Afghanistan is at the centre of a controversy surrounding an uncertain future. The deal brokered skillfully by the US after the declaration of the election results to ensure the continuation of its interests in the region will have far reaching implications for domestic and international politics as well as regional security.
Putting the elections in perspective: Pivotal role of the broker US
Much has been made of the controversies surrounding the withdrawal of US from Afghanistan, the Bilateral Security Agreement and the two phases of Afghanistan elections. The desired peaceful and democratic outcome of the elections never materialized as domestic and international power politics took precedence over the voters’ hope for transparency. Given the US history in Afghanistan, this was to be expected. After the 2001 attack by the US forces on the Taliban regime, which had ruled Afghanistan from 1996-2001, the US consolidated the rule of its chosen ‘democratic’ government led by Hamid Karzai and supervised the formulation of a new Constitution. The ‘warlords’, who ruled the country from 1992-96 and had opposed the Taliban, were partially re-incorporated into the new government in 2001 by giving them positions of power in the legislature. The politics of the country that followed thereafter has followed a dark route. After winning a doubted election in 2009, Hamid Karzai asked the UN to stop supervising elections in the country and the US and NATO agreed to this proposal.
Thus, beyond military consolidation, the US had taken over the constitutional and institutional process in the country too, while leaving the social process untouched. As a result, despite the institutional changes that had occurred over the years, there was very little change in the behavior of important domestic actors who were bound to come to the fore once the US left. Institution of Mr. Karzai by the US and failure to engage with other actors was a part of this incomplete process. It was the result of this that was seen in the questionable election process recently.
Despite the attempts to botch the elections by the Taliban, the first phase of voting and election results were fairly clear. The first round of voting in April 2014 saw Abdullah Abdullah winning 45% of the vote, while Ashraf Ghani cornered only 31.56% vote share. However, it was in the second round of voting in June that the controversy began. The results which should have been announced in July, were delayed, but when they were announced, Mr. Ghani cornered 56.44% of the vote while Mr. Abdullah got only 43.56%, with the latter refusing to accept the results which he saw as manipulated.
The process of negotiation that followed thereafter clearly revealed the teetering democratic foundations of the new Afghan government. Its politics is clearly revealed in the following factors:
First, the lack of transparency was clearly revealed as the results of the UN-supervised audit of the election results was never made public. This was clearly a part of the agreement brokered by the US between the two contenders in order to break the deadlock.
Second, defying the democratic mandate entirely, the US, in order to preserve its own interests in a stable Afghan government, brokered an agreement for power-sharing between the contestants, making Ashraf Ghani the President and Abdullah Abdullah the ‘Chief Executive Officer’ – a new post created especially for this purpose. It was as a part of this agreement that Mr. Abdullah demanded that the election results not be made public. The four-page agreement between Mr. Ghani and Mr. Abdullah also called for convening a loya jirga, a traditional gathering of tribal representatives and elected district councilors, in the next two years in order to amend the Constitution to reflect the recent creation of the chief executive post.
Economy as the Achilles’ heel
The recent events are bound to create a deep upheaval in Afghanistan’s vulnerable economy. Prior to the 2014 withdrawal, two characteristics marked the Afghan economy:
First, the US ensured that the Afghan economy would be modelled on a neo-liberal NGO-driven model, which favored decentralized private/NGO activity over direct government intervention, since 2001.
Second, economic planning was closely linked with the military sector. The US and its allies in NATO were the guiding force behind the choice of economic model, even when that model was an apparently decentralized one. Thus, this clearly did not pertain to the conventional model of overseas development investment which could guarantee successful outcomes.
Despite the fact that the US invested nearly $640 billion in direct spending in Afghanistan between 2002 and 2013, the process of economic stabilization has failed to take root. This because Karzai failed to utilize these resources and instead engaged in crony economic and political policies which accumulated the power of the warlords.
According to The Washington Post’s estimates, the nearly broke Afghan government needs an emergency $537 million bailout. It was not even in a position to service more than half a million government employees this month. While spending on schools and hospitals has improved, these services remain dependent on foreign funding. There has been very little large-scale investment in agriculture or basic industry. Instead, the bulk of the economy has focused on servicing foreign troops.
Moreover, in the aftermath of the Kabul bank crisis and the blacklisting of the Afghan financial sector due to delayed action on money laundering laws compounds further Afghanistan’s economic woes.
Political and military transformation: BSA and beyond
Since 2001, Afghanistan has been heavily dependent on, not just support, but direct military intervention of US and its NATO allies. They lost no time in launching the offensive against Taliban, by conducting air strikes in southern Afghanistan and in Pakistan’s border areas. This heavy dependence should not have come to an abrupt point at the prospect of the US withdrawal, which had been known for years, yet this was what happened briefly last year, when Mr. Karzai resisted signing the deal on account of national casualties which resulted from US control since 2001. On the other hand, the US too faced costs of its own in terms of trillions of dollars, over 2,000 lives and a domestic and public perception of failure in Afghanistan.
Now, however, in the aftermath of the finalization of the election results and the agreement between Mr. Ghani and Mr. Abdullah, the US and Afghanistan officially signed the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) on 30th September 2014. The agreement permits the continuation of US forces in Afghanistan into 2015, even though the US’s combat mission officially finishes in 2014. Around 12,000 troops will continue in Afghanistan. This includes 10,000 US troops and 2000 NATO troops. The purported objective of the US in signing the agreement is two-fold:
- First, to provide military training to Afghanistan troops and make its military self-reliant.
- Second, to continue to fight the international war against terrorism.
While these may be the stated US objectives, it is clear that the exercises entailed within the BSA will potentially act as a means for consolidating the power of the US in the region for years to come. This consolidation will extend beyond BSA and formal institutions. Covering a wide ground, the agreement makes way for developing Afghanistan’s military capacity to be aligned to the US, not only to prevent its misuse by terrorists, but also, according to US’s agenda, seeks to cover areas such as health care, human rights and economic opportunity.
However, beyond the uplifting language of the agreement, dark doubts continue to linger on how it will eventually work out within Afghanistan’s new post-poll political establishment. The central question is whether and how the development envisioned by the BSA will really be implemented. After the declaration of the election results and the agreement appointing various individuals to different posts, it is clear that the military question has become deeply interlinked with the political question. The selection of Abdul Rashid Dostum as Afghanistan’s new Vice-President proves this point. Known as a feared warlord, Dostum was speculated by US historian Brian William in his piece ‘The Last Warlord’ to have been a C.I.A agent who had killed up to 2000 Taliban prisoners of war in a 2001 massacre. Thus, beyond military control, the US is also seeking to maintain its control over the institutional system in the new Afghanistan government.
Internal security and regional implications
The Afghan political process post-election has shown that the US has wasted little time in securing its own interests, while internal security challenges continue to persist and have compounded after the elections.
The primary challenge is that of the impact of the new political establishment on social unrest that threatens to explode in the country. The new appointments have been mirroring the existing ethnic rift in the Afghan society. Despite the power sharing agreement between Mr. Abdullah and Mr. Ghani, there is concern that Mr. Abdullah would be elbowed out of power. This is because while Mr. Abdullah hails from the northern region of the country consisting of majority of Tajiks and has a massive support base there, Mr. Ghani is an ethnic Pashtun who has support bases in the eastern and southern regions of the country.
Thus we see a snowballing of this internal ethnic tension onto the political stage, along with the presence of purported US agents such as Dostum in powerful political offices, which are already teetering under the burden of a precarious and unlikely post-poll alliance engineered by the US. This will have adverse implications, not just for internal security, but also for regional security. This is especially the case since, Taliban attacks have intensified after elections. India’s stakes will be particularly high.
Perceiving a vacuum in Afghanistan due to shifting position of the West, countries like China and India first publicly expressed pursuing joint interests in the country in April 2013 and reiterated the same during Xi Jinping’s recent visit to India. Part of investments in Afghanistan are fuelled by India’s state enterprises and Chinese companies. While China’s interest verges more on the purely economic, India is in a particularly vulnerable geographic position and this dictates its economic interest also. For India, the biggest threat comes from the fact that Taliban’s Islamic Emirate may try to fill in the vacuum in Afghanistan. This would likely be compounded by the continuing social and political precariousness in the country despite the BSA, due to factors highlighted above.
Strategically, if India finds ways to combat this vulnerability, Afghanistan holds a lot of future promise. Afghanistan figures prominently in India’s “Connect Central Asia” economic policy which envisions Afghanistan as a regional trade hub crossed by energy pipelines and air, rail and road links that will connect the resource-rich Central Asia to the Indian subcontinent.
However, before that promise becomes a reality, there is a complex web of economic, political and security challenges to navigate.