One word sums up the current preoccupation in Afghanistan: in Dari it’s “inteqal”; in English, "transition.” For both Afghans and the international community, transition remains a necessary process, healthy even, but fraught with uncertainty.
Three pillars undergird the international transition effort in Afghanistan: security, governance and development. Following a recent NATO-sponsored trip to the country, I concluded that each pillar faces deep challenges. The security situation has seen the most gains since 2009, albeit at great cost in lives and resources. Still, significant risks remain. NATO’s International Security Assistance Force mission is about to execute the last tranche of a five-stage security-transition plan that intentionally transfers the hardest districts last. Seven out of the ten most violent districts sit in this final tranche.
Perhaps in a subtle nod to the precariousness of security gains, NATO organizers sent our delegation to Regional Command-West, a relatively stable area on the border with Iran and Turkmenistan, presumably to demonstrate what success looks like. But the security situation precluded a visit to nearby Herat city, even in what was supposed to be one of the safest areas of the country. The decision not to showcase gains in recent ISAF focus areas in the southern and eastern parts of the country suggests a troubling lack of confidence.
Due to a huge ISAF investment, the Afghan National Security Forces are growing increasingly competent at basic skills and operations planning. It is slowly becoming a modestly capable analog-era security force. Still, it faces attrition rates greater than 30 percent a year, and widespread illiteracy limits the skill levels of a majority of the force.
This fighting season will test the mettle of the Afghan security forces. The current term is that they must be “weaned off the Ferrari,” meaning they must get used to fighting without ISAF's high-tech weapons, ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) and air support. Decisions about when to step in to aid Afghan units in distress, or not, will increase friction between ISAF and Afghan partners. The Afghan state will face existential risks if the ANSF do not prove up to the task.
Politics has moved to the fore in Afghanistan as international security forces draw down. Next year's elections should feature the first successful transition of power away from President Hamid Karzai to an elected successor, the second national leader since the Taliban was ousted through American initiative after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Political scientists have long identified the transition to a second elected leader as a pivotal event in the life of fledgling democracies, as it is often the point of failure.
Estimations about the stakes of the election are sobering. Here's a sampling we heard: Without an election or with a delay, "we move towards crisis." "There is a perception among people that it could be worse than 2009," "Don't think the possibility of fragmentation is over-estimated." If there is going to be a single point of failure in the Afghanistan transition, it will be next year's election. Its importance can hardly be overstated.
Karzai has assured senior international officials that he will step down. Even so, Afghanistan rests in a fragile state of equilibrium. Karzai has cobbled together a brittle internal balance of power by bringing power brokers—many former warlords—into his government. Maintaining such a balance will be extremely difficult. (Needless to say, leaving Karzai in place would be even worse than a botched election, as even the semblance of democracy would be stripped away.)
With elections less than a year away, no list of candidates, however informal, has emerged. No one we met with could or would identify any likely candidates. This suggests one of two things: Either the nation's entrenched power brokers are negotiating behind closed doors, trying to broker a consensus candidate. Or there are simply no suitable candidates in the offing who can satisfy enough of the right constituencies to hold power.
The international community must avoid overcorrecting for its heavy-handed 2009 role promoting opposition candidates against Karzai. This time the international community might be too hands-off, allowing the process to drift. A better approach would be to facilitate the creation of a slate of several strong candidates who can command broad support but whose positions on the issues represent a real choice for Afghans. That effort should be coupled with a readiness to take every possible measure to ensure the integrity of the election process. The ethos should be overwhelming force, not economy-of-force.
The international community's departure will deal a major macro-economic shock to the Afghan economy as demand dries up. "The golden days are over," said one Afghan. The war economy has fueled a significant economic expansion in the country, creating a class of people who got rich providing security or other services to the international effort. Afghans call these profiteers "9/11 millionaires."
The economic impact goes far beyond decreasing development aid. Much of the larger war budgets was spent in-country, dwarfing the non-war economy. Thousands of Afghans who were recently employed or are newly educated will soon be out of work. A lack of jobs and a precipitous drop in living standards will be deeply destabilizing, fueling both the insurgency and broader disillusionment with the Kabul government. Policymakers should be vigilant about factoring the effects of an economic crash into their transition calculations.
Everyone I spoke to believed that Afghans would not tolerate a return of Taliban rule. They are likely correct, at least as long as Western support continues to flow to the Kabul government. But preventing a Taliban return is not the same as defeating the ongoing insurgency, nor does it ensure the cohesion of the Afghan state against political, economic and/or security fragmentation or civil war.
To prevent that outcome, Afghans need to take the lead in building legitimate governance and sustainable economic growth. No one else can do it for them. The international community should assist but can’t do much else. One high-level discussant told us, referring to Afghan political and economic progress, "You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink." He was asked: But what if it doesn't drink? He shrugged his shoulders, at a loss for an answer.
Jacob Stokes, who is a research associate at the Center for a New American Security, recently returned from a NATO-sponsored trip to Afghanistan.