While the joint work of the Afghan government and the international community brought a few benefits for the country, many have not been sustainable. Serious challenges remain unaddressed and require priority attention from analysts, policy-makers, and bureaucrats. Highlighting dubious, anecdotal success stories and painting an overly positive picture do not ultimately benefit Afghanistan.
Sally Armstrong’s largely optimistic article in Maclean’s earlier this year is a case in point. A certain degree of optimism is critical if efforts to stabilize Afghanistan and the region are to continue. However, ignoring past and current failures and turning our heads away from critical problems in security, governance, rule of law, economic growth, and social development amounts to fiddling while the country descends into a few more decades of chaos, conflict, and violence.
Armstrong’s claim that Afghans are better off today than ever before is illusory and historically untrue. Afghanistan’s history stretches far beyond the past 40 years of conflict. Afghans have certainly seen better days. Astonishingly, some Afghans speak of better conditions under the Soviet regime. The Washington Post even reports an interview with a 27-year-old Afghan realtor who lost his business and would welcome back the Taliban; they offered less crime and corruption, and business thrived.
Security was also better immediately following the war of 2001, before the Taliban resurgence. Today the Taliban controls more of Afghanistan than at any point since 2001. Last year was Afghanistan’s most violent of this century, with civilian casualties reaching record proportions. Afghans are desperate to leave the country to escape violence, insecurity, and economic woes. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that they form the second-largest group of asylum seekers after Syrians.
The busy and traffic-blocked streets of Kabul are not indicators of improved security and better life, as the Maclean’s article suggests. Security threats are top concerns for most Afghans, though the city lives vibrantly from day to day since instability has generated both a survival instinct and a resilience in the population. A noticeable increase in the number of women in burqas and children begging in the streets of Kabul are certainly not indicators of better life. The unemployment rate has climbed above 50 percent.
Armstrong’s assessment that the current Afghan government cannot necessarily be blamed for the economic downturn is correct. Disproportionate foreign aid sent to the country has created an inflated economy dependent on external resources rather than its own goods and services. Ninety-five percent of the development budget and 60 to 70 percent of the operational budget are externally financed. Foreign troops and cash flowing into the country from jobs and contracts connected to the US military once accounted for 40 percent of the country’s GDP. Troop withdrawals and cuts to aid have created a vacuum. The mass withdrawal of troops was planned years ago, with the full awareness of the Afghan government. Failure to plan for this predictable economic and security shock is inexcusable.
Worsening security feeds the economic crisis. The growing Taliban insurgency can’t be ignored. A look at the map of Taliban areas of control and influence (published in the Long War Journal), should help to dispel the myth of the Taliban spreading false stories of their own success, thus thriving on propaganda alone. The Taliban advances despite stepped-up American airstrikes and special operations ground forces.
The international community’s training and advisory missions have not produced desirable results. There are clear indications that the Taliban insurgency poses serious challenges to the Afghanistan National Security Forces (ANSF). American commander John Nicholson’s admission that Afghan forces are not making enough progress brings into question the capacity built in the Afghan forces. Can they really assume responsibility for the country’s security? Peace efforts are also failing.
Police training by the international community is a failure, as well, especially in dealing with civilians. The police of course need to be extra vigilant in such fragile security conditions. But such vigilance will be more effective if conducted politely and respectfully. Police officers screaming at innocent civilians while pointing Kalashnikovs will not achieve law and order nor help establish the government’s authority and legitimacy. In fact, police behaviour is turning people away from a government perceived as complicit in the violation of citizens’ rights to be treated with respect in their own country. For the government to earn support and loyalty, having the civilian police be civil to their fellow citizens is a priority.
Armstrong gives credit to the Afghan government’s commitments to eradicate corruption, undertake judicial reforms, and protect women’s rights. The gaps between intent, commitments, and implementation are wide, however. Corruption continues unabated, with a lack of appropriate accountability structures. The few bright spots include the appointment of a new chief justice as well as judges in several provinces, the attempt to appoint a female judge to the Supreme Court, and the appointments of four female ministers, two female provincial governors, and two women ambassadors. But these are symbolic gains, considering the widespread human rights abuses, the fact that 87 percent of women experience family violence (as documented by Danielle Moylan, a freelance journalist based in Kabul), and the horrendous mob-killing of a woman named Farkhunda.
While the international community can be blamed for a lack of vigilance and accountability around its operations in Afghanistan, the Afghan government is responsible for fixing the situation, with the international community in a supporting role. Afghans must ultimately take a resolute stand for economic growth, job creation, rule of law, human rights, good financial management, and anti-corruption in order to ensure delivery of the most essential services to the public. And any kind of meaningful future.
An earlier version of this article was published on 6 July 2016 on Policy Options.