Coming just weeks after the burning of several copies of the Koran by American military personnel, the recent killing spree by a U.S. Army sergeant in southern Afghanistan, which left 16 civilians dead, is but the latest in a string of incidents that have ignited popular fury and intensified demands for an early U.S. withdrawal. This plays into the hands of hard-line Taliban who, appealing to local sentiment, have vowed to avenge the killings. Yet despite the setback this poses for plans for an orderly transition to Afghan forces, the U.S. can’t afford to lose sight of what would be at stake with an accelerated, panicky drawdown of NATO troops.
A month after the killing of Osama bin Laden, who was shot in a military garrison town in Pakistan, President Barack Obama declared that peace couldn’t come without a political settlement. His administration has thus been engaged in trying to find common ground for reconciliation with the Taliban. This is happening at the same time as the U.S. and its allies have begun the process of withdrawing troops and turning full control of security over to Afghan forces. Of the 90,000 U.S. troops currently deployed, 22,000 are expected to return home by this autumn, with the remaining scheduled to withdraw “at a steady pace” by the end of 2014.
Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai have repeatedly made clear that they expect the Taliban to break from al-Qaeda, abandon violence, and abide by the Afghan Constitution. But rather than engage in serious negotiations, the Taliban, after agreeing to open a political office in Qatar early this year, have seemed more interested in waiting out the international forces that have a target date for full withdrawal.
The insurgents apparently see two paths to power: prepare to oust what they consider to be the West’s puppet Afghan government militarily or, from a position of strength, strike a wholly advantageous peace settlement that would be a step toward complete control and a Sharia state. A complete withdrawal, meanwhile,will most likely be popularly perceived as the end of the international commitment, and an occasion for the Taliban to declare victory.
If the U.S. and Kabul want to prevent the Taliban realizing such a vision, they should consider a strategic partnership that allows fora limited U.S. troop presence beyond 2014. A bilateral agreement would defy the Taliban, who have been calling for a complete withdrawal of foreign troops as a prerequisite for any peace negotiations. If this occurred, the Taliban could either remain an insurgent group and find their chances of any early takeover of the population centers thwarted, or agree to a serious compromise where they would accept much of the Constitution and its political process, as well as agree to safeguards that protect the country’s hard-won human rights.
That said, a small troop presence won’t be enough to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table from a position of strength if the Afghan economy, largely shaped by war, goes into a recession. In a report by the World Bank on the transition in Afghanistan, any prospects of economic growth will depend on post-2014 aid levels and security. If the current annual aid (estimated at $15.7 billion in 2010, which covers wages for security and cost of operations and maintenance) and military spending decline as the international community withdraws, real GDP growth will fall from the current 9 percent, to a mere 5 percent or 6 percent from 2011 to 2018.
This effect is compounded by the reality that the investment climate will be threatened by the lack of security. The Taliban sense a particular opportunity with the Afghan presidential election slated to take place in spring 2014 and the domestic political turmoil that it’s likely to ignite.
A drastic decline in economic growth combined with the current 2.8 percent annual population growth and the rising costs of security and operations (estimated at 17.5 percent of GDP by 2021) will make it nearly impossible to reduce poverty.
There will likely be a shift toward the poppy economy amid rising unemployment. Indeed, even with today’s 9 percent growth, current unemployment and underemployment are astoundingly high at 8 percent and 48 percent, respectively. The Taliban won’t waste an opportunity to recruit the fence-sitting unemployed youth bulge, adding exponentially to the local, part-time fighters that make up by some estimates as much as 75 percent of the Taliban.
The goal in Afghanistan shouldn’t be to make it a perfect place, as Obama noted in a speech in June 2011. But the international community also can’t afford to completely abandon Afghanistan yet again. Only a collective and concerted effort by both the Afghan government and international allies can correct the course of this devastated nation.
A small foreign troop presence beyond 2014 is a must to advise and assist the Afghan forces, and to strike the enemy with force if needed, sending the Taliban a message of unwavering support for a sovereign Afghan state. Donor countries, meanwhile, should meet their pledges, while serious efforts must be made to develop the large copper mine at Aynak in Logar Province and an iron mine in Bamiyan Province to help put young Afghans to work.
A bilateral agreement and strong Afghan economy will limit the Taliban’s options and possibly its ambitions, and will also strengthen the Afghan government’s leverage in any serious peace talks.
Matiullah Amin is President of Afghan Youth Initiative, Inc.