The hard work for Afghan leaders has begun after the presidential election, which saw millions of citizens defy Taliban threats of violence and cast ballots in two rounds of voting in April and June.
Afghans are still fairly optimistic about what’s expected to be the first peaceful and democratic transfer of power in their history. The contours of the new administration, however, remain unclear, with the Afghan political elite now manoeuvring to secure position and privileges even after the US Secretary of State John Kerry brokered a deal between the presidential contenders Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah on July 12.
A host of threats and opportunities await the new Afghan president and his coalition, when they assume office later this summer. The new leader in Kabul will be taking charge of a country that has evolved remarkably in recent years.
Youth constitutes the majority of Afghanistan’s population. Young people will expect the new government to preserve and build upon the achievements seen in the country since the ouster of the Taliban regime. Since the end of 2001, Afghanistan has received unprecedented international aid, rapid urbanisation, a dramatic growth of free media organisations, representative rule and relative economic prosperity and political stability.
The new government, however, will still have to find solutions to Afghanistan’s old problems. His foremost challenge will be to deal with the Taliban insurgency, which is perpetuated by disparate factions motivated by ideology and grievances. Some factions are also used as jihadist proxies by neighbouring powers.
A revival of the Taliban Emirate that ruled in the second half of the 1990s is unacceptable to most Afghans. By participating in elections and engaging in numerous local uprisings against the Taliban, Afghans have shown they do not want their country to become an international jihadist bastion again. The Taliban is well aware of this sentiment, and it is factoring it into the movement’s calculations.
In recent years, the militants have indicated a serious interest in pursuing reconciliation. But the movement’s immediate challenge is to deal with an intensifying leadership struggle, which is manifest in an open confrontation between top Taliban leaders now living in exile in Pakistan. Given the Taliban’s obsession with refashioning Afghan society and politics to its liking through force, it remains unlikely that the movement will place pragmatism and compromise ahead of ideology. Kabul, however, should seize the Taliban’s openness to negotiations by pursuing reconciliation with leaders and fighters ready to engage in a constructive peace process.
The strength of Afghan government institutions will be crucial to prevent a Taliban comeback after the departure of most Western troops later this year. Kabul will also need to secure continued access to the international support it has attracted since 2001. Years, and perhaps decades, of international funding will be required to sustain the nearly 400,000-strong Afghan security forces. The Afghan government currently lacks domestic revenues to fund these forces. The unraveling of Iraq should give Washington an incentive to invest in Afghan forces, with or without ratification of the Bilateral Security Agreement aimed at cementing Kabul’s long-term strategic alliance with the West.
To promote domestic stability, the Afghan government must clearly define the roles of the army, police and intelligence service. It is critical for ordinary Afghans to view these organs as their national security establishment, not private forces loyal to strongmen and former warring factions. The incoming government will also be challenged to deliver good governance by implementing genuine reforms and abandoning deal-making and patronage. This will be hard and should be seen as a long-term prospect. Kabul cannot be expected to rapidly weaken key power brokers who run mafia-like political organisations and patronage networks. The government needs to quickly bridge the rural-urban divide by ensuring that reforms enacted in Kabul make their way to remote valleys and villages. The government will also have to quickly reform the judiciary to win the trust of citizens who continue to suffer from local conflicts and feuds after decades of war.
Afghanistan’s internal transformation, however, will not be complete without a corresponding realignment in the country’s relations with regional powers. For a generation, all of Afghanistan’s neighbours have paid heavily for Afghan instability. These powers now must help Afghanistan achieve its goal of becoming an “Asian Roundabout” between the subcontinent, China, West Asia and Central Asia. Beijing and New Delhi have seen the potential benefits and have been pursuing plans to invest billions of dollars in Afghanistan’s vast untapped mineral reserves. Together with Washington and its European allies, they need to step up to a more proactive stabilising role.
Pakistan, in particular, will benefit from such a transformation in Afghanistan. But Islamabad would be wise to seek a genuine settlement with Afghanistan by abandoning efforts to install a pro-Pakistan “friendly” government in Kabul. Pakistan should instead work towards building a shared economic future with its neighbour. Islamabad and New Delhi each stand to gain by halting their competition for political influence in Kabul and pursuing regional economic integration. Economic co-operation will prove to be the most effective antidote to poverty, conflicts and insecurity in South Asia and Central Asia.
As the foreign combat mission in Afghanistan winds down, Washington and its allies need to help Afghan leaders preserve the fragile gains of the past decade and build a strong state capable of withstanding the inevitable challenges. For their part, Afghan leaders, whether in opposition or in the government, need to be vigilant to ensure that their country’s future will not be a prolongation of its troubled past.