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Afghanistan will weather the storm

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In Brief

As Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai and Abdullah Abdullah prepare for a runoff in Afghanistan’s presidential elections, many commentators have been surprised by how peaceful the political process has been to date. The widespread fraud that characterised the 2009 presidential election has not been repeated


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; the Afghan electoral commission has proved quite effective; the candidates have engaged in robust but respectful debate; the delegitimised Taliban has not hijacked the process; and the entire election has been held to account by social media.

Of course concerns remain — will the loser of the runoff accuse the victor of fraud; how divisive will each candidate’s focus on ethnic allegiances be; is either candidate wily enough to hold together the country? But overall the political transition has been a success.

Unfortunately there are at least two other transitions that Afghanistan also has to navigate this year. The transition that has attracted the most attention — at least before the election — is the security transition. By the end of 2014, the vast majority of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) will have withdrawn from Afghanistan — leaving behind a small force focusing on capacity-building and counter-terrorism. There is the prospect — albeit diminishing — that if the Bilateral Security Agreement between the US and Afghan governments is not signed, all US troops will withdraw. While the Afghan National Security Forces have certainly advanced under ISAF tutelage, most analysts do not consider it able to fill the security vacuum. What’s more, the security environment in Afghanistan is already deteriorating as anti-government elements including the Taliban have extended the geographical scope and targets of their attacks as a prelude to the ISAF withdrawal.

Equally concerning is an ongoing economic transition. Against the backdrop of fairly impressive economic growth over the last few years, the World Bank has predicted a sharp reduction in GDP growth this and next year. As the troops leave so will their spending power, the jobs that have been created to support them and the investor confidence that their presence has fostered. Significant international commitments have been made to continue supporting Afghanistan, but these are conditional on addressing the rampant corruption in the country, which seems beyond the capacity of either presidential candidate in the short-term. Aid agencies have also turned their attention and limited resources to the Syrian crisis.

Even if the odds are against Afghanistan, within the country there is a cautious optimism.

Afghans emphasise they are a youthful and resilient population. They argue that the Taliban is on the wane and will lose its main selling point for recruitment once ISAF is gone. The economic growth of the last year or two has not just depended on security, it has been the result of long-term investment in infrastructure and agriculture: the capital investment is in place. Even if the Bilateral Security Agreement is not agreed, there will not be a wholesale abandonment of Afghanistan by the international community at the end of this year — as there was in 1979. And for once the regional powers are aligned to support a successful transition. Iran wants to defend its investments, Pakistan is fearful of more refugees, and Central Asia and Russia are concerned about the prospect of a spill-over of ethnic conflict. Neither the region nor the international community will stand by and watch Afghanistan descend into a narco-state or become a safe haven again for global terrorism.

Most of all, Afghans are determined that their hard work of the last 20 years has not been for nothing.

On balance, international analysts have probably been too quick to condemn Afghanistan; and Afghans too proud to admit their country is in trouble. My prediction is that a groundswell of support for the new president will combine with strategic international support and sheer determination on the part of Afghans to see the country through this transition. Afghanistan will not descend into chaos; it will weather the storm of 2014 — but a safe port lies decades away.

Dr Khalid Koser MBE is Deputy Director and Academic Dean at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy, and Non-Resident Fellow at the Lowy Institute.

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