December 24th, 2012
07:52 AM ET

Afghanistan in 2013: A unified nation at stake?

This is the latest in a series of entries looking at what we can expect in 2013. Each weekday, a guest analyst will look at the key challenges facing a selected country – and what next year might hold in store.

By Juan Cole, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Juan Cole is the Richard P. Mitchell Professor of History and director of the Center for Middle Eastern and North African Studies at the University of Michigan. He maintains the popular blog, Informed Comment.

What does 2013 have in store for Afghanistan? As NATO and U.S. forces begin leaving in the thousands, and as their combat mission ends this coming year, can the green Afghanistan National Army take up the slack? With violence now higher than in 2009 when the Obama administration’s troop escalation was decided on, can any progress be made on political reconciliation? Will President Hamid Karzai resign and hold early elections for his successor, as he has suggested? Is there any hope for a more robust economy and a semblance of good governance, as financial scandals continue to rock Kabul? How will regional powers such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, India and Russia position themselves as Afghanistan moves out of the North Atlantic sphere of influence?

The Obama administration will certainly withdraw some of the 68,000 U.S. troops currently in Afghanistan throughout 2013, though the timetable and the number to be pulled out have still not been decided. Gen. John Allen, outgoing commander of U.S. forces and of the International Security Assistance Forces in country reportedly wants to delay any further withdrawals until fall of next year. (Some 34,000 troops came out in 2012). Allen’s hand was presumably weakened in November, however, when he was reportedly investigated over inappropriate communications with Tampa socialite Jill Kelley, as part of the fallout of an FBI investigation of CIA director, David Petraeus. He will be succeeded in 2013 by another Marine, Gen. Joseph “Fighting Joe” Dunford, who spent 22 months in the Iraq War.

By summer of 2013, it is anticipated that the U.S. combat role in Afghanistan will draw to a close. By the end of 2014, only a few thousand U.S. troops will be left, and they will mainly supply close air support to the Afghanistan army when it engages in combat. Whether the some 350,000-strong Afghanistan security forces are up to the challenge of fighting the Taliban and other insurgents is a matter of great controversy. American officers in Kabul insist that the Afghanistan National Army (ANA) now takes the lead in 80 percent of operations against the enemy, up from 50 percent just last summer.  But a recent Pentagon review admitted that only one of 23 ANA brigades is capable of functioning on its own, without U.S. or ISAF help. In 2012, some 300 were dying every month in battles with the Taliban and other militant groups.  The ANA has low rates of literacy (a third the rate of the general population), high rates of drug use, and high rates of desertion. It is also disproportionately drawn from the Tajik, Dari Persian-speaking minority. Only 2 percent of the troops hail from Kandahar and Helmand Provinces in the Pashtun south, the strongholds of the Taliban.

The map of Afghanistan’s provinces in the past few years has been overlain with the flags of the 49 European and other nations contributing to the ISAF mission, not counting the U.S. The 34,000 ISAF troops from NATO and other countries will begin winding down their presence in the coming year. NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen announced early in 2012, “We expect the last Afghan provinces to come under Afghan security force control by the second half of 2013,” adding, “At that point our role will begin to gradually change: from a fighting one to one more focused on formation and training.” Other ISAF contingents will just be gone.  France, which at the height of its commitment had 4,000 troops there, is pulling out by the end of 2012.  Australia’s Prime Minister Julia Gillard has announced that the 1,550 remaining Australian troops will be withdrawn in 2013. Roughly half of the 9,000 British troops will be brought home.

The drawing down of the international military presence raises questions about the long-term aid commitments of Europe in particular. European nations have pledged billions to the funding over the next few years of the Afghanistan security forces, which are far too large to be paid for by Afghanistan’s own budget. But many observers wonder whether a Europe beset by economic crises will really follow through on its pledges. Civilian aid could also decline. The Asian Development Bank is projecting a slight fall in the rate of economic growth in Afghanistan in 2013, in part because of an expectation that foreign aid will decline.

There are also serious questions about how much of the aid is spent on the purposes for which it is appropriated. Afghanistan is possibly the most corrupt nation on earth, and persistent reports suggest that millions of aid dollars are smuggled back out of the country for the purposes of private graft every year. The banking system established by the outside powers after the fall of the Taliban is unstable and subject to runs, because of embezzlement on a grand scale. Whether an economy can truly grow in the shadow of a collapsing and corrupt banking system is a question that must be asked of Afghanistan, and the bubble could burst at any moment.

Since the fall of the Taliban late in 2001, Afghanistan has only known one president, the mercurial Hamid Karzai.  That could change in 2013. Without the big foreign troop presence, holding presidential elections on schedule in fall 2014 may be a security challenge. During the last campaign, turnout was woefully light in some Pashtun-majority provinces because the Taliban and other insurgents had threatened voters with reprisals. There were also charges of ballot-tampering on behalf of election officials biased toward Karzai, placing a taint on his third and final term, which is now drawing to a close. Karzai has suggested that it might be desirable to move the presidential election up to 2013, so that the country can profit from the greater security afforded by ISAF troops. This plan suggests a certain lack of faith in Afghan security forces on the part of the president.

Ironically, the draw-down of Western forces may make it easier for warring Afghan factions to begin serious negotiations with one another over the shape of the future. The United States has reportedly given up on attempting to play a role in those talks, and is bequeathing the task of achieving a negotiated settlement to the Afghans themselves and to Pakistan. The Taliban and other insurgent groups have repeatedly said that the end of the foreign troop presence is a precondition for any serious talks. Perhaps light at the end of that tunnel will be enough to at least begin behind-the-scenes discussions. It is also possible, however, that the radicals will attempt to improve their eventual bargaining position by taking more territory from Karzai and his successor.

Another troubling possibility is that the old Mujahidin warlords may become impatient if the ANA is seen to falter in its fight against the Taliban, and may reactivate regional and tribal militias of the sort that made the country a political and security patchwork in the early 1990s Ismail Khan, the former warlord of Herat, has pledged to bring back the Mujahidin after ISAF withdraws.

Finally, Afghanistan in the aftermath of the departure of the Europeans and Americans will be an arena for regional jockeying. The Tajiks of the north have a strong relationship with India and many resent Pakistan as a patron of the Taliban. Indian aid and diplomatic clout may grow in Kabul.  The Pashtuns of the south and east are often friendly to Pakistan, which has a history of whipping up fundamentalist Islam as a vehicle for Islamabad’s influence. The eastern Herat region is an appendage of Iran, and Iran may increase its influence with the Hazara Shiites in the center of the country.  Russia, which is attempting to reassert itself in Central Asia, has a profound fear of the debilitating effects of smuggled Afghan heroin on Russian youth. While Moscow has no intention of becoming embroiled in a military adventure, it is likely to expand its covert presence and to develop regional and local allies in a bid to stop the drug trade.

The year 2013 will be a turning point for Afghanistan, as Western military power wanes, and as regional powers assert their influence. The transition to a new presidential leadership could well occur a year early, with all the uncertainties it will bring. It is questionable whether the country can afford its bloated security apparatus, and further uncertain whether that apparatus can contain Muslim fundamentalist groups who are expanding their influence in the Pashtun areas.

Corruption and bank scandals will discourage international investment and perhaps even aid donors.  The very existence of a unified Afghan state could be at stake if the country’s elite and foreign patrons make the wrong policy choices.

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