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Afghanistan post-2014: perspectives from Stockholm

February 9, 2012

I attended a couple of days of conferences in Stockholm (co-hosted by FOI, SIPRI and UI) at the end of November last year.  My friend Ron, over at the Pavellas Perspective has also given a more comprehensive overview of the UI-hosted conference which is also worth checking out.  I think we broadly reach the same pessimistic conclusions.

Afghanistan post-2014 – Stockholm conferences

Background

1.    I attended two conferences, back-to-back in Stockholm during the week of 28 Nov – 2 Dec.  The first was hosted by FOI, the Swedish Defence and Research Agency, the second by the Swedish Institute of International Affairs.  The former was the format of a “workshop”, the latter as a series of presentations.  There was a mix of attendees: academics, thinktanks, NGOs, government, diplomats and former diplomats, with much “in-country” experience and expertise.  The theme for both gatherings was “Afghanistan post-2014”.  The following is a summary of some of the key points, comments and discussions that emerged.  I have annotated my own comments accordingly.

Overview

2.    The flavour of both was strongly pessimistic regarding the likely future direction for the country and the region.  There was broad consensus over the scale of the problem remaining after 10 years, including genuine anger and frustration.  But much of the analysis and discussion was in the perhaps less helpful form of hindsight.  Civil war was seen as an increasing risk with the word “hedging” used frequently to describe the attitude now of Afghan internal and neighbouring actors.  However, views on the way forward were, inevitably, diverse and frequently contradictory.  They included recommendations for major sustained political and economic commitment, realism about what is achievable, the need for a more coherent approach to Pakistan and a focus on developing Afghan civil society.

3.    There was little in the way of consensus – or even understanding – of what the Taliban might want or what could/should be offered to them.  The Taliban were described as a “medieval theocracy” but the strong suggestion was they might need to be given ministries in a power-sharing deal.  The readiness of the ANSF was strongly questioned – a particular issue that re-occurred in the debates was the risk of creating a large army within a weak state.

4.    I had to rescrub my notes a couple of times to find any sense of optimism.  What security, governance and economic progress there had been was usually qualified by underlining the fragility and reversibility.  The progress of children’s education was predictably cited.  The National Solidarity Programme was also heralded a success, with a call to increase investment in it.  International engagement (including military support) post-2014 was seen as likely to remain significant and generally viewed as positive.

Geo-strategic

  • Still a “great game”, neighbours have very specific national interests.
  • The main shift in dynamics is the US departure.
  • Regional co-operation is going nowhere – pledges are made about non-interference and then ignored.
  • Istanbul conference – everyone signs up but no clear strategy emerges (a “pile of platitudes”).  Everyone is waiting to see what the US does.  War is the most likely outcome.
  • Neighbours are “hedging their bets” – all the players from the 1990s.  When ISAF leaves all the internal powerbrokers will reshuffle the balance of power.
  • Pakistan – mixed opinions (“avoid demonising Pakistan”, vs “the battle is Pakistan – we’ve been looking in the wrong place”…) – a more chaotic country than ten years ago.

State building

  • What model should we use to help a failing state?  Not the model we used in 2001.
  • Local government is a complete mess and corruption at every level now threatens the state – the ISAF pull out will demonstrate the “mirage” of local governance.
  • Our state-building programme was too ambitious, “Silk Road” economic development plans are likewise.
  • The Afghan economy has been massively distorted by international money, when this money goes, there will be a major problem – and there is an absence of strategy.
  • The ANSF will not be ready – but there is a risk inherent in building a very large army within a very weak state (comment: i.e. take a look at Pakistan…)

Insurgency/prospects for negotiated settlement

  • Significant ambiguity – the process complicated and multi-track.  A need to differentiate between social and political reconciliation.
  • The Taliban don’t have to “win” only not lose (comment: the idea of a strategic “break” or “pause” was mentioned several times during the day).  They won’t be better rulers than they were in the 1990s – they are focused on fighting and have no plans for the future.
  • There are no talks, only talks about talks – talks are not going anywhere.
  • What is the price of peace – is the constitution up for grabs – human/women’s rights?
  • Residual Taliban – not all will reconcile, HQN will remain post-2014.
  • The transition is causing a problematic rush to create the conditions for talks
  • Role of Pakistan – ISI will control Pakistan’s Afghan policy for the foreseeable future – but Pakistan does not have a very clear vision of an end state for Afghanistan and the international community should “avoid pandering” to Pakistan.

Prospects/the future

  • By 2015 the risk of a civil war will be the most pressing issue – “at best Afghanistan will be barely succeeding”.
  • There must be more realism and “humility” about what can be achieved.
  • But the insurgency will be “increasingly one-dimensional” (comment: i.e. mainly using violence to generate fear and complicity amongst the population).  A civilian “surge” is needed.
  • Need to learn the lessons from the Soviet withdrawal and the Najibullah period.
  • We will see a worsening of the security situation in the region of a whole.
  • 2014 elections will bring a hardening of ethnic divisions (comment: I think this meant former Northern Alliance against Pushtuns).  Negotiations are futile.  Although Pakistan is the obstacle, international relations with Pakistan will whither.
  • Afghanistan is a model of international failure.  Over the next 10 years the battle will be with Pakistan – the US has finally wised up to this.

UI, SIPRI, FOI co-chaired conference

In addition, a pre-recorded interview with Farouq Wardak (Afghan Min of Education) was broadcast (he had been at the Swedish Afghan Committee conference of Afghanistan in Stockholm the week before).  He made the following points:

  • Defining the Taliban is very hard – Pakistani Taliban, AQ Taliban, Afghan Taliban, criminals operating under the Taleban’s name – there is no universal strategy for dealing with them.  We should offer peace to the Afghan Taliban and they and we (comment: i.e. the Afghan people) should both expect justice.
  • There should be no peace talks for those associated with terrorist networks.  We need to get to the negotiating table and reach agreement.  Bonn I was too exclusive and led to mistakes.  We need peace talks driven by inclusivity.
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One Comment leave one →
  1. February 9, 2012 5:26 pm

    Thanks for the mention, Tim. Your summary provides the wise perspective which I cannot offer, given the depth and breadth of your experience.

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