The New Year ushers in predictions of what to expect in the coming year, but no predictions are necessary for Afghanistan this past week — the news says it all: three major attacks adding up to hundreds of casualties. Since Operation Enduring Freedom (2001), the international community has provided assistance to the Afghan government, military, and people in support of reconstruction, counterinsurgency, and state building, but the country is still under siege. What’s in store for Afghanistan in 2018 and beyond? Prospects for stabilization must be based on an assessment of the current situation in security and defense; governance, the state of the economy, and development; and the status of the reconciliation process with the Taliban.
Rising Taliban insurgency across the country, along with ISIS infiltration, pervades Afghanistan. The Afghan government now has full authority over only 57% of the Afghan territory; the rest is under either full control or major influence of the Taliban. Civilian casualties are the highest since 2002, and rising due not just to terrorism, but to increasing US airstrikes.
Economic growth in Afghanistan has declined sharply, triggered by the withdrawal of foreign troops. Ongoing war with the Taliban insurgents and the accompanying insecurity, negatively affecting private investment and consumer demand, have made economic recovery difficult.
Growth in 2017 was projected at 2.6%, slightly higher than in 2016. Inflation rose, as reflected in higher food prices, especially fruits and vegetables. Poverty has increased over the last few years, with over 39% of the population living below the poverty line, including close to 3.5 million who are in acute need of humanitarian assistance. Afghanistan has its own refugee problem, some displaced by internal conflicts and natural disasters, along with a surge of returnee refugees from Pakistan, Iran, and Europe.
Growth in 2018 is projected to be 3.4%. However, such a small increase is unlikely to make a difference in the living conditions of the growing population and the hundreds of thousands of Afghans entering the labour market every year. The unemployment rate has risen above 40%, with jobs declining in the off-farm sector and with service-sector jobs lost with the departure of the troops.
Rising insecurity and economic decline are blamed on foreign troop withdrawals, which began in 2011. Despite the Transition Coordination Commission (TCC), known as Inteqal, established for managing the withdrawal of foreign troops, with prominent members of the current government in lead positions, progress is hard to discern. Evidently, the Commission did not realistically forecast the nature and proportion of the impacts of the withdrawal, nor did it propose credible plans for handling the security, governance, and economic impacts of the transition.
The justice system and the rule of law are in such a state of disrepair that a culture of impunity thrives. Common Afghans have little access to judicial institutions. In areas outside the government’s control, “justice” is dispensed by the Taliban or by criminal power brokers. Corruption is pervasive in all sectors and all levels of the government, including the police. Police and other state actors — apparently accountable to none — commit human rights violations against civilians. In this rule of law vacuum, crime — theft, home invasion, robbery, and assault — is widespread and contributes to declining confidence in the government.
In 2016, the government of Afghanistan adopted an ambitious agenda of reforms — the Afghanistan National Peace and Development Framework (ANPDF) — with the objective of achieving self-reliance and addressing the welfare of the people. Plans for building a productive, broad-based economy for job creation; establishing the rule of law and the reign of justice; freedom from corruption, criminality, and violence; and the protection of the constitutional rights of citizens were all part of it. However, given the track record of non-implementation of several previous plans — the Afghanistan Compact, the Afghanistan National Development Strategy, and the failed Transition Plan — positive outcomes from the ANPDF appear slim.
There is little hope that the situation will drastically improve in 2018. The spectres of an intensified war, heightened insecurity, a dismal economy, and deficient resources throw a shadow over the country. When your government cannot deliver basic public services, including jobs and income, food security, basic health and education, and justice and law and order, there is little room for optimism. The government now faces legitimacy challenges from a despairing people, weary of poor governance and lack of services.
The governments of the United States and Afghanistan, along with NATO, believe that the infusion of a large number of troops, with no specific withdrawal date, will achieve what multiple troop surges in the past could not. They claim that the so-called new US strategy, combining increased assistance to the Afghan armed forces, stepped up airstrikes on the Taliban, and renewed pressure on Pakistan (allegedly providing safe haven to the Taliban) is already working and will soon force the Taliban to the negotiating table for a political settlement.
In reality, security remains precarious, with no abatement in militant attacks since the announcement of the US strategy five months ago. The insurgency remains potent, and the Taliban leadership’s willingness to negotiate is more than doubtful, at least until the US exits Afghanistan. An indefinite American military presence in Afghanistan, as made clear in its announced policy of setting no exit dates, will hinder progress in peace negotiations. Pressuring Pakistan and stoking India have produced few desired results to date, while Pakistan stands strong with China’s support. An increase in regional tension is predicted.
Internal tensions, intra-governmental divisions and disagreements, ethnic divisions, and political discord — as reflected in the ongoing showdown between the central government and Balkh governor Attah Noor — will reach crisis proportions with the onset of the parliamentary poll in 2018 and the presidential election in 2019. Limited advances, if any, can be predicted for 2018. Responsibility for this dire state of affairs must be shared by the government of Afghanistan and the international community.