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There is No “Stalemate” in Afghanistan: We’re Losing
A critical component of turning the tide must be economic development.
Let’s Not Kid Ourselves: This is No “Stalemate”
In recent Congressional testimony, Gen. John Nicholson suggested that the situation in Afghanistan is a “stalemate.” However, the Taliban now contests or controls about 40% of the country—up from 30% one year ago. Moreover, as the insurgency increases its stranglehold on the countryside, the fight is increasingly encroaching on the country’s urban centers, as the Taliban’s capture of Kunduz City in two consecutive years shows. Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats stated in a May 11th Senate hearing that security is likely to continue to deteriorate through 2018.
Stalemate suggests that opposing sides have fought one another to a standstill. Prolonged stalemate implies that opposing sides might be ready for a negotiated peace. But the reality is that the insurgency is gaining ground, not losing it. The hard truth is that we’re losing the war, not winning it. Peace in Afghanistan has been discouragingly elusive, and is likely to remain so for the foreseeable future.
Both the U.S. and NATO Will Increase Troop Levels
Although President Donald Trump has asked the military for a coherent strategy before approving a troop increase, it seems inevitable that we’ll be sending more troops to the embattled country. NATO is likely to follow a concurrent course. But even the higher end of the range of consideration—5,000 additional U.S. troops—will not be enough to quell the emboldened insurgency. With similar troop levels in the early stages of the war, the country descended into chaos as the U.S. focused attention and resources on Iraq.
Granted, the capabilities of the ANDSF (Afghan National Defense and Security Forces) are far more robust than they were then. And, in contrast to their counterparts in Iraq, there’s even a fair amount of will to fight. But as the recent attack on an ANA base in Balkh province (where 140 Afghan soldiers were killed) and the Taliban seizure of Qala-e-Zal district in Kunduz Province demonstrate, those capabilities will not be enough to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table. The unfortunate circumstance that a full 35% of Afghan defense forces choose not to reenlist doesn’t exactly portend a brighter future any time soon.
Security Concerns Mask Other, Under-Reported Crises
Headlines focusing on spectacular insurgent attacks and the extent to which the U.S. should bolster its train, advise, and assist mission obscure other important problems. There is also, for instance, a very real refugee crisis. More than one million Afghans are internally displaced. That number is likely to increase as Pakistan continues to expel the 1.5 million unregistered refugees residing there as of 2016. Spend a few days in one of Europe’s numerous camps, and you’re likely to notice that Afghan refugees outnumber those from all other countries except for Syria.
Moreover, although stemming the insurgency inherently requires Afghanistan to work with its oft-contentious Pakistani neighbors, relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan are especially challenged at the moment. A recent clash between border guards in the midst of a Pakistani population census in Balochistan resulted in at least 15 deaths. In the aftermath, the Chaman border crossing - which controls one of two major trade routes between the two countries - is now closed. Pakistan is Afghanistan’s number one trading partner - 45% of exports flow to, and 26% of imports flow from, Pakistan. At a time when Afghanistan’s economy continues to struggle, closing Chaman is a significant blow.
But when it comes to the Afghan economy, the recent border clash is just the tip of the iceberg. Although it closed slightly in 2016 to 35% of GDP, Afghanistan’s trade deficit remains massive and persistent. Increasing poverty combined with an inflation rate of 4.4% means that already-impoverished Afghans have even less purchasing power to pay for all those imported goods. Meanwhile, the increasing rate of unemployment, which the most currently available figures place at 26%, doesn’t help matters much, nor does decreasing income per-capita: although 2016 GDP growth was 1.2%, the population grew by 3%. Declining per-capita income warrants special concern. A robust literature on conflict risk reduction shows that declining income or slowing income growth increases the risk of civil war. Thus, even if we are able to somehow magically broker a peace deal through increased pressure on the Taliban, the country is likely to remain squarely in the so-called “conflict trap” in the absence of measures that generate stable growth.
Pursuing Security and Development Simultaneously
If the intent of the inevitable troop increase in Afghanistan is to render a negotiated peace more likely, then the strategy must have an economic development component. Programming that effectively implements small-scale projects targeting specific community needs could serve as a good start, but won’t be enough. A broader strategy that protects current or impending investments by regional actors that carry the potential to increase government revenue and stimulate growth, such as the TAPI gas pipeline and the Mes Aynak copper mine, would be even more prudent. Notably, after years of undermining them, the Taliban recently offered to protect these important projects, signaling the potential for regional investment to create shared national interests from which a negotiated settlement could emerge. Creating and deploying an expeditionary development capability in the spirit of DoD’s now-defunct Task Force for Business and Stability Operations (TFBSO) could also help spur further investment, provided that previously-identified shortcomings are addressed.
Specifics aside, we should be careful not to value any renewed U.S. commitment to Afghanistan by troop levels alone. Nor can we credibly celebrate the killing of the latest insurgent or terrorist leader unless we are simultaneously creating a viable state. Where we go from here matters - let’s hope that President Trump looks beyond military solutions as he forges a path forward.