Last Wednesday marked the final day of the US and NATO’s prolonged combat mission in Afghanistan, which began with the invasion that overthrew the Taliban shortly after the events of September 11th, 2001. In the capital Kabul and in a small and subdued ceremony in the presence of Afghan and international observers - the US and its NATO allies lowered the flag of International Security Assistance Force, which is replaced with the flag of Operation Resolute Support, now in charge of assisting, advising and mentoring the Afghan National Security Forces in its fight against terrorism and potential reappearance of Taliban.
As the official US combat role and Operation Enduring Freedom came to an end in Afghanistan, the greatest challenge is to sustain and build on the slight progress that has been made in recent years, or risk the country’s collapse back into a much bleaker state. The newly elected President Ashraf Ghani has promised a “transformation decade” to his people. Ghani is the face of the new political realities in the country, following the first democratic transfer of power after President Karzai. In this new political reality Mr. Ghani is sharing power with a so-called chief executive - prime minister, in effect Dr. Abdullah Abdullah. If the power arrangement between Ghani and Abdullah ultimately proves to be successful, the power and legitimacy of the new government would be reinforced and strengthened. However, if the government of national unity breaks down, surely there would be increased division and tension, potentially along ethnic or geographic lines in the country since Ghani and Abdullah have different regional and ethnic power bases. Ghani is from the southern region and part of the country’s majority Pashtun community, while Abdullah is from the northern region and his support base is concentrated in the ethnic Tajik community.
Undoubtedly Afghanistan is a much better place today with higher standards of living than it was under the Taliban regime. Today, millions of girls attend schools, several thousands are attending institutions of higher education, the government institution is more vibrant, a parliament, a judiciary, a vibrant civil society, and strong presence of women across the country are signs of improvement and refinement. On the foreign policy front, the government in Kabul has been establishing embassies and diplomatic relationship with almost every nation and has walked out of the state of isolation, sanction and ruined country under the Taliban. But let’s not dismiss that danger remains in place as today Afghanistan is heading down an uncertain path with growing insecurity, economic uncertainty and political instability.
As Afghanistan’s 350,000 forces have officially taken responsibility for security of their country, the insurgency has been testing the commitment and loyalty of the army and police, that hardly are holding their ground as the number of attacks increase and casualties soar. The most important threat that is facing Afghanistan is re-emergence of fundamentalism. Today Afghanistan remains a highly insecure country, and highly vulnerable to extremists, particularly the Taliban. 2014 proved to be a deadliest of the war for government forces and civilians, with around 5,000 Afghan soldiers and police killed. An estimated 10,000 civilians have been killed or wounded, the highest annual tolls since the UN started tracking figures in 2008. In much of the southern and eastern region Afghan forces are facing Taliban without assistance of coalition air support or medical evacuations. They have taken heavy casualties but thus far have prevented the Taliban from seizing large swaths of territory. It seems that after the school massacre in the Pakistani town of Peshawar- in which more than 140 people were killed, mainly children, the new Afghan Government might receive a boost from warming ties with Pakistan as Islamabad has pledged to work to fight insurgents on both sides of the border.
Afghanistan must swiftly and vigilantly choose its path at the international stage. It should pursue robust diplomacy and establish close ties in the region, which will certainly be at the expense of its strategic partnership with the United States and NATO. This means that it should demand peace in exchange for Durand line border and strategic depth for Pakistan, assure India’s strategic interests, deny refuge for Russian and Central Asian extremists and most importantly balance out the interest of Iran and Saudi Arabia in the country. A brighter future for Afghanistan could also involve an active role of its three key powerful neighbors - China, India and Russia and these countries should reach to some sort of regional consensus to deal with security and economic dilemmas of Afghanistan in this new era. It should not be ignored that each one of these countries also have conflicting interests in Afghanistan as it is viewed as an enormous source of instability for them.
Afghanistan is indeed facing a potential major upsurge in Taliban violence in 2015 including the possibility of Peshawar-style attacks on school children. If proper action is not taken the country risks becoming destabilized in what Senator McCain called - in his recent visit to Kabul - the ”same movie" we have seen in Iraq. Let’s not forget that on the economic front, 2015 could be a very difficult period for the country, Since, 2001 the fast-growing economy has become steadily more dependent on foreign aid. With the drawdown of international troops there has been a fall-off in overall foreign aid levels. In part, this is because US and NATO forces have provided a security umbrella under which some of the aid agencies have worked in recent years. One of the key dangers for Afghanistan’s economy is that there has been only very limited success in economic diversification since 2001. The grave danger is that, as aid is reduced, the economy becomes increasingly dependent upon drug exports, which could turn the country into a Narco-State as it was during the Taliban.
There is no doubt that the political and economic future for the country is fragile, uncertain and bleak. The recent budget deficit, over -reliance on US and NATO on military assistance, a divided corrupt elite, high rates of corruption and the growing insecurity and resurgence of Taliban are all credible threats for the future of a stable and peaceful Afghanistan. For years to come Afghanistan will need international and regional economic, political and military support to stand on its feet. As much as the international community need to to support Afghanistan - Afghanistan will equally have to prove itself and equal and credible ally of its partners. It will have no choice but to explore partnership and pursue prudent policies. The top priority of the new government and policy makers in Kabul should be internal stability and preserving unity of the country. It should be a reminder that a divided, poor and fragile Afghanistan will never be taken seriously by its neighbors and its partners. This government must forge a national consensus for the fight against terrorism and fundamentalism, peace and stability in the country and a viable agenda for economic reform.