Will Afghanistan fail as a state after 2014?
The Telegraph, November 27, 2014
The suicide bombing of a UK embassy vehicle in central Kabul came just four days after an attack on a crowd watching a volleyball match in the southeastern province of Paktika, which killed more than 45 people.
Neither of these suicide bombings, sadly, came as a surprise. It was evident that the scaling down of the Western military presence would lead to more violence: the Taliban’s intention to play a bigger political role in Afghanistan and its ability to undertake violent action across the country were well known.
Yet, contrary to expectations, this year Afghanistan somehow managed to hold elections and find itself a president. What Afghans did not get, however, was the promised transition to stability.
There are two primary reasons why the security situation in Afghanistan is worsening. The first and critical problem is politico-economic in nature. Having promised government jobs, money, and power to their supporters before the elections, both President Ashraf Ghani and the CEO Abdullah Abdullah are now struggling to keep their promises.
With about 850,000-odd employees on its payroll, coupled with a desperate shortage of funds, the Afghan state has become a hub of disguised unemployment. No wonder corruption is a chronic problem.
Instead of ensuring equitable distribution of funds and authority, those who have both simply don’t want to part with it. And those who don’t get their share are happy to part ways and seek revenge. All that the Taliban needs to do is capitalise on this burgeoning discontent.
The other problem is the incapability of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) to contain violence. There are two aspects to this. First, from a military tactical perspective, the Taliban, which controls the Afghan countryside, has freedom of manoeuvre that the ANSF does not enjoy. Restricted to securing the cities and key trade arteries of Afghanistan, Afghan soldiers often become sitting ducks for the Taliban.
The second aspect is linked to the politico-economic woes of the country. It is not just the lack of training and equipment that undermines the ANSF’s effectiveness – in fact the ANSF has neutralised many Taliban attacks in the last four years. The Kabul government, for all its political imagination, has proved inept in managing finances and distributing salaries to its soldiers.
It is no surprise that the ANSF is struggling to reduce its attrition rates, which often run into double-digit percentage figures. Trained to kill, disgruntled soldiers may have no qualms offering their services to the opposition in the future.
Can Western economic aid to Kabul compete against the deep-rooted illegal drug economy that keeps the insurgency afloat? In the short term it may, but definitely not in the long run.
Cash injections, however many and however large, can never be a sustainable solution. The attacks in Paktika and on the British embassy staff are symptoms of a failing state run on patronage.
Frustratingly enough, none of the problems Afghanistan faces today are new. What is new is President Ghani. An economist by training, he is viewed as someone who can initiate the necessary processes to build strong and sustainable institutions.
But the immediate pressure of an ever-deteriorating security situation may make long-term planning a luxury even for him. If adequate attention is not paid to earnestly build the Afghan institutions, then what occurred as a tragedy in the aftermath of the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, may repeat itself as a farce after 2014.