Members of the Afghan High Peace Council (AHPC) visited Islamabad recently and met with a broad set of civil and military officials to discuss collaboration in negotiating an end to the war with the Taliban. There were no dramatic breakthroughs—the meeting was part of the painfully slow process of building trust between Islamabad and Kabul—but the Afghan delegation did not return home empty-handed. With the release of up to thirteen prisoners associated with the Afghan Taliban into the Afghan government’s custody, and frank discussions with their Pakistani counterparts, the AHPC should have a stronger level of confidence in Islamabad’s claim that it seeks peace in Afghanistan.
But that confidence needs to be built at a faster pace. The clock is ticking in Afghanistan. Afghan Presidential elections and the end of U.S. combat operations are scheduled for 2014. Already, Afghan power brokers are preparing contingencies for a post-American Afghanistan. Ismail Khan, a warlord from the eastern city of Herat, is rebuilding his militia. He’s just one of many militia leaders who are stockpiling weapons and men, preparing for a potential, though not inevitable, fight between the country’s many ethnic and political factions.
The windfall from the Western presence will soon dry up and much of the change the Western coalition has brought to Afghanistan will prove to be ephemeral. Afghanistan will be tested as to whether it has the resilience to build an economy more independent of foreign rent than today. The outlook is gloomy. Recently, President Hamid Karzai’s brother Mahmoud told the Associated Press, “Afghanistan became a game. The game is to make money and get the hell out of here. That goes for politicians. That goes for contractors.” He is certainly one to know.
As corrupt as Afghanistan’s elites are, and as much blood as is on their hands, they’re essential to the prevention of an all-out civil war—a civil war that would cause a massive loss of life in Afghanistan, potentially embolden regional and transnational jihadists in the area, and spill over into a deeply precarious Pakistan.
Afghan elites have been kept together by the Bonn Agreement, the governmental framework created by the UN-backed post-9/11 agreements that provided Afghanistan with an interim, and later transitional, system of government. In 2004, Afghanistan held its first presidential elections, followed by parliamentary polls the next year that would produce an increasingly confident body that seeks to check executive power.