On what authority do I state this? I have one specific source and one general source.
The specific source is a day-long seminar held December 1 at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs (UI) on the campus of The Royal Institute of Technology entitled “Afghanistan After 2014”, which I attended.
The general source is the recent and current news of the world which has focused, again, more sharply on Afghanistan because of The announcement by President Obama that the US and NATO military forces will exit Afghanistan by the end of 2014; and, the convening of the Second Bonn Conference on Afghanistan held on 5 December 2011, ten years after the First Bonn Conference. In addition, there have been violent episodes within and without Afghanistan (in Pakistan near its border with Afghanistan), even as I compose this article, that bode ill for a strong and peaceful Afghanistan while the foreign troops leave over the next two years.
I have a small authority having worked for thirty days in 2005 as a volunteer consultant in Afghanistan, in the provinces of Kunduz and Wardak. You can see images and some narrative from this visit here.
I will offer links to current news and other sources of information after I present this summary of the seminar.
Seminar Summary, Four Sessions
(Note: remarks attributed to the participants are transcriptions from my hand-written notes; any errors of fact and interpretation are mine).
Twelve experts and scholars provided a comprehensive look at the history, current issues and possible outcomes for Afghanistan and the region around it. I will identify the participants during the course of this article. The sponsoring agencies for the seminar were:
First Session: Reconciliation and Peace—a Possibility?
Masood Aziz, former Afghan Diplomat in Washington, D.C. began the formal presentations.
Ten years have passed since the first Bonn Conference in 2001. The news is generally bad in evaluating these years in Afghanistan. There has been some progress, but the outlook is bleak. Mr. Aziz is pessimistic because the Afghan government is weak, corruption is rampant, and the international community is losing interest.
There is a state of crisis, currently. The Afghan government may collapse after NATO/ISAF troops leave by the end of 2014. The Current USA conversation with the Taliban is going nowhere. NATO lacks a credible plan for transition for after 2014.
With a weak central government, and its possible collapse, the strongest remaining institution will be the Afghan army. (Here Mr. Aziz was not explicit, but it was clear that the prospect of a military dictatorship, or of the military playing a dominant role such as in Pakistan, was on his mind).
Counter-insurgency has been the main purpose of NATO and ISAF (International Security Assistance Force of NATO), not nation-building.
What to do?
- Redouble efforts to support and establish the legitimacy of the national government in the eyes of the Afghan people. If this confidence cannot be engendered, then collapse of the government is inevitable, with attendant violence between ethnicities and factions.
- Need to buttress the rule of law, versus the rule of men.
- Afghan security forces need to be at the service of the state.
Development of Afghanistan’s mineral resources may be the game changer, e.g., the Chinese-run copper mine and the Indian-run iron ore mine. However, the danger of the “resource curse” may be a down-side. A major portion of the state income from the development of natural resources should be directed as cash transfers to the people, as is done in other resource-rich countries such as Mexico, Brazil, South Africa, Bolivia and Mongolia.
Mr. Aziz ended his prepared remarks thus:
The last ten years of NATO operations in Afghanistan have focused on strategic issues, mostly security. Since 2001 there has been a massive inflow of unconditional money from governments and NGOs causing the state to be dependent on these gifts. This is state-building from the outside, not from the inside and from the ground up via the people. Much of this money and other resources have flowed to former warlords.
Cash grants to the people from the income of natural resource development will force the government to rely on the people through the taxation of their income. This will also give new life and purpose to the National Solidarity Program and strengthen the governments and capabilities of the 34 provinces. Local communities will be empowered to take care of their own security and infrastructure projects. Not all security and infrastructure development need be performed by the national government.
Eva Johansson is head of the Afghanistan Section at the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA). Here are some of her points.
Children are the most often forgotten in the issues addressed. Additionally, SIDA is interested in helping women to participate in the formation of the country. Sweden, through SIDA, has increased its support of these issues to become the second largest donor. The emphasis on security and counter-insurgency has put the issues of women and children in lower priority, despite efforts of SIDA and UNICEF. SIDA continues to be concerned about the condition of women’s rights in Afghanistan.
Peter Brune, Secretary General of the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan (SCA/SAK). The Swedish Committee has 6300 people in 12 of the 34 provinces. SCA/SAK have been on the ground in Afghanistan since 1982, providing education and other developmental services to people in the villages (not in the capital, Kabul).
In responding to Mr. Aziz’s comments Mr. Brune said it was a “tough call” to say we’ve failed. Mr. Brune introduced the discussion point that ten years is not enough time. This point was taken up and further developed by other speakers who followed.
Mr. Brune made these other points:
- There needs to be a link between development and education.
- It’s important not to be “diplomatic” in assessing and addressing the problems. We need to examine and learn from failures.
- The state hasn’t failed yet. Girls are going to school; the army is being built, etc.
- Others should do more of what the Swedish Committee is doing.
- SCA/SAK has zero tolerance for weapons in schools. It’s important to separate the military from education and other efforts at the grass roots.
- We (NATO/ISAF, the Afghan government) are scrambling to build an army. Meanwhile the Afghan and Pakistan armies are facing each other on their common border.
- There will be consequences in building a strong army in a weak state (thus buttressing Mr. Aziz’s argument).
- What are the other institutions we can look to? The constitution, the executive and the parliament, none of which existed before the current government was established. [Note: he didn’t mention the judiciary, which is generally seen as corrupt and ineffective at the state level, although not necessarily at the local level).
- Important people and entities are not talking with each other. For example, the Supreme Commander of NATO forces and SIDA have never met.
- Real security is to strengthen the state.
Second Session: Reconciliation and Peace—a Possibility?
Robert Lamb is Director and Senior Fellow at Program on Crisis, Conflict and Cooperation at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Washington D.C.
There have been talks about peace talks, but no peace talks. After the Taliban fell many soldiers and commanders went home without veterans’ benefits. Foes of the Taliban included the Northern Alliance, led primarily by warlords, some of whom are still in place.
In the 2001 Bonn Conference the Taliban were excluded and, since they had no part in the deliberations they have no stake in peace. Therefore, they went to Pakistan and became “insurgents”. The talks about peace talks continue, to date. Pakistan now demands to be part of the conversation.
Bad things began happening in 2010. An imposter apparently representing the Taliban conned the government of Afghanistan out of a lot of money, and created extreme embarrassment for all connected parties. In September of this year the chairman of the Afghan High Peace Council, Burhanuddin Rabbani, was been killed by a suicide attacker. He was meeting members of the Taliban at the time in an effort to negotiate toward peace talks.
It’s not clear what we can do to prevent civil war in Afghanistan. Former warlords, some of whom are now regional governors, are hoarding money and weapons.
We need to prevent the collapse of the Afghan state. (Non-military) development is important, “big time”, but will do no good if the government collapses. We need to keep the potential combatants (in a civil war) co-opted in the Afghan Government. This means tolerating “some very bad guys”.
Helene Lackenbauer is an FOI analyst and former political aide to the Swedish Force Commander in Afghanistan.
There are very few possibilities leading toward peace. Who are the actors and what do we provide them? What are our prices for peace? Are we prepared to sell out women’s rights? What do we intend for the Taliban?
Mr. Brune responded: Afghanistan is at war. There are police, weapons, explosives and insurgents. The Taliban is not defined in any way. There can’t be a universal strategy; we have to address each group’s needs and grievances. Peace can be based on justice; all their rights have to be recognized and supported (implying the need for a strong and professional, not corrupt, national judiciary).
Robert Lamb “lifts the gloom”
- Eleven years ago Afghanistan was a medieval theocracy. How long does it take to for such a state to become a representative democracy?
- There is a civil service, although it is constantly raided for employees to the better paid NGOs and other private organizations.
- Free speech exists, even if it may be dangerous.
- There are radios and telephones.
- Most areas are less violent than Northern Mexico.
- Ten years is nothing in the history of nation building. Transitioning from Warlord rule to the rule of law doesn’t happen quickly or easily. Afghanistan is still in the warlord phase and will be for a long time.
- Seventy-five percent of Afghans think the government is doing a good job, although the jirgas have more effect at the local level. If the state isn’t there, they figure things out (at the local level).
[Here I am not sure whether Robert Lamb continues, or whether Peter Brune and perhaps others are responding]
- The Swedish Committee for Afghanistan has one-half million girls in school.
- Students have TV and radios.
- Rural areas are more negative on the future and are concerned about the return of the warlords.
- Afghanistan is ethnically divided and is waiting for the next war. If the Taliban returns, they will bring Taliban rules. (Taliban are fundamentalist Sunni Muslims mostly from the Pashtun tribe).
(Note: Languages are Dari (official) 50%, Pashto (official) 35%, Turkic languages 11%, 30 minor languages (primarily Balochi and Pashai) 4%; Ethnic groups are Pashtun 42%, Tajik 27%, Hazara 9%, Uzbek 9%, Aimak 4%, Turkmen 3%, Baloch 2%, other 4%. Religions are Sunni Muslim 80%, Shia Muslim 19%, other 1%.
- (Upon the likely collapse of the national government) a new Northern Alliance will emerge to oppose the Taliban.
- The concerns of the people are: civil war, political collapse, financial crisis, jobs disappearing. The current president Hamid Karzai will not be running to succeed himself in the next election—who will rule? If the election collapses, who will emerge, and how?
- Governors are more powerful than the national government in the eyes of the people. When the Soviets left there was chaos. Will there be the same again? After the Soviets left it was worse than with the Soviets.
- People in Kabul are more positive. Children are always more positive (Note: the median age is 18 years: source).
Ann Wilkens, former Swedish ambassador to Pakistan and former Chairman of the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan, emphasized the point that there is not a unified Taliban group in Afghanistan. There are splinter groups, some interested in insurgency, some in drug traffic and some with other aims, for instance relating to religious practice.
Masood Aziz augmented this observation by noting there is a spectrum of different groups and there is a problem in assessing the association of any of them with Al Qaeda, which is of non-afghan origin led by non-Afghans. In addition, Mullah Mohammed Omar, the past and present leader of the Afghan Taliban, has been hiding out in Pakistan, even when he was head of state during the time when the Taliban ruled Afghanistan.
Middle East expert at UI Magnus Norell raised the question of the current objective of the Taliban. He suggested they want influence in the current processes addressing the future of Afghanistan. Ann Wilkens asserted that the institution of Sharia law is their objective. Norell said that these were not mutually exclusive.
Masood Aziz said this is not a valid question because there is no unified Taliban. He further noted that strict Sharia law alienated Afghans during their Taliban rule. Afghans felt an alien force took over their state. Mullah Omar, who has no stated or known religious education or lineage, alienated Afghan tribal leaders during his rule.
Third Session: Counter-insurgency
- “All the bad stuff” is located in Pakistan: the Quetta Shura Taliban and the Haqqani Network, for instance.
- The tribal and other leaders in Afghanistan have a common enemy in the various Taliban entities, but have no common strategy.
- The stated US objective is to disrupt and destroy Al Qaeda. Is it working, or should the US change its objective? President Obama has shifted the focus to counter-insurgency.
Stefan Olsson of the FOI stated the problem with counter-insurgency is that it will take ten years to wipe out the insurgents. There is too little time for this (by the end of 2014) and it won’t work.
Harsh Pant of King’s College, London, said the current tension between the US and Pakistan over insurgents in Pakistan will come to a head as a result of a vicious cycle.
Masood Aziz said that the US military has ever-changing nomenclature for what it is they are doing. “Stability” is now in vogue. Previously it was “Clear/Hold/Build/Transfer”. Before that it was “Fight/Talk/Build”.
Military officers are talking to village elders about democracy; they aren’t experts in this. The US military is trying to embed itself in the culture and change it from the inside. It won’t work.
Stefan Olsson said “counter-insurgency is not nation-building”.
We have to realize our limitations in using only the military to bring “stability”.
Question posed to the panel: Will Afghan security forces be able to fill the vacuum left by the NATO/ISAF departure?
One response: The Afghan people would like the troops to leave, but “not too quickly”.
Stefan Olsson: The Swedish government doesn’t know what the end state should be, or when. The USA seems to want to fight the insurgents to the negotiating table.
In the Afghan security forces the Army officers are from the former Northern Alliance; that is, they are not of the Pashtun tribe as is the majority of the government officers. The Army may not feel itself subservient to a weak national government.
In that the USA/NATO have announced a time certain by which their troops will leave, the Taliban is in a position to wait to intensify their incursions.
The USA needs to stay after 2014, in some fashion, to deal with other countries such as Iran and Pakistan.
Neither the USA nor NATO has a strategy for filling the vacuum created by their departure.
Question from the audience: Can and will India be a force for good in Afghanistan?
Masood Aziz: Pakistan seems to want the opposite of what everybody else wants in Afghanistan. India, which is right next door, is the world’s largest democracy. In contrast, the military dominates Pakistan, but is not all-powerful because of the influence of organized groups such as the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) which wants to oust the US-backed Pakistani government.
In response to another question regarding the possible role of the EU, Mr. Masood said that the EU has the talent and moral foundation to help build infrastructure for Afghanistan. As an example of “moral force” he recited a story of how a US Peace Corps volunteer in the 1960s left an indelible impression on a now elderly man in a remote village.
Fourth and Final Session: Geopolitics and the Regional Dynamics
Context: There has been a change in the global balance of power from West to East, in operational terms. The center of world politics has been Europe, but now is moving toward Asia/China.
Harsh Pant of King’s College, London opened the session.
American priorities are changing: Afghanistan is not as important as before, as China emerges as a priority.
Global priorities are going to be influenced/centered in Asia/Pacific.
Pakistan now realizes that it is not the most important ally the USA has in its region. The USA sees India as its most important ally vis-à-vis China, and Islamabad (Pakistan’s capital) is worried. Pakistan has to hedge its bets; it needs a friendly Kabul (Capital of Afghanistan) so as not to be flanked by enemies—India to the east and Afghanistan to the west.
Pakistan’s self-identity seems to have been that it is not India. The Pakistan military has never won a war, but the Pakistan army points the people of Pakistan to India for its raison d’être as an army. Pakistan has tried to marginalize India in insisting they not be included in Afghan talks. Washington finally realized that Pakistan was playing a double game.
India realized this marginalization and now has decided to invest in Afghanistan (refer to the previously mentioned iron ore mine in Hajigak). Additionally, India has been reaching toward Russia and Iran, both of which flank Afghanistan. India likes a western presence in Afghanistan, but Russia and Iran don’t—but India balances this somehow.
China is feeling encircled by the USA. They are reluctant to talk with the USA about Afghanistan and Pakistan. They don’t want to compromise their relationship with Pakistan.
Current events reveal a conflict between the USA and Pakistan, a symptom of the underlying problem of Pakistan’s feeling of isolation and loss of importance to the USA.
Neil J. Melvin, Director of the Armed Conflict and Conflict Management Programme at SIPRI, responded:
The USA is drawing closer to its Asia/pacific allies and courting new ones such as Burma. Therefore, Afghanistan will remain important to the USA in this context, but where does Afghanistan fit? We don’t know yet.
Russia is courting Afghanistan by encouraging it toward the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. (The six-nation SCO comprises China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. India, Iran, Mongolia and Pakistan attend its meetings as observers. Source).
Harsh Pant added that Pakistan’s uncertainty about the USA’s intentions makes it difficult for them to know how to act.
Former Swedish Ambassador to Pakistan Ann Wilkens stated that the sequencing of events is unfortunate for Pakistan. There are conflicting messages to and from all players in the region. What does the USA want? She noted that the Pakistan army was built by the USA.
Magnus Norell: A report of the US Marines recommended forgetting nation building and to leave just a small counter-terrorism force in Afghanistan. It should be treated by the USA as a “marginal country”. We’re reading too much importance into it. You can’t solve Afghanistan unless you deal successfully with Pakistan. Let’s not look at Afghanistan as a regional issue. Keep it local.
From the moderator: From the perspective of Iran and Pakistan (which have long borders with Afghanistan) why is everyone waiting to see what the USA is going to do? The USA doesn’t have the leverage for a regional solution.
Neil J. Melvin: it is a dilemma. Russia, Iran and others want the USA out, but no-one else has the strength to do anything constructive on a regional basis. Iran has around three million Afghan refugees and doesn’t like the Taliban. There needs to be trust building between nations in the region. China is interested in stability and doesn’t want attacks from terrorists, so it keeps a low profile. One of China’s important interests in stability is due to the question of whether to build an additional gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to China through Afghanistan.
From the moderator: the world economy affects Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan and things are looking austere for these countries. How does this factor into the regional issues?
Answer from panel: if the world and local economy were better, it still wouldn’t solve Afghanistan’s problem which is one of governance.
Last question form the moderator: What should we do? What should we focus on?
Reponses from the panel:
- The West should continue to support Afghanistan economically.
- Donor nations need more humility in their approach to Afghanistan.
- Get out and stay out, militarily.
- Spend aid on education, etc.
- Don’t pull out (the military) gradually.
The moderators were:
END OF CONFERENCE
Links to information sources:
NATO in Afghanistan
Al‐Qaeda and Afghanistan in Strategic Context: Counterinsurgency versus Counterterrorism
Quetta Shura Taliban
Mullah Mohammed Omar
Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP)
NATO/ISAF history and facts about its troops