A Clarion Call for Change in Afghanistan

The prospects for Afghanistan following a Western military withdrawal are bleak.

As the planned exit of American and NATO troops in 2014 nears, Afghanistan has a grim future ahead.

Over a decade ago, the United States set out to create a stable Afghan government alongside a competent armed force that could prevent extremist groups from using Afghan land as a base for their operations. With Hamid Karzai set to vacate the presidency in 2014 and the Taliban gaining momentum in provinces where Afghan security forces are assuming more responsibility, few will look over the situation and sense triumph on part of the United States and their Western allies.

In bordering Pakistan, widespread anti-Americanism is further solidifying on account of ruptured relations between the two countries — relations previously considered a key geostrategic alliance for success in the region. Pakistani politicians and their supporters, fueled by what they believe is unmistakably an American failure in Afghanistan, have taken on an emboldened stance by pulling out the red carpet in anticipation of the 2014 exit. Indeed, many remain in the dark over how rapidly Taliban-sponsored violence in Afghanistan may spill over into Pakistan after the exit.

However, foreign occupation is not as reductionist and simplistic to understand. The United States also played their part in alienating the people they sought to win over. The Kadahar massacre, which took the lives of sixteen civilians, along with incidents of Qur’an burning and aerial bombings of weddings did not bode well among the Afghan people. Meanwhile, the Taliban was more than poised to capitalize on such incidents and fuel anti-Americanism on a larger scale to win over more followers.

The draconian circumstances that have come to characterize the condition of Afghanistan present its people with a difficult choice: either American presence or Taliban rule.

There can very little doubt that once the remaining 130,000 American and NATO troops withdraw from the region, that the Taliban, supported by the highest echelons of leadership in Pakistan, will have a mind to exploit the power vacuum left behind. It is unlikely that the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) will hang on to power after 2014. Even with NATO’s estimated annual funds of up to $4.1 billion to keep up the institution, the ANSF are looking into the jaws of a bleak affair ahead.

Earlier this year, the United States proposed that once the ANSF hits a troop level of 352,000 in September, this figure should be sustained rather than increased. The proposal also sought to draw down the troop number following the planned exit in 2014 until it reaches 220,000. If American economic woes trumping Afghanistan’s military necessities is not reason enough to expect the worst in the wake of withdrawal, then a Taliban foothold in previously peaceful provinces such as Bamyan and Samangan, which have now come under the responsibility of ANSF, clearly spell out the imminent downfall of this institution.

Chapters from a plagued history must also be revisited in order to further fathom the ill-fated state that once again looks ahead to more chaos. While American and NATO presence in the region has been no breeze, it becomes wide eyed in face of atrocities committed by the Taliban government from 1996 to 2001. During the foreign occupation of Afghanistan, the life expectancy of its women has increased by fifteen years from a decade ago. This largely because of widely available health care, better nutrition and an increased GDP.

Sadly, Afghan women, along with ethnic minorities such as Hazaras, who are largely Shia and also constitute a religious minority, can expect to become centerpieces in the throes of internal strife once again.

More disturbing is the debate unfolding next door in Pakistan, where politicians, cushioned by an easily malleable press, are selling a narrative of a “reformed Taliban,” undoubtedly appeasing the country’s grand overlords at the Pakistani army headquarters.

For Pakistan, strategic leverage in Afghanistan in order to counter Indian influence is the perpetual lynchpin of its foreign policy. Already, these are ominous signs that the Pakistani leadership will exploit the unraveling chaos in Afghanistan to secure its national interests after the departure of foreign forces.

Is there an alternative? Misinformed ideas about a prevalent Afghan working class that will permeate mainstream society and prevent limitless barbarianism persist among the public. Nonetheless, the presence of theocratic elements ensures that there is no chance of a secular and politically plural Afghanistan emerging on the international stage. The country remains home to a kaleidoscope of ethnolinguistic groups which must all have a share in power if stability is to ever prevail in the country following the American and NATO withdrawal.

Regional actors such as Iran and Pakistan can also facilitate some semblance of a transition, though Pakistan will have to once and for all give up its foreign policy of “strategic depth.” China and India must also compromise to preserve the delicate balance in the region. However unlikely these scenarios may seem, the impending 2014 withdrawal is a clarion call for internally driven change in a region fraught with conflict.

This article was published as the winning entry in an internship competition at Wikistrat, the world’s first massively multiplayer online consultancy.