Ahmed Rashid: The five things that must go right for Afghanistan to prosper

And why you shouldn't bet on any of them

14 December 2013

9:00 AM

14 December 2013

9:00 AM



From Washington to Kabul and in every capital in between, governments, armies, intelligence agencies and the media are asking what will happen in Afghanistan next year when the US and Nato finally leave after 12 years fighting a war they did not win.

Despite the enormous amount of intelligence available, the truth is that nobody knows, not even the Afghans. The best predictions can only be based on knowing what is going right, what is going wrong and what can be done to minimise the dangers of things getting worse.

For more than a year we have been deluged with the so-called success story of the military transition — the handing over of security to the 350,000-strong Afghan army and police — as western forces pull out. We have been told repeatedly that as US-Nato forces step down, Afghan forces will step up.

The truth is that the military transition is probably the easier part. And even that is proving difficult because Taleban attacks and Afghan government casualties have increased enormously in the past year. This highlights the vulnerabilities of the Afghan forces, which are 80 per cent illiterate and have an annual desertion rate of 20 per cent. At present there are some 87,000 western troops, down from 150,000 last year. By next spring there will be fewer than 40,000 and at the end of the year none but the tiny training force that the US is expected to leave behind. Whether a US-Nato training mission of under 10,000 troops stays on is the subject of a heated debate between President Karzai and the Americans as they battle over terms and conditions, but ultimately Karzai is likely to agree.

Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai (L) iAfghanistan President Hamid Karzai inspects soldiers of the Afghan National Army Photo: AFP/Getty

Afghan army losses have been so high that the defence ministry no longer discloses the figures, but one official spokesman told me that a staggering 1,273 police officers and 770 village policemen were killed between March and October this year. During that period the Taleban mounted 6,600 attacks in 30 of the country’s 34 provinces. That is an impressive record for a force that is supposedly on the wane.

There are four other transitions that need to be addressed with equal intensity in the next 12 months. The most critical is the political transition and whether the presidential elections next April will be relatively free and fair and produce a moderately legitimate government. Note the cautious terms. On that — not the intensity of Taleban attacks — hangs the future stability of the country.

Though Hamid Karzai cannot stand for another term as president, he will doubtless pick a favourite among the 11 candidates standing so far. Karzai will want the candidate who can best protect him and his extended family (especially from corruption charges) and possibly give him a role to play in the future. The most likely candidates to gain his support are his brother Qayum Karzai or his foreign minister Zalmai Rassoul.

To achieve a ‘positive’ result may well entail some poll-rigging. However if the elections are even half as rigged as they were in 2009, when a civil war was narrowly averted, all bets are off for future stability.

Electoral stability rests on how the ethnic card is played. In 2009 Karzai claimed to have won a slim majority with the support of his fellow Pashtuns in the south and east, where the largest amount of ballot box stuffing took place. The non-Pashtuns in the north and west refused to accept the results, claiming they had won, until US mediators intervened and the northern candidate Abdullah Abdullah willingly stepped down from contesting a second round. That scenario could well be repeated again next April, with far more devastating results.

This time round, the non-Pashtuns will not back down if they think Karzai has rigged the elections. The West has no levers it can apply to the regime to make it compromise. The biggest mistake over the past two years has been the surrender of any controls over the last electoral process by the US, the UN, Nato and other western bodies. Rigged elections might well lead to a multisided civil war, with losers fighting the winners and the Taleban fighting everyone.

Equally lacking is an economic transition. Despite the $100 billion spent on social services in the country since 2001, the West has failed to build an indigenous economy that can provide jobs for the young and revenue for the state. In the 1970s Afghanistan grew all its own food, now it has to import vast quantities — even agriculture has been ignored. This year has seen the biggest poppy crop on record, ensuring that more Afghans are dependent on income from heroin rather than wheat. The thousands of educated and pro-democracy Afghans who have worked for foreign forces will be out on the street with no prospects. Many of them will flee abroad and become illegal migrants.

Moreover, with the US Congress and western parliaments already fed up with Afghanistan, it is unlikely that they will fulfil their promise to provide aid for the army, the economy and education of up to $10 billion a year for the next five years.

Also lacking is a regional transition — the diplomatic effort needed to get neighbouring countries such as Iran, Pakistan, China and the Central Asian republics, and important near neighbours such as India, Russia and Saudi Arabia, to agree not to interfere in Afghanistan’s affairs, and not to arm and fund their favourite warlord proxy as they did in the 1990s. Instead they should reorientate their political competition, and use Afghanistan’s strategic location to bring more cross-border trade, oil and gas pipelines and jobs to the entire region, making it a success story rather than the failure it presently is.

These three transitions depend above all on a fourth: reconciliation with the Taleban and agreements to bring them in from the political cold. The Taleban are as divided as the Afghan government over whether talks will produce results. The last attempt at direct talks with the US in Qatar in 2010‑11 collapsed, but the Taleban delegation is still in Doha. Talks could resume only if there were a new president who was seen to have wide support and whom the Taleban could trust, while the Americans are more prepared to offer compromises such as the release of Taleban prisoners from Guantanamo.

The Taleban are ripe for talks and compromise. The raison d’être for their cause — jihad against foreign occupation — will end when the Americans leave. Many want to stop fighting and reduce the heavy casualties they face. They want to leave their sanctuaries in Pakistan and the controls exercised by the Pakistani intelligence agencies and go home. They are proud Afghans and they detest being called Pakistan’s poodles.

Only reconciliation can deflect an ultimate debacle for the Afghan army. Without an air force or heavy weapons and beset by low morale, desertions and ignorance, the Afghan army cannot fight the Taleban with the same intensity as the Americans did. They might hold their ground for six to 12 months at the most. For safety’s sake the regime would then order the army to adopt a Fortress Kabul strategy, as tried and tested by the communist regime from 1989 to 1992 after the Soviets left Afghanistan.

The army would secure the major cities and some main roads on which they depend for supplies from outside. They would not go on the offensive to retake lost territory. The countryside — first in the south and later in the north, where resistance would be fierce — would slowly fall into the hands of the Taleban, leaving the country split between large rural areas controlled by the Taleban and ever more fragile cities controlled by the regime.

There would be thousands of casualties, tens of thousands of refugees, a humanitarian crisis and international terrorist groups in the blank spaces of the countryside. The world would have no will to intervene again and the neighbouring states would pour in money and arms to try to control some warlords and determine the outcome of the war to their advantage. Mess would become morass.

This is a scenario everyone wants to avoid — both the regime and the Taleban and neighbouring states — for it entails total destruction and a potentially neverending civil war. Only al-Qa’eda and other groups who fear losing their sanctuaries would want such an outcome, and they will do everything in their power to sabotage a peace deal between Kabul, the Taleban and neighbouring states.

Soldiers from an advance NATO contingentSoldiers from an advance NATO contingent climb into a German Air Force  plane Photo: AFP/Getty

But a gloomy conclusion is not inevitable. The departure of western forces — an irritant to many — will make it more probable that the Afghan factions will sit down with one another and hammer out a deal. In addition, none of the regional powers is economically or politically strong enough to determine the outcome in Afghanistan on its own, so need to co-operate with one another. (Remember that if Afghanistan is a failing state, so are most of its neighbours.)

What is needed is a genuine neutral mediator who can help all the elements in this complex equation. The United Nations, the European Union or individual, non-controversial countries such as Norway or Germany, with international support behind them, could play such a role. The tragedy is that the US and Nato-led war has emasculated the potential peacemakers and mediators. The US should have enlisted third-party mediation when it began its failed talks with the Taleban in 2010, but hubris, arrogance and the acute divisions within the Obama administration got in the way.

Above all, ordinary Afghans will be putting pressure on their next government to end the war. A civilian movement both inside the country and in neighbouring countries could do much to help a peace process. Only peace could persuade the West to fulfil their aid commitments to Afghanistan. Nobody is going to fund an endless civil war.

There is much at stake for the Afghans and for the rest of the world, including the future of al-Qa’eda, the safety of nuclear-armed Pakistan and a grand bargain with Iran over its nuclear programme. Much as the US and Europe would like to leave this region to its own devices, it remains too important to be left alone. The Afghans deserve a chance for peace and an end to the wars that began 35 years ago. But they cannot achieve this alone. They need their neighbours and the West to remain committed if peace is going to have any chance of creeping in.

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  • zanzamander

    After pouring in billions of dollars, hundreds of thousands of deaths and countless suffering, the moment we left, Iraq reverted to barbarism and now is all but lost to Islamists.


    Same thing will happen in Afghanistan.

    We must never get involved in another Muslim country ever again and that picture of Westerners leaving is the best picture I’ve seen come out of Afghanistan in years. More of the same please.

    Afghanistan/Pakistan (one and the same in my books) are not interested in peace, all they want is threaten us with more terrorist attacks so that we keep giving them money. In short they’re running a protection racket, and we’re their victims.

    Only one thing need to go right in Afghanistan for it to see sense, it needs to abandon its Islamic constitution. Karzai was even thinking of bringing back stoning!


    Both Afghanistan/Pakistan will remain a thorn in the civilised world’s backside forever. We must just turn our gaze from their direction.

    • rtj1211

      You’ve lived in both countries for years, have you??

      I wouldn’t confuse what the majority want with what the minority want.

      The best thing you could do for Afghanistan would be to buy all its poppies for medical purposes.

      That would be too constructive for you though, wouldn’t it??

      • Weaver

        Unfortunately, there’s moral hazard and confidence problems with that plan, but the sentiment is appreciated.

      • justin bristow

        That would only enrich the Taliban. They tax the poppy crop. When you control the countryside, you also control the farmers and their families, homes and budgets. Why don’t the farmers fight back? They do. But they often lose, the Taliban is a capable organization, that’s why continue to have to fight them.

      • Tom Tom

        During WW2 the British thought they could buy up supplies of bauxite from Spain to stop Germany accessing it.
        Being Government Idiots they forgot that increasing Demand increased
        Price which increased Supply and so they increased Production of Bauxite
        to meet all customers needs

  • AdemAljo

    Well thought out article, but ultimately utter tosh. The moment NATO packs up and leaves the whole country will descend into Syria-style anarchy with everyone fighting everyone for control over what very, very little that country has in the way of wealth/power.

    It is/was an absolutely shambolic war and there will have to be an immeasurable amount of spin and PR by our politicians to explain why over a decade of occupation and countless hundreds of dead British soldiers later Afghanistan is still such a vast black hole of terrorism and criminal activity. We were never going to ‘fix’ Afghanistan, so why did we go in the first place?

    • rtj1211

      We went to offer support to the USA who had just suffered 9/11.

      I’m assuming that bin Laden actually did order those strikes and the conspiracy theories concerning controlled detonations to claim insurance and justify war in Iraq aren’t true.

      But I might be wrong about that.

  • anyfool

    All Muslim states it seems eventually descend into murderous mayhem, they love killing for killings sake, every little slight or insult festers sometimes for generations, and scores will be settled regardless.
    The so called states cannot survive because loyalty to Islam which precludes all other loyalties, next comes family loyalty and honour, the state only comes into it if there is one family or sect to keep order, take that away and they collapse into a swirling pool of internecine hatreds.

    • rtj1211

      I think we loved killing for killing’s sake not so long ago. We also have a genius for inflaming nations to start civil wars.

      We don’t like peace as a nation, not in the higher echelons of our quasi-military junta.

      We like inciting the maximum trouble possible, to cause the maximum stress, illness and injury possible, because for some reason we think that that’s the way we gain most influence, power and money.

      • Tom Tom

        I don’t disagree with you but suggest fault lines must exist to be exploited

    • The Lone Ranger

      It is all because the West interfering in their political affairs. It is because the West impose their false democracy upon them in return to steal their natural resources. Today we see more than 120 thousand people have lost their life in Syria it is primarily the reason because the western countries funding the extremist terrorists. Do you think these people fighting against the Syria government are Syrian residence? No they aren’t they are international terrorists from Britain, France, US, Egypt, Tunisia, Libya to name a few! They are funded militarily and financially by whom? of course Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar, who are America’s closest allies. So the roots of instability in Middle East is America, Israel and other Western countries. Afghanistan is suffering from these Western interfering for more than a century now.

      • anyfool

        Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States are financing the Islamist butchers in Syria as you say
        That the West was prepared to assist these animals with bombing is beyond anything that could be conceived as the national interest, that was vetoed by the elected representatives in the US by popular choice, in the UK by some in disgust and political opportunism by the Labour leadership, I am not saying that is justifiable but it is not killing for killings sake.
        That the unbridled killing in Muslim states descends down to individual people and families is not something that happens in other societies as a matter of course, although there has been incidences of honour killing in the UK it is something that non Muslim families find disgusting.

        • The Lone Ranger

          I think you are to young to remember over 55 million people have lost their life in Europe alone in WWII.

          • Treebrain

            Five million died in the Congo in the last decade but the mainstream media say nothing!

        • The Lone Ranger

          Bombing Asad’s presidential palace and its military compound could have worsen the situation in Syria. The Al-Qaida terrorists which President Obama and other western countries have backed militarily as well as financially with possession of highly sophisticated weapons such as shoulder shooting anti aircraft missiles could have put many other innocent civilians at risks. Beside any plane or cruise missile might have used in bombardments must have passed 7 Russian warships. You know the consequences pretty well, that could have provoked WWIII. UK Parliament has made the right decision vetoed a war campaign. It is because of that decision the UK economy is boosting, allowing more Chinese investment in the UK. A war on Syria UK would have been where the rest of European countries are in terms of economy.

      • Tom Tom

        Saudi Arabia was first encouraged to fund Islamic Terror by Zbigniew
        Brzezinski under the Carter Administration because of his pathological
        hatred of Russians as the son of a Polish diplomat.

        It was he who
        arranged for Pakistan and saudi to fund terror in Afghanistan against
        the Communist regime in Kabul BEFORE Brezhnev invaded to prop up the
        Kabul regime.

    • Aloysius

      Stating that all Muslim states and therefore one infers all Muslims, as a whole love killing for the sake of killing is a ridiculous generalisation and an utterly incorrect one at that. Knowing a few Muslims myself it is clear to me that many of them are in fact, believe it or not, peace loving. According to you it would be reasonable to suggest that all Germans are murderous swines because indeed some did seem to rather enjoy killing all those Jews. Your views suggest to me a bigoted fool although your second paragraph does ring slightly more truthfully.

      • anyfool

        Knowing a few Germans before the war would give no indication of them specifically, not many expected them in their hundreds of thousands to collude in mass slaughter.
        Knowing a few Muslims is not in any way a guide to their eventual treatment of people over whom they have ascendency, all over the world there is mountains of bones as testament to their nature, even as I write your friendly Muslims fellow religionists are slaughtering Christians in large numbers.
        Muslims treat their own women and children like animals so if you expecting them to treat other non Muslims well is delusional, although delusions are a wonderful escape from reality, they remain just that.
        Please grow up, calling peoples opinions bigoted because they are different to yours is at best childish, or you really do not have an answer

        • Aloysius

          That’s all very well, but it does little to change the fact that “All Muslim states (and therefore, one assumes all Muslims) love killing for the sake of killing” is a falsehood. We’re forgetting that we, the West are not totally blameless in causing some of the problems in the Muslim world, having assisted in creating the monster that is the Taliban and though the LON’s post war treaties and creation of mandates of the British Empire.
          I apologise profusely if I have in any way offended you at all.

      • Tom Tom

        You should not restrict killing Jews to Germans, Ukrainians did quite a bit too but actually British/US propaganda postwar did imply ALL Germans were congenitally criminal and that message only changed when Stalin started wooing them to become a unified demilitarised Germany under Soviet protection

        • Aloysius

          Indeed, even the English monarchs of the middle ages persecuted the Jews, resulting in the Edict of Expulsion of 1290. It was simply an example, albeit maybe not a very good one.

          • Tom Tom

            Although as Cromwell made clear the Edict lacked legal force

          • Treebrain

            Really, the Edict of Expulsion was clearly enforced as the Jews vanished from England after 1290 and did not return for centuries.

          • Treebrain

            Why did Edward I expel the Jews from England in 1290?

            At the time they numbered only a couple of thousand so if there was any real hatred of them they could have simply been massacred, but they were not and were allowed free passage out of the country.

            If they were wealthy they could have been retained and taxed to provide revenue for the crown, expelling them only deprived the crown of a lucrative source of revenue.

      • Tom M

        Your inference is wrong. Saying Muslim countries are all belligerent doesn’t mean the popluation is. When Tony Blair decided to take the UK to war in Iraq that didn’t equate to all of the population agreeing with him. This phenomenon is called leadership. The country’s leaders decide, the population follows.
        As far as I can see around the world where there is a Muslim state it is either at war or threatening war with it’s neighbour. Where there is a Muslim community in a country they are usually at odds with the indigenous population. The common denominator is always Islam.

  • victor67

    “In a war we did not win” Obviously you have not been listening toSir Richard Kemp. The Joseph Goebbels of Nato or chief T–d polisher at the MOD

  • Graeme S

    To Hell with the Lot of em ………….. all of them together are not worth the bones of a British soldier. What a waste, what a terrible waste

  • ceedoubleu

    The sooner we get every Western soldier out of Afghanistan and leave them to it, the better.

  • Weaver

    2,000 Afghan security force dead in 6 months, from a force of 350K?

    That’s 11 deaths per 1,000 man-years. That’s not a terrible mortality rate. Northern Ireland at the height of the troubles was 5 and Vietnam about 17. WWII was about 70.

  • justin bristow

    Too much state department, not enough Pentagon analysis went into this piece. The election will certainly be seen as illegitimate, it’s not a choice, it’s a fact of countryside falling in Taliban hands. Those areas will not vote. The Taliban is a functioning army organization, not a popular movement. It does not need a political raison d’etre to expand, just money and weapons. In any case, foreign embassies in Kabul are alone enough to claim foreign meddling.

    By the end of 2016, all the areas without NATO combat forces south of Kabul will probably fall. The Fortress Kabul strategy will be in full swing. However, this time it’s going to work. The difference is that Russia, India, Iran and China are far more capable now than in 1989 of propping up a Dari Afghanistan. That combined with the most effective Afghan units being cohesively Dari will allow an effective coalition posted in the narrow strips of passable land between Southern and Northern Afghanistan. At that point, endless violent stalemate will just endure.Russia, China, and Iran will become the major players preventing Dari Afghanistan from being overrun.

    If we’re not willing to go into Pakistan to defeat the Taliban and all-Qaeda, keeping troops in Afghanistan, while at least not counterproductive, is probably not worth it. The anti-Pakistan coalition is strong enough to fend off the Taliban on their own.

    • Tom Tom

      “the Taliban” (“the Students”) is a bit like J Edgar Hoover speaking of
      “La Cosa Nostra” (“the our Thing”)…..besides which Taliban is largely
      Pashtun straddling the Afghan/Pak Border – the famed NorthWest Frontier
      of The Raj for those whose relatives fought there.

      It is a
      tribal war and the Pashtuns will win their territory and the Invaders
      from The North will retreat. The question is what threat they will pose
      to Russia in Central Asia and to Iran

  • The Lone Ranger

    The game between Hamid Karzai and the US
    government are not new. Washington and Karzai have put pressure on one
    another whenever there have been differences between the two sides. US
    officials put pressure on Karzai in 2009 when there were arguments about
    the Afghan elections and the political configuration of the Afghan
    government. Ahmed Wali Karzai, President Karzai’s brother, was exposed
    in the crossfire as a CIA operative and drug dealer by US officials.
    Karzai’s response came by way of General Khodadad, Afghanistan’s
    counter-narcotics minister, who revealed to IRNA in a tit-for-tat
    statement that the drugs in Afghanistan are mostly “stockpiled in two
    provinces controlled by troops from the US, the UK, and Canada” which
    “NATO forces are taxing” as accomplices in the international narcotics

  • Ian Rydier

    Came across this interesting post from Squaddies in Afghanistan – got to –

  • Tom Tom

    How are conditions better in Afghanistan today compared to 1992 when the Soviet Union left and the 1992 Conference in Peshawar proclaimed the Islamic State of Afghanistan ?

  • Graeme S

    The Only success to come out of Afghanistan is there ability to foster AQ and other mad terror groups …. However this is not certain. Build a wall such as the Israelis have done, chuck arms and Ammunition over and listen as they kill each other.

  • Albin

    What is hoped for at this point is not prosperity but a manageable Islamic barrel to locate and shoot jihadis in with drones, something like Yemen.

  • Treebrain

    “From Washington to Kabul and in every capital in between, governments, armies, intelligence agencies and the media are asking what will happen in Afghanistan next year when the US and Nato finally leave after 12 years fighting a war they did not win.”

    Er, no?

    It is crystal clear what will happen, and everyone knows it, after all some readers are old enough to recall what happened when the Soviet Union withdrew leaving a puppet regime in Kabul!

    Karzai and his cronies will flee to enjoy a life in exile with the funds looted during their time in power and the Taliban will regain control of the ethnic Pashtun areas of the country while regional warlords will control the remainder.

    ‘Vietnam deja vu’ will deal a devastating blow to the image of the US military just as the original debacle did.

    The UK will reflect on the blood and treasure squandered once again in Afghanistan and realise that the whole enterprise was futile and achieved nothing, furthering the reluctance to continue lavishly funding the military and allowing politicians to indulge in personal vanity projects overseas using the armed forces that do nothing to defend the UK, protect its subjects abroad or protect vital national interests.

    Meanwhile back at home, open borders, mass immigration and a couple of million illegal immigrants make a mockery of government claims to be looking after the country!