Families relax in the Gardens of Babur, Kabul in April 2012. © Christian Science Monitor/Getty

Afghanistan is not a lost cause

Afghanistan is more stable than for decades—but we'll have to pay to keep it that way
February 19, 2015

Ask any student at Kabul University if the west lost the war in Afghanistan, and you will get an emphatic answer—No. Given an opportunity, they have grabbed it—they are the first generation for 30 years to have aspirations beyond struggle, death and martyrdom.

The university is humming with new life, interest and hope. Like other developing countries, Afghanistan’s demography is weighted towards the young, and they are impatient for change. In this supposedly traditional society, male and female students mix in a relaxed way (without any of the strictures demanded by Islamist groups in some universities in the United Kingdom). In a media studies class, 20-year-old Massouda spoke of her hopes for the future, and of how much had already changed. “Life for women is now very different,” she said.

Massouda’s family did not return from a refugee camp in Pakistan until three years after the Taliban left, when they could be sure that things really had changed. Her mother cleans houses and takes in laundry, but in an example of the social mobility possible in a country rapidly urbanising as it moves from war to peace, Massouda owes her education and life chances to the western aid programmes that have begun to transform Afghan schools. Independent media are another success: already Massouda works part time for a news agency and says she will be able to choose who to marry and choose to continue working. These are new freedoms for an Afghan woman.

On every patch of open ground young men play football and cricket in enormous, sprawling games in which it is hard to tell where one sport ends and the other begins. The Afghan cricket team is a source of huge national pleasure and pride. Aided by two English coaches, Afghanistan has fought its way up into the sport’s international elite, competing at the 2015 World Cup. And traditional pursuits banned by the Taliban are also back with an exuberance all of their own. On Thursdays and Fridays throughout the winter, horsemen compete on a plain north of Kabul in games of buzkashi—the most macho sport in the world, which involves fighting for possession of a calf’s carcass. Occasionally, a wild Don Quixote-like character emerges from the mêlée to shout a commentary at the crowd in verse.

There is poetry everywhere—in the mouths of illiterate youths on street corners, in patriotic couplets solemnly intoned at military ceremonies, on radio stations, in public competitions that draw huge crowds, even in the province of Helmand, and in a secret culture of longing among veiled women in the conservative Pashtun south. Beyond the mess, dust, mud, poverty and insecurity, this is a nation that has taken its soul back from the bandits and the Taliban, and is revelling in the experience.

Those university graduates lucky enough to get a job can expect to move into a modern flat, in a gated community, with manicured lawns, playgrounds, shopping malls and reliable electricity. Some even live together without getting married—something previously unthinkable.

Across Kabul, there is a building boom of glass palaces and shopping malls, glittering in the brash bling of a newly confident nation. Bazaars stay open late, and there are new swimming pools and sports centres. On Friday afternoons, families picnic in the shade of trees in the restored gardens around the tomb of Babur, the first Mughal emperor—young children roll on the banks, while teenagers wearing leggings show off. Leisure is a precious thing, and its presence shows a level of security and stability that the country has not known since the 1970s.

Afghanistan is challenging the prevailing view in Britain and much of the west that intervention here has failed, and that a return to power by the Taliban is inevitable. Of course, there are still major threats to deal with: mass unemployment, conflict and precarious geography (landlocked Afghanistan borders both Pakistan and Iran). The Taliban could threaten the nation for some time to come, but they will only return to power if the west loses patience and cuts funds, or if there is a colossal misjudgement by the Afghan government. And even though members of the Afghan political class sometimes appear more preoccupied with their own status than with the complex business of governing, they are unlikely to make that mistake.

Despite the continuing conflict and the misuse of international aid, western involvement has had some positive results. According to a recent Chatham House report, the ambitious targets set at the 2001 United Nations conference on the future of Afghanistan, held in Bonn, have mostly been achieved: inflation has been contained; the currency is stable; growth over this period has averaged around 9 per cent; and roads, mobile phones and the internet have transformed commerce. Maternal and infant mortality, school enrolment and life expectancy are all moving in the right direction as well.

Even Helmand is not the failure that many in Britain suppose. It remains as complex and contradictory as ever. Afghanistan produced 90 per cent of the world’s illegal opium in 2014, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, and Helmand accounts for 69 per cent of the Afghan total. Threatened by the Taliban, it also witnessed the first flying of an Islamic State black flag in Afghanistan. But the poppies and the war have been pushed to the margins of this huge province, which is almost the size of the Republic of Ireland. The main populated zone, concentrated on either side of the Helmand River, and pacified at the cost of nearly all of the 453 British soldiers to have died in Afghanistan since 2001, remains mostly poppy-free and secure. And better roads and improved public services mean it is becoming prosperous. For the first time, there are girls in school here and the first big civil engineering projects are under way, in the complex network of canals and waterways, to drain clogged channels and restore fertile farmland.

The main highway across Helmand, a crucial trade route between Pakistan and Iran, remains open and secure, and bazaars in the towns of Gereshk and Lashkar Gah are busy with new activity. I have travelled there several times in the past year, taking civilian flights without British protection. There were no security incidents during the two rounds of voting in the presidential election in April and June last year, and turnout was high. In Nad Ali, where I witnessed the second round, the former military British base is now a cricket pitch.

"Only Liberia, Gaza and the West Bank are as reliant on international aid as Afghanistan."
The path out of conflict is certainly treacherous, but it is hard to see Afghanistan descending, as some doom-mongers predict, into the kind of chaos that beset it after Soviet forces left in 1989. Too much has changed. President Hamid Karzai’s departure last year really was a new dawn. In September, while he was still in office, the United States ambassador, James Cunningham, laid into him after enduring years of insults. In an attack extraordinary for a serving ambassador, Cunningham called Karzai “ungracious and ungrateful,” and accused him of being disrespectful towards US war dead. This was a rare, unvarnished glimpse of American contempt for a man they came to regard as an obstacle in almost every area of policy.

The new president, Ashraf Ghani, moved quickly to repair relations, signing security deals to allow international forces to remain in the country the day after he came into office in October 2014. A western-trained technocrat married to a Lebanese Christian, he understands how much he has to do to convince western politicians to continue to support his country. He does not take aid for granted, as Karzai did, and at every opportunity, from his first speech in office to his well-received policy paper for the London aid conference in December, he has talked of the need for Afghanistan to pay its own way.

This is his biggest challenge, and he does not have much time. Western focus has moved elsewhere: in January 2014, the US Congress voted to cut non-military aid to Afghanistan in half. It was only an advisory vote with no binding powers, but it sent a sharp message to a country almost wholly dependant on the west. Only Liberia, Gaza and the West Bank are as reliant on international aid as Afghanistan.

Creating functioning independent government institutions, financed by local revenues would have been far easier if it had been started earlier. The failure to do this was the consequence of a lack of political imagination in the west. Afghanistan has received more money than Europe did under the Marshall Plan, but has so much less to show for it.

When he was out of power, Ghani was a trenchant critic of what was going on. Most of the non-military aid went straight back to the west in grossly inflated salaries for “consultants,” payment for goods supplied and security protection. What remained built a parallel economy—a house of cards rather than a functioning state. In a memorable phrase, the World Bank said it was as if an “aid juggernaut” had descended on the country. So much money flooded in that it was bound to lead to some improvements. The more effective parts of the Afghan state—particularly those dealing with health, education and rural development—were funded by money from donors such as the European Union, Germany, Norway, Sweden and the United Kingdom, which went through government budgets. But the US ignored the consensus among international experts that development spending was most effective where it went directly to governments in this way. Even after signing up to this principle in the Paris Declaration in 2005, the US continued to put most of its non-military spending outside the ambit of the Afghan government.

Afghanistan suffered from another problem common in post-conflict countries: most money was available at the beginning, when the Afghans were least able to spend it wisely. The surplus cash fuelled corruption.

The graph of aid donations —high at the beginning, and tapering down—was the opposite of what the country needed. In theory, best practice would have been to increase aid funding as Afghanistan was able to spend it more wisely. But in the real world donors are most likely to fund countries when they are in the news, and Afghanistan’s moment came after the fall of the Taliban in 2001. Even today ministries lack “absorption capacity”—that is, they do not have the systems in place to spend the money they are allocated. In earlier years the problem was even worse.

At the same time, the US hurried Afghanistan towards elections, believing that freedom would somehow deliver virtue in the absence of the sorts of checks and balances built into the US system. In a reversal of the founding principle of the American revolution—no taxation without representation—in Afghanistan they imposed representation without taxation. As in Iraq, elections were held without the democratic architecture of a functioning state, neither government institutions nor political parties, entrenching the power of an unaccountable elite.

The democratic transition of power carried out in Afghanistan last year was rightly praised. It was an extraordinary achievement in a country where power had not changed hands without bloodshed since 1901, when the amir, Abdur Rahman Khan, was succeeded by his son Habibullah. People came out to vote in a carnival atmosphere of hope. But the opportunity to make a fresh start has been squandered. Behind the two leading candidates were politicians who had developed a sense of entitlement during the years of misdirected aid, and wanted to ensure that they continued to get their share of the cake.

Arguments over election fraud led to a US-imposed deal putting Ghani into power, in harness with his opponent Abdullah Abdullah as the government’s “CEO.” It took several more months of arguments before any ministers were appointed. They need to be endorsed by parliament, but after rejecting two-thirds of the proposed cabinet, MPs promptly took a two-month break.

Afghanistan cannot afford such delays. The economy faces severe challenges as international troops leave and aid is reduced. But the leadership that is urgently needed in a variety of areas is wanting, as the elite squabble over jobs in marble halls, with bodyguards and armoured vehicles paid for by foreign taxpayers, insulated from the profound challenges of the country. They represent the same conservative interests that have always been a block on progress in Afghanistan. The years of aid being disbursed in an unaccountable way had the profoundly damaging consequence of reinforcing the position of traditional tribal leaders, many of them warlords. It has diminished the chance of normal politics taking root, and has dampened the hopes of the vast majority of the population, especially the young.

Since 2001, the US allowed, indeed encouraged, the return of former warlords—believing them to be allies against the Taliban. This had the effect of giving democratic legitimacy to criminal regional power brokers, making the job of nation building harder today. Democracy in Afghanistan will remain an illusion until those elected collect revenues and taxes to fund government services. Instead, much of the money collected in customs revenue is stolen and tax evasion is commonplace. This was not inevitable; corruption is not a fact of life in Afghanistan, as some world-weary western analysts have concluded. Indeed, one success of Taliban rule before 2001 had been to reduce it significantly. However limited their ambitions in government, revenues collected then went to the central exchequer; exporters could plan with confidence. (And the Taliban were the only administration successfully to stop the growing of opium poppies).

Ghani faces, therefore, a combination of challenges: weak government institutions; poor revenue collection, hampered by corruption; and a predatory elite that extracts rents from aid. That elite has been responsible for much of the lawlessness in the countryside. A survey of local journalists showed that the worst intimidation and violence they face is not from the Taliban, but corrupt interests connected to local officials and the government, particularly if they investigate land grabs.

Small militias have reverted to the habits of the civil war years of the early 1990s, engaging in extortion and banditry. In the north and east, German forces had restricted the worst of the violence, but they left Afghanistan last year, eight months before British and American troops withdrew from the south. General Aminullah Amarkhel, Chief of Police in the province of Baghlan, just north of the Hindu Kush mountains, says he is fighting in every district in his province. But the Taliban is the enemy in only two of the 10 districts. Elsewhere, the enemies are militias and warlords.

Amarkhel has amassed an arsenal of makeshift heavy weapons, some bought from people who had kept them in sheds since the civil war. One rocket launcher, mounted incongruously on a US-supplied Humvee, bore the date 1980, the first full year of the war with the Soviets. Here, technology from both ends of Afghanistan’s long war were welded together. Amarkhel’s laptop is full of images of fierce fighting in the summer months, as intense as anything in Helmand. And this is one of the more peaceful provinces. The relative security of the cities and main roads contrasts with deep insecurity in some parts of the countryside.

The conflict is being tackled by increasingly professional armed forces, now fighting on their own, although the recent decision by US President Barack Obama to continue limited air support for another year gives them breathing space while they master alternatives, such as artillery. The Afghan forces, especially the army, are far better than many expected. They have mounted complex operations night and day, successfully employing GPS, map-reading and communications. They claim to have carried out night raids throughout 2014 without causing a single civilian casualty. (The intrusive nature of US night raids was a constant complaint of Karzai’s).

Another significant development is that Afghan soldiers are increasingly likely to come from the Pashtun south. In the early years after the Taliban were removed, the army was exclusively drawn from the north, and in Helmand and Kandahar its soldiers were seen as foreign invaders, just as US and UK forces were. Despite taking high casualties that in many forces would be unsustainable, there is no problem with recruitment, and they are well motivated.

There are other questions, though, about whether this force can be sustained, beyond its high casualty rate. At the Wales summit last year, Nato increased its funding for Afghan forces to $5.1bn—an offer made with the usual condition, never fully complied with in any deal with the west since 2001, that Afghanistan would increase its own proportion of the budget. Hard questions remain to be asked about where this money is going and whether it is being well spent. The amount is approximately equal to the funding of Turkey’s armed forces. But Afghanistan has none of the sophisticated weaponry, or ability, of that middle-sized Nato country.

Also, the funding means that the Afghan armed forces are not accountable to elected politicians but to Nato. It is hard to argue with the Taliban’s characterisation of them as foreign puppets and mercenaries. And although the armed forces do not constitute a state within a state, as they do in neighbouring Pakistan, their dependence on foreign funding is a potential threat to stability. That said, as long as General Sher Mohammad Karimi is in charge, there will be no problem. He is gracious in his acknow-ledgment of foreign support and is a proud Anglophile—he was the first Afghan soldier to go to Sandhurst in 1968. But he will not be in charge forever.

Although the Afghan conflict has fractured into dozens of small fights, the Taliban remain the most substantial threat to security in the country, particularly in three areas: along the eastern border with Pakistan; in Wardak and Logar close to the capital; and in Helmand. The return of corruption and the renewed influence of petty warlords have increased their appeal (it was just this combination of factors that led to the Taliban’s rapid rise in the wake of the chaos of the civil war in the mid-1990s). They and their allies have been testing the new government with large-scale assaults involving several hundred fighters, as well as bomb attacks in Kabul of increased intensity. However, opinion polls show that as they become more violent, the Taliban become more unpopular. According to polls, they are least popular in some of their traditional Pashtun heartlands in the south.

Afghan generals want to keep up the pressure so that Taliban influence does not spread. At the same time, they have reached the kind of accommodation with local Taliban that foreign forces were never able to achieve. This has helped to reduce tension and hostility and to ensure stability that should improve economic prospects, further limiting the appeal of the Taliban. The military are currently the most competent and effective part of the triangle of security, governance and development, and are helping to squeeze the space in which the Taliban have to operate. But the return of corruption and warlordism have made the war harder to fight.

The strength of the national army and the Taliban’s lack of nationwide appeal means they are unlikely to win. But like any guerrilla force, they will not be decisively defeated on the battlefield, so the government will need a negotiated end to hostilities. In this one area at least, Ghani has been willing to be bold, unhindered by the arguments over ministries elsewhere that have brought government to a standstill for months. He made overtures to three former commanders—two Taliban and one a Hezb-i-Islami ally—inviting them to join the government even ahead of a negotiated peace. They turned him down but one of them, Mullah Zaeef, has been active in resolving issues over the location of their political office, currently in Doha.

One of Ghani’s first actions as president was to go to the main jail, Pul-e-Charkhi, east of Kabul. Ostensibly he was there to inspect conditions but he also took the opportunity to establish direct links with Taliban commanders. And while domestic policy has been paralysed during the long negotiations over the composition of the government, Ghani has developed an active and effective foreign policy. He has visited Saudi Arabia and China, and there is now a Chinese track in talks with the Taliban. This could be one of the most significant moves in the peace process because China is the one foreign power with any leverage over Pakistan, where Ghani also made a successful visit that reset damaged relations. He delayed his first presidential visit to India until March, and this has further improved trust on the Pakistani side, leading to better cross-border intelligence exchanges. Five suspects in the Peshawar school shooting in December 2014 were arrested in Afghanistan at Pakistan’s request.

Pakistan matters because the Taliban leadership, the so-called “Quetta Shura,” gathered around their leader Mullah Omar, are based there. In the past, Taliban commanders who were tempted to talk peace with Afghanistan have been jailed or worse, as Pakistan sought to retain control over its Afghan proxy. But there are signs that the massacre in Peshawar was a genuine watershed and that Pakistani military and intelligence officials have finally given up the illusion that influence in Afghanistan would give them “strategic depth” in any conflict with India. It looks as if they are finally willing for the Taliban to make peace.

Many of the western officials connected with Afghanistan after the Taliban fell, including US ambassadors and the UN special envoy, now believe it was a mistake to exclude them from talks in 2001. President George W Bush declared the Taliban “defeated,” so they could be ignored. That profound failure of vision and the bitter war that followed left a legacy that still has to be managed, at a time when Afghanistan faces challenges on all sides. The long post-election stalemate has led to a collapse in business confidence, trade and foreign investment (which was weak to begin with). After the heady days of 9 per cent growth, this year it is expected to be zero at best. Thousands of Afghans employed by foreign forces and NGOs have lost their jobs.

While this unstable rentier economy totters, an elite class argues over jobs. Ghani has tried to change the culture by appointing only qualified people, untainted by the past. But this has been a hard task, and he has made the situation worse by firing officials he does not like, and failing to appoint anyone in their place. In the commercially important western province of Herat, officials have been removed—from the governor at the top, down to district police chiefs. The former governor said that the Taliban have been the only beneficiary of this policy.

The continuing uncertainty has made the nation nervous and hesitant, and the new president has yet to find a voice that consoles and builds confidence. He has literally written the book on Fixing Failed States (that book, co-written with Clare Lockhart, Chair of the Institute for State Effectiveness, was published in 2009) and has acted as a consultant across the world, but he has not convinced his own country that he can fix the problems at home. Afghanistan will probably succeed, despite itself, but the challenges are huge. A country with extraordinary opportunities in agriculture, tourism and trade in crafts and carpets is marking time—it is not embroiled in an all-out war, but it is not exactly at peace either. If its politicians were as good as its generals and its cricket team, things might be different.