term – extending it another year will not significantly erode any public confidence in the institution.  Additionally, a proper, legitimate, and politically-binding election conducted later is far better than a sham election held earlier.

Third, set a deadline for electoral reforms to be fully enacted not later than December 30, 2016.  These reforms, although politically difficult and contentious, form the basis for the elections to be held in September 2017.

Fourth, set the date for the Constitutional Loya Jirga for 3 months after the 2017 election, that is, on or about January 2018.  Whatever constitutional and governmental structure reforms endorsed and approved by the Loya Jirga should be effective with the inauguration of the new Afghan government installed AFTER the September 2019 elections.

What about the security and economic challenges?  Both security and economics depend on a solid foundation of good governance and the faith of the people.  Although the reform pathway outlined here will require another four years to fully implement, the embrace of such an agenda now, while sitting at these multiple crossroads, will instill confidence and support both security and economic improvements.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not reflect the views, policies, or opinions of the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies, the U.S. Department of Defense, or the United States Government.

John Wood is an Associate Professor at the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies, a U.S. Department of Defense Regional Center.  From 2007 to 2009 he was the Senior Director for Afghanistan on the National Security Council staff for both President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama.



The Afghan Tribune | John Wood | Published: July 16, 2016, 12:08 AM

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