Transition in Afghanistan: Potential and Constraints

Posted in Afghanistan | 24-Jul-13 | Author: Prof. Dr. Ludger Kuehnhardt

Among the many known unknowns and unknown unknowns of the future of Afghanistan, one fact is uncompromising: demography. According to a projection by the Population Division of the UN Department of Social and Economic Affairs, Afghanistan will explode from roughly thirty million inhabitants today to 47 million inhabitants in 2024, at the end of the projected transformation period. In light of this, one must conclude that the real transformation of Afghanistan will take place post-2024 - when more newborns than ever will look for life chances, education and jobs.

Afghanistan Kuehnhardt
Author Prof. Ludger Kühnhardt (left) with the Afghan Research Team of the World Security Network meeting Afghans in front of a tea room in Kabul: “More than anything else, a growing Afghan youth population requires education and jobs. While the communication sector has increased by 65 percent between 2010 and 2011 alone, transport and logistics by 23 per cent and banks and insurances by 14 per cent - so far, jobs for the Afghan youth are missing.”

For now, the current struggle to consolidate Afghanistan post-2001 is tough enough. The international community has defined the period between July 2011 and December 2014 as one of "transition", to be followed by a period of "transformation" between 2015 and 2024. Practically one year before the end of the transition period, everybody in the international coalition and in Afghanistan is winding up, preparing, projecting. Time has become short if one believes that the fate of a complex country such as Afghanistan could be shaped by a diplomatic calendar fixed somewhere in the orbit of a globalized world. Afghanistan will continue to follow its own rules. The Afghanistan Progress Report of the German government to inform the German Parliament - a brainchild of the World Security Network - calls 2013 the "year of preparation" (July 2013, p.8). A joint report of the European Union Institute for 'Security Studies and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace has given arguments for "cautious optimism" (July 2011, p.8) regarding the future of Afghanistan.

Based on an extensive fact-finding mission on the ground and systematically reflecting on the main challenges of the current transition in Afghanistan, one can distinguish between three set of issues that will influence the internal dynamics of the next stages in the evolution of Afghanistan:

1. A continuous plurality of powers versus the quest for a monopoly of power
(a) Constitutional issues: The Afghan quest for national sovereignty has withstood British and Russian colonial threats in the 19th century and Soviet occupation in the 20th century. Today, the desire for unchallenged national sovereignty drives the political elite of a country that ranks among the most difficult ones on earth. As much as the liberation from the yoke of Taliban rule in 2001 was welcome, the sensitivity toward foreign advise, let along external interference into Afghan affairs has returned to the center of Afghan political culture. A fragmented ethnic landscape with a strong sense for personal loyalties has always been leaning toward power rivalries - and efforts to reasonably balance them. Disputes among Afghan political actors are about power, and less so about ethnic differences or even issues of segregation. While in reality, the structure of politics in Afghanistan is one of factual decentralization, on principle issues such as federalism - along the lines of Iraq - are a non-starter in Afghanistan. The main rule of the game in Afghan state-building is the art of continuous negotiation rather than the primacy of a fixed legal norm, once and for all. Avoiding centralized power and authority has been a constant line in Afghan political history. As for the future, changing coalitions are more likely than predictable and strong state institutions. Having this in mind, the constitutional order of Afghanistan - established in 2004 - is more of a guiding frame than a guarantee for its consequential implementation. The weakness of the judicial process in Afghanistan is telling. The leverage of the West to influence modern constitutionalism over the rule of personalities, leadership loyalties and negotiated balances of tribal powers will shrink, the closer Afghanistan moves from transition to transformation.

The Western notion of constitutionalism can hardly be implemented in the cultural environment of Afghanistan without patience and the awareness of inevitable backlashes. At best, it will be realistic to marry Afghan tribal and religious traditions with modern notions of rule of law and constitutional values. This includes the perspectives for human rights, no matter their universality. Presidential decrees, such as the one to strengthen female rights (EVAW) of 2009, have advanced the degree of transparency as far as violence against women in Afghanistan in concerned. To eliminate discrimination against women and girls, but also against minorities, is a matter of practical change on the grassroots level that cannot be imposed by legal documents and weak judicial institutions, the Afghan Independence Human Rights Commission including. Hierarchical social structures as they are dominant in Afghanistan are often clashing with Western notions of individual claim rights as long as the overall socio-cultural, economic and political environment is as weak as it is.

(b) Security: Worst than socio-cultural obstacles to modernize and stabilize the Afghan state order is the ongoing level of security threats. With the transfer of security responsibility from ISAF to the Afghan National Security Forces (ASNF), formally concluded on June 17, 2013, the security for Afghans has worsened. With regional differences in mind - the North and Kabul are more secure than Afghanistan's South and South East - it is deplorable that the number of civilian losses has increased by at least one third from 2012 to 2013. In most places, the Afghan National Security Forces are shouldering now the main risk. The Afghan National Army (ANA), the Afghan National Police (ANP) with their sub-structures such as the Afghan Border Police (ABP) or the Afghan secret services need to gain experience and strengthen their professionalism. They have improved a lot but remain exposed to the use of violence by the "enemies of Afghanistan", an ISAF label for covering Taliban, radical Islamic splinter groups, warlord and criminals alike. As long as these "bad guys" consider the use of violence a legitimate political means, Afghans will remain insecure and all too often victims of violence.

The complexity of security structures, mirroring the highly sophisticated ISAF command structures; the financial burden on the Afghan security forces who basically remain financed by international contributions rather than by Afghan tax revenues ; and the weak civilian oversight of security structures remain liabilities for Afghanistan's future: These, in a nutshell, are critical security challenges during the endgame of the transition period and beyond.

Visiting a Pioneer School of the 209. ANA Corps outside Mazar-i-Sharif, on gets a feeling for the dangerous environment in which the new Afghan security forces operate. Here, as elsewhere in the Balkh province, two issues are central to every conversation: How to maintain the technology level established by the international coalition once ISAF has fully redeployed? And: How to finance the security apparatus in the long-term? Continuous threats by the enemies of Afghanistan and the dangerous fight against Improvised Explosive Devices (IED) constitute a security environment that cannot but be described as fragile.

(c) Elections: On April 5, 2014, Afghanistan will elect a new president. Hamid Karzai cannot run for the office again he has been holding since 2001. Being installed at the Petersberg Conference as interim President, he was elected under internationally supervised conditions in 2004 and re-elected in the 2009 elections for the first time organized by Afghans since the fall of the Taliban. At the time, the EU Election Observer Mission was undiplomatic and clear in its verdict: "No further election should take place without significant strengthening of the accuracy and reliability of the registration of voters." (EU Election Observation Mission, final Report, August 20, 2009, p.7). In the run-up to the 2014 elections, the situation has not really improved. In its alarming report of October 2012, the International Crisis Group has warned of fraud, the absence of a solid election law and ongoing weakness in voter registration. With divided majorities between the Afghan parliament and President Karzai, the International Crisis Group fears that President Karzai could declare a state of emergency, resorting to Article 143 of the Afghan constitution (ICG Report, Afghanistan: The long, hard road to the 2014 transition, p.6). The positioning of possible presidential candidates has begun in the summer of 2013. Having in mind the 44 candidates that were initially running in 2009, the race to identify the successor of Hamid Karzai will remain open until very late. More important than names will be coalitions, including possible re-alignments. In an environment of weak legal frameworks and state institutions, old and new power brokers will have a say that goes beyond the formal nomination of candidates. Programs do not really matter. More important are personalities and fluid coalitions of shared economic and power interests.

All in all, the monopoly of power, since Max Weber the bench-mark for legitimate and strong statehood in the service of rule of law and constitutional equality, will remain under stress by the plurality of traditional power centers and new interests of power and money.

2. An over-aided country in search of ownership
(a) Military: It was always unrealistic to assume that the international coalition - which is practically guaranteeing the stability and security of Afghanistan since 2001 - could become the development game-changer at the Hindu Kusch, too. Nowhere is the gap between modern advanced technological globalization and late medieval realities felt stronger than in the contrast between the fortress of an ISAF base and the surrounding Afghan reality. While the international coalition must be lauded for securing Afghanistan's fragile peace, it goes beyond its mandate and competence to expect it to become the engine of civilian development in Afghanistan. The costs of the military operation in Afghanistan have been around 700 billion US-$ so far. It is not the money spend on Afghanistan's security that should be questioned. There was no real alternative in 2001 other than establishing an UN-mandated security assistance force across the country. But the length of the operation raises doubts. While the objectives changed and got blurred over time, the strategies applied became over-complex and hence unclear. Development with the support of a foreign army has never been a good receipt for state-building and social transformation. Martin Kobler, then Deputy Special Representative of the UN Secretary General of the UN Assistance Mission to Afghanistan (UNAMA) wrote in 2011: "We see increasingly that the military has taken over certain tasks that civilians were not able to perform" (EUISS/Carnegie Endowment Report, Afghanistan 2011-2014 and beyond, Brussels, 2011, p.11). In Afghanistan, the legacy of ISAF will be of a unique nature. ISAF has not only contributed enormously to security and stability. It has also contributed in a paradoxical way to the development of Afghanistan: While it became an engine of transformation in practically establishing a genuine Afghan security apparatus, it unintentionally consolidated and thus prolonged existing civilian power and rent-seeking structures. In the long-run, this might lead some local power brokers to ambivalent conclusions under conditions of pure Afghan sovereignty: If the military is such a solid operation, why not impose its solidity on the rest of the weak state apparatus? Security forces in the service of development has been a concept tested at times in other countries, Turkey, Indonesia and several Latin American countries including. Is this the future Afghanistan may head to beyond its internationally defined transition?

(b) Money: Since the Petersberg Conference (held in the outskirts of Bonn, Germany) in December 2001, enormous money in support of the rebuilding of Afghanistan has poured into the country. Based on the results of the Berlin Conference, between 2004 and 2006, the international community pledged 8.2 billion US-$ for the civilian reconstruction of Afghanistan. With the Afghanistan Compact of the London Conference in 2006, 10.5 billion US-$ were provided between 2006 and 2010. The Paris Conference 2008 ended with support for the Afghan development strategy 2008-2013 in the amount of 20 billion US-$. The Tokyo Conference 2012 announced a donor commitment of 16 billion US-$ until 2016. This amounts to a total of 54.7 billion US-$ in civilian support. In a country with an annual GDP of roughly 19 billion US-$, this is a tremendous amount of fresh money. The support for Afghanistan is well-intended and often does good. But it creates a donor-dependency syndrome that has become all-pervasive in Afghanistan as in other developing countries.
Whenever a gap occurs between external financial contributions and internal power structures, uncertainties arise: what will happen to the maintenance of fragile structures and advanced technology one day? What will happen to soldiers and other civil servants once their salaries are no longer guaranteed by external money? How will this affect the power balance in the country?

(c) Economy: The biggest long-term liability for Afghanistan may not be its security but the economy. So far, prospects for an economic up-swing have largely remained promises. The discovery of mineral resources that could generate 3 billion US-$ for Afghanistan remains a promise unless sustained security can attract foreign investment which would then need five (gold) to ten years (oil, gas, lithium) to extract resources of relevance. The high degree of sulphur in the Afghan oil and the competition with the new fracking activities in the US might turn the promises of today into a hang-over of tomorrow. And then there is China with its cautious political presence in Afghanistan and an endless hunger for natural resources. Will China, in the end, be the only real beneficiary of its neighbor's resources?

More than anything else, a growing Afghan youth population requires education and jobs. While the communication sector has increased by 65 percent between 2010 and 2011 alone, transport and logistics by 23 per cent and banks and insurances by 14 per cent - according to the German Foreign Office - so far, jobs for the Afghan youth are missing. The need for an improved infrastructure - beyond the new railway line between Mazar-i-Sharif and Termez in Usbekistan, and new airports in Mazar-i-Sharif and Kabul - and the urgent increase in agricultural productivity have not stimulated the private sector yet. Property registration and cadastres are deficient. The inclusion of ex-combatants into the civilian society - 6,500 are said to have been re-integrated so far - points to another problem on top of the youth bulge.

Most important is the perspective: Can Afghanistan become economically viable as a transit road for trade in South West Asia? What is the right way toward Afghan ownership of its future development beyond security sovereignty? For now, there is little optimism to see Afghanistan climbing substantially in the UNDP Human Development Index from its current place 172 out of 187 countries under scrutiny. In a society where seventy per cent of the economy is still based on drug production (Afghanistan produces 90 per cent of the globally traded opium and heroin) and where security and state expenditures are guaranteed by external funds, the elites have little incentive to change their business model. A farmer in Afghanistan earns 8,000 US-$ for a ton of poppy, but only 200 US-$ for a ton of grain. Mechanisms to revise the incentives in the nature of the Afghan economy are urgently needed.

3. Dilemmas posed by internal and external constraints
(a) Donor management: Challenged by changing strategic objectives regarding the priorities of Western Afghanistan policies since 2001, the international donor community is not only supporting the reconstruction of Afghanistan. It is also overly busy in administering itself. From international summits to field reports, from the back-up bureaucracy in all donor countries to the management of resources and re-deployment of military articles and all kind of support material, the Afghanistan operation is a major challenge for the sophisticated development and continuous adaptation of coherent operational mechanisms among donor countries and contributing nations to the international military coalition. Donor management and its constraints has become a permanent feature in the Afghanistan operation. Learning by doing and handling ever increasing bureaucratic back-up structures has been a constant feature in the past decade. The establishment of an Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund (ARTF) and the Law and Order Trust Fund for Afghanistan (LOTFA) are two mechanisms that shall help to strengthen accountability and transparency in the transfer of external resources into the government operations in Afghanistan.

Compared with the civilian sector, the military operations under ISAF flag have been marked by a steady increase in the professionalism of the participating armies. The professional and friendly style of ISAF has not prevented many Afghans from perceiving ISAF in the meantime as a sort of occupational force. As much as this is wrong, it would be even more unfair to blame the military present in Afghanistan for this change of attitude compared with the origins of ISAF. But thirteen years of external military presence is too long a time to pass without attitudinal changes in the local populace. Perceptions matter as they are realities, too. Transition from the current ISAF mandate of enforcing and sustaining peace toward a follow-up mandate in support of the training of the new Afghan National Security Forces is the right way forward. But whether or not it will work, depends to a large extent on the degree of confidence between the international coalition and the Afghan government. For now, mistrust toward the US in particular seems to be as strong in Afghanistan as mistrust toward the inclusion of Pakistan-backed Taliban in promising peace talks.

(b) Peace process and ISAF redeployment: The progressive redeployment of ISAF forces poses a huge logistical challenge. It also provokes a security vacuum. As long as a follow-up arrangement for the stationing of external military advisers is not agreed upon, the future of "Resolute Support" (thus is the code name for the planned follow-up mission post-2014) hangs in the air. In the summer of 2013, President Karzai and President Obama are engaged in rather rough negotiations over conditions and responsibilities for "Resolute Support". In November 2013, the full re-deployment of ISAF forces and material has to begin to be completed by the end of 2014. Until then, ISAF forces have to have clarity about a possible follow-up mandate. "Resolute Support" with its hub-and-spoke concept is currently planned for 12,000 soldiers, among them 600 to 800 Germans and 500 Italians. Compared with ISAF, who at its peak had almost 130,000 soldiers stationed in Afghanistan, this is a small number. But still, the real issue is security - this time for the external soldiers to be posted in Afghan ministries, military colleges and across the country. How to protect them is one issue of concern. The other relates to the mission itself: "Resolute Support" would clearly demonstrate loyalty to the legitimate Afghan government. But would it truly make a difference in terms of state-building and consolidating good governance? The training mission that is intended to replace ISAF could become a pawn in the hands of Afghan warlords, is the concern of some observers. Others argue in favor of "Resolute Support" as it would truly consolidate the gains of the past decade while helping to turn them into Afghan ownership.
An inclusive peace and reconciliation process is the right way forward to consolidate the structures and institutions of Afghanistan. But how to start, with whom and defined by which objectives are matters yet to be sorted out. President Karzai initially took the lead when he summoned a national peace jirga in 2010 and established the High Peace Council. The killing of its leader, former President Burhannudin Rabbani, in 2012 was a strong blow. His tomb on Bibi Mahru Hill overlooking Kabul is a solemn reminder of his fate and that of the peace plan he promoted. The opening of the Doha office of the Taliban on June 18, 2013 was the next step, this time more or less brokered by the US. Yet, the office itself does not resolve the problem of clarifying who is who among the Taliban, their leadership in Quetta and splinter groups across the region.
Border control along the 2,430 kilometer long Afghan-Pakistan border remains highly permeable. As a consequence, the intrusion of material for building bombs from Pakistan fertilizer, of new bomb-builders and, most perverse, of new suicide bombers remains possible. For the Taliban, in fact, violence remains an option to increase their negotiation leverage. Their cynicism which accepts civilian victims in order to gain ground on a possible negotiation table with the US and others is appalling. Since the surge strategy of the initial Obama years failed - that is the limited increase in foreign troops designed by former ISAF commander McChrystal for 2010 and 2011 - the Taliban are still capable of harming peace and stability in Afghanistan. Partly inconclusive strategies on the side of ISAF, and the US in particular, are to blame. But likewise, the ambivalent attitude of Pakistan was and remains a stumbling block for lasting peace in Afghanistan.

(c) Return of Great Games: The external constraints on a peaceful reconstruction of Afghanistan are dominated by the problematic behavior of Pakistan. While officially Pakistan's leadership is supporting the ISAF mission in Afghanistan, it is simultaneously supporting the Taliban. Actions to destabilize Afghanistan all too often originate in Pakistan. Parts of the Pakistan army, secret services and government have turned out to be unreliable partners for the West and for neighboring Afghanistan alike. Since 2011, "inside perpetrators" in the Afghan armed forces originate in Pakistan. Pakistan is searching for national benefits by destabilizing its neighbor. The same strategy is pursued by Iran. Aggressive rhetoric against the peaceful co-existence of Sunni and Shiite Muslims at Mazar-i-Sharif's Blue Mosque above the tomb of Ali, the son in law of prophet Mohammed, is one thing; undermining state security in Afghanistan by collaborating with enemies of Afghanistan is another dimension. Iran simply has no interest in Afghanistan becoming a success story. Russia and India are, to the opposite, fully in favor of peace in Afghanistan. But both intent to increase their influence in Afghanistan, not the least to counter-balance the presence of Pakistan in the region: Both Russia and India have offered to support the establishment of air surveillance and eventually an air force of Afghanistan.

China's position is best described by caution. China does not want to get involved into the domestic affairs of Afghanistan, fearing a similar external intervention once an ethnic or minority conflict may occur in China, too. Over time, the Chinese are interested in the stability of Afghanistan, primarily in order to extract resources and to built up markets.

The US and the EU are partners in defense of Afghanistan. They intend to help the country to return to normalcy. But they are confronted with constraints, originating in the structure of their policies toward Afghanistan. While the US has focused too long and too much on military notions of security, the EU is trapped by its bureaucratic and technical language which clouds a clear strategic message. More or less all EU member states are present at the international coalition ISAF and with civilian activities, too. But it remains doubtful whether the EU can play any role in any serious peace and reconciliation negotiation. At best, the United Kingdom and, possibly, Germany are in a position to engage in the geostrategic game over the future shape of order in Afghanistan. The EU and its member states stay ready for implementing the development objectives outlined in the 2012 Tokyo Mutual Accountability Framework (TMAF) with its five objectives and seventeen hard deliverables.

It is no surprise that the EU is hoping for the Heart of Asia-process, a multilateral regional activity which was initiated in 2012 by almost all countries in the region and beyond (Afghanistan, China, India, Iran, Kasachstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, Turkey, Turkmenistan, United Arab Emirates, United States, Iraq, Egypt, the European Union and several of its member states, including Germany and the United Kingdom, NATO and other international organizations). The partners of the Heart of Asia- process are committed to promote security and stability of Afghanistan, including territorial integrity and non-violence. As long as Pakistan and Afghanistan do not recognize their respective border (Durand line), this may turn out to be somewhat wishful thinking. At best, it will take years for the Heart of Asia-process to materialize through means of gradual confidence building.

Beside all known unknowns and unknown unknowns for Afghanistan's future, it is evident that the formalized period of transition can hardly conclude the ongoing consolidation of Afghanistan with the single stroke of a watch at midnight of December 31, 2014. Rightly so, the international community has envisaged the decade between 2015 and 20124 as a transformation period for Afghanistan.