In early November several of AAN’s analysts and members gathered in Stockholm, to brainstorm, exchange ideas and participate in the annual SCA conference. We started the discussions by doing a quick round, asking everyone what the one or two issues were that are likely to be central, or that should not be forgotten, as we move into a different phase of international engagement in Afghanistan. Given the gathered knowledge and experience it seemed like a good idea to share an off-the-cuff overview of some of the things to watch.
The single most mentioned issue was political economy. It is becoming increasingly clear that you cannot track what is happening in Afghanistan’s political field without understanding the economic ties and interests linked to the new elites. Analysts who want to stay on top of the shifting power relations have to grapple with new fields such as the banking or mining sector, the murky world of contracting, and the impact that the Western money flows have on the country’s economy and politics.
The second obvious subject to watch was the ‘talks’ and ‘talk about talks’, as well as the political processes behind them. But more than that, there is a need for much wider public conversations on what kind of state Afghanistan should have, what peace should look like and how far the country should go to try to achieve it – a conversation that should not just be held between representatives of the government and the armed insurgency. This links to another theme that has been playing out in the background, and will continue to do so in the years to come, namely Afghanistan’s need to grapple with its extremism – it is a fallacy to think that a successful military surge will do the trick – and its conservatism, in the context of modernization and the need for some form of pluralism.
A third clear theme was the ambiguous impact of the international engagement, its denial of Afghan realities as it seeks to wind down and weave a narrative that will persuade home audiences, and the fact that it is the Afghans who will suffer the aftermath. There was a clear sense that both analysis and engagement needs to start looking beyond this phase of Afghanistan’s history, and that there is a need to identify and strengthen those groups and individuals – the brave journalists, the determined human rights activists, the outspoken opinion leaders, the local peacemakers, the evolving political movements – that can become the future backbone of change. There was also a shared acknowledgement of the need to document, to bear witness and to put things on the record, to counter the fog of spin, policy-speak and strategic communications.
A fourth field to explore is the youth and, in a broader sense, the linkages between demographics, poverty, education and conflict. The current generation is growing up in a fragmented society and culture that is shaped in a confusing way by both conflict and state-building. Their heroes and dreams are likely to be different from those of their parents and this will affect Afghanistan’s future in ways that we do not yet understand.
A fifth obvious field that was mentioned many times was the region and in particular Afghanistan’s closest neighbours. Relationships are changing, several countries themselves are in flux, and the announced Western drawdown has opened up possibilities for political realignments.
But there is of course much more. So feel free to add your own Things to Watch, for instance here.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020