Afghanistan: prospects for 2013
By Tim Foxley
Summary: More turbulence and growing uncertainty as Afghanistan and the international community wait and watch the withdrawal of ISAF (this will remain on track), the preparations for a third presidential election and, most critically of all, signs of progress in any of the forms of the dialogue in and around the Taliban and associated insurgent groups.
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The Afghanistan Presidential election (April 2014) will almost certainly see the end of the Hamid Karzai era but probably not the influence and engagement of the Karzai family. We will see, in 2013, a growing recognition of this amongst all interested parties, from actual potential candidates to a range of potential backers. This will be manifested by growing manoeuvring within the Karzai family and the collection of loyal Karzai-ite family favourites, as well as posturing and canvassing from within all the key ethnic groups. Hamid Karzai may well “annoint” a chosen successor from within his family group.
Ethnic issues and allegiance will be a large feature of the debate and truly democratic political parties will still be few and far between. They will struggle to make themselves heard. Many (if not most) potential candidates will be posturing, not in the hope of becoming a genuinely plausible candidate, but in the expectation that they will be able to trade their block of votes for other trappings of power (provincial governorships, ministerial or cabinet appointments) closer to the election. Keep an eye on Abdul Rashid Dostum, the Uzbek chieftain in the north and Ismail Khan in the west in this respect. It is possible that posturing might led to localised inter-ethnic clashes or showdowns between national government and local warlords.
The international community, if it hasn’t already, will be drastically modifying its expectations for the election but will investing much effort, once again, in attempting to ensure that monitoring and validation processes are aligned, credible and broadly accountable after some embarrassment in 2009’s presidential election. Expect logistical problems to emerge as political issues in 2013, complicated by accusations of fraud, manipulation and incompetence as we get closer to the election itself.
With Hamid Karzai about to go, a range of exploratory talks will be opening up between key international players (US, UK, Pakistan, India, UN…) and the handful of truly credible potential candidates of all ethnic shades.
Throughout 2013, it will slowly become more difficult to gain a good analytical sense of developments, as information (and intelligence) gathering resources close down and move elsewhere. Less reliable sources (Afghan security forces, local media and government statements) will fill this gap. The Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) will continue to slowly increase in size, but retention (keeping more people in than you lose each month) will remain a problem. Capability will, however, remain less easy to assess – size will matter, but the weaknesses in the crucial supporting elements of the military (intelligence, medical, transport, logistics, engineers, artillery…) may become more apparent as ISAF becomes even more conspicuous by its absence across large parts of the country. We will see many more stories of failures and abuses from the less capable aspects of the ANSF – in particular the Afghan National Police and the Afghan Local Police.
I expect the NATO/ISAF withdrawal and transition process to continue smoothly and broadly to plan, regardless of the assessments of the ANSF capabilities (although ISAF is not expected to find any significant fault with the ANSF as the 2014 end date draws closer). We may start to see concerns over the emergence of “power vacuums” in areas previously dominated by ISAF – predominantly the south and the east of the country.
Taliban dialogue with a range of actors may start to look more coherent in a number of areas, but will continue to yield little tangible progress. Dialogue will be complicated by several factors. It will still be unclear who is talking to who and on whose behalf. Many groups (the media, the international community, the US, the Afghan government) will be at risk of jeopardising long-term reconciliation prospects by over-keenness to announce “peace” and to expose dialogue that might be better remaining private through 2013. The US commitment to retain thousands of troops in-country (10,000?) may well prove the sticking point for the Taliban.
Uncertainty over the economic situation will begin to focus on the perceived – and likely actual – significant decrease of funding in many aspects of Afghanistan’s economy as the reduction of international “footprint” begins to take effect. We may see further evidence of (particularly international) development projects folding (similar to the reports of UK funded schools in Helmand having to close) through lack of sustainability through 2013. But, conversely, these over-arching economic worries may kick-start the resolution of government investment deals with other nations for exploitation and development of Afghanistan’s natural resources and assets. Whether these deals will genuinely work in the long-term interests of the Afghan population or in the interests of those who signed the deals will not be clear in 2013.