Afghanistan’s bleak future

isafmedia under Creative Common Flickr

2014 is a critical year for the history of Afghanistan, not only because President Hamid Karzai will step down after 13 years in office, but also due to the withdrawal of the International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF). There are still 84,200 foreign soldiers present, 60,000 of whom are from the USA.

Corruption is ruining the future of Afghanistan. Ranked 175 of 177 countries in the Transparency International Corruption Perception Index (2013), the country is in danger of a possible relapse into disaster after the definitive withdrawal of the troops.[1] While Western countries consider this a “mission accomplished”, reality proves them wrong. If we take a closer look at those who are supposed to fight against corruption and provide security, there are discouraging signs of what is yet to come. In the political scenario, former commanders, drug traffickers and warlords abound in Parliament. They have not given up their militias and continue to run their patronage networks, selling positions in exchange for loyalty. The ban on elections on a political party basis benefits them and perpetuates their power. The amnesty granted to war crimes gives them impunity and discredits democracy in the eyes of the population. This patronage system has infiltrated every governmental institution, where their pawns allow them leverage over decision-making at all levels.

Has anything else changed so far in the region? It seems that at least since 2001 some of Afghanistan’s neighbours have changed the ways in which they engage with the Afghan government. Iran, Russia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, China, India and -further West- Saudi Arabia, are waiting to see what happens after the final withdrawal of troops and the next elections. While this is also true of Pakistan, it is unlikely that it will change its general strategy, and will doubtless attempt to influence the newly elected President. All of the afore-mentioned countries, however, will vie with each other on two common issues: security and economic interests. All of them are waiting to gain an advantage over their competitors, be it motivated by traditional confrontation (Pakistan-India or Iran-Saudi Arabia) or the desire for economic development and access to energy resources (mainly China and India).

Security has badly deteriorated since 2013, but not only as a consequence of the withdrawal of foreign troops. The Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), made up of the armed forces and national, border and local police, are supposed to be the guarantors of security. By 2014, the ANSF were expected to have a staff of around 350,000 and yet currently boast only 200,000. Furthermore, these forces are expected to be cut after 2016, provided security improves. They are in the main made up of badly trained and badly motivated personnel, infiltrated by former members of the civil war militias and insurgents who have switched sides but whose loyalties remain with the warlords and not with the state. Lack of motivation, proper equipment and training have led to an increase in both the number of desertions and casualties in combat. Attacks have increased as have the number of districts falling into Taliban hands.

Will history repeat itself? Will there be a similar scenario to that which ensued after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989? Changes will not come through wishful thinking but through effective policies and at the moment, Afghanistan is far from that.

[1] Especially after Karzai refused to sign a Bilateral Security Agreement that would allow a certain amount of troops to remain on Afghan soil. They are meant to conduct training and counterterrorism operations which, according to the US administration, would prevent Afghanistan becoming once more a haven for terrorists.