The Decade of Transformation
2014 was a formidable year for Afghanistan and its international partners. Growing fears amidst the pending withdrawal of the NATO forces from Afghanistan left Afghans uncertain of their political, economic and security future. Afghans questioned the ability of the new National Unity Government’s (NUG) to strengthen good governance; to improve the deteriorating economic conditions; and the capabilities of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) in bringing stability, something they could not achieve even when there were over 150,000 foreign forces in the country. International actors, who had been involved in state-building in Afghanistan for over a decade too were worried. They questioned the type of state they were leaving behind; the Afghans’ capabilities in sustaining the young democracy they had helped build; and the prospects for stability in the country in the absence of foreign military assistance. Propitiously, the doomsday predictions exuded by most local and international officials and armchair analysts did not come true. However, we saw a state wounded by a duplicitous presidential election; the formation of a NUG that essentially lacked the glue required to bring in ‘unity’; the depreciation of the Afghani; and a sharp rise in insecurity. While it was clear that the country was not necessarily going to crumble under the pressures of these challenges, it also became evident that any transition from war to peace that had been underway since 2001 would continue – though with nothing more than a bantam of hope.
The findings of this Policy Points document coincide with a process of considerable change in Afghanistan, such as the induction Ashraf Ghani as the Afghan president in September 2014, the formation of a unity government together with Dr. Abdullah Abdullah as Chief Executive Officer (CEO), the limited presence of foreign troops at the end of 2014, and a decline in international aid and attention. This marks a historic transition period in the country, as the new government identifies new policy priorities and the resources to implement those policies, and its international partners consider future development aid and assistance. Key to the NUG’s reform policies has been Ashraf Ghani’s approach and rhetoric to ‘peace’ with the Taliban. Ghani has centered all his efforts, in addition to other state matters, around his narrative for peace, arguing that a sustainable economy cannot be developed without security, and security is not achievable until we have a successful peace initiative with the Taliban.
Thus, the Organization for Policy Research and Development Studies (DROPS) conducted seventeen in-depth interviews with representatives of the NUG, civil society organisations, the private sector, and the academia to gather their opinions and insights on the challenges facing the state and recommendations to help local and external decision-makers to address critical issues in the coming decade.
DROPS conducted interviews with17-targetedstakeholders and asked them to share their perspectives centered on three key issues:
• Potential for reconciliation with the Taliban and other
anti-government armed groups,
• Afghanistan’s prospects in its efforts towards war-to-peace transition,
• Economic challenges faced by Afghanistan and the potential for growth in trade, transit and foreign investment between Afghanistan and its regional neighbors in the next decade.
As a newly elected President, Ashraf Ghani, during his first official visit to China, made it clear that “peace” was “the highest priority of the Afghan government.” Since then, the NUG’s stance has been that it will continue fighting on the ground while reconciling and reintegrating insurgents who are willing to join the reconciliation process and renounce violence. Following his remarks in Beijing, Ghani’s second strategic trip was to Islamabad, where he reached out to Pakistan to improve relations and persuade the Pakistani establishment to support Kabul’s efforts to reach a settlement with the Taliban. Many felt that Ghani’s appeasing tone towards Pakistan was daring and a politically costly gambit. As an upshot of that visit, Pakistani delegates began visiting Kabul on numerous occasions leading many to think that Afghanistan-Pakistan relations may have turned over a new leaf. Ghani showed extraordinary confidence that Pakistan’s “undeclared war” with Afghanistan had locked the Taliban into a fight against Afghanistan and believed that if the two governments could work towards convergent interests, the conflict would inevitably be addressed. Initially, his efforts appeared to have worked. The Taliban who had refused to speak to the Karzai administration began meeting officials from the NUG, parliamentarians, women’s groups and civil society members, in what were described as preparatory meetings that could potentially lead to official talks.
In July 2015, local media reported that the first official meeting between Afghan officials was held in Islamabad. It seemed that the NUG’s efforts paved the road for what seemed like the most significant step forward in peace efforts since the launch of the process in 2010. However, after the devastating Shah Shaheed attack in Kabul that was followed by a string of attacks in the city and elsewhere in the country, leaving hundreds dead or wounded, it became apparent that the skeptics were right and that Ghani had no choice but to reverse his once naïve approach to Pakistan. In a televised address to the nation, President Ghani stated that “The last few days have shown that suicide bomber training camps and bomb-producing factories which are killing our people are as active as before in Pakistan. We can no longer see our people bleeding in a war that is exported from outside.” However, the damage had been done. The NUG lost all political capital, local support for the peace process diminished further, and a sense of hopelessness intensified amongst Afghans.
• The NUG needs to design a united, clear and more pragmatic policy towards peace with the Taliban and other insurgent groups.
• The NUG needs to mend internal differences, develop a united stance on peace with the Taliban and deliver a coherent policy for peace which must be conveyed with transparency to the all stakeholders involved.
• The NUG must ensure that its peace policy remains transparent and all findings related to it are included, and, shared with the Wolesi Jirga [Lower House of the Afghan Parliament].
• The insurgents have been growing in strength and the NUG, weaker. This means the government is still not in a position of strength to negotiate with the Taliban. Military progress is extremely necessary and should receive critical attention in order to convince some sections of the insurgency to be on board for negotiations in such a climate.
• The Taliban are far from united and many of the different factions also have internal divisions. The NUG must ensure that it provides those Taliban willing to join the peace process with long-term economic incentives such as livelihoods that can ensure they have a conducive environment to return too.
• A strong, not weak, government can bring peace and to have a strong government you need good leadership, all-out reform programs and the required human and material capital to implement programs. The NUG must speak from a position of strength, which will yield the desired results from the peace process.
• The NUG had adopted an optimistic approach towards Pakistan, making significant concessions to Islamabad and its allies, including Beijing, Riyadh, and Washington, in order to give Pakistan the required security and economic assurances it needs to change its course and policy vis-à-vis Afghanistan. The change in policy towards Pakistan was intended to convince Islamabad to bring the Taliban to the negotiation table and eventually reach a peaceful political settlement. However, Islamabad is yet to reciprocate in the same degree to Afghanistan. Pakistan should ensure it takes concrete steps in the immediate future to reciprocate the same concessions that the NUG had extended to it, if constructive joint cooperation is to be developed in the pursuit of bringing peace and stability to Afghanistan and the Afghanistan-Pakistan region.
2015 has proven to be Afghanistan’s bloodiest year since the start of the international intervention in 2001. Following the launch of the Taliban’s 2015 spring offensive ‘Azm’, [perseverance] on 24 April, they Taliban have engaged in fierce battles with the ANSF in almost 17 of the country’s 34 provinces. Exploiting divisions within the government, an incomplete cabinet and lack of progress on the appointment of provincial and district governors and police chiefs, the Taliban have upped the ante in their attacks. It is clear that this year the Taliban have been able to expand the battlefield, use their tactics to test the capabilities of the ANSF, and place itself in a position of strength for when they decided to enter official peace talks with the national government. As a result, there have been 5, 363 insecurity incidents between January and the end of June 2015 alone. During this period casualties rose to a total of 14,597 marking a significant rise compared to the same period in the previous year. Additionally, the Taliban’s efforts to consolidate their attacks on city centers, have seen them capture entire districts and encroach upon city centres, which has resulted in over 100 ANSF casualties every week.
The Asia Foundation’s annual survey reflects the impact the security situation hashed on Afghans. The survey finds that locals continue to identify insecurity as the biggest problem facing the nation following unemployment. Nowhere is this more visible than the number of Afghans leaving the country. Over 5,000 people visit the passport office every day. Rising insecurity and mounting socio-economic issues have led many to predict an escalation in conflict. This is reflective of ground realities as the country tries to transition from war-to-pace in the aftermath of the withdrawal of the international military mission and the oncoming decade of transformation.
• Insecurity is the biggest hindrance to economic growth, trade and foreign investment in Afghanistan. The national government’s ability to convince anti-government elements to join the
intra-Afghan negotiations, jointly identify solutions, and reach a ceasefire could bring a level of stability and peace.
• Women’s voices and perspectives need to be included in all security decisions in order to build a sustainable security framework. The National Action Plan (NAP) for the Women of Afghanistan, which sets the framework for the implementation of the UNSC Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security, is a good starting point to ensure that women do not merely have a symbolic presence but also play a genuine and substantial role in peace-building.
• The NUG represents both an opportunity and a threat to Afghanistan’s decade of transformation. Its internal disputes, ethnic divisions and lack of unity has threatened the country’s war-to-peace transition. Therefore, the NUG must address internal differences within the government and strengthen the administrative capacities of its ministries and civil service, implement its reform promises, and focus on creating a sustainable economy.
• During this decade of transformation, more focus should be laid on the rank-and-file of the Taliban. International and local studies and reports indicate that there are at least three different factors that play a role in individuals getting recruited by the Taliban:
• Financial benefits
• Local grievances
The NUG and its ministries responsible for security related tasks should first consider the threat of these recruitment sources.
• Withdrawal of the international forces left a security vacuum that the ANSF are unable to fill. The U.S. and its allies must revisit their post-2016 commitments and ensure that financial aid is continued to Afghanistan for the development of the ANSF – and that there are adequate numbers of international troops left in the country post-2016 to train, assist and support the ANSF.
Afghanistan is currently facing an enormous structural fiscal gap, which has been building up over the past several years. The Chicago and the London Conferences on Afghanistan in 2012 revealed that the total fiscal gap in Afghanistan would be between $7-8 billion, annually. Since 2012, economic growth has declined drastically. The Afghan economy grew at 3.7 percent in 2013,dropping to 2 percent in 2014 and increased, only slightly, to 2.5 percent in 2015. This rate is much below the 4 percent growth rate that was previously forecasted. The current fiscal crisis can be largely attributed to the political uncertainty stemming from the 2014 presidential elections; corruption in tax collection; stagnant government revenues; and rising insecurity. In 2014, Afghanistan’s trade volume declined by 20 percent – a trend that continues, while foreign investment dropped by 30 percent in the first half of 2015.Moreover, official estimates place unemployment at approximately 35 percent; and unofficial figures suggest it could be as high as 50 percent. The withdrawal of international troops and the reduction in foreign aid alone have cost the country anywhere between 1000,000 to 150,000 jobs. The Afghanistan Chamber of Commerce and Industry’s August 2015 survey indicated that the business environment deteriorated substantially from January to June 2015 as the Afghani depreciated by 5.7 percent against the dollar in the same period. There is growing fear amongst locals that the economy will collapse and, there are serious concerns that this potential situation coupled with the increasing insecurity will lead them back to the grim past they thought they had left behind. The question many are asking now is whether the national government can pull the economy out of this fiscal crisis and build a functional and independent economy in the decade of transformation.
• The revitalisation of the Silk Route can help Afghanistan regain its position as a regional hub for trade and transit, allow it to integrate into the economies of South Asia and Central Asia, and enable neighbours to benefit from expanded regional linkages. In order to actualise the New Silk Road vision, the NUG, the regional countries and the international community should focus on implementing various short-term and long-term mechanisms. In the short-term, a one-window custom clearance system by Afghanistan and improved border sources at Torghundi, Hairatan, Torkham, Chaman, Wagah and Sher Khan Bandar, among others, could be created to reduce time and costs of crossing. Emphasis should be placed a regional infrastructure trust fund, with India, Turkey, China, Russia, Pakistan and Afghanistan as donors who invest in designing, developing and expanding transport means.
• Afghanistan’s reserves of gas, oil and other elements such as iron, lithium and rare earths, is estimated to be worth approximately $1-3 trillion. This has the potential to wean Afghanistan off its dependence on foreign aid and boost economic growth in the long-term. The extraction of these resources can create massive employment opportunities, economic opportunities in the private sector, and attract foreign investment and thus provide South Asian countries access to the much needed resources.
In order to develop these resources for the benefit of its citizens, the NUG must create a more transparent, predictable and appealing business climate to attract international investors. The implementation of the Afghan government’s policy, ‘Towards a Self-Sustaining Afghanistan’, will ensure that a candid approach is taken towards reform and realistic steps are taken to help transition Afghanistan from donor dependency to self-sufficiency.
• Identify new sectors of exchange between Afghanistan and the regional countries. New stakeholders, independent of the government and traditional sectors, should be identified and brought together to assess how they can contribute.
• Countries in the South and Central Asian regions must take more ownership in reviving the Silk Road and to create a new
Euro-Asia inland economic architecture by facilitating more equitable and coherent strategies for multilateral economic cooperation, and trade and connectivity. All bilateral and multilateral relationships should be based primarily on mutual respect, non-interference and sovereignty with a long-term focus on developing Afghanistan into a well-connected country that is economically integrated in the region.