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Whither Afghanistan?

By Heidi Kingstone - posted Wednesday, 20 February 2013


Recently, President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan and President Asif Ali Zadari of Pakistan were in the UK to discuss the future of Afghanistan post 2014, when the bulk of the international forces withdraw. What form the end state takes is the key issue during the inteqal (transition) process. After a decade of international involvement, Afghanistan in Transition Beyond 2014? addresses the myriad complexities facing the country and its allies as it explores a wide range of prospects for long term stabilisation.

Shanthie Mariet D'Souza, a research fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore, deftly edits thirteen chapters written by a wide range of distinguished Afghan experts, practitioners and scholars. The book is the result of the first workshop held in Singapore in January 2012.

Intractable issues have dogged Afghanistan recently as well as over past decades and centuries. Stubborn and meddling regional players, the politicisation of aid, the new Great Game, rampant corruption, unrealistic expectations and misguided policies help explain the underlying reasons for the lack of real success, not to mention whether the Afghan government has the necessary capacity to bring about change. No settlement can be found without addressing those issues as well as those of poverty, injustice, security and political reform.

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The book is divided into four sections that analyse cardinal concerns from the Afghan perspective ranging from security, political processes, governance, development, economic opportunities, trade, transit to regional cooperation and more importantly setting the agenda for a post-2014 Afghanistan. Writers also tackle the thorny issues of aid, gender, development, trade and strategic communications; the last section is written from regional (India, Pakistan China,) and international (US) perspectives.

Three commonly cited future scenarios, starting with the most positive, is that Afghanistan will become a functioning independent state that plays a role on the world stage. Less optimistic is the scenario where the Taliban return in force and Afghanistan is once again a pariah state. Or the country slides back into civil war where it is ruled by warlords and their militias, ignored by the world. Afghans fear being abandoned by the rest of the weary world, but international forces have committed to some form of presence through the transformational decade (2014-2024). This may well prevent the possible break out of factional fighting and return to chaos.

Unless the Afghan government can control its territory, argues Professor Ali Jalali, a potential presidential contenderand former Minister for the Interior, "a full security transition in 2014 is not a guarantee for peace and stability." As this is ostensibly the reason NATO went into Afghanistan - to defeat al Qaeda and international terrorism – it brings the situation full circle.

While the future might not be rosy for Afghanistan, achievements, according to D'Souza, have been under-reported by the international media. For example, the Chinese and the United States have implemented a joint training programme for young Afghan diplomats at a Chinese university, and Kabul itself has been transformed since the fall of the Taliban. Progress has been made in educating girls (and boys), and some gains have been made in health care.

Major problems continue to exist because most people in power, writes Ahmad Wali Masoud, are individuals with outmoded ways of thinking. During my several trips to Afghanistan I was always impressed by the many young men and women I met, many educated abroad, who had the talent and will to improve their country. Given independence, opportunity and resources, they also have the ability to move Afghanistan along the new silk road. It's a big if as there are too many vested interests at stake.

As Mohammad Masoom Stanekzai explains in his chapter on peace, reconciliation and reintegration, conflict in Afghanistan is driven by a "combination of internal and external factors that interact in complex ways…and it would be simplistic to attribute the conflict to one militant group and its support group across the Afghanistan-Pakistan border."

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The transition and the path ahead depend on more than just striking a deal with the Taliban. According to Marvin Weinbaum, scholar-in-Residence at the Middle East Institute, Washington DC and professor emeritus of Political Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, "strengthening institutions and processes that contribute to the legitimacy of the central and provincial authority," need to be in place. To help that along, he suggests, "threatening to withhold funding" if reforms to the electoral system are not made. Dr Sima Samar, chairperson of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, suggests the need for wide ranging electoral and political reforms in order to build an inclusive and participatory polity.

Haroun Mir does not believe that a regional deal can be struck with Iran or Pakistan. But, the director and co-founder of the Afghanistan Center for Research and Policy Studies, thinks the US and the Afghan administration, "could join efforts with other regional allies such as India and Turkey to conduct concerted regional diplomacy." Mir believes that working with China, Russia, Saudi Arabia and the Central Asian Republics would be possible.

I found Shahmahmood Miakhel's chapter on Myths and the Impact of Bad Governance on the Stability of Afghanistan particularly fascinating as it addressed commonly held beliefs such as the government not being able function due to a lack of capacity. Another myth perpetrated by the Afghan elites is that 'counter terrorism is an excuse by the international community, especially by the United States, to control the region and have access to Central Asian natural resources."

One of the trickiest issues is that of aid and gender and the role of women. Ragina Hamidi, founder and president of Kandahar Treasure, the first women's private enterprise in Kandahar, believes that international aid has been ineffective because of the short-sightedness of the outcomes and lack of coordination between development agencies and governments.

My very favourite example that she gives is the building of two female dormitories at Kandahar University right next to each. GTZ, the German Technical Aid Organisation, had one million U.S. dollars to spend on a project for women that had to be completed within five months. Applications were awarded to people who had never worked in the southern part of the country. Out of 800 university students only eight were female. None were going to live on campus. Both buildings remain unused.

Afghanistan in Transition is not a light and easy read, but then the subject matter is neither light nor easy. If you want to have a broad understating of the rocky (mineral rich) road ahead, it provides you with ample ammunition for academic analysis and policy alternatives. Amidst the bleak assessments and complex manoeuvrings there is no clear way forward, whatever the path.

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This is a review of Afghanistan in Transition Beyond 2014? ed Shanthie Mariet D'Souza (Pentagon Press: New Delhi, July 2012).



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About the Author

Heidi Kingstone is a Canadian freelance journalist living in the United Kingdom.

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