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How to Build a New Afghanistan

Foreign Policy SEPTEMBER 2, 2014
Every day, politicians and policy makers in the West and the South Asia region wake up to some somber news on the war and state-building efforts in Afghanistan. Some analysts suggest the United States and its NATO allies should leave Afghans on their own, while others argue for a limited footprint with a further shrink in economic assistance to a post-Karzai administration to keep the state functioning and keeping the terrorists at bay, ensuring that Afghanistan does not return to being a safe-haven, training ground and a launching pad for terrorists. But any hasty withdrawal of US/NATO forces and halfhearted approach will only play into the hands of terrorists and boost their morale.

It is time for a new face with new energy and fresh thinking to handle Afghanistan and its crucial relations with the West.

Here are the keys to a successful, reform-backed post-Karzai administration:
Develop a new vision, a comprehensive reform program and a three way partnership between Afghanistan, its neighbors, and the international community President Karzai is a masterful player at the tactical level of making and breaking coalitions, but he was not a visionary leader. The incoming leader of Afghanistan will have to formulate a long-term vision for Afghanistan. He will have to repair the damaged relationship between Afghanistan and its NATO allies, especially the United States. This requires statesmanship and diplomatic skills to win back the confidence of the donor countries through a serious commitment to fight corruption, enforce the rule of law, and roll out government services at the sub-national level through presenting credible economic development and poverty reduction programs.

On the other hand - the political situation in the region is tense and the growing military rhetoric and intelligence games played by both sides through proxies on the AfPak border needs to stop. The new Afghan government will have to revive the spirit of the Kabul Good Neighborly Declaration or build another diplomatic mechanism to assure its neighbors that Afghanistan is a place for doing business -- not proxy wars.

All these three elements fit well within a three-way contract between Afghanistan, its neighbors and the international community. This requires statesmanship and a commitment to implement it.

Strengthen Afghan National Security Forces
The crown jewels of U.S. and NATO engagement in Afghanistan are the Afghan National Army (ANA) and the Afghan National Police (ANP). These institutions should be further strengthened in order to be sustainable in the long run, whilst ensuring balanced civilian oversight over our security institutions because of the history of coups in Afghanistan.

Afghans preserved their country for years without any substantial external assistance, but moving forward need further training, equipment and strategic military capabilities to counterbalance regional military threats and conduct counter terrorism operations. Afghanistan is in a neighborhood that an army with Kalashnikovs will not suffice to counter the threats posed to them.

The Afghan war is essentially an intelligence and counter-terrorism war with a regional element to it; it can only be fought effectively with proper intelligence. The Afghan intelligence service, National Security Directorate (NDS), has done a remarkable job so far, but lacks critical surveillance and intelligence analytical capabilities. Therefore, the US and its allies need to revisit and see how they can best support and strengthen this lone and silent soldier in the war against terrorism.

Meanwhile, the politicization of Afghan security institutions will only result in the disintegration of the Afghan government. The Afghan political elites and parties should not sacrifice long-term Afghan interests through politicizing these institutions for their short-term power grabs. This will serve nobody and the violent coups of the past are a witness to it.

Build a vibrant, regionally integrated economy
The Afghan economy has had a double digit growth since the fall of the Taliban regime, but it has recently plummeted by 10 percent due to ongoing electoral deadlock and also the withdrawal of foreign forces among other mismanagement and corruption reasons. Afghanistan has enormous potential to turn into a self-sustaining and self-reliant economy, given its vast natural resources, ranging from mineral and hydrocarbon potential to water resources, and its potential to act as an energy transit hub between South and Central Asia and the Middle East. The former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, revived the concept of Silk Road, a vital trade and cultural transmission hub and land bridge for traders for Asian and European traders, but given lack of political will and commitment and other priorities, the initiative has stalled somewhat. Ideas for economic development are not enough, their implementation requires an inclusive government committed to reform and the rule of law.

The time has come for Afghanistan to build an indigenous and self-sustaining Afghan economy and move away from aid dependence. This can only happen through a comprehensive economic reform plan for the country with visionary leadership to implement it through domestic consensus and international assistance.

Strengthening democratic institutions and a credible opposition
Afghanistan has one of the most liberal and democratic constitutional designs in the region. Afghans have a vibrant parliament, more than a dozen political parties, one of the most free and vibrant press and media in the region and finally a fledgling judiciary. However, each of the government's branches is fragile and prone to political manipulation by local power brokers and strongmen in their localities. These institutions need to be further strengthened through investment in their infrastructure and human resources. To do so will require a vision and a leader committed to reform and consistent investment.

One of the fundamental challenges facing Afghanistan has been the lack of an alternative to President Karzai for the leadership of the country. Such a narrative is common of authoritarian regimes for justifying the rule of one person. Afghans and its western allies need to start investing in credible opposition leaders today. Over the recent years, Afghans already have a pool of leaders across the spectrum who have the potential to become future Afghan leaders such as current minister of interior, Umer Daudzai, former NDS chief Amrullah Saleh and current NSA Dr. Rangin Dadfar Spanta among many others.

Invest in professional institutions:
Credible, professional and reformed public institutions i.e. government line ministries especially health and education services are the solution to the long- term stability of Afghanistan. This is what Afghans lacked the past 13 years in Afghanistan because President Karzai relied heavily on his vast informal network of tribal elders rather than public institutions.

Professional and credible public institutions would not only expand the legitimacy of the Afghan government at the sub-national level, it would also weaken the motivation of many of the Taliban foot soldiers who fight due to corruption or lack of employment opportunities. This will also contribute to the peace and re-integration process in Afghanistan.

The situation is not as poor as the media and press portrays. Afghanistan has the potential to be a credible partner for the United States and its allies in the region, it only requires the right stewardship and statesmanship on the part of Afghans together with patience and long-term commitment from our international partners.