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Afghanistan’s troubled prospects

Q: What changes do you see in the coming five years?

Barnett Rubin: I have no idea. There are too many imponderables. If you had asked five years ago what Afghanistan would be like today, I would have been completely wrong and I don’t expect that I would be right this time. (Interview with Integrated Regional Information Networks, 20 June 2006)

Given the volatility and often surprising twists in Afghanistan’s history, it is perhaps excusable that one of the most internationally acclaimed Afghanistan experts should shy away from giving an assessment of the country’s prospects. Likewise, few others are willing to make analytical projections into Afghanistan’s future—at any rate beyond 12 months ahead. Since 2001, any such assessments have tended to suggest that now is the critical and decisive point in Afghanistan’s development.

At the time of writing, the dust has not yet finished rising from the 2009 Presidential election, let alone started to settle. The complexities surrounding the election—insurgent attacks, accusations of vote rigging, and backroom deals struck with warlords and other power brokers—only highlight further how difficult it is to make predictions about Afghanistan’s future.  However, the lack of significant improvement in Afghanistan’s political, security and economic spheres after seven years of intense international engagement in the country is worrying.

As Afghans went to the polls last week, The Economist wrote: 'Complete failure—withdrawal by NATO and a return to civil war—seems unimaginable. But failure of some lesser sort, still undefined, looks increasingly inevitable.'

Last year, I wrote a paper for SIPRI, commissioned by the Swedish Ministry of Defence, that attempted to look into Afghanistan’s future one year, five years and 10 years ahead. In it, I drew conclusions that were similar to, and perhaps grimmer than, those reached by The Economist. What follows is an updated summary of those conclusions.

Bleak prospects

Afghanistan’s prospects for the next 10 years certainly look bleak, given the fragility of the progress made to date. There appears to be less and less good news and much to be genuinely concerned about. Many of the problems are long-standing and persistent: the insurgency, warlords, a drugs explosion, corruption, interfering neighbours, fragmented ethnic and tribal loyalties and agendas, weak central governance, and wavering and fragmented international assistance. It is very possible that we will not see a decisive, positive resolution to these problems in the next decade.

In fact, Afghanistan may even be in a very slow decline towards a messy fragmentation. Although this is not yet inevitable, it increasingly looks to be the most likely scenario. And a range of possible events, unpredictable but highly destabilizing, could cause the situation to deteriorate more rapidly and dramatically. These include a major loss of troops by the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF)—perhaps in the shooting down of a full transport aircraft—the assassination of a key Afghan leader such as President Hamid Karzai, or a renewal of factional fighting.

Such a decline might fall into three phases:

2009–2011: The final international surge

The re-engagement of the United States in Afghanistan has seen a ramping up of US military, diplomatic and financial efforts. The USA’s recognition that diplomacy must play a larger role in its approach to the situation in the region is welcome to most observers.  Nevertheless, the emphasis is still on boosting military capability–around 30 000 more US troops will have arrived in Afghanistan by the end of 2009, with the potential of more to come, depending on the recommendations of the new ISAF commander, Stanley McChrystal. 

But the idea that things must get worse before they get better is proving difficult to sell to the domestic audiences of ISAF contributing countries, who are increasingly questioning the utility of such a large-scale military commitment.  Furthermore, the international community, the Afghan populace and, of course, the Taliban appear to understand that this may be the last throw of the dice and that there are perhaps 18–24 months left in which NATO and the USA must prove that the security situation—which was described only last week by the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Michael Mullen, as ‘serious and deteriorating’—can be retrieved.

2010–2012: The start of the international military disengagement

The international community has always struggled to fully commit to Afghanistan in a coordinated and effective fashion. Now it seems likely that it will start to drift away at what looks to be a critical period between 2010 and 2012. Progress in the country by that time is likely still to be no more than superficial. Casualties will continue to erode international resolve. The United Kingdom reached the symbolic milestone of 200 military personnel killed earlier this month and the USA looks likely to reach 1000 dead, perhaps as soon as next year. 

A further milestone will be reached in 2011, with the 10th anniversary of the 11 September 2001 attacks on the USA. The international and domestic media will exacerbate the doubts of domestic audiences by highlighting arguments, division and confusion. This will encourage the insurgents and alarm Afghan and international populations. The perception created will be of inevitable defeat. Without any convincing arguments to the contrary, or some good news to compensate, this could well become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Countries looking to withdraw their commitments will take such pronouncements as their cue to leave.

Canada, the Netherlands and Denmark have already stated their intentions to reduce or withdraw their military commitments. Canada will start its drawdown next year. Other countries are likely to follow. As the Afghan army and police force reach manpower targets, the international community will increasingly cite this as justification for their own exit.  Less tangible aspects of the Afghan security forces’ capability—morale, training, weapons and tactics, and the difficulty in sustaining these local forces—will be conveniently overlooked. International efforts will be conducted more and more at arm’s length through financing and training initiatives.

2014–?: ‘Civil war lite’

As the international community starts to drift away, Afghans will be forced to look at a range of unpalatable options. The Afghan Government will probably, through necessity, have reached some form of political accommodation with elements of the Taliban, but this will be painful and may cause this weak, fragmented and immature institution to break down further. Afghans will pragmatically, and with by now carefully honed survival instincts, re-examine which direction the wind is blowing and side with whichever local or regional power broker is able to guarantee their security. Warlords will start re-arming and neighbouring countries will resume meddling—if they ever stopped. 



In October 2008, US Defence Secretary Robert Gates, in an interview with Agence France-Presse, observed 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.'

After seven years of incoherence, tangential actions and lack of continuity, there is little to suggest that this will ever happen. If the Afghan Government is able to ride through what will undoubtedly be a very difficult period between 2010 and 2012, then the prospects for long-term development will become slightly better. But even the most optimistic scenario means at best slow, flawed and fragile progress.

With a renewed, and increasingly US-driven, effort from the international community in 2009–10, and in the absence of any unpredicted and catastrophic event, it should be clear by, perhaps, 2011–13, whether Afghanistan is set on a slow decline into some form of fragmentation or whether—probably more by luck than any structured international community effort—some of the seeds currently being somewhat randomly scattered begin to take political and economic root.