The year 2014 has become central to debate on Afghanistan, and public sentiment suggests that the country will face something of a doomsday scenario. Concerns circle around an impending collapse of the economy, a revival of the power structures encountered in 2001, the possibility of a civil war erupting, and the ascendance of religious fundamentalism. Conversely, others welcome the withdrawal, arguing that it will allow for peace to prevail and presents a unique opportunity for Afghanistan to define its own future.
After more than a decade of international assistance to Afghanistan, the year 2014 marks the beginning of a major transition period that will determine the future of international involvement. Key components of the transition include the recent presidential elections and a potential peace deal with the Taliban among other things. Foreign actors have grown tired of what appeared to be a never-ending commitment, therefore leaving policymakers little choice but to communicate the need for engagement in Afghanistan to slowly come to an end.
International military assistance and aid to Afghanistan will be reduced, and while this has been known since 2009 and forms part of the ‘standard evolution’ of a post-conflict scenario, many fear that the country will fall back into times of uncertainty in the absence of a strong international presence.
Reports over the last few years have projected an unstable and insecure future for Afghanistan following the transition period. The International Crisis Group report titled ‘Afghanistan: The Long, Hard Road to the 2014 Transition’ claimed that there is a strong likelihood of a government collapse. An earlier report by the World Bank pointed to the unstable war economy of Afghanistan and the possible deterioration of governance, arguing that security had to be maintained in order to ensure economic development. Predictions such as these made by analysts around the world are often echoed by their Afghan counterparts, and disseminated to the Afghan population through both local and international media.
These doomsday scenarios are, however, overblown, and the all-consuming focus on the deadline is misplaced. The challenges that Afghanistan faces have little to do with a specific date such as the ‘ominous’ 2014. Much of the ongoing debate related to Afghanistan has been about 2014 and the withdrawal of international forces. However, this approach is flawed insofar as not much will actually change on the ground because of these events; the fragile reality of the country has its roots in the missed opportunities of the last decade. The hype about 2014 detracts attention from other important issues, and instead, the focus should be on setting priorities and targets for the post-2014 engagement to ensure the inclusivity and sustainability of institutions.
Aiding the future
The international aid efforts coupled with a long-term military presence were intended to create a viable Afghan state, but instead have resulted in a dependent economy and a skewed distribution of wealth. Afghanistan requires the continuation of foreign assistance, but the delivery of aid money over the past decade has not taken place in a coordinated manner, and no country-owned plan was put in place to manage aid other than the Afghan National Development Strategy, which is essentially a foreign construct. Thus, any continuation of aid should be dependent on a realistic and sustainable plan. Furthermore, the development agenda has often been hijacked for political gain. This practice of impunity, despite being criticised at the individual level, is being tolerated by the population at large. Because of the significant amounts of money that have flooded the country over the past decade, a culture has developed in Afghanistan in which people now take ready access to money and resources for granted. With money therefore having become the primary incentive in Afghan society, the need to achieve financial security trumps other considerations.
The weak and dependent state that exists today is marked by governance structures that are unable to provide basic services to people. Take the delivery of healthcare for example. The government’s service provision is very limited and mostly focused in urban centres without much reach into rural areas. The large gaps that remain are inadequately filled by private healthcare providers and non-governmental organisations without proper oversight or a broader framework to ensure the quality of services.
Based on the 2011 International Conference on Afghanistan held in Bonn and subsequent deliberations at the Chicago Summit and Tokyo Conference, both military and development support is likely to continue at least until 2024, a fact that has not resonated significantly with the Afghan public. International actors made comprehensive commitments for Afghanistan throughout the ‘transformation period’ of 2015 to 2024. Whereas Chicago focused on requirements pertaining to the maintenance, training and development of the Afghan National Security Forces, the Tokyo Conference put forth an international pledge of USD 16 billion to assist Afghanistan in the development of the country. This portion of aid pledged to the Afghan government was made contingent upon a number of markers of progress in the areas of ‘Representational Democracy and Equitable Elections’, ‘Governance, Rule of Law and Human Rights’, ‘Inclusive and Sustainable Growth and Development’ to name a few. Whilst implementation of the Tokyo portfolio would certainly be beneficial to Afghanistan, it is questionable whether the Afghan Government is equipped to deliver in areas that even developed states would find challenging. However, demonstrating progress is likely to define the degree of support, financial or otherwise, that will actually be provided to the Afghan Government between now and 2024.
In the absence of an international military presence across the country, the delivery of aid will be hampered. Already a significant amount of military bases across the country have been handed over to the Afghan National Security Forces or simply shut down, which is beginning to take its toll on the ability of international organisations to access parts of the country. Cognisant of this reality, the response by the international community to increasingly channel funding through the Afghan government will likely prove detrimental in the absence of the necessary state apparatus required to ensure accountability. It should be noted that the reduction in aid is likely to lead to a decline in salary subsidies to ministries, thereby limiting governance capacity and the delivery of programmes even further. Some ministries will continue their work more efficiently than others, still largely depending on foreign support, while the general population will continue to persist with little to no provisions from the state.
Afghanistan, for a variety of reasons, lags behind the ambitious conceptual framework that the international community and Afghan Government have created over the past decade. Therefore, the most significant change post-2014 will be the demise of an artificial construct that has been created over the past decade. This will reveal the real position of Afghanistan as it stands today, and most likely, aspects of this reality will resemble the situation prior to international involvement in the country.
The claims of a civil war erupting or a return to the power structures associated with the period before the 2001 intervention are worth assessing critically. Overall, there is no appetite for going to war, and the power structures encountered today have evolved from those found in 2001. Of course, key actors have joined or left the equation, but overall the same composition of powerbrokers will continue to be ‘employed’ by the government to ensure control of and access to the various regions of Afghanistan. In the current situation, the powerbrokers are positioning themselves to ensure that under the new President, structures are maintained to their benefit.
Whether Afghanistan moves toward a peaceful future or one that fosters religious fundamentalism is a complex issue and depends on the outcome of ongoing negotiations between the Afghan government and regional actors, including the Taliban, as well as the participation of the public in such a process. At present, most efforts pertaining to the so called ‘peace process’ are taking place on the government level only and can thus best be described as the brokering of a political deal. Participation of the public is largely absent, which runs counter to the very purpose of a peace and reconciliation process. The recent presidential elections and the clearly oppositional stance of the Taliban towards them is a strong indication that the peace process as such is not underway and that even attempts to broker a political deal have been largely unsuccessful.
The government’s lack of public consultation, its inability to provide basic services, especially education, and negative perceptions the international community’s efforts to promote democratic values, human rights and gender equality, lead to a scenario that could provide a feeding ground for religious fundamentalism. A prime example is Afghanistan’s Parliament refusing to pass the Elimination of Violence Against Women bill aimed at addressing the well-being and security of women. The policy proposal faced opposition on the basis that it contradicted Islam and represented Western imposition. This opposition manifested in the form of demonstrations in major cities, largely attended by educated university students, a sign that even the priorities of the youth are being hijacked for political purposes.
On the other hand, some analysts, especially within Afghanistan, argue the 2014 transition presents an opportunity to become an independent entity. However, even this seemingly desirable situation has to be put in perspective. Afghanistan does not have the mentality, structures or tools available that would allow it to be an independent and functioning state in the near future. Talking about sovereignty in a place that does not have the necessary mechanisms in place to ensure the wellbeing of its population is merely an illusion.
All of these contending messages are having an effect on the Afghan audience as well. The messages pertaining to 2014 disseminated by the international community and the Afghan government are not being effectively communicated to the Afghan populace. Overall, an array of mixed and contradictory messages has created a fixation on the date itself and blown the potential consequences out of proportion. As a result, the tasks at hand have become secondary and have left the Afghan public in a state of both fear and disillusionment.
Considering the persistent hype around 2014, what do the Afghan people feel and think? While those who have resources can make arrangements to leave the country if necessary, the majority of Afghan people continue to be concerned mainly with their daily survival despite the prevalent sense of fear. When asked ‘What will 2014 bring?’ the most common response among Afghans with whom I spoke was ‘Nothing, we will continue to struggle along the same path’. This public sentiment may stand in contradiction to the palpable sense of fear, but this is not surprising in a society marked by conflict and uncertainty, where even fear can be overtaken by complacency.
Whilst capacity building efforts may have fallen short in Afghanistan, this should not be viewed only as a failure of the international community as it also relates to the inability of the Afghan people to take an active part in the reconstruction of their country. Changing the prevailing mentality of war, which reduces individuals to an existence based on survival, requires a long process of transformation. International involvement since 2001 could have merely set the foundation for any such shift to take place.
A vibrant civil society can play an important role in changing the relationship between Afghans and governance structures, and for ensuring accountability and transparency. At the same time, the concept of civil society in Afghanistan needs to be critically assessed. While not entirely a foreign concept, the ‘NGOisation’ of civil society over the past decade has not been conducive to fostering a legitimate and representational civil society that voices the concerns of the people. This approach, marked by excessive funding, a workshop culture and incentivisation, has hampered the organic development of voluntarism and activism in civil society and created a void between the state and the public. Accountability has been oriented upwards towards the donor, rather than towards the people affected by projects and programmes to foster democratic values.
As Afghanistan moves forward, the government should acknowledge that continued foreign support is crucial for the country’s progress towards building an efficient and functioning state. With the expected reduction of international aid, government and civil society must identify and implement mechanisms that set out realistic priorities aimed at stability and long-term, sustainable development.
While the international community has pledged its support to the country for the coming decade, what will be required to make the most of this opportunity is a collective sense of responsibility among all parties.Continuing aid commitments on the part of international donors can contribute in a significant way to increasing the role of civil society, particularly in relation to women and youth. If civil society is to prevail in Afghanistan and indeed fulfil the role as a functioning and independent representation of the people, then investments should be made in long term civic education.
Furthermore, the Afghan government should communicate to the Afghan public that 2014 is nothing more than a milestone in the predictable evolution of12 years of international assistance and military presence. Also, the public should be made aware of the international community’s commitments through the year 2024 and the opportunities related to this kind of support. Communication along these lines would help reduce some of the uncertainty among a population that faces precarity on a daily basis.
Whatever direction the country embarks upon, the path needs to be defined. Whether Afghanistan is transitioning towards a more democratic society, of which an electoral process is only one component, the opportunity at hand should be used to establish the necessary foundations for a state and society that can collectively decide at what pace and according to which model the country should move forward. Once that direction has been determined, Afghanistan would not only be in a position to achieve progress, but also to define relationships with its neighbours and move towards regional solutions beneficial to all. In the end, and most importantly, the responsibility needs to be placed in the hands of the Afghan people. The relevant actors within Afghan society need to be empowered in order to foster a culture of participation and accountability, in which all parties work together for the future of their country.
~This article is a part of Reclaiming Afghanistan: web-exclusive package.
~ Ayscha Hamdani is an Independent Consultant in International Affairs with a strong focus on developments pertaining to South and Central Asia and the Middle East. In the past fifteen years, Ms Hamdani has held positions in security, operational, strategic policy, and politico-military arenas working with various governments and governmental organisations, and provided advice on political affairs to NATO and the EU.