The war in Afghanistan – for America, the longest war in its history – has ended. In a small and quiet ceremony in the presence of dozens of handpicked Afghan and international officials – the United States and its NATO allies lowered the flag of International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and replaced it with Operation Resolute Support (ORS), which aims to assist, advise and mentor the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) in its fight against terrorism and a resurgent Taliban post 2014. The Taliban spokesperson characterized the end of the ISAF/NATO mission as an admission of defeat. That is hardly surprising, but still the questions are what did the war bring for Afghanistan, and what might the future hold given growing insecurity, economic uncertainty, and political instability?
There is no doubt that Afghanistan is a much better place today, with higher standards of living, than it was under the brutal Taliban regime. Billions of dollars in foreign aid, technical assistance, and thousands of lives lost in this brutal war have paved the way for a more prosperous, yet still fragile Afghanistan. Millions of girls go to school, hundreds of thousands of Afghans have attended institutions of higher education, Afghanistan has a government, a parliament, a judiciary, a vibrant civil society, and a strong presence of women across the spectrum. It has established embassies in more than 140 countries and maintains diplomatic relations with almost every nation on earth. Afghanistan is no longer the isolated and sanctioned country it was under the Taliban.
Afghanistan has averaged 9.25 percent economic growth over the last one decade or so, and income per capita has risen from $120 to above $640 dollars today. It has a strong currency and has maintained a robust poverty reduction agenda with the help of billions of dollars in foreign aid.
However, with the U.S./NATO withdrawal the country now faces some serious challenges: a prolonged election, a double-digit dip in its economic growth rate, an uncertain national unity government arrangement, a growing proxy war between its neighbors, and a divided and corrupt elite with a criminal economy. To overcome these challenges, the Afghan political and economic elite need to reach a fundamental consensus that business as usual – huge influxes of foreign aid, free security assistance, international political support, divided politics, regional proxy wars – cannot continue. They will have to take charge of the country and make some tough decisions for themselves, laying the groundwork for stability, security and prosperity.
The first priority of Afghan statesmen and policymakers should be internal stability and unity. A divided, poor and fragile Afghanistan will never be taken seriously by its neighbors and international partners. The new government will have to forge a national consensus – likely through a loya jirga (grand assembly) – on the fight against terrorism, internal peace and stability, and the agenda for economic reform. Without an overarching national consensus on the three key areas of the fight against terrorism, the peace process, and a robust economic reform agenda, approaches to each of these issues will be only sporadic and piecemeal and the country will remain fragile. The Afghan elite must rise above their quest for power and money, put aside ethnic difference, and avoid the fate of previous regimes.
On the international front – Afghanistan needs to build a new image for itself. It should strive to be an independent and credible partner in the fight against terrorism and extremism, just like any other country which the United States is assisting in military and economic terms in its quest to overcome terror and extremism.
In the meantime, Afghanistan must make a choice between one of the following three paths on the international stage:
- A Strategic Partner for U.S./NATO in the Region: The new Afghan president recently signed the U.S. Bilateral Security and NATO Status of Forces agreements, but Afghanistan’s security situation remains perilous and its economy in shambles. If Afghanistan is to remain a strategic partner for the United States and NATO – both parties will have to take radical action. The partnership comes at a cost paid in blood and treasure for Afghanistan. Regional proxy groups have stepped up their attacks and this will continue unless drastic security and economic measures are taken to address the root causes of terrorism and this resurgence in violence.
- A Future with the Region and the Islamic World: On the other hand, Afghanistan can pursue robust diplomacy and close ties with the region at the expense of its strategic partnership with the United States and NATO. This means asking for peace in exchange for the Durand Line and strategic depth for Pakistan, protecting Indian interests in Afghanistan, denying sanctuaries for Russian and Central Asian extremists, and finally balancing out the interests of Iran and Saudi Arabia in the country. However, pursuing such a complex and multifaceted diplomacy will require credibility, trust and capacity that has not been in evidence, either within the Afghan state or between its neighbors. Moreover, with the exception of India, none of Afghanistan’s neighbors have been as forthcoming with aid and assistance to Afghanistan as the United States and its allies over the past 14 years.
- An Alliance with China, India and Russia: Many strategists and international relations experts believe that the future of Afghanistan lies with its three key powerful neighbors, China, India and Russia. They argue that these countries should reach to some sort of regional consensus to deal with Afghanistan’s security and economic dilemmas post 2014. But each of these countries has conflicting interests in Afghanistan, which is also an major source of instability for them. Although. There is quiet diplomacy among the trio over the fate of Afghanistan beyond 2014, but they have yet to come up with any substantial military, political and military assistance for Afghanistan.
The political and economic future of Afghanistan is fragile and uncertain. The recent budget deficit, overreliance on U.S./NATO military assistance, a divided corrupt elite, high rates of corruption, and the growing insecurity and resurgence of Taliban are all credible threats to the future of a stable and peaceful Afghanistan. For years to come Afghanistan will need international and regional economic, political and military support before it can stand on its own. But as much as the international community needs to continue their support, Afghanistan will have to prove itself an equal and credible ally of its partners, in whichever option it chooses.
Tamim Asey is a fellow at Asia Society and a Fulbright scholar at Columbia University pursuing a degree in economic policy management. He was also a former Government of Afghanistan official and taught at the American University of Afghanistan (AUAF).