Afghanistan faces a grim reality

Over the past few years, the country’s leaders and international coalition forces may have succeeded in achieving certain changes, but no one could describe the present situation as stable. Source: Reuters/Vostock photo

Over the past few years, the country’s leaders and international coalition forces may have succeeded in achieving certain changes, but no one could describe the present situation as stable. Source: Reuters/Vostock photo

Over the past few years, the country’s leaders and international coalition forces may have succeeded in achieving certain changes, but no one could describe the present situation as stable.

When we think of Afghanistan, the picture that comes to mind is the one presented in the media – a grim and dusty ravine hemmed in by treeless mountains; a highway along which we see locals wearing turbans ambling mournfully and groups of foreign soldiers with guns. A stand-off prevails; we expect disorder at any moment and then explosions, gunfire and ambushes.

This is present-day Afghanistan, where persistent civil war has been smouldering for more than thirty years and entirely innocent Afghans are dying. What exactly is going on in this Central Asian flashpoint? How did the current situation arise? And what does Afghanistan’s future look like?

The improvement of the internal political situation in Afghanistan depends on a number of different factors. The most important of these remains the degree of success in the war against the Taliban, in other words, the war Afghanistan’s central government is waging, alongside the international coalition, against the fighters of the Taliban movement. This war is the decisive factor for the present government of Afghanistan and for Afghan society in general, including the many tribal and ethnic groupings operating within the armed contingents loyal to regional warlords.

Over the past few years, the country’s leaders and international coalition forces may have succeeded in achieving certain changes, but no one could describe the present situation as stable, and few causes for optimism can be discerned. These are the words of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov at the Bonn Conference on Afghanistan in December 2011. Those circumstances continue to prevail.

The Afghan army and police have grown to 330,000, while the ISAF and COP now number 152,000. By contrast, the Taliban forces in Afghanistan are estimated at around 20,000–30,000 men. This rise in national forces has forced militants to shift tactics from face-to-face fighting to more traditional methods of guerrilla warfare, such as terrorist attacks, sabotage, ambushes and land-mines. While no one in Afghanistan today is suggesting that Taliban forces could return to Kabul within 2–3 days of a withdrawal of coalition troops, the situation remains hazardous.

Terrorist attacks follow one after another. These attacks recently forced foreign instructors to pull out of training programmes with the Afghan police, an indicator of grave significance. The Afghan army and police have likewise made insufficient progress towards combat readiness and remain plagued by rampant corruption, desertion and dismally low rates of pay.

The mood of Afghans is affected by the fact that the central government has so far failed to breathe life into the economy, improve living standards to any worthwhile degree or reduce unemployment. Beyond all this, the Taliban cause is far from being either destroyed or neutralised, and instead has spread to Pakistan, an indicator of the escalation of popular support for armed resistance, especially among the Pashtuns, who comprise 40 percent of the population.

The trade in producing and trafficking narcotics is a chronically destabilising factor, whose financial gains are the key element in powering terrorist groups in Afghanistan. UN figures indicate that, in 2011 alone, the growth in the production of opium in Afghanistan rose by 60 percent, and the total area of opium cultivation by 7 percent.

Measures have been taken in the past year-and-a-half to combat this situation. Peace conferences were held during 2010 and 2011 in London, Kabul and Bonn, resulting in the announcement of a whole string of resolutions. In London, for example, President Hamid Karzai proposed a hypothetical conciliation with militants who renounce both contact with al-Qaeda and participation in terrorist activities, along with acknowledging the Afghan Constitution.

The Kabul International Conference of June 2010 saw the launch of the so-called “Kabul Process” – a gradual transfer of power to the Afghan authorities, including control of the key issues of security and the social and economic development of the country. The following resolutions were rubber-stamped at the conference: “The Framework for Transfer of Responsibility” (comprising the parameters for the handover of responsibility for the country's security and the establishment of critical tasks for national development to the Afghan government) and the “Peace and Reintegration Programme” (the conditions necessary for the reintegration of armed militant rebels into civil society) and should be completed by 2014 – in other words, before the date of planned withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan.

Even so, the signed agreements between Afghanistan and the USA on a strategic partnership provide for an agreed force, of between 40,000 and 50,000 American troops, to remain in Afghanistan at military bases created for this purpose. This can be seen as a kind of insurance policy should complications or internal factions arise which threaten the Afghan authorities.

The successful implementation of these measures, including the gradual handover of complete responsibility and power for the management and control of Afghanistan's provinces to local authorities, would be a significant shift towards stability in the country. However, it is still too early to predict their outcome. They have only just come into force, and the process of conciliation between warring sides will be a far-from-simple matter.

Afghan sources indicate that the Taliban side demands amendments to the Constitution, whereas President Karzai, by contrast, demands the present Constitution be recognised by the Taliban without alteration. The Taliban also wants the withdrawal of foreign military forces from Afghan Territory and the recognition of the Taliban movement as a legitimate segment of the Afghan political process. This calls for the involvement of the Taliban in Afghanistan’s state structures and establishing Taliban representative centres in Afghan cities (effectively meaning a dual power system). Also in the list of demands is the removal of the Taliban from the UN Security Council's blacklist of terror organisations and the release of Taliban members held in prisons.

It would be fair to mention that Karzai has in fact already initiated some amendments to the Constitution along the lines which the Taliban require. But this is a complex process which must be undertaken through Loya Jirga - the Pashtun-named “Council Of Elders”, formed from tribal representatives, which comes into being to resolve critical situations.

Matters are complicated further by the fact that, according to Afghan political commentators, 50 percent of the population is under the influence of the Taliban. They include not only the Pashtuns, but other ethnic groups. Thus, the Taliban actions that began recently in northern Afghanistan are of great concern, not only to Kabul, but to nations in Afghanistan's ambit, including Russia.

Recent years have brought nothing new to Afghan lives. They greeted the new millennium with the usual schisms in tribal, ethnic and religious affairs, and feeble core governance. Add the never-ending civil war to these woes and we see a country that has been brought to its knees amid even further resentment and violence.

Thus, the internal political situation in Afghanistan may have undergone changes, but they have far from simplified matters, especially if compared with the status quo of ten years previously, when the Taliban had been booted out of the process entirely, and control of the country was shared in tandem between the “American Afghans” and representatives of the Mujahideen, the so-called “Northern Alliance”.

After the Taliban was ousted, disagreement immediately erupted between Karzai and his entourage on one hand, and the leadership of the “Northern Alliance” on the other. Squabbling over ministerial posts in the country’s new government and parliament has failed to die down, and continues to this day. The National Front of Afghanistan (NFA), which emerged from the background of the Northern Alliance, and includes members of the former National Democratic Party of Afghanistan, positions itself as a separate entity from Afghan émigrés. The return of these émigrés to the country was engineered with the connivance of forces of the international coalition.

 This latter grouping has formed the so-called Republican Party, which is intended to defend its interests.

 The National Front of Afghanistan, along with some smaller political factions, promotes a platform of reform, rather than identifying itself as an opposition party. It presses in particular for a parliamentary system of government, elections for regional governors, and more substantive transformation of the social and economic spheres.

The only area in which the so-called opposition is united with the ruling majority is the necessity of continued armed struggle against the Taliban, who show no signs of capitulation.

Bickering among the representatives of governmental authority is worsened by ethnic conflicts (between the Pashtun South and the non-Pashtun North), religious animosity (between Sunnis, Shiites, and Buddhists) and tribal antagonisms. Armed clashes continue to take place between regional warlords for spheres of influence, as well as with the central government. One example of the inter-ethnic violence in the struggle for posts in the government was the assassination of Burhanuddin Rabbani last year, who was head of the Peace Council and an ethnic Tajik.

The author is Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary, Advisor to the Diplomatic Academy of the Russian Foreign Ministry. 

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