In his weekly, televised address from the Oval Office on September 7th, President Obama was quick to reassure the American public that his plans for Syria “would not be another Iraq or Afghanistan.” He recognized that the American people were “war weary, even as the Iraq War has ended and the Afghanistan conflict is drawing down.”
Americans are certainly tired of their almost 13-year mission in Afghanistan that is, by some measures, the longest war that the nation has fought in its history. The Obama administration’s withdrawal plans for 2014 have given the American mission a sense of purpose that has been lacking for too long; the purpose to get out. A recent Gallup poll revealed that 50 percent of Americans want to speed up the timetable for withdrawal while only 21 percent wanted to keep troops in Afghanistan until American goals are accomplished. While American involvement in Afghanistan thus certainly nearing its end, Afghanistan’s most trying times are still ahead.
Afghanistan’s security situation seems, despite the continued American presence, to be deteriorating, with several new setbacks in the past few weeks alone. Namely, District Governor of the northeastern province Sar-e-Pol, Qazi Abdul Hai, defected to the Taliban September 19th. Less than a week later, there was yet another instance of a “blue-on-green” shooting, where a Taliban infiltrator uses Afghan army or police uniform as a disguise to attack NATO troops, has killed three soldiers.
These events are indicative of both the instability of the Afghan government and the continued strength of the Taliban. These attacks, along with mass desertion by Afghan recruits and factionalism amongst Afghanistan’s myriad semi-official and official security forces, have seriously hampered NATO training efforts, disrupting programs that must already work around a limited timeline as withdrawal approaches.
Hai is the highest-ranking civilian official yet to defect to the Taliban. In a video on the Taliban’s website, Hai defended his actions by claiming he saw “the corrupt face of the government”. This corruption is not purely Taliban propaganda; according to Transparency International, Afghanistan ranks 174th out of the 176 countries in its level of corruption that it surveyed in 2012. One American official went so far as to refer to the Karzai administration as a Vertically Integrated Criminal Enterprise (VICE). However, the real question is how corruption and the Afghani public’s perception of it will affect the government’s ability to maintain control over the country once NATO forces withdraw.
There has long been tension in Afghanistan between the national government and the provinces, with struggles over administrative control and resources. Moving forward, extensive government corruption and ineffectual security forces could easily weaken the already-fragile links between Kabul and the provinces. This is not to say that all will defect to the Taliban. The more likely outcome is that many Afghans will choose neither. If the links between the weak central government and the provinces are severed, the power vacuum will be filled by local power brokers, warlords, tribal and ethnic militias, or the Taliban, as it did following the Soviet withdrawal in 1989. If Afghans lose faith in democratic institutions, the country could easily collapse back to the state of civil war characteristic of the post-Soviet period.
Prospects for a smooth transition to full Afghan control in 2014 look increasingly dire. Even after a decade of war and the U.S. surge, the lawless Pakistani-Afghan frontier has provided the Taliban with a safe haven as they wait for NATO troops to withdraw. The continued military strength of the Taliban has detracted from ongoing power-sharing negotiations in Doha. The Afghan government and its Western partners lacks the leverage needed to force the Taliban to abandon their insurgency in favor of a political settlement.
Nevertheless, there are still some encouraging signs that the country will pull through. Upcoming elections could help to break the cycle of corruption or at least distance the government from the rule of the deeply unpopular president, Hamid Karzai, who is retiring. Polls indicate that 79 percent of Afghans are motivated to vote in national elections this April, despite extensive vote rigging and corruption in the previous presidential election in 2009.
Moreover, there have been some fragile gains in national infrastructure and education. Under the Taliban, there were only about a million Afghans enrolled in schools throughout the country. Today, there are roughly 10.5 million, including millions of girls who were systematically denied education under Taliban rule. Other gains are less tangible. The outpouring of support across the country after the Afghan national soccer team’s recent victory in the South Asian Football Federation Championship is significant for a country that has long struggled a weak sense of national identity.
Even as current developments provide hints at what is to come next for Afghanistan, the true test still lies ahead as Afghans hold their breath in anticipation for 2014 the NATO withdrawal in. It remains to be seen whether Afghanistan will, after over a decade of war emerge stronger, more coherent and more developed, or collapse once again into anarchy and the brutal rule of the Taliban.