The future of the war-torn and decentralized Afghanistan has always been unclear. And after the recent NATO summit where member nations reiterated a strong commitment to having most combat troops out of the country by 2014, the fate of the turbulent nation appears even more uncertain. Yet there are two truths that appear unchallengeable: first, that the continued occupation of the country is unsustainable (especially financially) and second, that all of the most likely outcomes appear bleak.
This ominous future wasn’t always set in stone, however. Following the overthrow of the Taliban, there was much potential for some semblance of a functional national army and local police force. However, as former State Department diplomat James Dobbins outlined in his book “After the Taliban,” the Bush administration, as well as many NATO partners, took their eye off the ball (ahem, Iraq) and allowed army and police training initiatives and funding to spiral into irrelevancy for about six to seven years. As a result, the security situation in the country has deteriorated in these past years more than it should have—not to say security would be perfect if proper funding and training had been addressed earlier, but it most likely wouldn’t have been as bad as it is now.
Fledgling nations like Afghanistan, with little history of national centralization or well-established institutions, already intrinsically face issues of governmental corruption. This security issue only amplifies the corruption problem. In the name of security, President Hamid Karzai and other government officials justify expansive roles for the government that have the potential to trample on human rights. And this is on top of additional human rights abuses both by the government and, usually more brutally, by the insurgency.
With talk of integrating the Taliban into the current government, not only have ethnic tensions from non-Pashtun groups threatened to flare up but more extreme groups within the insurgency have emerged that are anathema to any type of political accommodation.
Not all of Afghanistan’s current and potential problems are of domestic origin, however. The country’s not-so-well-intentioned neighbors, Pakistan and Iran, threaten to further shake up security post-NATO occupation. Both governments (well, in Pakistan’s case, more specifically factions within the government) train and fund the insurgency. Whether the Shia-dominated Iran will continue to support its Sunni-dominated, historical enemies once NATO troops leave the area, remains an open question. There is little strategic value in such support in America’s absence from the country. Pakistani intelligence services and military, however, have a well-documented history of nurturing violent, religious fanatics, such as the infamous Haqqani network. Therefore, with this history, coupled with Pakistan’s own domestic problems with violent extremism, it would be fair to predict that factions within the Pakistani government, military and intelligence services, in order to further their own geo-strategic ends, will continue to support religious groups within Afghanistan that are pernicious to human rights and liberal, democratic values.
This is not to mention the harm the United States will probably continue to wreak upon the nation through its ridiculous drug war, that more often than not results in horrible consequences for the most innocent of society.
So what’s the answer? There really are no clear solutions. But, what is somewhat clear is that the United States and the world community should try to remain engaged with Afghanistan in positive ways. Specifically, diplomats should seek to mediate a peace agreement between the insurgency and the current government, with proper care and voice given to the non-Pashtun members of the country. An Afghan government integrated with Taliban members may not be ideal but it probably is the best of a series of bad options right now. Better the religious extremist sitting in a municipal office than the one roaming the night with automatic weapons.