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Considering the analytical water glass…

November 29, 2014

Summary: Glass half full or half empty?  As almost all international troops pull out, many challenges remain.  Despite an energetic new president, the prospect of stagnation or longer-term destabilising conflict remains.

US troops in AfgGiving an assessment of Afghanistan’s prospects always seems to risk flirting with cliché these days. Is the Afghanistan glass half full or half empty? As a former Afghanistan analyst within the British Government, I noticed a standard opening gambit over the years was the assertion that “progress has been made but challenges remain”. In the punchy, bulletpoint style favored by politicians, diplomats and generals, the emphasis in such sentences – the last thing you hear – falls upon the second half of the phrasing. Thus, in the case I give here, the prognosis points towards the more pessimistic note of “challenges”. I certainly would not put this to rigorous academic scrutiny, but it seems to me that somewhere around the midpoint between 2002 and 2014, the prognoses being offered slowly migrated from the more upbeat “challenges remain, but progress has been made”, to the slightly more somber “progress has been made, but challenges remain”.
By any analysis, Afghanistan is going to be struggling for years. However tempting, particularly in the early years of international intervention, it has never been enough to list out the “statistics of progress” – kilometres of road built, number of girls going to school, size of the Afghan National Army – as proof of the future direction of the country. At the end of this year, almost all the international troops will have departed, barring a residual force of approximately 10,000 (remember this is down from a peak of around 140,000 in 2011) and the Taliban, although bloodied and unlikely to capture Kabul, are undefeated.
Afghanistan can clearly go in several directions after 2014. For me, the most optimistic outcome is a slow and painful improvement in the security situation over several years, leading to development of the political and economic roots that are quite small. The array of negative solutions include a gradual deterioration of the security situation, a more rapid collapse of the Afghan army in the face of a resurgent Taliban, the implosion of government in some form of coup, or the fragmentation of the country back into smaller, warlord-dominated fiefdoms.
Returning to the progress versus challenges cliché: I am more of a pessimist than an optimist. There are too many things that can go wrong. The new President, Ashraf Ghani, is dynamic, energetic and, as far as I can tell, honest. But he faces a lot of problems and there appear to be no realistic plans for dialogue with the Taliban. The Taliban is emboldened: as ISAF forces pull out they are trying larger scale operations in the absence of US airpower. This month, reports stated that the Afghan Army is suffering “unsustainable” casualty rates.
The elections, it is true, have concluded with a qualified, intelligent and potentially highly capable man in power, although it is not entirely clear what role the voting electorate ultimately played. In a behind-the-scenes deal, an agreement seems to have been reached to avoid official mention of results. Reprising his position in the 2009 presidential election, Dr Abdullah Abdullah, favorite of the “non-Pushtun Afghans”, was once again persuaded to back away from the threats of violence from his supporters. He has been given placated with an unclear role resembling a cross between Prime Minister, CEO and second in command. Ghani and Abdullah both seem to understand what is at stake for the country and the importance of working together. But this is not the same as effective collaboration and neither seem to be team players.
To reprise a comment I read from the time of the flawed 2009 election; “a crisis averted is not progress”.
Friction between the two camps would be unsurprising and time is pressing after an unaffordable six month electoral hiatus. Corruption, evidenced in the election process itself, remains endemic. I expect Ashraf Ghani to tackle this aggressively. He has already reopened the Kabul Bank corruption case, which implicates senior officials. But he is not known for his patience and tolerance of fools. If he alienates too many people, stagnation and resistance will result.
The thesis I wrote last year  suggested that a five to ten year military stalemate was highly plausible and that an even greater risk than the Taliban was the risk of government inertia and a factional battle for political control of the armed forces. This might see a return to the brutal civil war of the 1990s.

Challenges indeed.

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