One day Conference Held on December 18, 2013 at IPRI Conference Hall
After over a decade-long US engagement, the future of Afghanistan seems uncertain. The US troops withdrawal from Afghanistan is scheduled to be completed by the end of 2014, but there are many perplexing questions confronting the analysts. These include the final outcome of US-Afghanistan Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA), the capabilities of the Afghan National Army (ANA) and Afghan National Police (ANP), economic stability and the central challenge of holding free and fair Presidential elections in April 2014. The future of Afghanistan hinges on these four major developments along with the materialization of US efforts for a negotiated settlement with the Taliban.
Though a lot has been agreed between the US and Afghanistan on BSA, the most critical issue of immunity to US troops is yet to be decided. The outcome of negotiations on BSA has the potential to drastically alter the future of US engagement with Kabul after the troops’ withdrawal. The April 2014 Presidential elections would be a critical development in deciding the internal stability of the state. It would be for the first time since June 2002 that some other leader would replace Karzai. In that year he was first elected interim head of government by the Afghan Loya Jirga, following which he had two consecutive constitutional terms in office. So far, eleven candidates are in the run including Mr. Qayum Karzai, President Karzai’s brother, Mr. Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, a Soviet era Mujahideen leader; Mr. Zalmai Rassul and Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, both former Foreign Ministers of Afghanistan. There are also reports of pre-poll rigging with reference to voter cards. The conduct, transparency and domestic, as well as international acceptance, of these elections would have critical bearing on determining the Afghan future. Are the Afghan security forces ready to be ISAF’s “ticket out of Afghanistan”; a role sought by the US Secretary of Defence Robert Gates in 2009? Also, in the post-withdrawal period, policies of regional countries, international donors, North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the US would be pivotal in outlining the future contours of the Afghan state and society.
It is therefore highly important for the policy makers and the strategic community to analyze the developments in and around Afghanistan. Considering the importance of the issue, Islamabad Policy Research Institute (IPRI) organised this conference to evaluate the internal and external dimensions of Afghanistan in the post-US withdrawal period. Experts and scholars from relevant fields participated in the conference and discussed key Afghan issues related to the US withdrawal.
Welcome Address: Ambassador Sohail Amin, President IPRI in his welcome address said the topic “Post-US Withdrawal from Afghanistan: Internal and External Dimensions,” was very important and many conferences had been held and books and articles written on it. This was so because the transition in Afghanistan would have its repercussions on Pakistan. Pakistan is already hosting millions of Afghan refugees. Referring to a paper by Rahimullah Yusufzai, President IPRI said Afghanistan of today was not as it was back in the 1990s. Today there were more than nine million students in Afghanistan as compared to less than a million back in the 1990s. There were seven million mobile phones in Afghanistan which did not exist then. Interestingly, the country had also qualified for cricket World Cup 2015.
He said Afghanistan was undergoing three important transitions: first political transition – the elections were scheduled to be held on April 5, 2014, with 11 candidates in the run for the president. Hence it was very important how the elections were conducted and what the results would be.
The second important transition was the transfer of security to Afghan Security Forces (ASF) in 2014. He said the ASF was 350,000 men strong and in 2013, 95 per cent of all conventional operations and 98 per cent of all special operations in Afghanistan were conducted by it. Referring to BSA, Mr. Amin quoted Senator John Kerry who had recently said, “There were no deadlines for it but we would like Afghanistan to sign it as quickly as possible.”
He said the third important transition was related to the economy of the country. Afghanistan was relying on foreign aid and the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth rate which was 13-14 per cent in 2013 could drop down to three per cent as estimated by the World Bank (WB). The inflow of foreign assistance would be a critical factor in the coming years. There was already a programme until 2016 for international assistance, which hopefully would continue.
He said as far as Pakistan was concerned, the country had maintained a consistent policy towards Afghanistan. Islamabad desired an Afghan-owned, Afghan-led and Afghan-driven process in the country. Pakistan had always said it could help Afghanistan in the intra-Afghan reconciliation process. However, the people of Afghanistan alone could craft their government and road map for national reconciliation. Pakistan’s Cabinet Committee on National Security had given guidelines on how Pakistan would beef up its security on its borders. Pakistan already had more than 140,000 men posted on its western borders.
Ambassador Fauzia Nasreen, member IPRI BOG chaired the session.
Lt. General (R) Talat Masood spoke on “Prospective Regional and International Engagement with Afghanistan in the Post-US Withdrawal.” He said uncertainty would prevail during the period of transition in Afghanistan. He raised important questions about the transition and said it was difficult to say whether the country would plunge into a civil war or it would be able to hold itself. The important question was whether the national institutions would be able to prevent the country from falling down and whether the military be able to secure it? It was likely that Afghan institutions and the military were in a position to do that. How far would the Afghan elections be fair and transparent? If these were not transparent, the resentment of the people would continue. Nonetheless, the power centers in the north and south would remain.
He said much would depend on the attitude of other countries towards the transition in Afghanistan.
Pakistan: Under the prevalent situation, Afghanistan was the most important neighbour and vice-versa. The stability of Afghanistan was a strategic imperative for Pakistan. There was, therefore, increased engagement between the leaders of the two countries to improve bilateral relations. He said there were divergences on how to achieve stability in Afghanistan. Pakistan intended to broaden its engagement with other actors as well and not the Taliban alone.
Taliban were an important force in Afghanistan and Pakistan wanted the Taliban to join the political process. In his opinion, dividing Taliban into reconcilable elements and hardliners would not be productive as Pakistan would not have any leverage with the hardliners.
He said that the location of Afghanistan was indeed an asset, but the prevailing instability was making it a liability for Pakistan. Afghanistan as well as Pakistan could benefit through exploitation of bilateral trade, culture, and commercial relations. Both countries needed energy corridors, rail links connecting to Central Asian Republics (CARs). He said the present government wanted to maintain good relations with Afghanistan, India and other neighbouring countries.
US: The US role was crucial to the transition process in Afghanistan. It intended to remain relevant, because of CARs, Iran and China. BSA would come about later if not sooner.
India: India needed an opening to CARs and was investing in big projects in Afghanistan. Keeping in view the presence of India in Afghanistan, Pakistan needed to focus on its border management.
Iran: Tehran was pursuing its own interests in Afghanistan and likes to see reduction in foreign influence there.
China: The country had invested heavily in resource development in Afghanistan. Beijing had its fears that there would be negative implications on China if security situation got worse in Afghanistan.
He said it was important to bring the Taliban into political process. He said the important question remained who would want the US to leave–Russia, China, or India? No other country could ensure the security or provide economic support to Afghanistan as US would.
Professor Dr. Naheed Zia Khan, Dean, Faculty of Law, Commerce & Management and Administrative Sciences, Fatima Jinnah Women University Rawalpindi, spoke on “Economic Implications of Troops Withdrawal for Afghanistan: The Way Forward.” She said the transition in Afghanistan’s economy was intertwined with the economy of Pakistan. The per capita income of Afghanistan was 528 US dollars, however these figures did not include informal economy and national income hence the actual income was different than reflected in the reports. She said foreign aid comprised one-fourth of Afghanistan’s GDP, but it was not like the Marshall Plan. The Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund (ARTF) by WB provided for 88 per cent of expenditure of Afghanistan’s governance and service sectors.
She said the war bubble in Afghanistan would deflate: The contractors and businessmen engaged with foreign troops would lose their business once the foreign troops left the country, and joblessness would follow. Afghanistan’s growth would also fall substantially after 2014.
Dr. Zia while highlighting the weaknesses of the economy pointed out that the poverty head count in the country was 36% while due to higher risk factor the ratio of capital flight was also high. She said due to corruption, embezzlement, political instability and insecurity, the economy of the country might get worse. However, the strategic location provided opportunities to Afghanistan to become a trade and energy corridor. Afghanistan had mineral deposits worth one trillion US dollars, and India as well as China were eager to exploit these mineral resources.
She said Afghani people were a highly resilient people, which was a positive factor for the economy. The Afghan diaspora would also play its positive role in improving the economy of the country. She said Afghanistan provided 90 per cent of the world’s total opium supply. She said the way forward for Afghanistan’s economy lay in strengthening the strengths and weakening the weaknesses.
Mr. Rahimullah Yusufzai, Resident Editor, The News International, spoke on “Emerging Contours in Post-Karzai and Post-US Withdrawal: Managing Politics and Security.” He said the year 2014 was more important, because developments in the year would decide the changes which would follow. He said there were two important developments which required attention 1) BSA and 2) Afghan presidential elections. There was uncertainty and nobody was sure about the peaceful transfer of power. He said the economy of the country would suffer as there was already a flight of capital and the value of Afghani currency was falling.
He said Afghan elites and businessmen were demanding Karzai government to sign BSA and he was under immense pressure from the US, his allies and parliament members to sign BSA. Karzai would sign the bill but he demanded from the US: 1) there must be no airstrikes and night time operation in Afghanistan 2) the US should do more for initiating peace process in Afghanistan.
The US would not vacate its nine strategic bases easily. These bases comprised huge infrastructure and there would be at least 10,000 troops stationed there. Mr. Yusufzai said these bases would give the US leverage against China, Iran, CARs, and also for energy transport. The US did not want Kabul to fall. The 10,000 troops would not be stationed to defeat Talibans but to protect the urban areas including Kabul.
If BSA was not signed, Afghan economy would have to face a loss of 15 billion US dollars per year. Karzai did not want to be labeled as a traitor hence he was reluctant to sign BSA. However, if Karzai did not sign the agreement it could be an opening for peace with the Taliban. Gulbadin Hikmatyar, commander Hizb-i-Islami, had already said if Karzai did not sign BSA he would lay down arms and join the political process.
Talking about elections in Afghanistan, Mr. Yusufzai said it was for the first time that Afghans themselves were conducting elections in the country. Previously foreigners were involved in the election process. He said there were three major threats for the election process which were insecurity, cold weather, and rigging. Insecurity would prevent people from election campaigns and voter turnout would reduce. In the previous elections due to threats from Taliban voter turnout remained low in Taliban controlled area, and Pashtun representation in Afghan Parliament was reduced. He said if Afghan refugees were not allowed to vote, it would mean keeping almost five million people out from the elections. He said presidential front runner Dr. Abdullah Abdullah needed to win the first round of elections if he wanted to win. It was unlikely for Dr. Abdullah Abdullah to win the first round; this might lead to rejection of election results by his supporters. President Karzai would support his brother Qayum Karzai and Dr. Zalme Rasul in the election.
Remarks of the Chair
In conclusion Ambassador Fauzia Nasreen thanked the panelists. She said the conference discussions highlighted that the situation in Afghanistan was full of uncertainties; it was a source of concern for Pakistan as well as international community. For Pakistan, as the most affected neighbor, the challenges would become even more complicated, if the instability in Afghanistan turned into a civil war. The agenda of nation building was founded on democracy and strong institutions. The transition processes would not only be fragile but there was a looming danger of reversal in the gains that had been made so far. Political transitions’ two main pillars were free and fair elections and peace and reconciliation. Quoting former Deputy Minister of Afghanistan Mr. Sarwar Hussaini, Ambassador Nasreen said “the composition, practices and policies of leadership in Afghanistan were characterized by an ultraconservative and over-cautious leadership with tribalism and ethnicity occupying special place in the leadership decisions.” Therefore, apart from insurgency a serious challenge was state building. Additionally, there were serious apprehensions about the presidential elections. If there were bitter competition in the election between Karzai favourites and other candidates, the bitterness would continue in the post-election period as well. This would further disturb peace and stability of the country and affect the subsequent parliamentary elections. The peace and reconciliation process in Afghanistan was not making any headway. The Advisor on National Security and Foreign Affairs, Mr. Sartaj Aziz had recently disclosed that Afghan Taliban were sticking to a principled stance that they did not recognise the government in Kabul and also the Afghan Constitution. Hence, there were serious doubts about the entire process being successful. She said as far as the security during transition was concerned, it had occupied central position in the entire strategy of the US and its allies. Building a strong Afghan Army of 350,000 troops and a police force was seen as a ticket to exit. However the project had not delivered as per expectations.
The success or failure of BSA would determine the sustainability of the security architecture in Afghanistan. The outcome of BSA, nature, mandate, task of the residual forces, the strength and capability of the Afghan army, police and intelligence as well as their will, commitment, training, and availability of resources, were the factors which would determine the viability of the post-2014 security apparatus in Afghanistan. Keeping in view the defections and lack of will that prevailed in the security forces in Afghanistan; the effective use of counterforce against the insurgents portrayed a discouraging scenario.
Ambassador Nasreen said there was need to be mindful about the Talibans’ capacity and their ingress in local population and the support they enjoyed on the basis of ethnicity. The role of criminal mafia, drug trade, and opium cultivation could not be overlooked. She quoted former Afghan Minister of Rehabilitation and Development Muhammad Ehsan Zai, who said, “without a functioning government the success of security transition can hardly be sustained.”
Given the difficulties Afghanistan was facing, she said, the economic situation there was not encouraging. The revenue generation was minimum. Out of ten billion US dollars, the government generated only two billion US dollars for its own functioning. This would make economic transition difficult for Afghanistan.
The criticality of the US and NATO’s continued engagement cannot be denied. However, BSA and new conditions imposed by President Karzai would be the determining factors. The issue of US presence in Afghanistan was part of the regional security complex where regional and global players had overlapping if not competitive interests. President Karzai was refusing to sign BSA before April 2014, nonetheless it was likely that BSA would be signed after the April elections. Change always brought opportunities and one could hope the situation would improve in Afghanistan.
The conference ended with a vote of thanks from the President of IPRI.