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The End of the Longest American War and the Uncertain Future of Afghanistan
Eighteen years ago, the United States embarked on the war on terror: toppled the Taliban regime, killed Osama Bin Laden in Abottabad, significantly degraded Al Qaeda and its terrorist allies infrastructure and capabilities, fought ISIS in Iraq and Syria and invested billions of dollars to build functioning governments adhering to democratic values in Afghanistan and Iraq. Today, the American public is war weary and a populist President with the slogan of “America First” sits in the White House who has vowed to put an end to the “Endless Wars” and bring back American troops home. The key question however remains what did the longest American war in history brought for Afghanistan and where is Afghanistan heading with growing insecurity, economic uncertainty and political instability?
There is no doubt that Afghanistan is a much better place today with higher standards of living than it was under the brutal Taliban regime. Billions of dollars of foreign aid, technical assistance and thousands of lives lost in this brutal war has paved the way for a more prosperous yet fragile Afghanistan. Millions of girls go to school, hundreds of thousands of Afghans have attended institutions of higher education, Afghanistan has a government, a parliament, a judiciary, a vibrant civil society, a strong presence of women across the spectrum and a presence across the country. It has established its embassies in more than 140 countries and maintains diplomatic relationship with almost every nation on the face of earth. Afghanistan is not the isolated, sanctioned and doomed country it was under the Taliban regime.
Afghanistan has had on average a 9.25% economic growth rate over the last more than one decade, its income per capita has risen from US$ 120 to above US$ 640 dollars today. It has a strong currency and has maintained a robust poverty reduction agenda with the help of millions of dollars of foreign aid in the country. But Afghanistan is on a downward spiral due to President Trump’s withdrawal narrative, electoral bodies in crisis due to a controversial parliamentary election, a double-digit dip in its economic growth rate, a growing uncertainty a national unity government arrangement, growing proxy war between its neighbors and a divided and corrupt elite with a criminal economy. To reverse this trend the Afghan political and economic elite need to reach a fundamental consensus that business as usual i.e. huge influx of foreign aid, free security assistance, international political support, divided politics, regional proxy wars cannot continue. They will have to take charge of the country and make some tough decisions for themselves and carve a future path for stability, security and prosperity for the country.
The number one priority of the Afghan statesmen and policy makers should be internal stability and unity of the country. A divided, poor and fragile Afghanistan will never be taken seriously by its neighbors and its international partners. The new Afghan government will have to forge a national consensus either through a Loya Jirga (Grand Assembly) for the fight against terrorism, peace and stability in the country and agenda for economic reform for the country. Without an overarching national consensus on the three key areas of fight against terrorism, peace process and a robust economic reform agenda – there will be sporadic and piecemeal approaches to each of these problems. It will only prolong the current fragile situation of the country. It is time for the Afghan elite to rise above their pity competitions for power, money and ethnic difference or be doomed and replaced like the previous regimes.
On the international front – Afghanistan must construct a new image for itself. As an independent and credible partner on the fight against terrorism and extremism just like any other country which the United States is assisting in military and economic terms in its quest to overcome terror and extremism.
Meanwhile – it must make a choice between one of the following three paths at the international stage:
- A Strategic Partner for US/NATO in the Region: While the new Afghan President recently signed the US Bilateral Security and NATO status of force agreements, but the security situation remains perilous in the country and the economy in shambles. If Afghanistan is to remain a strategic partner for the United States and NATO – both parties must take drastic steps to put country out of its downward spiral path now. The military and economic support for Afghanistan should move beyond diplomatic niceties, rhetoric and backed with tangible actions. This partnership comes with a cost in blood and treasure for Afghanistan. The regional proxy groups have increased their attacks, and this will continue unless drastic security and economic measures are taken to address the root causes of terrorism and this resurgence in violence.
- A Future with the Region and the Islamic World: On the other hand – Afghanistan can pursue robust diplomatic and close ties with the region at the expense of its strategic partnership with the United States and NATO. This means addressing tough historical issues such as asking for peace in exchange for Durand line and strategic depth for Pakistan, ensuring Indian interests in Afghanistan, denying sanctuaries for Russian and Central Asian extremists and finally balancing out the interests of Iran and Saudi Arabia in the country. Although – pursuing such a complex and multifaceted diplomacy lacks credibility, trust and the required capacity within the Afghan state and in-between the neighboring countries. On the other hand – none of the neighbors except India have been forthcoming with the scale of aid and assistance to Afghanistan as the United States and its allies during the past eighteen years.
- An Alliance with China, India and Russia: Many strategists and international relations experts – believe that the future of Afghanistan lies with its three key powerful neighbors i.e. China, India and Russia and these countries should reach to some sort of regional consensus to deal with security and economic dilemmas of the country post US withdrawal from Afghanistan. But each one of these countries have conflicting interests in Afghanistan and Afghanistan is also an enormous source of instability for them. Although - there are behind the closed doors quiet diplomacy in-between the trio over the fate of Afghanistan post US withdrawal, but they are yet to come forward with any substantial military, political and military assistance for Afghanistan.
The political and economic future of Afghanistan is fragile, uncertain and bleak. The recent budget deficit, over-reliance on US/NATO on military assistance, a divided corrupt elite, high rates of corruption and the growing insecurity and resurgence of Taliban are all credible threats for the future of a stable and peaceful Afghanistan. For years to come Afghanistan will need international and regional economic, political and military support to stand on its feet. As much as the international community need to support Afghanistan – Afghanistan will equally have to prove itself and equal and credible ally of its partners. Afghanistan will have no choice but to explore partnership and pursue one of the above options.