Any assessment of where Afghanistan stands today needs to be put into its historical context. In doing so, it should be recalled that even before the advent of the present conflict, Afghanistan had been one of the least developed countries in the world. The country’s development was hindered by competing Russian and British empires for more than two centuries. The imperial tensions and rivalry effectively reduced Afghanistan to one of the most isolated buffer states in the world. But before the colonial era, Afghanistan had been the roundabout of the ancient Silk Road, indeed, its gateway to the north, south, east, and west for commercial and civilizational interactions.
To fast forward, despite Afghanistan’s imposed isolation under colonial influence, much of what the country had managed to achieve in state-building and sustainable development was destroyed in the 1980s and 1990s. Hence, Afghans’ hard-earned gains of the past 16 years in the areas of security, governance and democracy, and development remain a work in progress. This means that international aid efforts will have to continue in Afghanistan, until Afghans firmly stand on their own. The transformation of Afghanistan — from statelessness and anarchy under the Taliban to where the country stands today — has helped maintain regional stability and global peace. And this has had direct and indirect dividends for the homeland security of Afghanistan’s allies and partners in the region and beyond.
Conflict and Peace
In taking stock of Afghanistan’s progress, security takes center stage. This year, the Afghan army and police forces have continued to fight what is a regional and global war against terrorism and organized crime. It has long been clear that the conflict in Afghanistan is an imposed one. It is not a civil war among Afghans but a war over Afghanistan where more than a dozen regional and transnational terrorist groups have converged to undo the country’s gains of the past 16 years, to weaken and topple the Afghan state, and to exploit the Afghan soil for launching attacks against targets in the region and beyond.
The Taliban, which operate from safe sanctuaries and enjoy institutional support in Pakistan, provide an enabling operational environment for all other terrorist groups in Afghanistan. Without this overarching umbrella and operational platform, foreign militants could have hardly gained a foothold to destabilize Afghanistan, the region, and the world at large. These intertwined networks of terror, violence, and death — maintained by state-sponsorship of terrorism — drive drug production in Afghanistan.
The Taliban alone make some $200 million off the illicit drug business. This sum finances their terrorist activities across Afghanistan. A deepening symbiotic relationship between terrorism and drug production is responsible for the 87 percent increase in opium production in Afghanistan this year. It also accounts for most of the 8,000 civilian casualties between January and September this year. Moreover, in a special report on terrorists targeting places of worship, religious leaders, and worshipers, the United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan (UNAMA) documented 850 civilian casualties that resulted from 51 attacks, most of which were planned outside of Afghanistan.
Against this backdrop, the Afghan government has welcomed and support the new U.S. strategy for Afghanistan and South Asia. The strategy’s full implementation will help address the challenge of narco-terrorism in three aspects. First, the strategy’s regional component focuses on shutting down terrorist safe havens in Pakistan. This effort targets the root of the narco-terrorism threat, not just its symptoms. Second, an increase in the number of U.S. and NATO forces has already begun making a difference in favor of Afghan forces in the battlefield. Third, the new strategy has given increased authorities and resources to the Resolute Support Commander in prosecuting a results-driven war against the Taliban. This is done in close collaboration with the Afghan forces, who have been leading all military operations against the enemy since December 2014.
Unlike 2016 and 2015, when Afghan forces defensively fought to prevent the fall of provincial and district centers to the Taliban, in 2017, they have gone on full-scale offensive against the Taliban, the Haqqani Network, and Islamic State (ISIS). In the last year, Afghan special forces successfully defended Kunduz, Lashkar Gah, Tarin Kowt, and Farah. They defeated the Taliban’s “red” units and destroyed ISIS. Some 1,800 ground and air operations, which targeted ISIS last year, killed three of their leaders and 2,500 of their diehard fighters. Consequently, ISIS failed to establish their so-called caliphate in Afghanistan, where their remnants are on the run and being destroyed.
Moreover, offensive operations have helped reduce Afghan military casualties by 20 percent in the recent months, while the sustained pressure on the enemy has driven their casualties high. As a result, they have increasingly changed their tactics, focusing on capture of certain districts and carrying out frequent suicide attacks in Kabul and provincial centers.
In the remainder of this year and throughout 2018, Afghan forces will continue to carry out offensive operations against the enemy, while consolidating their gains so far. This includes their counter-narcotics efforts this year, which have destroyed more than 2 tons of heroin, 64 tons of morphine, 400 tons of opium, 25 tons of hashish, and a large amount of precursor chemicals. The street value of these seized drugs in Afghanistan is estimated at $352 million.
As Afghan forces battle these intertwined regional and transnational security and criminal threats, the message of the Afghan government to all armed groups, including the Taliban, is clear: They will not win in the battlefield so long as they continue fighting. But they can choose to accept Afghan government’s offer to negotiate a political settlement for peace. Indeed, peace is not simply what the Afghan people desire but need to thrive toward a secure future in peaceful and prosperous co-existence with all their near and far neighbors.
That is why Afghans often emphasize the complete leadership and ownership of the peace process. Its success foremost hinges on the resolution of Afghanistan-Pakistan undeclared hostility, which the Afghan government stands ready to address on a state-to-state basis. In early 2018, the Afghan government will hold the second meeting of the Kabul Process, outlining a roadmap for peace with specific deliverables to be met by Afghanistan and Pakistan, in order for genuine peace to take root in Afghanistan and its wider region.
Governance and Democracy
Achieving a just peace in Afghanistan is impossible without institutionalization of good governance and rule of law, based on the country’s progressive constitution. At the heart of this endeavor — to secure the future of its youthful population with 70 percent under the age of 25 — is to fight and eliminate endemic corruption. Corruption weakens Afghanistan’s nascent state and empowers its enemy. It is the mother of all threats to Afghanistan’s stabilization and sustainable development.
That is why fighting corruption has topped the reforms agenda of the Afghan National Unity Government (NUG). Both President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah are firmly committed to fighting corruption systemically and systematically across Afghanistan’s national and sub-national government institutions. To fight the underlying drivers of corruption, Ghani recently launched a national anti-corruption strategy. The strategy rests on five pillars: national leadership; security sector reform; improving the quality of civil service recruitment; and increasing our ability to oversee how money is transferred and spent. This step builds on the achievements of the Afghan anti-corruption justice center, which has tried more than 300 cases of high level corruption. This includes the punishment and jailing of senior security and civilian officials.
Parallel to its anti-corruption efforts, the NUG remains firmly committed to credible, transparent, and inclusive elections. The parliamentary elections are scheduled for July 7, 2018, and the presidential election in the following year. The reform of the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) is ongoing, as the president and the chief executive want to ensure that the Commission executes its mandate responsibly within the electoral law framework. Last October, IEC held the second national election forum, which facilitated a consultative dialogue with electoral stakeholders to discuss their issues of common concern and interest with respect to the upcoming elections.
Sustainable development is intertwined with security and democratic governance. In the Afghan context, human security and protective security are mutually reinforcing one another. Investment in one delivers dividends for the rest and vice versa. That is why in last year’s Brussels Ministerial Forum, the NUG presented for international support Afghanistan’s comprehensive National Peace and Development Framework (NPDF).
As Ghani told the Senior Officials Meeting (SOM) last October, “our operational program uses fiscal policy to set realistic priorities, build our revenue base, and turn plans for inclusive growth into a series of policy reforms and programs that bring development to the daily lives of our long-suffering people” at the national and sub-national levels. One year on since the Brussels Forum, the Afghan government has made notable progress toward fiscal sustainability and increased public service delivery. Afghanistan’s Ministry of Finance has met and exceeded every one of its revenue targets set by IMF, while managing expenditure within constraints. The Afghan parliament recently approved the proposed national budget, which for the first time reflects the fiscal realities of Afghanistan.
Through the national priority programs (NPP), including the citizens’ charter and women’s economic empowerment, thousands of poor, women, and youth have been served. The citizens’ charter will soon reach its first-year target of operating 2,500 community development councils in rural and urban Afghanistan. As of last October, 67,000 poor women had been supported in agricultural activities; 35,000 women had received training in how to raise and market livestock; and 3,000 women had been contracted to teach the children of returnee-families from Pakistan and Iran.
In parallel to these and other poverty reduction efforts, the Afghan government has continued to help develop the private sector to create sustainable jobs and drive growth. In the last SOM, Ghani discussed the 11 top constraints facing the private sector in Afghanistan. So far, better business licensing has been advanced; punitive tax penalties abolished; and public-private partnerships legislation developed. And much more is being done to provide the right environment for attracting and retaining domestic and foreign investment in Afghanistan’s virgin markets.
The Way Forward: Opportunities for Regional Cooperation
The above summary of achievements and challenges sheds light on the way forward in 2018. The root cause of insecurity — which hampers Afghanistan’s state-building process and sustainable development — lies outside of the country. The immense potential of South Asia and Central Asia for economic growth has been taken hostage by a known regional state-actor and its proxies. The latter is exploited to destabilize Afghanistan and to enable in the country an operational environment for transnational terrorist networks.
Operating out of Afghanistan, al-Qaeda, ISIS, and their regional affiliates aim to spread violent extremism, hatred, and destruction throughout the Heart of Asia region and beyond. To help do its part, besides fighting the said terrorist groups on behalf of the international community, Afghanistan has been leading and promoting three mechanisms for political, security, and economic cooperation: The Heart of Asia-Istanbul Process, the Regional Economic Cooperation Conference on Afghanistan (RECCA), and the Kabul Process.
The ministerial meetings of the Heart of Asia Process and RECCA recently took place in Baku, Azerbaijan and Ashgabat, Turkmenistan respectively. The declarations, which were adopted in the two cities, describe in detail Afghanistan’s and its international partners’ shared vision, achievements, as well as the many common challenges — especially the threat of terrorism — which confront them and which they must address together.
In Baku, Afghanistan urged its neighbors to finalize and adopt a draft regional counterterrorism strategy proposed by the Afghan government. As they exit 2017 and enter 2018, it would be a high time for the Heart of Asia countries to adopt a common counterterrorism strategy and then set to implement it against all terrorist groups in the region with no distinction. The pressure that the pursuit of such a strategy would put on terrorist groups should open space for tangible peace talks with those armed groups, including the Taliban, who would accept Afghanistan’s redlines for a negotiated political settlement. The agreement that the Afghan government reached with Hezb-i-Islami serves as a model.
Indeed, the success of the Kabul Process for securing sustainable peace in Afghanistan would hinge on regional cooperation and broader international support. That is why international efforts in support of peace, stability and prosperity in Afghanistan in 2018 must focus on helping Afghanistan-led mechanisms and initiatives for regional security and development cooperation deliver tangible results.
As 2017 comes to an end, the Afghan government and people look forward to 2018 as a year, during which Afghanistan’s international partners will frequently look back over the past 17 years for lessons to be learned and to use them in doing “no harm,” as they strive to help stabilize Afghanistan and end the suffering of the Afghan people. Sincerely acting on the lessons to be learned and committing to a necessary degree of strategic patience for shared success in Afghanistan should render 2018 a productive year — a year that Afghans hope to witness the end of imposed conflicts and restoration of durable peace in their beautiful homeland.
M. Ashraf Haidari is the Director-General of Policy & Strategy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Afghanistan, and formerly served as the country’s Deputy Chief of Mission to India. He is a Visiting Fellow at Observer Research Foundation (ORF) and the Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies (AISS). He tweets @MAshrafHaidari.