What’s Next for Afghanistan?
After U.S. and NATO troops withdrew at the end of 2014, conditions in Afghanistan have worsened, threatening to tip the war-torn country into failed state status. Its stability can only be guaranteed if the international community focuses on developing Afghanistan’s economy and bolstering peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban.
Afghanistan has many challenges disrupting its stability. Conditions have gradually worsened since U.S. troops and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) largely withdrew at the end of 2014. Only 13,000 troops currently remain, serving in advisory and training capacities, and as troop levels have decreased there has been a resurgence in violence by the Taliban.
Economically, Afghanistan is still in a precarious situation, relying far too much on foreign aid to keep its economy afloat. Moreover, despite the brief optimism surrounding the successful formation of a unity government between the sparring presidential candidates Ashraf Ghani (now the president) and Abdullah Abdullah (now chief executive, a position created after a tumultuous election), the political situation remains precarious. It appears Afghanistan could be on the verge of becoming a failed state. To prevent this outcome, the international community must concentrate on assisting Afghanistan in revamping its economy and facilitating successful peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban.
Afghanistan’s economy has been at the mercy of other actors since the beginning of the U.S.-led mission against al Qaeda and the Taliban in 2001. Afghanistan’s poor security situation makes foreign direct investment nearly impossible and the economy is currently kept afloat by huge influxes of foreign aid: in 2014 alone, the United States provided $12.9 billion in aid to Afghanistan. However, foreign aid—which has essentially propped up Afghanistan’s economy—is likely to decline as the U.S. and NATO troops presence continues to decrease. Already economic growth has slowed to 1.5 percent in 2015, compared to an annual average growth of 9.4 percent from 2003 to 2012. President Ghani has vowed to spend significant amounts of time correcting the battered economy, but he will not succeed without the support of the international community. As Mr. Ghani astutely observed, only one thing will transform the country and “It’s not aid; it’s trade and investment.” Establishing a stable Afghanistan must begin with addressing the economic inefficiencies and corruption the country faces.
In an effort to address the stumbling economy, President Ghani is pursuing a number of national, regional, and international measures. Nationally, he has prioritized the “economic empowerment of youth, women, and the poor,” what he refers to the three majorities of Afghanistan.. Mr. Ghani is also reaching out to regional partners to strengthen economic ties. He is already in conversations with India and China to secure stronger regional trade and investment relations, offering access to Afghanistan’s vast natural resources. On the international level, Mr. Ghani aims to garner broad support for sustainable economic development from the wider international community, recognizing that foreign aid alone has proven insufficient. As a result, he is calling on the international community to engage Afghanistan through trade and assist the failing economy by treating it as a partner and not simply as a charity case. This requires greater private sector engagement through trade and investment, both at a national and local level. The outside world, especially the United States, needs to recognize that Afghanistan’s economic future must lie in its own hands if Afghanistan is to emerge as a stable, prosperous country. Mr. Ghani, therefore, has chosen correctly in focusing on building an economic platform for growth for his country, instead of allowing it to rely so heavily on foreign aid.
Yet economic growth alone will not resolve the challenges Afghanistan faces. The peace talks between the Afghan Taliban and the Afghan government, which have stalled following the official announcement of the death of the Taliban leader, Mullah Omar, are central to creating stability in Afghanistan. Since the departure of most U.S. and NATO troops, the Taliban has retaken large parts of Afghanistan, challenging the Afghan army and police. In the first six months of 2015, 4,100 Afghan soldiers and police have been killed due to the Taliban resurgence. As a result, the United States spends $110 billion a year on reconstruction efforts, with more than $60 billion helping build the Afghan security forces. This emphasis on security assistance—ignoring the root causes of instability in favor of attempting to manage the resulting violence caused by a resurgent Taliban—is a misdirection of foreign aid.
“Anyone who has a political reason for being against our government must enter the political process. This is not preferred, but rather is compulsory. With the formation of a national unity govern we proved that we are determined to pursue broad-based politics and not to deprive a party [of inclusion].”
In line with the Afghan government’s willingness for further discussion, the Taliban have appeared more willing to negotiate and even agreed to sit down with Afghan government representatives in July. However, they have continued their assaults against the government in Kabul and demand the complete withdrawal of foreign troops before a deal can be reached. Further complicating the situation is the current disunity among the Taliban. Recently, the group officially announced the death of its leader, Mullah Omar, but he reportedly died in 2013. This announcement has “thrown the fledgling Afghan peace process into disarray” as many Taliban members are dissatisfied with the selection of the new leader and skeptical of talks with the Afghan government. Peace talks are postponed indefinitely.
The key to pursuing successful peace talks lies with Afghanistan’s neighbor. Due to the gradual improvement of relations with Afghanistan because President Ghani made Pakistan a priority, Pakistan is poised to assist with potential peace negotiations between the Afghan Taliban and the Afghan government. As the Economist reports, “Peace in Afghanistan is inconceivable without help from Pakistan.” Pakistan has considerable influence over the Taliban: reports indicate that Pakistani officials secretly pushed the Taliban to participate in the peace talks, signaling recognition that such negotiations could help bring stability to the region. Nevertheless, Pakistan is seen as an uncertain ally in the peace talks as its security arm, the Inter-Services Intelligence, funds the Afghan Taliban. If the international community can pressure Pakistan through economic incentives and promises of regional leadership into seriously bringing the Taliban to the table, the peace negotiations are much more likely to succeed.
Afghanistan faces a precarious situation. To ensure its stability, the international community must focus on building Afghanistan’s economy and supporting peace talks between the Afghan government the Taliban. Economic aid on its own is insufficient: Afghanistan must take control of its own economy in order to achieve stability, but the international community can support this effort through renewed focus on trade and investment to stimulate the Afghan economy. International trade must become the basis of future growth. But sustained economic growth and stability can only be achieved if peace talks are successful. The Afghan government must continue to pursue such talks and keep an open mind about assimilating Taliban members into future governments. The road to a stable Afghanistan will be a long one as it will take time to fix the country’s economic troubles and develop a lasting peace between the Afghan government and the Taliban. However, the international community must not allow Afghanistan to become a failed state.
Kathleen Taylor is a contributing editor for Charged Affairs with Young Professionals in Foreign Policy. She is based in the Washington, D.C. Metro Area.
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