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Assessment from 2008 – Where will Afghanistan be in 1, 5 and 10 years time?

April 23, 2012

Executive Summary, 29 Oct 08


Sorry, a parting shot on my plug for this paper.  This is the executive summary, which I think is a much more user-friendly analysis.  The paper was written long before the 2011 “commencing troop withdrawals” and the 2014 “all troops out by” deadlines were introduced…

By Tim Foxley

Executive Summary: Afghanistan over the next 10 years

‘Afghanistan is threatened by the sheer depth of its long-standing problems, and by the reluctance of the wider world to empower Afghans to address them.’
William Maley, 2006

‘Whether we will make progress remains to be seen’
Robert Gates, US Defence Secretary, October 2008


Afghanistan’s prospects for the next ten years look bleak. At the close of 2008, there appears to be less and less good news for Afghanistan’s prospects and much to be genuinely concerned about. There are many persistent and long-standing problems – an insurgency, warlords, a drug explosion, corruption, interfering neighbours, fragmented ethnic and tribal loyalties and agendas, weak central governance and wavering and fragmented international assistance. Although progress has been made, we are unlikely to see any significant positive resolution to any of these difficulties over the time-frame of this paper. Afghanistan appears to be in a very slow decline towards refragmentation. Although this is perhaps not yet entirely irretrievable, it looks to be the most likely scenario and there are many factors that could trigger an even faster decline.

2008 – Current situation

As we move to the end of 2008, the Taliban have had another successful year and the international community indulges itself in increasingly public outbursts of self-doubt and recrimination. The Afghan government continues to struggle with itself–its limited capability, particularly with its human resources, corruption and lack of influence across the country.  The parliament remains fragmented and driven by a range of ethnic, factional and personal agendas that do much to slow the work of development and reconstruction in the country.  Areas of Pakistan continue to provide valuable safe havens for insurgent groups.

By 2009: ‘More of the same and a surge’

The political and security landscape in Afghanistan in November 2009 will be very similar to 2008, although security will probably be worse. The international military forces will have spent the summer of 2009 grappling with the Taliban-led insurgency. A ‘surge’ of US-led forces and renewed efforts to tackle the Taliban looks to be the theme for 2009-2010. Parliament will be weak and only partially effective. All aspects of the narcotics industry will continue to flourish across large parts of the country. Pakistan and its lack of control over an insurgency in the west of the country will remain a negative influence on Afghanistan’s development.

The build up to, and fall out from, the Afghan and US presidential elections and the potential for changes in leadership and strategy will be causing uncertainty and a hiatus in many security, reconstruction and diplomatic activities.

By 2013: ‘critical period?’

International community efforts will continue to lack cohesion, insurgency activities will still be significant and the Afghan government will still be struggling to exert influence across the country. A major series of difficult military, political and media issues are going to emerge between 2010 and 2012 and will further confuse, delay, distract and destabilise.  These will include elections, withdrawals of international forces and renewed and critical media attention on achievements and prospects in Afghanistan.  The impact of these events will predominantly be negative and be making themselves felt from 2011 onwards. This wavering commitment on the part of the international community is likely to be the the cause of further Afghan political and security difficulties.

By 2018: ‘Civil War-lite?’

From a Western perspective, the environment in Afghanistan in 2018 will probably be much more of a messy and unpleasant compromise than is contemplated now. Much of this will be as a result of downsizing and withdrawal of international troops around 2010–2014. The overall situation is likely to be a similar, but less intensive, version of mid-1990s Afghanistan–‘civil war-lite’? The UN and the international community will be attempting to provide support for a central government that remains divided by personal, local and factional politics. The scale of international commitment, both financially and militarily, will be significantly lower than that of 2008.

It is likely that all the key problems of 2008 (insurgency, warlordism, narcotics, corruption, weak central government, interfering neighbours) will be clearly recognisable in 2018.  Most of the difficulties highlighted in the 2009 and 2013 projections will still apply regarding the likely condition of Afghanistan’s security sector.

Some warlords will have returned and reverted to past practises.  Freedom of the press will be limited.  Human rights issues will have taken a backward step, with many Taliban values regaining their 1990s levels of prominence.  The Taliban will continue to be a significant presence in the region, militarily and, increasingly, politically.  The definition of “Taliban” will remain as difficult to pin down in 2018 as it is in 2008 and may involve some pro-Taliban groups in parliament and other groups resisting by force of arms.

There will, of course, be some progress – the political scene will be more mature in some ways, having got probably six electoral processes (presidential and parliamentary) under its belt – and the economy will be improving.  But overall, the fragility of the political and security situation will be substantial and the corresponding risk of a new fragmentation will be great.  Optimism for future prospects across the country will be low.


There are two main directions in which Afghanistan can go over the period that this paper covers: flawed and fragile progress or a gradual slide back towards some form of fragmentation.  The latter scenario currently seems the more likely. We must also remember that there are many unpredictable events that could cause the situation to slip away sooner and more dramatically, such as a major ISAF troop loss, the assassination of a key leader, such as Karzai, or renewed factional fighting.

Most of the faults will lie with the international community’s failure to fully commit in a co-ordinated fashion and then to start to drift away at what looks to be a critical period between 2010 and 2012:

Western interviewer: ‘Is the country going to make it, will democracy flourish? What scares you most?’
Ashraf Ghani (former Afghan Finance Minister):  ‘What scares me most is you, your lack of engagement’, TV debate, July 2005.

The role of international and domestic media will be to exacerbate these trends by airing arguments, concerns and confusions that will encourage insurgents and alarm Afghan and international domestic populations.  In October 2008, US Defence Secretary Robert Gates correctly points out that:

To be successful, the entirety of the NATO alliance, the European Union, NGOs, and other groups – the full panoply of military and civilian elements – must better integrate and co-ordinate with one another and also with the Afghan government.

However, after seven years of incoherency, tangents and lack of continuity, there is little evidence to suggest that this will ever happen.

If the security situation is still poor in 2013 (which is likely) and troop withdrawals have been taking place (also likely), international efforts will, through 2013 to 2018, probably be increasingly conducted “at an arms length”. There will be much less emphasis on civilian and military Western personnel on the ground.  The Afghan government may have some form of political accommodation with elements of the Taliban, but this will be painful and may cause it to fragment. Neighbouring countries will probably be more actively supporting favoured power-brokers–particularly Iran and Pakistan.

If the Afghan government is able to ride through what will undoubtedly be a very difficult period between 2010 – 2012, then the prospects for long-term development will become slightly more optimistic.  But even the most optimistic perspective means slow, flawed and fragile progress at best.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. April 23, 2012 5:49 am

    Do I read correctly that the biggest concern is “re-fragmentation”? The world wants Afghanistan not to be fragmented, to be unified with, presumably, Kabul as its center, its nucleus–yes or no?.

    I infer fragmentation is bad for Afghanistan because the people would be less likely to enjoy the fruits of “democracy”–that is, certain desirable freedoms/liberties would be out of reach.

    I infer fragmentation is bad for the rest of the world because this would give the Taliban and other bad guys places to organize and execute bad things against the rest of the world.

    Have I got this right? I need to start from simple premises in order to evaluate the barrage of information and opinion.

  2. April 23, 2012 9:51 am

    Ron, hi, good questions and you have exposed some of the mental difficulties I had! I think my biggest concern was (and is) that we will see a slow drift back to something resembling a civil war in which a rump government system is propped up by the international community – holding the major cities and most of the national communications net – and large chunks of Taliban-types and warlord-types battle over the long-term without any significant result either way. As was probably clear in the paper, I wasn’t (and am still not now) clear on exactly what it would look like, although fragmentation (“re-fragmentation”, if you look at what happened to the country in the 1990s) seemed a valid expression. Perhaps unhelpfully I also used the term “civil war-lite”. But I was groping around to describe a situation where large parts of the country do not have the stability necessary to rebuild, construct, develop jobs, trade and infrastructure under some form of centralised government organisation and low to mid level conflict is still common (and maybe even widespread). I am not suggesting that the country divides up into new states, or is gobbled up by neighbours. I don’t think I am necessarily pushing “democracy” in the Western style on Afghanistan as the ultimate goal. Neither do I necessarily think that AQ immediately starts setting up shop as soon as ISAF pulls out. But fragmentation (instabiity, conflict, stagnation) is very bad for Afghanistan, damaging for the region and potentially harmful for the international community. Not sure if that helps, but please come back, of course!



    • April 23, 2012 12:19 pm

      Hej Tim,

      I’ll always come back. Always good reading, that’s why.

      You gave me a comprehensive answer to some rather naive or simple-minded questions. I appreciate the attention and the response.



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