The disturbance created by the Afghan resistance groups during Secretary of Defence Chuck Hagel’s first trip to Kabul and the remarks by President Hamid Karzai that US-Nato forces were helping Taliban sustain their capacity to launch attacks with an objective of prolonging their stay in Afghanistan, were both interesting and intriguing.
Over the last four years, the international community and Afghan government have been going overboard to dispel fears that the planned withdrawal of international troops in 2014 will plunge the country into a new anarchic phase. There have been numerous pledges of continuing political, security and financial support beyond 2014.
For its part, the Karzai government has been boasting of putting in place requisite reforms to guarantee sustainable stability across Afghanistan in the post-withdrawal era. However, the reality on the ground and the predominant perception of what lies ahead contradict this claim.
The Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) have reached their target number of nearly 352,000; and now, at least theoretically, they lead nearly 90 percent of operations across the country. However, practically, the ANSF still faces Herculean challenges, and is likely to continue facing them well after 2014. Actually, it has a very limited independent operational capacity. According to a Pentagon assessment, as of December 2012, only one of the ANSF’s 23 brigades was able to operate independently without air or other military support from foreign partners.
Moreover, attrition levels remain far too high, and there is a severe lack of enablers and air support assets. The ANSF are unlikely to make a significant difference in the overall security of the country. The forces’ limited capacity to maintain control over the areas under it is strengthening the fear of protracted conflict and insecurity. This environment is forcing the people to flee the country. According to the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), 166,000 Afghans left their home in 2012. Since 2001, there are 460,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the war-torn country.
A number of Afghans are leaving the country forever. For example, the European Asylum Support Office statistics indicate that during 2011, 28,000 Afghans applied for asylum in the EU, which is the highest number in a single year since 2001.
Moreover, the UNHCR’s data records an increase of 34 percent in the number of Afghans seeking asylum in 44 industrialised countries. Alarmingly, there were four times more Afghans applying for political asylum worldwide in 2011 than in 2007.
Migration patterns, indeed, demonstrate that faith in the future stability of Afghanistan is on a slippery slide. This phenomenon is of particular concern for the neighbouring countries, which could face enhanced refugee pressure.
Besides this, the flight of capital has also picked up pace. According to the Central Bank of Afghanistan, the officially declared outflow of capital during the first quarter of 2012 was $4.6 billion, which is twice as much as the previous year. The real amount is hard to assess; the bank’s Deputy Governor has recently announced that it could be close to $8 billion a year. This equals twice the total assets of the bank or almost half the country’s GDP.
The announcement of military withdrawal has raised the fear that the flow of foreign aid to Afghanistan would reduce; hence, jeopardising the fragile gains in the areas of security, development and state-building. The data from the USAID reveals that despite international commitments and pledges, the withdrawal of foreign troops invariably leads to a considerable decrease in aid such as 60 percent in Bosnia between 1996 and 2001; 43 percent in Haiti between 1998 and 2002; and 69 percent in Iraq between 2003 and 2009.
To alleviate these fears, the Tokyo Conference was convened in July 2012; it was held to reassure that the planned military withdrawal did not mean total disengagement, which could leave the Afghans out on the street to fend for themselves. The package of $16 billion in aid through 2015 has only partly reassured the Afghans. Severe global economic crisis has led to cutbacks in the national budgets of the main donor countries. Given the existing feeling of fatigue among international donors, a substantial scaling back of aid flow beyond 2015 is a reality.
In fact, as of now, no concrete plans have been formulated for the post-transition period. The World Bank warned last year about the risk of a rapid decline in aid that “could lead to major macroeconomic instability and serious socioeconomic consequences.” The country, nevertheless, is likely to remain highly aid dependent for at least a decade after 2014 with a fiscal gap hovering around $7 to $8 billion.
The World Bank’s 2012 “Doing Business” report ranks Afghanistan at 160th out of 183 economies for the ease of doing business, a decline of six positions from last year’s ranking. It indicates the deteriorating business environment during the previous year, which is attributed to factors like corruption and poor law enforcement mechanisms. The trust of local and international investors is slowly fading. It is clear that many reforms need to be implemented before the Afghan government can tackle the economic and security challenges effectively. Both the transition and post-transition periods pose a series of great challenges.
While a hasty and insecure transition is in progress in Afghanistan, the neighbouring countries are concerned about the profile and trajectory of the post-2014 Afghanistan. The question is: as the US-Nato troops move out, will insecurity move in?
The withdrawal of international troops seems to have set in motion a stampede whose impact can only be speculated, and that too wildly. A speedy withdrawal is a welcome action, provided all necessary assets, funds and support are in place to fill the vacuum left by the international forces.
As a final word, the allies remain concerned that Washington may ignore its commitments regarding Afghanistan. The ongoing process of transition from the US-led Nato troops to ANSF has resurrected the ghost of the 1989 Soviet pullout, which is fuelling the fear of growing instability or a civil war after 2014.
The writer is an academic and a freelance columnist. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org