By Jon Boone
04 April, 2014
ELEVEN months before the Soviet Union’s occupation of Afghanistan ended the combined brains of the US intelligence community were asked to guess what would happen in the country.
“We judge that the Najibullah regime will not long survive the completion of the Soviet withdrawal even with continued Soviet assistance,” surmised the 1988 National Intelligence Estimate. “The regime may fall before withdrawal is complete.”
The spies turned out to be completely wrong. Afghanistan’s last communist president survived for three years after the last Soviet troop crossed the Amu Darya. It was only after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, ending the flow of vital economic and military subsidies to Kabul, that Najib fell.
A quarter of a century on from the predictions of those long forgotten intelligence analysts, a foreign policy wonk like Vali Nasr is merely channelling today’s received wisdom when he writes in his recent book, “Very likely, the Taliban will win Afghanistan again.”
For the doom-mongers, tomorrow’s presidential election has long been seen as harbinger of Afghanistan’s post-NATO collapse. Certainly the 2009 experience disheartened many of us who watched it from close quarters. Election day was the most violent 24 hours since 2001. Millions of fraudulently cast votes shone an unsparing light on the malfeasance of the Afghan government and the ineffectualness of the Western donors paying for the exercise.
The second round was abandoned after a murderous attack on a UN guesthouse. Karzai was, in effect, illegally reappointed president without winning the 50pc of the votes the constitution said he needed.
Things don’t look much better this time round. Despite assurances from officials that lessons have been learned the electoral system remains fundamentally broken, with millions more voter cards in circulation than voters. Once again candidates have a strong incentive to cheat if they are reliant on support from the rural Pakhtun south and east where the Taliban can deter voters with the threat of violent reprisals.
A non-Pakhtun robbed of the presidency by massive fraud in the Pakhtun south is the stuff of nightmares for those inclined to predict an ethnic civil war. But last time round those of us who predicted disaster after the botched election were proved wrong. Abdullah Abdullah, denied the second round he was entitled to, did little more than stand in his rose garden and tell the world’s press he was not best pleased. I can’t see him rallying his old Northern Alliance comrades to take up arms this time either.
Most surprising was how few Afghans shared the outrage of disillusioned Westerners at what appeared to be Karzai’s screaming lack of legitimacy. Even those that voted for other candidates tended to accept him as their president with a shrug.
As in Najibullah’s day, the Afghan state is much less fragile than pessimistic observers would have you believe. Despite all the criticism and alleged corruption, support for the post-2001 political and constitutional settlement remains surprisingly strong. Afghans like their democracy and their elected institutions, imperfect though they may be. Surveys suggest more than 70pc of Afghans are planning to vote this weekend.
The security forces may have been built up in a terrible hurry after 2009 but they have improved remarkably in a short period. Despite the rapid falling away of foreign assistance they won almost every battle they fought last year. And they have the huge advantage of not being culturally clueless foreign infidels.
The strength of the Taliban-led insurgency has been absurdly exaggerated. They have just a fifth of the manpower of the Mujahideen of the 1980s and none of the nationwide breadth.
The anti-Soviet struggle was a national liberation struggle attracting support from all groups (and political backing from the entire non-Soviet world). Today the Taliban recruits exclusively among a disgruntled subsection of a single ethnic group. It means the Taliban insurgency has been unable to generate the spread of violence across the country that the Mujahideen were capable of. Today insecurity is only chronic in relatively few of Afghanistan’s 400 or so districts — mostly in areas of the rural, Pakhtun south and east where government forces are absent. Most Afghans (increasingly urbanites) are largely unaffected.
Despite a decade of crafty political messaging, often exploiting NATO’s many spectacular own goals, the Taliban have failed to build popular support. A rash of anti-Taliban uprisings and the emergence of pro-government local militias in the south and east suggest their popularity may even be weakening in their so-called heartlands.
In short, never be afraid to bet against the received wisdom on Afghanistan. Exciting though predictions of catastrophe may be, the coming years are likely to look a lot like the recent past, whatever the outcome of the election. Expect a continuation of the stalemate between a government that can’t be toppled and an insurgency in parts of the rural south east that can’t easily be stamped out.
Jon Boone is the Guardian’s Pakistan correspondent.