After U.S. and NATO troops withdrew at the end of 2014, conditions in Afghanistan have worsened, threatening to throw the war-torn country into failed state status. Its stability can only be guaranteed if the international community focuses on Afghanistan’s economy and peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban.
Afghanistan has many challenges disrupting its stability. Conditions have gradually worsened since U.S. troops and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) forces largely withdrew at the end of 2014, with only about 13,000 troops now serving in advisory and training capacities. It appears Afghanistan could be on the verge of becoming a failed state. Politically, there was brief optimism as Afghanistan was able to form a unity government between the sparring presidential candidates Ashraf Ghani, who is now the president, and Abdullah Abdullah, the chief executive, a position which was created for him after a tumultuous election. After U.S. and NATO troops left the country, the security situation deteriorated as Afghanistan suffered a resurgence of violence by the Taliban. Economically, Afghanistan is still in a precarious situation, relying far too much on foreign aid to keep its economy afloat. When considering these factors, the international community must ask: what is next for Afghanistan and what can be done to ensure that Afghanistan does not return to failed state status? To prevent this, the international community must concentrate on assisting Afghanistan to revamp its economy and facilitating successful peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban.
Afghanistan’s economy has been at the mercy of other actors since the beginning of the U.S.-led mission against al Qaeda and the Taliban in 2001. Afghanistan’s poor security situation makes direct foreign investment nearly impossible, and the economy is currently kept afloat by huge influxes of foreign aid: in 2014, the United States provided $12.9 billion in aid in Afghanistan. Economic growth slowed to 1.5 percent in 2015, compared to an annual average growth of 9.4 percent from 2003 to 2012. As U.S. and NATO troops withdrew at the end of 2014, foreign aid, which has essentially propped up Afghanistan’s economy, is likely to decline. President Ghani vows to spend significant amounts of time correcting the battered economy. The one thing that will transform the country, he astutely observed, “is not aid; it’s trade and investment.” Establishing a stable Afghanistan must begin with addressing the economic inefficiencies and corruption the country faces.
As a result, Mr. Ghani began reaching out to regional partners as a way to strengthen economic ties, in an effort to entice these potential partners. He reached out to India and China for better trade and investment relations in return for acquisition of Afghanistan’s vast natural resources. Mr. Ghani seeks to address the “economic empowerment of youth, women, and the poor” – what he refers to the three majorities – because without doing so, Afghanistan will not become stable. He also recognizes that agriculture must be further integrated into the economy. The international community ought to support Ghani’s initiative: foreign aid given to Afghanistan did not prove sufficient on its own. The next step must be to engage Afghanistan through trade and assist the failing economy by treating it as a partner and not simply as a charity case. To do this, the international community must focus on allowing the Afghan people to grow their own economy. This involves more engagement by the international community’s private sector through trade and also concentrating on teaching Afghans about economic development at the local level. The outside world, especially the United States, needs to recognize that Afghanistan’s economic future must lie in its own hands. Mr. Ghani, therefore, has chosen correctly a regional approach to economic recovery as well as allowing Afghanistan to grow its own economy instead of relying so heavily on foreign aid.
Yet economic growth alone will not resolve the challenges Afghanistan faces. The now dormant peace talks between the Afghan Taliban and the Afghan government, which are stalled due to the official announcement of the death of its leader, Mullah Omar, are central to creating stability in Afghanistan. The instability mostly stems from a resurgence of violence by the Taliban and the misdirection of foreign aid mostly towards security matters. Since the exit of most U.S. and NATO troops, the Taliban has retaken large parts of Afghanistan, challenging the Afghan army and police. In the first six months of 2015, 4,100 Afghan soldiers and police have been killed due to the Taliban resurgence. As a result, the United States spends $110 billion a year on reconstruction efforts, with more than $60 billion helping build the Afghan security forces.
Much credit must also go to Mr. Ghani as he placed ending the conflict with the Taliban as another priority. He is making strides to include the Taliban in the political process, declaring that “anyone who has a political reason for being against our government must enter the political process. This is not preferred, but rather is compulsory. With the formation of a national unity govern we proved that we are determined to pursue broad-based politics and not to deprive a party [of inclusion].” In line with the Afghan government’s willingness for further discussion, the Taliban have appeared more willing to negotiate and even agreed to sit down with Afghan government representatives in July. However, they have continued their assaults against the government in Kabul and demand the complete withdrawal of foreign troops before a deal can be reached. A complicating factor, now, is the disunity now among the Taliban. The group officially announced the death of its leader, Mullah Omar, who reportedly died in 2013. This announcement has “thrown the fledgling Afghan peace process into disarray” as the internal division is a result of many Taliban members’ dissatisfaction with the selection of the new leader. Peace talks are postponed indefinitely.
The key to pursuing successful peace talks lies with Afghanistan’s neighbor. Due to the gradual improvement of relations with Afghanistan because President Ghani made Pakistan a priority, Pakistan is poised to assist with potential peace negotiations between the Afghan Taliban and the Afghan government. As the Economist reports, “Peace in Afghanistan is inconceivable without help from Pakistan.” Pakistan has considerable influence over the Taliban: reports indicate that Pakistani officials secretly pushed the Taliban to participate, signaling recognition that such negotiations could help bring stability to the region. Nevertheless, Pakistan is seen as an uncertain ally in the peace talks as its security arm, the Inter-Services Intelligence, funds the Afghan Taliban. If the international community can pressure Pakistan through economic sanctions or pulling foreign aid into seriously bringing the Taliban to the table, the peace negotiations are much more likely to succeed.
Afghanistan faces a precarious situation. To ensure its stability, the international community must focus on building Afghanistan’s economy and supporting peace talks between the Afghan government the Taliban. Economic aid on its own proved to be insufficient. The international community must focus more on trade and investment if it hopes to help the Afghan economy grow. Afghanistan must take control of its own economy in order to achieve stability. International trade must become the basis of future growth. Further, stability can only be achieved if peace talks are successful. The Afghan government must continue to pursue such talks and keep an open mind about assimilating Taliban members into future governments. Pakistan continues to be a key to peace and the international community must pressure Pakistan into bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table.