Where Is Afghanistan Headed?
By S P Seth
July 25, 2012
In the post-American period, much will depend on how Pakistan is able to draw a line between its own polity and the goings on in Afghanistan. If not, Pakistan might swim or sink with Afghanistan
The question many people ask is where Afghanistan is headed now that the United States and its allies are already packing their bags with final departure by end-2014. Before we examine this question, it might be pertinent to ask where Afghanistan is today and might be over the next two years. The answer to the second question is that Afghanistan is in the same state of utmost misery as it has been during the decade-long war. True, there have been some indicators of progress, like making a start with girls’ education, but in the absence of an environment of physical and economic security, even these small gains are easily and violently reversible. In other words, it is difficult to build on something with such shaky foundations.
Of course, those who are planning for Afghanistan’s future in the post-American phase will argue that even though it is one of the most unstable and poor societies in the world, it certainly is much better than it was under the Taliban that was hosting the al Qaeda leadership, leading to the 9/11 attacks in the US, and the beginning of the war on terrorism. If not contained, al Qaeda-sponsored terrorism would have continued unabated. It is arguable if all or how much terrorism was contained during over a decade of US military operations in Afghanistan. The country, though, remains in a precarious condition.
However, those wanting to see the US and its allies quit Afghanistan will be happy that the day is not far off. The Taliban, for instance, believe that all Afghanistan’s problems stem from the US invasion of the country. They hope that, with the US withdrawal, the Karzai government will collapse and the Taliban will be back in power. However, that might not happen so easily. True, the Taliban’s hold in eastern and southern parts of the Pashtun majority areas might be further strengthened, where they already have a strong presence directly and indirectly. In some places, they are also in close contact with elements in the Afghan army, avoiding military encounters.
However, it is important to note that the Taliban are not a homogenous category. For instance, the Haqqanis are unlikely to submit easily to a centralised Taliban authority like Mullah Mohammad Omar and his group. Pakistan’s ISI might play a bridging and mediating role with its considerable patronage to fight a common enemy — the Karzai government. But as the recent International Donors Conference in Japan has shown, the post-US Karzai government or its successor will not be without friends willing to help, though avoiding troops’ involvement. Apart from pledging development aid of $ 16 billion over four years, the US and its allies are also likely to commit about $ 4 billion a year to fund and support an estimated 352,000 Afghan army and police force over the next 10 years.
It is true that because of the US and Europe’s fragile economic situation, the promised economic and military aid might not be sustained. Even at the best of times, pledges and estimates of aid are rarely met. With the economies of pledging countries in all sorts of trouble, the post-American Afghanistan might be lucky to receive enough to keep going. But even with scaled down pledges, an army and police force of around or less than 350,000 men will be pretty handy to face up to a Taliban offensive. Even though the Afghan army is unlikely to reach the standards of a professional army, and might not be as committed to their cause as the Taliban, it will have the advantage of employing a large number of young people in a country where poverty is rampant. They might not be so easily sabotaged if the alternative is to hit the road. Of course, some will desert and join the Taliban and be rewarded. But for many, it might not be the option. What it means is that many in the military and police might develop a stake in what they already have — a regular slot in another otherwise fractured environment. In other words, the Taliban might not find it easy going and just walk into office.
This scenario, of course, presumes a regular and stable government and administration in the post-American period, which is not guaranteed considering that even with the US troops around the writ of the Karzai government does not run all over the country. Indeed, they do not seem to have any effective control beyond the cities. Even in the cities, the insurgents are able to stage dramatic attacks in the most secure areas of Kabul and Kandahar. They even managed to kill Karzai’s half brother, then governor of Kandahar, and Rabbani, Karzai’s peace council head and a former president of the country.
Nevertheless, the capacity of the insurgents to create mayhem will not necessarily work to their advantage because the Afghan people seem to crave security and stability. Any advantage the Taliban might seek to wrest from this situation will simply push the country into a full-scale civil war, pitting Pashtuns against Tajiks, Uzbeks and other minorities. And these minorities, particularly the Tajiks, dominate the military, at least at the higher level. On post-American-Afghanistan in The New Yorker, reporter Dexter Filkins quotes an Afghan governor: “Mark my words, the moment the Americans leave, the civil war will begin. This country will be divided into 25 or 30 fiefdoms, each with its own government.”
About the balance sheet of the US military intervention over a decade, Filkins comments, “...By the end of 2014, when the last Americans are due to stop fighting, the Taliban will not be defeated. A Western-style democracy will not be in place. The economy will not be self-sustaining...And it’s a good bet, even al Qaeda, which brought the United States into Afghanistan in the first place, will be carrying on.” As one former US counterinsurgency adviser to American forces in Afghanistan has been quoted as saying, “It appears we’re just trying to get out and avoid catastrophe.” It is a pretty depressing and disastrous situation for the Afghans to sort out between themselves, which might take years to work out, if at all, with a prolonged and protracted civil war.
In the midst of it all, Pakistan would like to play a determining role in the post-American Afghanistan, as it did before the US military invasion 11 years ago. Pakistan played a crucial role in putting the Taliban in power, but it has not quite worked out in its favour. The Taliban went ahead hosting the al Qaeda that led to 9/11. That, in turn, brought in the US invasion of Afghanistan, putting Pakistan right in the middle of what is still unfolding and likely to continue in the post-American period as a prolonged civil war. Pakistan has been destabilised by the country’s own version of the Taliban. And things are likely to get worse, before they get any better at all, when Pakistan takes sides to determine the course of events to its advantage.
The overlap between the Taliban on both sides of the Pak-Afghan border is making Pakistan part of the Afghan imbroglio, further destabilising the country. Therefore, in the post-American period, much will depend on how Pakistan is able to draw a line between its own polity/society and the goings on in Afghanistan. If not, Pakistan might swim or sink with Afghanistan.
S P Seth is a senior journalist and academic based in Sydney, Australia