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Prospects for 2014

January 16, 2014

Photos of Afghan maps 006Summary: Talk of “deadlines” and “endgames” are unhelpful.  With the exception of an electoral transfer of presidential power (Dr Abdullah will likely be the next president), few of the major “issues” facing Afghanistan will be resolved this year, although strong clues will show the way to the crucial 2015 – 2019 period.  Neither Afghan government forces or the insurgency will be able to dominate militarily, but the fighting will continue (albeit at lower levels to the 2010 – 2012 high point) and progress on dialogue will remain minimal.  The international military transition will take place and nothing will immediately fall apart once they have gone.  Uncertainty (evidenced, amongst other things, by a new surge in poppy cultivation) will hamper political, social and economic development – the people of Afghanistan will keep their heads down if possible this year and await what happens.

abdullahIn April 2013, a departing European diplomat, Bernard Bajolet, bemoaned the lack of political, military and economic progress in Afghanistan as he prepared to depart Kabul at the end of his tour:

“I still cannot understand how we…have managed to arrive at a situation in which everything is coming together in 2014 — elections, new president, economic transition, military transition and all this — whereas the negotiations for the peace process have not really started”[1]

Yet another critical year?

2014 has once again been dubbed the “critical“ year for Afghanistan – confirming a pattern (if we are to be slightly cynical) of this as a description of every new year in Afghanistan over the last several decades.  Talk of “deadlines” and “endgames” are unhelpful, both confused and confusing, but inevitable.  Predictably, media commentary fuels this with pieces advocating complete US/international withdrawal or predicting the inevitability of a slide towards civil war.  At the start of 2014, the country remains in a swirl of uncertainty, in which most of the outstanding issues – with the probable exception of the elections and a transfer of presidential power – will likely remain unresolved when the country moves into 2015.

But much of our thinking needs to be tempered with some expectation management and a longer-than-one-year timeframe in mind.  In many ways, it is 2014 which will see the significant political and military transitions initiated, but the years 2015 – 2019 that will determine whether anything is going to work over the long-term.  In particular, whether the current regime will be sufficiently stable to stand up for itself (albeit with substantial international support) or whether a major revision – either peaceful or violent – will cause a new and volatile ten year period of turmoil, conflict and hiatus.

For some years I have been attempting to make longer-term assessments of where Afghanistan is going.  Well, haven’t we all.  In August 2012, I suggested the following for the period 2014 – 2019:

“Although the example of the Najibullah regime is in danger of becoming the default benchmark for measuring prospects of the current government, it may not be entirely helpful.   However, international military and development support will remain crucial to the survivability of the Afghan regime well beyond 2014.  Neither international-backed government nor insurgent groups look likely to achieve decisive momentum.  Over this five year timeframe, a messy, unresolved stalemate – government controlling cities and most communications routes with insurgents and militias dominating less accessible regions – looks to be the most likely outcome.”

I think this still works as my analytical baseline.  For my Master’s thesis, I developed this idea of a protracted military stalemate – Afghan government forces controlling urban areas and key road nets, insurgent groups encroaching into farther-flung rural districts – which seems to me to be increasingly plausible in the absence of progress on peace talks:

  1. With talks going nowhere (see the recent AAN report here) and neither protagonist ready to concede the field of battle, we could be looking at a very protracted insurgency stalemate.
  2. A stalemate could push in two directions – a “positive” stalemate, where the ANSF hold cities and communications routes, Najibullah style, and reforms of political, economic and developmental natures slowly take root, or a corrosive stalemate which undermines the stability of Afghanistan further.
  3. If the latter, the Taliban may dwindle in importance as other Afghan political/military factions (“warlords” for want of a better cliché) intervene unhelpfully, pulling the (very) fledgling Afghan democracy down with it.
  4. A struggle for the control of the army could be pivotal.

With these ideas in mind, here are a few thoughts about the coming year:

Elections – will take place broadly on time.  Fraud and all manner of distortion of the result will be evident but the Taliban will not do anything sufficient to significantly disrupt it.  It will messy to contemplate, but it will probably be “just about OK” as a result.  Karzai will move on and my money would be on Dr Abdullah Abdullah (currently leading the polls) to move into the presidential palace.  Failing that, the capable but personally “tricky” Ashraf Ghani (currently in second place), Rassoul or Wardak might be acceptable.  National and international engagement will ensure that a transition of power takes place.  Risks: too much fraud, leading to the result being contested by force.  Abdullah’s northern supporters feel cheated and instability and violence grows.

The insurgency – will struggle to sustain the operational intensity of the 2010 – 2012 period (harder to motivate and recruit for Afghan vs Afghan combat) but will remain very active and capable and will continue the policy of announcing and conducting an official spring offensive.  Neither internationally-supported Afghan security forces nor insurgent groups will be able to decisively dominate the battlefield.  It will become harder to understand the level of Taliban influence and the course of the conflict as information from the districts dries up in the absence of international information gathering capability.  Risks: a lucky strike takes out a key political figure and causes the country to destabilise; Afghan security forces capability declines and their ability to dominate urban areas and communication routes dwindles.

Peace talks – Don’t expect any significant tangible progress – much of the year will be focused on elections and the aftermath.  A new president will take time to get to grips.  Risks: beware of any “deal” that looks quick, easy and sounds too good to be true.

International transition – Most of the international military forces will have left by the end of the year and financial and political support will become the main interface between most Western countries and Afghanistan in the future.  But some form of security agreement will be made between the US (and some other Western national) forces and the Afghan president – whoever that will be – such that the US will retain some residual military, training, intelligence and counter-terrorist capability.  Risks: Karzai provokes the US too much in his final months; a new president refuses to endorse; a new civilian casualties incident tips the balance and the government turns against a US military presence; US population/Congress finally have enough.

Neighbouring countries – Pakistan will continue to “hedge” its investment of political and military effort into Afghanistan.  Its concern if a Tajik leader became president might see slow increases of support to favoured insurgent groups.  India and Iran will mix constructive economic engagement with some forms of covert support for favoured political and ethnic groups.  China will focus on engagement purely intended for its own economic gain and defence against Islamic insurgents influencing across Afghan borders into western China.

Economic situation – hesitancy, uncertainty and corruption will likely characterise the economic and investment climate this year. A new UN report highlighting a resurgence in the cultivation of opium poppy is a good barometer of the uncertainty experienced by the population at presence.  Opium cultivation will remain a problem with no real solutions other than solid economic and security improvements over years/decades.  Expect no significant efforts to deal with this in 2014 – the issue will be discreetly avoided.

Civil Society – although not really an issue for a one year ahead look, I think it is worth reminding ourselves of this “theme”.  The increasingly young Afghan population will continue slowly to develop in terms of its, expectations, understanding of the world, grasp of technologies (particularly communications), desire for education and choice, be it political, social, cultural and economic.  The youth demographic is slowing advancing forward with its “world view” seemingly at a slightly faster pace than insurgents and warlords – how these two different forms of Jihadi groups recognise, understand and respond to these challenges is genuinely crucial.  The emergence of civil society is unlikely to make significant leaps in this year (and in fact the uncertainties of the time will probably slow forms of social changes).  Most options for popular political engagement will remain dominated by the warlord-dominated old school political elites.  But Afghan society is changing (ultimately for the better) in ways that the old guard seem to struggle to comprehend and are reluctant or unable to support.  Risks: increased instability and a return to renewed Afghan-wide conflict will disperse the educated youth crucial for developing Afghanistan – a renewed migration and “brain drain”.

Conclusions

This will be a complicated year in which important issues abound, but few issues will be resolved in a way that “endgame” media commentators seem to need.  I feel that the election and transition of presidential powers – however corrupt and technically flawed as it inevitably will be – could give the tiniest cause for optimism.  Otherwise, expect more of the same: minimal incremental “talks about talks” with the Taliban and on ongoing cocktail of insurgent attacks, assassinations and local powerbroker violence exacerbated by national and local government corruption and lack of capacity.  Any attempts at political, economic and social progress this year will be greatly tempered by the widespread uncertainty: most of the population just want to keep their heads down and see what emerges.  By the end of the year, the answer will still be “not much yet”.  Important of course, 2014 will give us clues to the character of the 2015 – 2019 period, but the year will not be “decisive”.


[1] Rubin, A., ‘Departing French Envoy Has Frank Words on Afghanistan’, New York Times, 27 April, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/28/world/asia/bernard-bajolet-leaving-afghanistan-has-his-say.html?_r=0

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