By Ahmad Majidyar, Special to CNN
Editor's note: Ahmad Majidyar is a senior research associate at the American Enterprise Institute. He also teaches senior U.S. military officers on security and politics in Afghanistan. The views expressed are his own.
Late last month, Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai was inaugurated as president of Afghanistan after signing a power-sharing pact with his electoral rival Abdullah Abdullah, ending a protracted political standoff that threatened to thrust the country into another civil war and complicate the U.S. exit strategy. To the relief of its foreign allies, the new government also concluded long-delayed security deals that will allow 12,000 American and NATO troops to stay in Afghanistan beyond 2014.
But while the peaceful and democratic transfer of power marks a milestone in Afghanistan’s tumultuous history, the country faces mounting security and governance challenges as international support is diminishing. To ensure long-term stability, the following five priorities should top the new government’s agenda.
Fostering national unity: The American-brokered deal to form a government of national unity was the best outcome for Afghanistan and its international partners alike. This year’s election campaign divided Afghans on ethnic and factional lines like never before, and without the power-sharing deal, the winner of the fraud-tainted vote wouldn’t have enjoyed broad-based legitimacy to maintain stability and govern effectively. Leaving election season acrimony behind, the two leaders must now devise a national agenda that promotes unity among all Afghans, ensure the new government makeup is inclusive, and marginalize warlords and ultra ethno-nationalists who may attempt to undermine the unity government.
Improving governance: Although the new government is more the outcome of a political compromise than a credible election, Afghans will ultimately judge the government’s legitimacy and popularity by its ability to deliver basic services. Last year, Afghanistan ranked the world’s most corrupt nation; state institutions remain weak; and governance conditions are likely to further deteriorate as foreign funding is drying up. Additionally, the United States and other foreign donors have made it clear that future financial aid to Afghanistan will be conditioned on the government’s measures to curb corruption and improve accountability.
Bolstering economy: Over the past decade, the United States and its allies have failed to build an indigenous, sustainable economy in Afghanistan, as foreign aid and spending still account for more than 90 percent of the country’s $20 billion GDP. The drawdown of foreign troops has already had a significant impact on the Afghan economy: economic growth last year plummeted to 3.6 percent from 14.4 percent in 2012; the Kabul government has reportedly run out of money to pay for its bills; real estate prices have declined by up to 50 percent; inflation and unemployment are soaring; and business conditions have deteriorated. To shore up the economy, the new government has to implement institutional reforms to attract foreign investment, strengthen tax and customs administration, and root out corruption.
Combating narcotics: The $10 billion U.S. investment in the past decade to combat drugs in Afghanistan has largely failed, and the country remains the world’s largest producer of opium. The illicit drug economy not only provides for a quarter of the Taliban’s $400 million annual budget, but it also threatens to promote corruption and instability at an even larger degree as foreign aid declines. To tackle the growing drug problem, the next government must devise a comprehensive plan that includes strengthening law enforcement institutions, pursuing aggressive eradication and interdiction efforts while incentivizing farmers who cultivate licit crops, weakening the Taliban’s influence in poppy-growing regions, and prosecuting government officials involved in the drugs business.
Improving security: Once the next president is in office, security should be the first order of business. While the Taliban failed to disrupt the election, the terrorist group remains a potent force and is readying itself for a comeback. This year, the terrorist group capitalized on the election stalemate and the vacuum left by withdrawing foreign troops by stepping up attacks across the country to project power and seize territory. On September 26, a large group of Taliban and foreign fighters reportedly captured a strategic district near the Afghan capital, killing 70 villagers including 15 by beheading. In the past months, the terrorist group has brought under siege four districts in southern Helmand Province, carried out suicide and spectacular attacks in Kabul and other major population centers, and has expanded its presence in previously peaceful central and northern regions. Efforts by the Afghan and U.S. governments to negotiate peace with the Taliban have failed; and with the exit of foreign troops looming, the group appears to be more confident about a military victory than eager to make peace. The new government must refrain from its predecessor’s policies that have only empowered the Taliban, such as releasing militant commanders from jail. Instead, it should focus on empowering and reforming the security and law enforcement institutions.
While the new government must lead all security and governance responsibilities, it cannot address these daunting challenges alone and will continue to require substantial foreign military and financial assistance in the years ahead. And the Obama administration, too, must avoid repeating the mistake of Iraq and reconsider its plan to pull out all troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2016.
A precipitous exit risks undoing the gains of the past decade and would allow al Qaeda and associated forces to reconstitute in parts of Afghanistan and destabilize neighboring Pakistan.
Ahmad Majidyar is a senior research associate at the American Enterprise Institute. He also teaches senior U.S. military officers on security and politics in Afghanistan.