The post-9/11 US “end-game” in Afghanistan is likely to intensify in September. While Donald Trump’s team claims an apparently imminent peace deal with the Taliban would vindicate its Asian-centered strategy on Afghanistan, in fact it more reflects the desire of the White House to draw down US troops before next year’s US elections.
In August 2017, when he was Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson announced the “new” Asian approach aimed at “getting the Taliban to the negotiating table.” Pakistan was central to what he asserted was a holistic regional strategy, with India playing an upgraded role too, but there was no mention of other key countries such as China, an increasingly important player in Afghanistan.
Even at the time, it was clear that the aim was to cut a deal with the Taliban before Trump’s re-election campaign began. Tillerson’s announcement came less than 24 hours after Trump himself had announced plans to entrench US military involvement in Afghanistan, a reversal of his 2016 campaign pledge and therefore a cause of intense frustration to the president.
To distract from Trump’s U-turn, there was emphasis on the new post-Obama approach, although in reality there has been significant policy continuity with the previous administration.
The possible Afghan peace deal, which would involve the withdrawal of a significant number of foreign forces in exchange for security guarantees by the Taliban, has emerged as the country stands at a critical crossroads, with much uncertainty on the horizon; widespread violence continues, the insurgents now control more territory than at any time since 2001, and a presidential election is scheduled for late September.
US special envoy Zalmay Khalilzhad has set a Sept. 1 deadline for agreement, and many Afghans are understandably anxious about their future. While fragile gains have been made since the Taliban’s fall from power in 2001, the country faces a daunting array of economic, security and political risks.
The biggest challenge may remain the internal security threat from Taliban militants, despite any pledges they may make. Since 2009 alone, the UN has recorded about 33,000 conflict-related civilian deaths, including 1,300 in the first six months of this year. There are about 20,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan as part of the US-led NATO mission to train, assist and advise Afghan forces. Fears have been repeatedly raised that this force (a fraction of the previously 150,000-strong combat presence) is not big enough, but it is key to ensuring training and cohesion for the several hundred thousand Afghan police and military forces, which have day-to-day responsibility for security and may otherwise disintegrate.
On the economic front, the news is not good either. Reconstruction has been slow, unemployment remains high, more than a million Afghans are internally displaced and millions more refugees have fled to Pakistan and Iran — all this despite estimates that Washington has spent more on Afghan reconstruction than the cost of the Marshall Plan that helped rebuild Europe after the Second World War.
It is also clear that, since 2001, the Afghan economy has not been sufficiently diversified from drug exports such as opium and heroin, despite Afghanistan having abundant natural resources — gas, minerals and oil — with an estimated value of $3 trillion. A related problem is corruption, with Transparency International ranking Afghanistan one of the most corrupt states in the world.
There remain causes for optimism, not least because numerous fragile gains remain in place from the unseating of the Taliban regime in 2001. One, qualified, success is the country’s fledgling democracy.
Despite the problems, Afghanistan’s national unity government has survived several years after a landmark power-sharing agreement was reached in 2014 between President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah. The creation of the national unity government and the election of Ghani, who is running for re-election in September, represented the first democratic transfer of power in Afghanistan’s history. The fact that the national unity government has not collapsed has helped consolidate the legitimacy of the new post-Taliban political system.
Other gains include Afghanistan’s accession to the World Trade Organisation and wider moves to revive economic links with the outside world, including the modern Silk Road, a new rail route connecting the country to China and Central Asia, and an electricity grid project across Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Pakistan. Meanwhile, a greater number of children (especially girls) are enrolled at schools, there is greater recognition of women’s rights, and technologies such as the internet and cell phones have spread across the country.
However, much of this may now be in jeopardy again, depending upon which path Afghanistan goes down from the current crossroads. There remains a particular prospect of even greater political, security and economic instability if the reconciliation process with the Taliban does not go as planned, threatening the fragile gains since 2001.
By Andrew Hammond