Assessing Progress, Anticipating Challenges: Afghanistan’s Hopes for the New Year

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (far left) pictured alongside newly elected Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, left, and Afghan Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah, right, at the United Nations Mission Headquarters in Kabul, Afghanistan. The men appeared before reporters on July 12 to provide details of an agreement that resolved the disputed outcome of the 2014 Afghan presidential election, a deal Kerry helped broker (Wikimedia Commons) “Progress has been made, but challenges remain.” This assertion was a standard opening gambit I noticed over my years as an Afghanistan analyst within the British government. These days, any assessment of Afghanistan’s prospects seems to risk flirting with cliché. It is also far from upbeat. In the punchy, bullet point style favored by politicians, diplomats, and generals, the emphasis in a phrase like “progress has been made, but challenges remain” falls on the second half of the sentence—the last thing one hears. While I certainly would not put this to rigorous academic scrutiny, it seems to me that, sometime between 2002 and 2014, the prognosis shifted away from optimistic assessments of progress toward a more pessimistic focus on enduring challenges.

By any analysis, Afghanistan will be struggling for years. Listing the so-called statistics of progress, particularly in the early years of international intervention, is tempting. But the kilometers of road built, number of girls going to school, and size of the Afghan National Army do not provide sufficient indications of the country’s future direction. Almost all international troops will have left the country by the end of this year, barring a residual force of approximately 10,000 soldiers—down from a peak of around 140,000 in 2011. And the Taliban, though bloodied and unlikely to capture the capital city of Kabul, nevertheless remain undefeated.

Afghanistan could go in several directions after 2014. The most optimistic outcome seems to be a slow and painful improvement in the security situation over the next several years, gradually developing the political and economic foundations that currently remain in their infancy. But the array of possible negative outcomes is vast. They include a gradual deterioration of the security situation, a 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 into smaller, warlord-dominated fiefdoms.

Returning to the cliché scale of progress versus challenges, I confess to be more of a pessimist than an optimist. There are simply too many things that could go wrong as Afghanistan looks toward the future. The country’s new president, Ashraf Ghani, is dynamic, energetic and, as far as I can tell, honest. But he faces a host of problems. One of them is the fact that no realistic plans for dialogue with the Taliban seem to exist. The Taliban has become emboldened in recent weeks; as ISAF forces have pulled out, it has attempted larger scale operations in the absence of the U.S. airpower that had previously restrained such efforts. Reports from last month indicate that the Afghan Army is suffering “unsustainable” casualty rates at the hands of resurgent Taliban fighters.

But the greater threat to Afghanistan’s future may be less insurgent and more political. While the recent elections have indeed concluded with a qualified, intelligent, and potentially highly capable man in power, the role played by the voting electorate ultimately remains unclear. In a behind-the-scenes deal, an agreement seems to have been reached to avoid discussing the results of the election through official channels. Reprising the role he played in the 2009 presidential election, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, a favorite of the so-called “non-Pashtun Afghans,” was once again persuaded to still his criticisms of the electoral process and calm his angry supporters. He has been placated with an unclear role that resembles a cross between a prime minister, a CEO, and a second-in-command. It is true that Ghani and Abdullah both seem to understand what is at stake for the country and the importance of working together to secure its future. But this power-sharing deal is not the same as effective collaboration—and neither leader appears to be a real team player.

As a former colleague of mine remarked at the time of the flawed 2009 Afghan election, “a crisis averted is not progress.” This was the lesson we should have learned from Afghanistan’s turbulent last ten years. Continued friction between the two rival political camps will not come as a surprise, and time is pressing after an unaffordable electoral hiatus in which six months separated voters casting their ballots and the announcement of Abdullah as the winner. Corruption, evidenced in the election process itself, remains endemic. I expect President Ghani to tackle this issue aggressively. In a positive first step, he has already reopened the Kabul Bank corruption case, which implicates several senior Afghan government officials.

But Ghani walks a fine line. The new president is not known for either his patience or for tolerating ignorance; if he alienates too many of his current supporters, a stagnation of and resistance to government policy will inevitably result. The master’s thesis I wrote last year suggested that an even greater danger than the Taliban was the risk of inertia within the Afghan government. If Ghani is not able to politically unify the country under a single functioning system, a factional battle for political control of the armed forces is not unlikely. Indeed, I argued in my thesis that a five-to-ten-year military stalemate was highly plausible given current conditions, a conflict that could see Afghanistan slide back to the brutal civil war of the 1990s.

So is Afghanistan’s figurative glass half full or half empty? As the saying goes, “progress has been made, but challenges remain.” Challenges indeed.