28 июня 2013

Orlov: The situation in Afghanistan and its possible evolution in the context of the Factor 2014

By Orlov A.A[1]

The article provides an analysis of the situation in Afghanistan before the withdrawal of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) from the country and contains a forecast of possible developments in the next period. The author considers that the integration into the world economy has critical importance for the future of Afghanistan.

The article is based on the author`s speech delivered at a meeting of the CSTO Scientific and Expert Council on January 25, 2013.

The year 2014, a new threshold in the modern history of Afghanistan, is approaching. This is the time when the active stage of operations of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) formed under UN Security Council Resolution 1386 of December 20, 2001, is supposed to end. Representatives of 50 countries - NATO members and some states outside the Euro-Atlantic region - have been a part of the ISAF for eleven years. These include Australia, New Zealand, Jordan, Malaysia, Mongolia, the UAE, El Salvador and Singapore. Former Soviet republics - Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, Latvia, Lithuania, Ukraine and Estonia - sent their servicemen on the Afghan mission. The North Atlantic alliance took command of the ISAF in August 2003.

U.S. servicemen are the backbone of the ISAF forces for an apparent reason[1]. Their country initiated the operation in Afghanistan to retaliate against a series of terror attacks on the U.S. territory known as the 9/11. The official goals of the U.S. operation in Afghanistan were:

- to topple the Taliban regime;

- to liberate the country from their influence and defeat the Al-Qaeda international terrorist organization that settled down in Afghanistan.

An analysis of the present-day situation in Afghanistan shows that in spite of the huge material costs and sustained losses (as of December 1, 2012, the ISAF had lost 3,233 servicemen, amongst them 2,161 Americans) the declared goals of the operation in Afghanistan were never attained. The Taliban movement, which was seriously disorganized in the first years of war and seemed to be on the verge of final defeat at certain stages of the conflict, fully recovered by now in the military and organizational ways. Instead of declining, terrorist activity is mounting in the country and, above all, there have been suicide bomber attacks previously uncharacteristic of this country.

The level of corruption in the Afghan authorities is extremely high. The morale and skills of the Afghan army, security forces and other law enforcement authorities are low although their numbers have reached their maximum (about 350,000 men). This gives a reason to doubt their ability to efficiently resist the Taliban when the day after comes and the ISAF leaves. The Afghan economy remains in a pitiful condition; it has been in stagnation for years and the lack of development causes high unemployment rates, depression amongst villagers and drug business, which prompts the poor to cultivate drug crops for living. Afghanistan produces 90% of opium and heroin of the world and drug trafficking revenues now, which naturally go into the pocket of drug lords instead of peasants, amount to annual $2.4 billion or 15% of the country`s GDP[2]. Under these circumstances Afghan youth is an easy prey of radical Islamists who seem to offer simple explanations of difficult problems in the notorious "black and white" manner.

Same as it was at the final stage of the presence of Soviet forces in Afghanistan, one of the most pressing tasks today is the creation of an Afghan government capable of independently controlling the country. Presidential and parliamentary elections are going to be held in Afghanistan in 2014-2015. The clan of incumbent President Hamid Karzai, which does not enjoy serious authority and influence in the country, is hardly able to nominate a strong successor comparable with Najibullah, whose government continued to control practically on its own a big part of the country under extremely unfavorable conditions for several years after the pullout of Soviet forces from Afghanistan and fell only after it found itself in a full blockade, in particular, by Russia.

The situation is different now. There is no former confrontation between the East and the West over Afghanistan, which became a breeding ground for Islamic radicalism. The entire international community (probably, with minor exceptions) is interested in ending the longest (more than 30 years) war of the modern epoch. According to demographic gradation, the second generation of Afghan people has been constantly fighting and never living in peace. History shows it is usually hard to make the first step from peace to war. The Afghan tragedy vividly shows that it is sometimes much more difficult to fall out of war, abandon the custom of daily pulling the trigger and firmly take the path of peace.

One of the most serious and difficult problems of modern Afghanistan is that the years of war have practically ruined the thin Europeanized cultural and political population stratum on which the Afghan authorities have usually relied. This stratum, that took shape in the period of the British colonial rule, was preserved and traditionally dominated in the political life in the period of independent Afghanistan, including the years of the Soviet military presence.

The Europeanized stratum practically disappeared with the accession to power of Mujahedeen and, later on, the Taliban. Its remnants have no significant influence on processes underway in the country. The Americans and their allies did not pay serious attention to the revival of that stratum in the decade of their stay in Afghanistan but concentrated on purely practical issues, such as the formation of armed forces and security services, as well as power groups in Kabul and centers of provinces.

Now, when the outgoing ISAF needs to leave somebody they could rely on in the future at the wheel of Afghanistan, Washington and other Western capitals have to design intricate political combinations. These steps are necessary to fill the forecasted political vacuum, that the country will inevitably have in the context of "Factor 2014".

The easiest way to fill the future political vacuum, in the opinion of the West, is the future formation of a coalition government with moderate Taliban members (if they really exist and are not something illusionary). Big hopes were pinned on direct negotiations between the U.S. and the Taliban, about which much was said about in the beginning of 2012, when a Taliban mission in Doha, Qatar, was opened. However, the Taliban has evidently has lost interest in these contacts. The Europeans have also initiated negotiations. The latest example is the roundtable held in Paris last December with the participation of a number of influential Taliban members from the Supreme Peace Council and the Northern Alliance[3]. Yet Paris must have fallen out of numbers of possible intermediaries of the Afghan settlement due to the operation in Mali, in which France is playing the main role.

Another way to prevent chaos in Afghanistan after 2014 is the stronger reliance of Kabul on tribal chiefs who have already been controlling a significant part of the country. But this is a direct way to further fragmentation of Afghanistan and its final recoil into the medieval ages. Still, the reliance on tribal chiefs may have no alternative under certain circumstances in helping avoid full recovery of the Taliban`s positions and its seizure of power in the country, which would have even more serious consequences for Afghanistan.

The Taliban has notably strengthened lately and has an increasing opportunity of taking power legally in the capital city and provinces; it is ready to dictate its conditions. Taliban activity has long spread into a part of Pakistan, which is a backup territory, and Al-Qaeda is actually becoming an intercontinental force with the reinforcement of its positions in the Middle East and certain parts of Africa. This is proven with the situations in Syria and Mali. In the first case radical Islamic units affiliated with Al-Qaeda one way or another make up the most combat capable and irreconcilable groups of "insurgents" responsible for dozens of terrorist acts. These groups do not conceal their plans to form an Islamic state in Syria.

Local Al-Qaeda groups in Mali have actually engaged in a direct confrontation with the armed forces of a Western state (France) although they have not been very successful so far. Let us not forget, though, that Soviet and, two decades later, American forces (with allies) started their Afghan campaigns rather successfully but did not achieve quick success. On the opposite, wars lingered on for a decade and upon the end of that period there was a question of how to end them more or less decorously. So, the initial success of French troops in Mali and their swift movement to the country`s north where they are welcomed by cheering crowds of local residents, who are tired of the Sharia norms and other Islamic peculiarities disagreeing with their centuries-old traditions and lifestyle, should not be overestimated, while the ability of Islamists to resist should not be underestimated. The rapid and practically spontaneous attack on the energy complex in Algeria, the abduction of hundreds of foreign specialists and killings of dozens clearly display possible tactics of Islamic extremists in the upcoming period. It may be used not only in Africa and the Middle East but also in Europe. The growth of instability in regions where Islamic radicalism is becoming active is rather obvious. In this context the statement U.S. President Barack Obama made at the inauguration ceremony about the ending epoch of wars for the United States and a peaceful and bright future does not look very convincing and has a strong scent of populism. One would like to believe, but things look totally different in the real life: the fire of wars and confrontations is spreading.

But let us go back to the situation in Afghanistan. Being aware of the fragile and unstable situation in that country, which would apparently form after the ISAF pullout and wishing to avoid the mistake of the Soviet Union that hastily left Afghanistan and shut the door, the Americans are building a network of large, well equipped and protected military bases. The bases will deploy substantial groups of foreign forces (according to various estimates, from 10,000 to 20,000-30,000 servicemen). The legal ground is the agreement on strategic partnership between the United States and Afghanistan signed in May 2012. It is unclear for how long the Americans and, probably, some of their allies intend to stay in Afghanistan after 2014.

It is also unclear if the "limited contingent" of the United States can provide stability of the Kabul regime and whether the bases run the risk to become islands in the turbulent sea of radical Islam. Does Afghanistan have a chance to rejoin the family of its Asian neighbors, which have numerous domestic problems but still are able to solve them somehow? The eastern and southern neighbors, China and India, are solving their problems so successfully that, as the most experts believe, they will become the vanguard of the most dynamically developing states, at least, in the first half of the 21st century. Or is Afghanistan is destined to be the "world black hole" of radical Islamism forever?

Thirty years of the endless war in Afghanistan show that is hardly possible to defeat various strains of Jihad fighters in that country with military force, as their main force now is the Taliban. It seems more reasonable to try to solve the problem of the country`s integration into the world economy with joint efforts, especially as its neighbors - China, India, Pakistan, Iran and Turkmenistan - are interested in that. It would be possible to hold an international conference initiated by Asian neighbors of Afghanistan rather than Western countries and, possibly, certain authoritative Islamic states. It may result in a modern analog of the Marshall Plan for the country financed both by the West and by the East. One should probably also think about the main negotiator with the Taliban on behalf of the Islamic world. It could be a new leader of "moderate Islam", for example, Egyptian President Mohammad Morsi. In turn, Russia may also discuss these options with the USA and the RIC troika without taking the lead.

As to the Soviet experience in Afghanistan, it should not be neglected either. Let us not forget that the Soviet contingent came to Afghanistan (as known, by numerous requests of the Afghan government) not only to protect the regime amicable to Moscow (which the West primitively interpreted as revolution export) but also to help the country reach a new level of development. That implied economic growth, education and culture. Plants, schools and roads were built and much was done to develop agriculture. But the war, which is known to be caused not only by domestic, but also foreign issues, thwarted that process and set the country back dozens if not hundreds years. The Soviet experience of searching for Afghan reconciliation and accord has not lost its significance. It should be analyzed, understood and studied anew.

How may the situation in Afghanistan and around it develop in the near future? There are three most realistic scenarios: the extremely negative, the moderately positive and, the most probable, which has more disadvantages than advantages (if it has any advantages at all):

- the first scenario implies а) rapid seizure of power in the country by the Taliban after the pullout of main ISAF forces; b) isolation of U.S. and other foreign contingents remaining in the country at their bases; c) reconstruction of the system for training international terrorists, introduction of strict Sharia norms, intensified sabotage and terrorism on territories bordering on Afghanistan, primarily, in Pakistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan which is fraught with destabilization of those countries and formation of a large and lasting hotbed of tension in Central Asia. That scenario will require from Russia and other CSTO member countries to take massive, rather expensive and multifaceted (military, political, economic and propaganda) counter-measures along with the work the CSTO has been doing in Central Asia for a number of years;

- the moderately positive scenario is directly linked with the viability of authorities to be formed in Afghanistan in 2014-2015. If the situation in the country is changed, economic reconstructions begin through an acceptable compromise between main parties to the domestic Afghan conflict and approval of a large foreign economic assistance program; coordinated measures should be taken to suppress drug trafficking, and thus a drastic turn for the better may be achieved;

- the third and most probable scenario implies that a confrontation between the Kabul government backed up by Western contingents and the Taliban, which will inevitably strengthen its position after the ISAF withdrawal, will be smoldering for years. In that case one should expect consolidation of anti-Taliban forces in the country`s north and stronger positions of tribal chiefs to become rulers in their lands. The country will witness processes characteristic of the epoch of feudal disunity and fragmentation under the Somali scenario. The last barriers on the way of Afghanistan`s transformation into a drug state or several drug states will be gone. Migration of many uneducated and unskilled people infested with extremist religious ideas from Afghanistan to neighboring countries will naturally grow, which they will view as a transit point in their pursuit of "the land of plenty".

These processes will directly concern Russia sooner or later. Naturally, Moscow must be prepared to give an answer to any scenario in Afghanistan although it is necessary to remember that the Afghan syndrome in Russian society has not been overcome and any use of Russian armed forces or other military units will not be taken with enthusiasm. In this situation purposeful concentration on international efforts towards economic reconstructions in Afghanistan would meet our interests. Within the framework of coordinated international efforts Russia could find its economic niche in Afghanistan and be a constructive mediator capable of promoting reconciliation of frequently irreconcilable positions of direct and direct participants in the Afghan conflict.

As we have said before, practically the entire international community is interested in the settlement in Afghanistan. This is a colossal resource that cannot be ignored. Interpretation of other acute conflicts by world leading actors is less uniform, which leads to heated debates and differing positions. Due to the obvious lack of integration in the efforts of main world powers, primarily permanent members of the UN Security Council, their common efforts in Afghanistan could become a model for settling other acute regional conflicts that create a real threat to peace and security.

The situation in Afghanistan and its possible evolution in the context of the Factor 2014

By Orlov A.A

The article provides an analysis of the situation in Afghanistan before the withdrawal of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) from the country and contains a forecast of possible developments in the next period. The author considers that the integration into the world economy has critical importance for the future of Afghanistan.

Key words

International Security Assistance Force - ISAF, Afghanistan, USA, Russia, Taliban, Al-Qaeda, drug business, UN Security Council.



[1] Alexander Arsenyevich Orlov- Ph.D. (History), Director of the Institute for International Studie of the MGIMO (U) of the MFA of Russia


[1] As of May 2012 there were about 90,000 U.S. servicemen amongst roughly 130,000 personnel of the ISAF

[2] Nezavisimaya Gazeta. January 26, 2013

[3] Nezavisimaya Gazeta December 18, 2012


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