The fragile state of Afghanistan remains one of the greatest development challenges of our time. While the joint work of the Afghan government and the international community brought a few benefits for the country, many have not been sustainable. My visits to Kabul and consultations with Afghans at various levels confirm that a large number of serious challenges remain unaddressed, and they require the priority attention of analysts, policy-makers and bureaucrats. Highlighting dubious and anecdotal success stories and painting an overly positive picture of the state of affairs do not necessarily benefit Afghanistan.
Sally Armstrong’s largely optimistic article in Maclean’s earlier this year is a case in point. A certain degree of optimism is absolutely critical if efforts to stabilize Afghanistan and the region are to continue. However, ignoring past and current failures and turning our heads away from critical problems in the areas of security, governance and rule of law, economic growth and social development will result in the country’s descent into a few more decades of chaos, conflict and violence.
The claim made in Armstrong’s coverage — that Afghans are better off today than ever before — is illusory and historically untrue. Afghanistan’s history stretches far beyond the past 40 years of conflict. During the past 40 years, life conditions of people might have been poorer than today. But Afghans saw better days in the decades preceding these conflict years. Astonishingly, some Afghans speak of better conditions even under the Soviet regime. The Washington Post reports an interview with a 27-year-old Afghan realtor who lost his business and would welcome back the Taliban regime, when there was less crime and less corruption and thus business thrived.
Security of Afghans was also better in the years immediately following the war of 2001, before the start of the Taliban resurgence. The Taliban control more of Afghanistan today than at any point since 2001. The year 2015 has been Afghanistan’s most violent since the war of 2001, with civilian casualties during the year reaching record proportions. So many Afghans are trying to leave the country to escape insecurity and economic woes. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that Afghans are the second-largest group of asylum seekers, after Syrians.
The busy and traffic-blocked streets of Kabul are not necessarily indicators of improved security and better life, as concluded in the Maclean’s article. Security threats are top concerns for most Afghans, though the city lives vibrantly from day to day. The instability has generated a survival instinct and resilience in the population. There is also a noticeable increase in the number of children and women in burqas begging in the streets of Kabul. The unemployment rate has climbed above 50 percent.
Armstrong’s assessment that the current Afghan government cannot necessarily be blamed for such an economic downturn is correct. Disproportionately large amounts of foreign aid sent to the country have created an inflated economy dependent on external sources rather than on goods and services produced in the country. Ninety-five percent of the development budget and 60 to 70 percent of the operational budget of Afghanistan are externally financed. Foreign troops and the money flowing into the country from jobs and contracts connected to the US military once accounted for 40 percent of the country’s GDP. However, the mass withdrawal of the troops was planned years ago, with the full awareness of the Afghan government. It is inexcusable that the international community and the Afghan government failed to foresee and plan for the economic and security shock to follow.
Worsening security is feeding the economic crisis, according to Bill Byrd, who was country manager and economic adviser at the World Bank in Afghanistan from 2002 to 2006 and is now with the United States Institute of Peace. A growing Taliban insurgency is a reality not to be ignored. Euphoria after the quick victory in the war of 2001 had gripped the international community, and a certain complacency took hold. A look at the map of Taliban areas of control and influence (issued and regularly updated by the Institute for the Study of War and published in the Long War Journal), should help to dispel the myth of the Taliban thriving on propaganda alone. Taliban advances are being made despite stepped-up airstrikes by American warplanes and involvement by American Special Operations ground forces.
Meanwhile, the international community’s training and advisory missions have not produced desirable results. Deficiencies of the Afghan forces persist, according to researchers at the Brookings Institution. Clear indicators of the Taliban insurgency posing serious challenges to the Afghanistan National Security Forces (ANSF) have emerged, bringing into question the Afghan forces’ capacity to assume responsibility for the country’s security. The new American commander for Afghanistan, John Nicholson, also admits that Afghan forces are not making enough progress.
With the Taliban refusing to cooperate, peace appears elusive. There is a risk that the quadrilateral meetings (of Afghanistan, China, Pakistan and the US) on reconciliation will turn away the Taliban and thus harm reconciliation efforts.
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Armstrong gives credit to the Afghan government’s commitments to eradicate corruption, undertake judicial reforms and protect women’s rights. The gaps between intent, commitments and implementation are wide, however. Corruption continues unabated, with a lack of appropriate accountability structures. There have been a few bright spots: the appointment of a new chief justice and judges in several provinces, the attempt to appoint a female judge to the Supreme Court, appointment of four female ministers and two female provincial governors. But these are symbolic gains, considering widespread human rights abuses, the fact that 87 percent of women experience family violence (as documented by Danielle Moylan, a freelance journalist based in Kabul) and the horrendous mob killing of a woman named Farkhunda in broad daylight in Kabul. Her killers’ sentences were reduced on International Women’s Day.
Training of the police by the international community is a failure. The Afghan police force is inadequately trained to secure civilian lives. It is understandable that the police need to be extra vigilant under fragile security conditions. But such vigilance will be more effective and efficient if conducted with firm but polite and respectful words and actions. During my recent visits to Kabul this year, I witnessed police officers screaming, shouting and yelling at innocent civilians, pointing Kalashnikovs at them. A uniformed police officer yelled at me in front of the office of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission. Such behaviour would not produce the desired result of better security or law and order nor help establish the government’s authority and legitimacy. In fact, the police behaviour is turning people away from a government that people perceive (perhaps wrongly) as complicit in violation of citizens’ right to be treated with respect in their own country. Legitimacy building (earning the support and loyalty of the people and respect for government’s authority) is central to any fragile state’s stabilization agenda. Legitimacy building through protecting physical and economic security might be time-consuming. But for building a better image of the government (an essential ingredient for legitimacy building) in the immediate future, having the civilian police be civil to and respectful of fellow citizens should be a mandatory requirement.
Since the Bonn conference of 2001, the international community and the Afghan government have relentlessly travelled from one conference to the other, with both parties making promises and commitments while most commitments have been ignored. Resolutions, jointly adopted by the Afghan government and the international community in international conferences, have listed the Afghan government’s commitments to undertake reform measures and the international community’s resource commitments in support of Afghanistan’s reform agenda, to secure Afghanistan’s future and stabilize the country. Identification and unambiguous acceptance of unattained commitments, as we skated from one conference to the other, would have helped resolve problems. But the most striking omission has been the inability of the international community to monitor its own and the Afghan government’s progress with indicators, acknowledge failures to attain benchmarks and integrate lessons learned in determining the future course. Instead, we virtually sleepwalked for a decade and a half, dreaming of reaching the finish line with eyes closed, sometimes tripping on morasses of complex policies, strategies and programs and yet continuing our journey while ignoring devastation left by the roadside.
While the international community can be blamed for a lack of vigilance and accountability around its aid operations in Afghanistan, the Afghan government has a responsibility for fixing the situation, with the international community serving in a support role. Canada’s dynamic ambassador, Deborah Lyons, is correct in her statement that Canada’s representation on the Joint Coordination and Monitoring Board provides the opportunity to take leadership in strengthening joint international and Afghan efforts to increase the effectiveness of international support. However, it is ultimately Afghans who must take a resolute stand in reform efforts for economic growth, job creation, fostering rule of law and human rights, improving public finance management and taking anticorruption measures to ensure delivery of the most essential services to the public. It is no less critical for Afghanistan to reach out for peace and nurture a political process toward peace and cross-border economic cooperation. It is equally urgent for the ANSF to establish control of security and lead on the security front.
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