Afghanistan, The Road Ahead: From an "End Date" to an "End State"

Knowledge Platform Security & Rule of Law, Clingendael Institute

The resurgence of the Taliban, the rise of ISIS, a slumbering economy and an outflow of refugees present significant threats and challenges to Afghanistan. The upcoming NATO Warsaw Summit and Brussels Afghanistan development conference, tackling the West’s continued commitment and financial support to the country, constitute an opportunity to ascertain robust support, harness the peace process and prevent a relapse into major instability. In light of emerging international developments, in particular the refugee crisis, as well as the increase in “Afghanistan fatigue” in Dutch national politics, how to chart the way forward in the international community’s engagement so as to reinvigorate Afghanistan’s political transition, faltering economy and elusive security situation?

Catalyzing the unfinished economic transition and mitigating the brain drain

The Afghan “bubble” economy, which had been fueled by significant international financial injections and artificial demand around the NATO military bases, collapsed upon the 2014 withdrawal of ISAF. Out of fear for the transition period - leaving the Afghan army and police in charge of security – capital fled the country, development stalled, and youth migrated both legally and illegally.

The National Unity Government, established in 2014, inherited this situation and has had to face it with empty coffers. Despite the Ghani administration’s initial intention to focus on development and job creation, significant security challenges have accounted for a re-direction towards security spending.

While there is a commitment by the Unity Government to chart a different path and undertake a range of reforms, significant obstacles to private sector development remain. All entrepreneurs in Afghanistan encounter corruption, which is a much bigger issue than it is currently perceived. The private sector argues that it can navigate the security situation, but Government support to a conducive business climate is indispensable. This requires a restoration of trust. If investors see opportunities for profit, it is said that they will return to the country. An open discussion should be held to this end with the Chamber of Commerce and other actors to overcome mistrust between the private and public sectors. Highly politicized institutions, such as the Afghan Investment Authority, need to be re-built from scratch by placing the right people in the right place.

From this perspective, further privatization or public-private partnerships are seen as an avenue to create an enabling environment to attract investment. As the domestic sector must be stimulated and a change from imports towards exports is needed, some industry support and protective measures may be required in crucial industries, given that competition is tough. As privatization would however favor certain powerful individuals in government, it begs the question whether this is desirable altogether, or a stronger focus on legal frameworks and institutions to restore trust will be more effective.

Access to land and finance are particularly difficult in Afghanistan, not only for female entrepreneurs - many of whom have flourished with the support of the international community - but also for minorities and youth. An inclusive environment needs to be fostered where land ownership is not the prerogative of the elite, but where women, as well as youth and minorities are provided with support to launch their businesses. This must be undertaken in a manner which does not continue to foster aid dependency, but is sustainable in nature.

Given a perceived increase in EU aid conditionalities, attempts will be made to attract non-traditional donors to Afghanistan, for instance Turkey, Azerbaijan and the Gulf States. Whether the impact thereof is beneficial for the Afghan people in the long-run is however debatable. At the regional level, a focus on trade and fixing transit corridors with regional countries is another important Government priority given Afghanistan’s land-locked nature. Some recent progress, to be build upon further, has been made with China, India and Turkey. The removal of international sanctions on Iran is seen by the Government as another major opportunity. As Iran may push the European Union to avoid Afghanistan, increased pressure on the EU is called for so as to foster the establishment of a China-Afghanistan-Iran corridor and avoid a further Afghan brain-drain, which persists in dragging down the country.

Securing peace and lasting reconciliation

Afghanistan continues to face significant challenges not only from an economic, but also an (intertwined) security perspective. The lack of economic growth constitutes a driving factor of conflict and violence, as well as a motivation for young men to join the Taliban. The return of insurgency upon the withdrawal of foreign troops has highlighted that the restoration of stability in Afghanistan has thus far failed and will be difficult to achieve.

While the exclusion of the Taliban from the 2001 Bonn peace talks was coined by Lakhdar Brahimi as the “original sin”, placing individuals in power who bear (criminal) responsibility for the current turmoil is perceived by others as “another sin”, foreclosing a sense of social justice. Members of the Afghan Local Police tend to be a further source of violence, rather than a solution, which increases the population’s mistrust towards the Government. International engagement in Afghanistan thus needs to engage these local power dynamics, rather than confining itself to the fulfillment of contractual agreements, which may fuel, rather than solve conflict. The Afghan Army itself could for instance rotate on a geographic basis to take these dynamics into account.

The economic unsustainability of the Afghan security forces constitutes another dilemma. Surplus forces need to be managed so that they do not risk joining militias or other armed groups, thereby perpetuating cycles of violence. Rather than focusing solely on security matters however, a broader strategy is indispensable to restore trust, bring about sustainable peace, and move Afghanistan forward. This requires an inclusive approach to the Afghan peace process, which guarantees participation by the main armed groups, civil society and women - including by building upon their incorporation within the High Peace Council. The exclusion of armed groups must be prevented to avoid a continuation of fighting. However, the current increase in power of the Taliban makes it likely that they will not be all that willing to take part in negotiations.

Other actors said to generate conflict in the region – such as Pakistan – should be encouraged to take steps to enhance peace. Now that the involvement of Western actors in Afghanistan is diminishing, a stronger regional partnership has been put forward as a possible means to improve the security situation. However, the question of who may play such a determining role, if at all, remains up for discussion given the tensions between countries in the region. Nonetheless, the peace negotiations with the Taliban are an Afghan process and should not be primarily owned by the international community. The Quadrilateral Coordination Group talks, composed of Afghanistan, China, Pakistan and the United States, constitute a step forward in acknowledging this.

The international community’s engagement in Afghanistan must therefore go beyond discussions on an end “date”, which amount to little more than a risky precipitated exit strategy. Instead, defining an end “State”, revolving around a roadmap towards peace that is sustainable in nature, and conjointly harnessing Afghanistan’s economic development are critical to chart the way forward towards stability and self-sufficiency for the Afghan people.

This blog draws on an Expert Roundtable with Mr. Wahid Waissi – Director-General for Economic Cooperation at the Afghan Ministry of Foreign Affairs, co-hosted on 1 March 2016 by the Knowledge Platform Security & Rule of Law, The Hague Institute for Global Justice, Clingendael, Cordaid, Oxfam Novib and the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

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