Why This Year will be a Turning Point for Afghanistan (Sort Of)

For anyone who has followed the news about Afghanistan for the past couple years, the year 2014 is one that commentators have treated with dread. The end of this year will mark the termination of ISAF’s combat mission in Afghanistan, with the vast majority of NATO forces scheduled to be completely withdrawn after 2014. The approach of this drawdown has provoked its share of consternation and hand-wringing as questions have loomed about whether the Afghanistan that has been painstakingly built up over the last 13 years can survive now that there is no chance of foreign combat troops coming to prop it up. While some of this can certainly be classified as the typical doomsaying that characterises much of modern journalism, there is a lot of truth to the hype: 2014 is set to be an extremely difficult year for Afghanistan.

Image courtesy of Si Longworth (Army Photographer), © 2013, some rights reserved.
Image courtesy of Si Longworth (Army Photographer), © 2013, some rights reserved.

Condescending as it may sound; Afghanistan is in many ways ill-equipped to handle the consequences of the impending drawdown. From a military standpoint, their security forces still rely heavily on NATO for logistical and advisory support and in spite of the strides that the Afghan National Army has made over the last year; it still boasts a variety of organisational deficiencies, including an unacceptably high attrition rate. More importantly, Afghanistan still needs foreign military aid to keep its forces running at even the most basic level and while there are no signs that such aid will disappear in the short term, the reality is that any arrestment of such assistance would lead to the almost instant collapse of the Afghan military’s current force structure. In short, Afghanistan is still dependent on foreign assistance to meet its basic security needs and is likely to remain so for at least the next decade, making even a partial withdrawal potentially disastrous due to the inevitable disruption that such a move will cause.

This dependence also extends itself into the country’s troubled economic sphere. For all the progress Afghanistan has made to rid itself of the disaster of the Taliban regime, the country still relies heavily on foreign aid to drive its economic growth. With the pending withdrawal, much of the aid and investment that was made under the aegis of ISAF will likely leave with it and that prediction has already hurt the country’s current growth. A few months ago, the World Bank estimated that the Afghan economy would grow 3.5% this year, compared to the 14.4% that it pulled in 2012.[1] Even Afghanistan’s mineral wealth, widely regarded as its best shot of building a self-sustaining economy, has proven to be a mirage thus far. Major investments in exploiting its wealth, such as the Mes Aynak copper mine, have continued to run into problems, with Chinese and Indian firms both suspending or drastically reducing a several high profile contracts. Overall, Afghanistan simply does not have a very bright economic future without the aid regime that has sustained it thus far, and given the pending drawdown, the chances of that regime persisting as it has is virtually nil.

On top of all these issues, the political timing for this drawdown could scarcely have been worse. In April of this year, Afghans across the country will go to the polls to vote for their new President. Hamid Karzai will not be standing for re-election this year, guaranteeing that whoever wins, Afghanistan is now certain to face a contentious political transition in 2014. Even assuming that his power will not be diluted by Karzai’s lingering influence or outright challenged by the losing party, he will also be faced with salvaging a deteriorating US-Afghan relationship. For there to even be an American military presence in the country after 2014, Afghanistan must sign the Bilateral Security Agreement that would stipulate the conditions of the post-2014 residual force. Karzai, for domestic as well as personal reasons, has delayed signing this agreement for months now and has now stated that he will leave the decision to the President-elect in April. So on top of the mess that the political transition will undoubtedly create, Afghanistan’s new leader will also have the unenviable task of placating an exasperated America, a country whose government has for months now been openly contemplating scrapping the residual force and withdrawing all troops and all financial support immediately.

Needless to say, the challenges that Afghanistan will face this year are guaranteed to be immense. However, it is still important to have some perspective on these challenges. For all of Afghanistan’s problems, the chance that the country will collapse as spectacularly as it did after the Soviet withdrawal is still remote. For all of the hype, the Taliban still has limited popular support within the country and while there is always of risk of them making major territorial gains, it is highly unlikely that they will ever be in a position to directly threaten the survival of the current Afghan government. Likewise, for all their deficiencies, the Afghan security forces have proven their worth against the Taliban countless times over the last year. 2013 marked the first year in which Afghanistan’s military took the lead in fighting the Taliban and by most accounts, they acquitted themselves quite well. With little to no NATO air or ground combat support. Afghanistan’s forces have been conducting a number of successful offensives over the past few months that have largely prevented the Taliban from making any major gains this year. Even with the drawdown, so long as NATO can continue its advisory support, there is a good chance that Afghanistan will be able to preserve much of its current fighting capability and keep the country relatively stable. So long as that basic stability remains, then Afghanistan will still have the breathing room it needs to build the self-sustaining economy and established political structure that will bring it the long-term prosperity that it so desperately needs.

2014 is going to be a bad year for Afghanistan, but it is by no means the worst year in the country’s recent history. For all of its problems, Afghanistan has made enormous strides from where it was at the beginning of the millennium. The current war may be dangerous, but it is still a far cry from the brutality and destructiveness of the Soviet invasion and the civil war that followed and there are still no signs that it will go anywhere near that path. Thus, in spite of everything, I would still bet good money on modern Afghanistan’s continued survival. The tragedy of course is that while I will bet on them surviving, I still cannot see them thriving either.

[1] “World Bank sees Afghan Economic Growth Tumbling 10 percent in 2013.” Reuters. October 11, 2013. http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/10/11/us-afghanistan-economy-idUSBRE99A0X120131011?feedType=RSS&feedName=worldNews

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