With the 2014 withdrawal date for NATO troops out of Afghanistan approaching, the future of this country is becoming more unpredictable. Will Afghan security forces be able to ensure the stability of their own country? How will the Taliban react – will they enter into dialogue with the country’s leaders or try to take power into their own hands? And who will replace the U.S. as the new guarantor of security in the region in the event of a complete destabilization of Afghanistan?
September marked the 12th year of the military campaign by the U.S. and its allies in Afghanistan, having cost the American taxpayer more than $600 billion. The operation against the Taliban regime and the al-Qaeda militants, launched in 2001 as part of Bush’s anti-terrorist campaign, has become the longest war in U.S. history. Despite the fact that the original objectives have been successfully met, including the death of Osama bin Laden and many other al-Qaeda leaders, the defeat of the Taliban regime, its replacement by the completely loyal Karzai government, it’s impossible to call this a political success.
Instead of stability and security, an atmosphere of guerrilla warfare against the presence of foreign troops has reigned in the country for many years. Moreover, during the 12-year deployment of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) there, drug traffic out of Afghanistan has grown significantly. According to various estimates, in the last year alone fields sown with opium poppy have increased from 10% to 30%, ensuring that Afghanistan is the leader in heroin production. Overall, Afghanistan accounts for 82% of the global raw material supply needed to make narcotics. According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, a quarter of the heroin produced there is transported through the Central Asian republics and 75% of this amount is intended specifically for the Russian market. According to World Bank data, opium sales provide 27% of the country’s GDP.
But whereas the international sale of opiates has long been commonplace for Afghanistan, the growing number of drug users inside the country is a new phenomenon since the ISAF has been there. Can this be attributed to the fact that the Americans often turned a blind eye to poppy farmers, adopting a policy of “better for them to be busy growing drugs than unemployed and defecting to the Taliban,” or is it something else? Regardless, the fact remains that of the 31 million population, more than a million are currently heroin addicts. Proportionally, this is the highest rate in the world, while 40% of Afghan heroin addicts are women and children.
Couple that with the fact that more than 20 million Afghans live in poverty, there is 35% unemployment, and a level of corruption that ties the country in last place with Somalia and North Korea according to Transparency International, and the picture isn’t very encouraging. With this host of unresolved issues, the U.S. and its allies are handing over control of the country to local authorities and are withdrawing their troops.
Americans Leave, but Problems Remain
On June 18th of this year, the process of transferring control over the country’s security to the Afghan forces was fully completed. Over the past six years, their numbers have grown from 40,000 to 350,000 people. But as NATO hands over control, violence is quickly growing in the country. According to the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), there were 24% more civilian casualties in the first half of 2013 than in the first half of 2012. This trend is especially palpable in the southern part of Afghanistan, where 608 people have been injured by improvised explosive devices since June 2013. During the same period in 2012, that figure was 315.
Besides the Afghan security forces demonstrating their inability to cope with the situation within their country, they themselves are often the source of threats against civilians. According to the UNAMA, in the first half of 2013, during operations conducted by the Afghan national security forces, 124 people were injured, or 170% more than last year’s figure. And this is while there are still about 68,000 American soldiers actively fighting terrorists and violent anti-government groups. One can only wonder how much the situation will worsen after 2014, when only a small group of ISAF soldiers remains in Afghanistan (the latest figure is 3,000-6,000 people) to train the local military and provide consulting support.
The Americans have failed to create democratic political structures that could control the situation in the country and make it a reliable U.S. ally in the region, which is the key failure of the Americans. The situation today clearly shows that the Karzai regime is so unstable that even with the assistance of the U.S. military, it isn’t able to secure widespread national support. And most of the armed conflicts, which have brought with them death to both soldiers and civilians, are being caused by the anti-government groups. This instability is exacerbated even more by the fact that in 2014, the country must carry out elections along with the ISAF withdrawal of troops. In accordance with the Constitution, current president Hamid Karzai will not be eligible to run, and it’s very likely that radical anti-Western forces could come to power.
Due to the uncertainty surrounding the situation in Afghanistan post-2014, U.S. experts have expressed concern about the future of this country and are drawing several historical parallels. In an interview with WEJ, Arnaud de Borchgrave, Director and Senior Advisor of the Transnational Threats Project for the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), commented on the developing situation: “I really fear that Afghanistan could repeat the Vietnam scenario. For a time after soldiers were withdrawn on March 29, 1972, the South Vietnamese army, financed by the U.S., did a decent job of handling the situation on their own. But the decision adopted by the U.S. Congress to cut back financial aid marked the final blow to the South Vietnamese army. I see a similar breakdown in Afghanistan. After the final American soldier leaves the country in 2014, the Afghan army won’t be able to function without external financing, which is why support from the U.S. totaling $6-10 billion a year will be vital. It is unlikely that the U.S. Congress will approve such expenses in the current economic situation.”
Indeed, Afghanistan’s economy today is heavily dependent on foreign aid, in an amount comparable to the country’s GDP. Proceeds from donors cover about two-thirds of public expenditures and the entire current account deficit, which is 40% of GDP. But these amounts are already decreasing significantly and are expected to fall off sharply after 2014.
Thomas Barfield is the Director of Boston University’s Institute for the Study of Muslim Societies & Civilization and currently serves as President of the American Institute for Afghanistan Studies. He told WEJ that “history can serve as a guide to understanding the situation that exists in Kabul today. Afghanistan has already undergone three similar withdrawals of foreign forces – the British in 1842 and 1880 and the USSR in 1989. Although we can’t rule out dire predictions of a civil war or the country’s collapse, Afghanistan’s history does show that, with the right combination of internal and external factors, stability can be achieved. But the biggest danger is that the plans of the international community to provide security in Afghanistan after 2014 only focus on creating a larger and more capable Afghan military and police force. Yet the plans ignore the need for civil and administrative structural reform. The Afghans will have to deal with unresolved issues themselves, since the past 12 years of international military presence have clearly shown that foreign meddling isn’t able to solve the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan’s problems. And there are no volunteers to take the place of the U.S. I highly doubt that Russia and the CSTO countries will play a role in settling internal Afghan conflicts. This scenario is only possible in the event a civil war breaks out in Afghanistan.”
While on the subject of historical parallels, it should be noted that after Soviet troops were withdrawn in 1989, the Mohammad Najibullah regime lost the war against the Islamists and eventually the Taliban came to power in 1996. Given the current anti-government mood in Afghanistan and the open support of the Taliban from neighboring Pakistan, experts believe it likely that the Islamists could come to power once again. If this were to happen, the situation across Central Asia could be expected to deteriorate.
If the political situation and amount of violence in Afghanistan are put into black and white terms (naturally both figures are “black”), the economy isn’t so clear-cut. Of course, the uncertain future of Afghanistan and the increased violence are reflected in the country’s investment attractiveness. This is why the number of newly registered companies in 2012 fell by 8%. Even the construction sector, which led in previous years in amount of investments, has significantly weakened. Whereas in 2011 there were 2,630 new construction companies registered, in 2012 there were just 1,760.
Yet despite its internal problems, Afghanistan has managed to achieve remarkable success in exports. According to the Afghanistan Chamber of Commerce, exports grew 40% in the first quarter of this year over the same period last year. In 2012, Afghanistan exported a total of $64 million in goods, increasing this figure to $100 million in the first quarter of 2013. The principal legal exports that increased were fresh fruits and vegetables, carpets, cereals, cotton, and medicinal herbs.
According to the World Bank, real GDP growth from 2003 to 2012 was 9.2% on average, reaching 11.8% in 2012 thanks to favorable weather and a bountiful harvest. Inflation decreased to 6.4% from 10.4% the previous year. The agrarian sector continues to play a central role in the structure of the Afghan economy, with agriculture accounting for a quarter to a third of GDP, depending on annual production. On the other hand, the mining industry is a promising source of growth for the Afghan economy. Historically, the share of mining operations in GDP has been insignificant. But in 2012, the first large-scale project to develop gas reserves in the Amu Darya basin was launched by China National Petroleum Corporation. CNPC plans to increase production to 1.5 million barrels a year starting in 2013, giving reason to anticipate an increased share of mining in the total production output in the years ahead.
However, forecasts from the CSIS show that, even under favorable domestic and foreign conditions and increasing oil production, real GDP growth in the coming years could fall to 4-6%. Given that annual population growth in Afghanistan is 2.8%, even such economic growth won’t be able to provide meaningful GDP growth per capita. With real GDP growth at 6% annually, it would take 22 years to double the average income per capita – currently one of the lowest in the world at $528. But this long-term figure could also be reached if Afghanistan could only cope with the domestic conflicts tearing the country apart and ensure stability in the country after 2014.
Text: Olga Irisova