Despite the horrendous cost of 185,000 – 249,000 estimated casualties since 2001, Afghanistan’s security and prosperity is still of major international concern. The country has been at war since the fall of the Taliban Regime, yet the resurgence of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda during the so-called War on Terror is evident with 13,729 Afghan security forces killed and 16,511 wounded in the past 14 years.
As NATO-led combat operations have come to an end and with remaining NATO personnel due to leave in 2016, Afghanistan’s future is now largely in its own hands. However, economic and political instability, Taliban resurgence and the emergence of ISIL, means that the country remains in a fragile state. Accordingly, many security and foreign policy experts believe that 2015 marks the make or break year for a new Afghanistan.
The Process of NATO
The Pentagon has stated that Afghan defense forces have experienced a 59% increase in battlefield casualties in the past 6 months. It is statistics like this that have forced a reluctant President Obama to amend his plans for a complete American withdrawal by maintaining 9,800 military personal until the end of the year. The US government still aims to withdraw all American forces by 2016, but this deadline is currently under review. In December 2014, the NATO-led force known as the ‘International Security Assistance Force’ finished operations and the follow-up mission known as ‘Resolute Support’ began, with 12,000 NATO soldiers from 14 partner nations providing training and logistical support to Afghan forces.
The Economic Climate facing Afghanistan
The Afghan economy, despite international support, still remains stagnant. Economists note that the process of Western withdrawal is negatively affecting key sectors of the Afghan economy such as agriculture, construction and services which have struggled with under-investment and have been heavily reliant on international aid.
Unfortunately, the Afghan economy is highly dependent on the drugs trade as the country supplies 90% of the world’s opium. Economic growth is estimated to have fallen by 2% in 2014 and 9% between 2003-2012; unemployment is predicted at 8.5%, and 36% of the population now live in extreme poverty. The World Bank reports that the growth outlook for 2015 remains weak and the overall fiscal situation is precarious.
Afghanistan’s Political Leadership
The political instability that arose after the 2014 Afghan presidential election was evident with allegations of electoral fraud and threats of violence. Despite 4 million citizens choosing to cast their votes, this instability demonstrates how long the journey will be before Afghanistan emerges as a secure and functioning democracy. Finally, the electoral commission announced Ashraf Ghani as the winner and a power-sharing agreement was reached with the current Prime Minister, and Ghani’s former Presidential opponent, Abdullah Abdullah.
Since the inception of Ghani’s Presidency, achieving peace has been at the top of the government’s agenda. Other key domestic objectives include rooting out corruption, improving the crumbling state of services such as healthcare and criminal justice, creating 1 million jobs, cutting red tape, boosting trade and expanding women’s rights. Combined with this primary goal, these policies represent a long-term radical push to create a prosperous and independent Afghanistan.
In terms of foreign policy, the Ghani administration has begun the process of rebuilding diplomatic relations with Pakistan, which had been strained under the Presidency of Hamid Karzai. Ghani has increased the country’s willingness to work with the United States e.g. signing a bilateral security agreement, and has reached out to the two most proximal powers of Asia – India and China. The US Secretary of State John Kerry described this agenda as an “extraordinary moment of transformation” as this departs fundamentally from the policies of Karzai by building reconciliation efforts and seeking to establish strong relations with neighboring countries, both of which are essential for Afghanistan’s future.
In his address to the US Congress in March this year, Ghani moved beyond the immense challenges the country still faces to illustrate real progress across several areas. In education, UNICEF estimates that 3.2 million girls are now receiving lessons, which was banned under Taliban rule. In terms of women’s role in the democratic process, 38% of the recent electorate were women and, in the heart of government, 20% of the new Afghan cabinet are women, providing the ministers for higher education, women’s affairs and information and culture. In other developments, nation-wide health has improved dramatically with life expectancy increasing from 48 to 60, and media freedom has been established.
The Resilience of the Taliban
Despite the Taliban’s fall from power, the group is still making its presence known militarily. It continues to have a strong presence in the country, particularly in the southern and eastern regions with Afghan security forces estimating that it controls over 40 districts across the country. The Taliban maintain the view that the Afghan Government is a Puppet Government that continues to follow the demands of foreign powers and have stated that they will not stop fighting until foreign forces are removed entirely.
Deadly attacks such as the 2014 Peshawar School massacre, which killed 145 people in Pakistan, demonstrate the group’s significant presence across the Afghan and Pakistani border. June 2015 saw a sophisticated attack on the Afghan parliament, as well as an assault on a NATO convoy. Other attacks on Kabul have also occurred since the Taliban launched its annual ‘spring offensive’ against the Ghani administration.
In order to become a stronger political actor, the Taliban have set up a telephone hotline for Government employees to defect to the group. This is designed not just to strengthen the Taliban, but also to help mitigate in-house problems as the Taliban have faced the problem of members defecting to ISIL in the light of their gains in Iraq and Syria.
The Terror Threat remains
Afghanistan in some ways is seen as a strategic gateway between the Middle East and the Asian continent. Consequently, many terrorist networks are seeking to establish a strong base within the country. Classified terror groups such as the Taliban, Al-Qaeda, ISIL and the Haqqani Network all have an active presence. Despite 14 years of war since the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001, and with Western nations now in a process of withdrawal, militant groups still believe that a complete military victory is a potential outcome.
However, the Taliban and ISIL, who represent the greatest threats to Afghanistan’s security, are reported to have declared war against one another. The Afghan Taliban declared that ISIL’s Caliphate was illegitimate, as the Taliban refused to declare their allegiance to Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi (Leader of ISIL). This has resulted in brutal fighting in contrast to the Taliban in Pakistan who have declared their alliance to ISIL
In recent days, it has been reported that ISIL’s Afghan commander was killed by a US drone strike. Despite this development it is believed that ISIL is seeking to infiltrate Afghanistan and use the country’s drug trade to finance its activities and ambitions to expand into Asia. This could put at risk all the progress and sacrifice the Afghan people and Western nations have made to the country’s security.
Attempts at Peace Negotiations
In recent weeks, Afghanistan’s High Peace Council and Taliban officials have begun rounds of peace talks, firstly in Qatar in May and more recently in Islamabad. President Ghani has suggested that these talks have laid the foundation for fully-fledged peace negotiations through building trust and establishing an agenda for negotiations. It is clear that Ghani, as well as Western nations, understands and respects the fact that the Taliban will always remain a significant force in Afghanistan.
President Ghani’s ambition for a peace settlement has been given strong support by Pakistan that is using its influence over Taliban forces to try to open up the prospect of negotiations. This is despite accusations of Pakistan funding, training and supporting the Taliban while also being a western ally. The White House hailed the progress of the talks, stating that they represented an “Important step in advancing the prospects of a credible peace”. However, Afghan critics believe that these talks may increase Pakistani authority and influence over Afghanistan’s future.
Where now for Afghanistan?
As Afghanistan enters a new chapter with the new government representing the first democratic transfer of power in the country’s history, along with it comes new hope and opportunities for the Afghan people. It is clear that President Ghani’s government seeks to build on the foundation established by President Karzai, which has put Afghanistan on the path of nation state renewal. In order for long-term peace to happen, the Taliban must be a part of the solution, yet today’s unity government must be sustained for an economic recovery, and for security to be maintained.
On the other hand, if the country’s national unity government collapses, the political, economic and security challenges facing the nation will overwhelm any chance of a strong and stable Afghanistan emerging in the near future.
On balance, green roots are evident and prospects are improving, but no one should underestimate the size of the hurdles still to be overcome. Sadly, Afghan’s long history shows how quickly social, economic and political progress can be lost when emerging consensus fails and conflict emerges again.
Christopher Bowerin is currently an undergraduate studying Politics and Business Management at Oxford Brookes University. Christopher has a strong interest in European and American politics, Middle Eastern Affairs, international conflicts and post-war reconstruction.
Cover image ‘UNAMA FEATURED PHOTO‘ by UNAMA