Afghanistan: a band-aid and a way forward

band aid power (2006)After nearly thirteen years, an election rife with fraud, and an audit process so contested that the parties agreed not to release the final vote totals (but leaked them anyway), Afghanistan has completed its first democratic transition to a new President, Dr Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai. President Ghani was inaugurated on Monday, and at the urging of US officials, quickly formed a national unity government with his opponent and now Chief Executive Officer, Dr Abdullah Abdullah.

Make no mistake—the national unity government is a band-aid solution to deeper corruption and ethnic tensions. But it’s stemmed the damage and allows the international effort to finalise plans for the post-2014 Resolute Support mission, now just three months away. As long as the international community retains a significant presence in Afghanistan, it’s likely that the political bandage will hold.

That’s cause for cautious celebration. Over the past few months, analysts worried that if either candidate walked away from the election or audit process and attempted to form a parallel government, as Abdullah and his supporters threatened a number of times, it would push the country towards civil war. While his supporters aren’t thrilled with the result, Abdullah’s joining the government, which effectively removes him as a figurehead for the opposition. He and his supporters will clash with Ghani’s team as they iron out the new national unity structure—they already have (over office space), and will again. But those challenges will be from within the government, rather than an existential challenge to the government.

While a civil war would undoubtedly reverse the hard-won gains made over the past 13 years, so too could premature withdrawal by the international community. The Afghans do not yet have the capacity to sustain the progress made to date on their own. The security challenges are apparent—this year, while attention was focused on the political crisis, the Taliban conducted a nation-wide offensive that killed more Afghan soldiers and police than in any year since it fell from power. Just last week, the Taliban overran a strategic district in Ghazni province, only 240 kilometres from the capital. Although the Afghan National Security Forces, with the help of NATO airpower, took back the district after hard fighting and significant casualties, it’s not a good omen of what’s to come as international forces continue to draw down.

Still, Ghani’s inauguration means that Western forces are drawing down rather than leaving Afghanistan completely at the end of this year. The United States-Afghanistan Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA), which allows for 9,800 US troops to remain in Afghanistan beyond 2014 to train, advise, and assist the Afghan National Security Forces as well as conduct counterterrorism operations against al-Qaeda, has been a contentious issue for nearly a year. Negotiations on the BSA were completed and endorsed by Afghanistan’s council of elders, the Loya Jirga, in November 2013. Despite that endorsement, President Karzai refused to sign the document, instead demanding extra concessions from the US and blaming Afghanistan’s troubles on its Western allies.

Hopefully marking a new era of cooperation, the BSA was signed on Tuesday, the day following Ghani’s inauguration. Neither the US nor Afghanistan want foreign troops to stay longer than needed, although they may be needed longer than planned. The US plans to halve its presence of 9,800 troops by the end of 2015, and further reduce it to a normal embassy presence in Kabul by the end of 2016. As a comparison, NATO had just over 50,000 troops in Afghanistan earlier this year (34,000 US military), and peaked at about 140,000 troops in 2011 (101,000 US military).

A similar NATO agreement was also signed on Tuesday, with Germany, Italy, and Turkey expected to be lead contributors. The NATO Status of Forces Agreement allows for about 3,000 additional forces from partner countries to stay in Afghanistan to train and equip the Afghan National Security Forces. Unlike the BSA, the NATO agreement doesn’t include a counterterrorism mission.

The signing of the BSA and NATO agreements means that Australia can finalise its plans for the post-2014 mission, which it previously offered to support through training and embedded advisory support, as well as a special forces contribution, either in counterterrorism or training, given an appropriate mandate. Australia currently has about 400 personnel in Afghanistan, many of whom are expected to remain now that the legal authorities are in place. As part of the international effort, Australia has also committed to contribute US$100 million annually for three years from January 2015 to the Afghan National Security Forces.

In brief, then, the inauguration of a national unity government has quelled the potential for a civil war and allowed for concrete planning of the post-2014 Resolute Support mission. It may be a band-aid solution, but let’s hope it holds long enough to institutionalise change ahead of the final international withdrawal in two years.

Brieana Marticorena is a visiting fellow at ASPI. Edited image courtesy of Flickr user gazeronly.