Afghanistan – what next?
5 Feb 2014|

Trooper Stuart Dickson stands watch on a hilltop that overlooks the Afghan National Army Officer Academy on Christmas Morning, 2013. My new ASPI paper ‘Afghanistan—transition to transformation‘ is a look at the future of Afghanistan as the ADF mission there winds down. ‘Transition’ (2001–2014) is the primarily UN-led period designed to rebuild the basic national institutions and infrastructure necessary to re-establish Afghanistan as a functional state. That’s almost over now, and ‘Transformation’ (2015–2024) is the ensuing Afghan-led and owned decade, during which the Afghans will be responsible for further developing the outcomes of transition, to create not just a functional but also stable and durable state. The aims are reasonably clear but the challenges many.

The responsibility for national security during transition rests with the UN-mandated US/NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), which includes ADF elements. National security during transformation will be the responsibility of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). One of ISAF’s missions has been to develop the capability of the ANSF to enable them to take over their responsibility for national security in 2015.

Transition to transformation is fundamentally a complex and inclusive political process. They’re also interdependent; the success of the former will largely dictate the progress of the latter

The United Nations Security Council (UNSC)-endorsed political objectives are wide in scope. They include adopting a democratic constitution and electoral process, respecting human rights, especially those of women, reconciling with the Taliban, implementing national health and education programs, improvements in governance and government administration, lowering the chronic level of corruption, implementing the rule of law and justice, fostering economic development at the national level to create wealth, employment and infrastructure, and implementing economic and social development programs at the village and district level.

In large part this is about government at the national and provincial level engaging in basic nation-building and earning the respect and trust of the people in the process—winning ’hearts and minds’. The objective in the east and south of Afghanistan, in particular, is to counter Taliban influence and control, and to entice the Taliban into the reconciliation process.

ISAF and the ANSF seek to provide the necessary stability and security to enable the political process. Their role is critical, particularly in combatting the Taliban extremists who constitute the major security threat within Afghanistan.

Regional development and cooperation are also related parts of both transition and transformation. Objectives include wealth creation through economic trade, transit and investment, and within the ‘Heart of Asia’ context, Afghanistan’s role as a ‘land bridge’ between East, South and Central Asia, and the Middle East. Other objectives include cooperation to combat the common threat of exported terrorism and extremism, and coordination of measures to combat the production, trade and trafficking of illegal drugs,

All this sounds fine, but how do we mark the scorecard on progress to date? There have been some positives: a new democratic constitution which also protects and respects gender equality, an election process, and progress in basic education and health services, roads, electricity and telecommunications. But many of these gains are fragile.

However, the negatives are substantial, and of major concern and frustration to donors and regional neighbours. There has been a high level of electoral fraud, corruption remains endemic at all levels of politics, including within the government administration, the legal and justice system, many areas of the ANSF, and foreign aid systems. This is compounded by the domestic and transnational corruption associated with Afghanistan being the source of some 90% of the world’s illegal opiates.

Inexperience in government administration severely impacts on the efficiency of services. Education and health services suffer from a lack of trained staff and facilities, and both Taliban and other traditional Islamists continue to resist women’s education. There are fairly widespread doubts about the ability of the ANSF to combat the Taliban and a general expectation that as ISAF withdraws, the Taliban will increase their influence and control, particularly in rural areas in the south and east.

Corruption and the internal security situation have also negatively impacted on foreign investment and the development of wealth-creating natural resources, and the related and desperately needed employment opportunities for a growing unemployed or underemployed population. The benefits that would accrue from trade and transit with and by regional neighbours have also been restricted by external issues such as the India-Pakistan and Iran-US relationships.

The net scorecard is a serious negative; the current government isn’t winning the hearts and minds of its people and this has significant implications, and will greatly complicate the entry to the transformation period. Some key issues are:

  • the commitment and ability of the next president (due for election in April) and his government to positively shape Afghanistan’s future by seriously addressing the negatives, enhancing national unity and advancing the political process
  • whether the Taliban, or Taliban elements, will seek reconciliation and be part of transformation—and the consequences if they don’t
  • the willingness of donors to keep providing foreign aid and military support, especially if the next president and government don’t satisfactorily commit to Afghanistan’s future and fulfil their responsibilities.

Australia is a significant donor of long term civil aid and military support to Afghanistan. There’s an opportunity, albeit a challenging one, for Australia to help shape Afghanistan’s future.

Ian Dudgeon is the principal of a Canberra-based consultancy established in 1997 that specialises in national security issues. He previously served in the Foreign Affairs and Trade, and Defence portfolios, and has held senior appointments in the Australian intelligence community. Image courtesy of the Department of Defence.