Ever since in 2011 President Obama announced his timeline for the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, the prospect of 2014 has been looming ominously over the country. And now we are here, at the beginning of this almost mythical year. There is nervousness and fear, but also pushback, with some Afghans believing that the rest of the world is patently wrong to be so pessimistic about their future. AAN’s Martine van Bijlert looks at the questions that have been on the minds of so many: What will happen next? And: Will Afghanistan be all right?
For years now, ever since Obama first brought it up, 2014 has been a constant subject in conversations about Afghanistan’s future. So much so that the word 2014 – do hezar o chardah – became a code word for uncertainty and possible chaos, in a country that doesn’t even follow the Gregorian calendar.
Obama’s announcement detailing how he would be bringing troops home, was mainly meant to reassure his own public that the US was extricating itself from what was becoming a costly and complicated entanglement. But the world has become a single audience and his words sent shockwaves throughout Afghanistan. Although many Afghans found it difficult to believe the US was really leaving – in fact, the idea that the war is artificially kept going to give the Americans an excuse to stay is fairly widespread – the announced disengagement did confuse many people and made them nervous, given that the talk of departure was couched in a narrative that suggested that their country was in a much better shape than it looked from close up. And if the international community had been unable to protect Afghanistan’s population against a violent insurgency, predatory governance and meddling neighbours while it was still present, what was life going to look like without that level of international involvement and oversight?
This worry was further fed by a steady stream of bleak reporting and gloomy predictions in the media that left people wondering whether all these foreign experts knew something that they did not. But there has also been pushback. Over time, some Afghans started wondering out loud whether 2014 would really be such a watershed moment: “I think it is going to be very much the same,” people started adding to the conversation, and “maybe it will be all right, after all.” In particular a younger, confident generation of professionals – who had seen war, but maybe not the descent into war – started expressing irritation over the assumption that seemed to underlie much of the international reporting: that Afghanistan on its own could only fail.
Karzai’s open defiance against the US, moreover, and his continued insistence that the pessimistic media reporting was only meant to weaken Afghanistan’s resolve, has kindled the idea also outside the emerging middle class that the rest of the world may be wrong, even disingenuous, when it tells Afghanistan that its future is precarious. And as the security transition progressed, it turned out that its consequences were a mixed bag – certainly not a resounding success, but also not a clear-cut and obvious disaster. This is obviously not enough to reassure a nervous population that all will be well, but it did illustrate that change may in fact still look very much the same. People are still worried. But opinions are certainly more varied than they were one or two years ago.
Will a messy election lead to chaos and instability?
So at the threshold of this new and ominous year, what can we say about the events that are likely to shape the country’s trajectory? And maybe more importantly, what can we say about the underlying dynamics and how likely they are to lead to the predicted upheaval?
First of all, it looks like the elections will go ahead as planned in April 2014. This would be a first; all previous elections have been delayed because they would otherwise still be too close to winter (thereby going against the Constitutional timeline). It may still make sense to delay the elections – the climate has, after all, not changed in the meantime – but it is politically a very awkward discussion to have, as a delay would look like an attempt to prolong Karzai’s tenure. So we may be looking at an election with parts of the country still inaccessible because of snow or floods.
The presidential election will again dominate the headlines and analyses, overshadowing the simultaneous provincial council elections. International election observers will probably again be too hasty with their relatively positive assessments, which they will then have to backtrack on; then they will probably leave before the process has fully come to an end. There is no reason to expect that the 2014 elections will be less messy, contested or confusing than the previous ones. The structural circumstances do not really allow for it to be otherwise: the widespread but unevenly distributed insecurity provides opportunities for all kinds of manipulation, and it will then be up to the electoral bodies, the IEC and IECC, to decide which votes to count – in processes that will be high in discretionary decision-making and low in transparency. As a result, nobody will be able to tell whether the final outcome has anything to do with how people voted (or may have wanted to vote).
The question then is not whether there will be fraud or political upheaval – that is more or less a given – but rather whether the ensuing political wrangling will lead to instability, or even violence, and a fragmentation of the elites that will reverberate throughout the country. Given the relative flexibility of Afghan politics, with its high-stakes posturing and last minute compromises, I think it is safe to say that a messy, fraud-wracked election will not necessarily lead to chaos or even an irreparable lack of legitimacy. What will, however, threaten the stability of Afghanistan is irresponsible politicking, in particular if it is ethnically and geographically based and designed to provoke and to inflame. It is how the power struggle is conducted that will shape the aftermath of the election, not the mere fact that there is power struggle to start with.
The legitimacy of the election and its results will, in the end, rely a lot on whether the outcome is seen as relatively fair and stable; in other words whether it is sufficiently inclusive of the different competing groups and whether it is sufficiently supported by the main powers – whether local, regional or international. This means that the quality and tone of the political conversation, that will take place while the IEC and the IECC are struggling to determine the result of the election, will be key. The many losing candidates will need to be able to continue the tradition of ultimately stepping down from their claims in the interest of national unity and political stability.
The determination not to be fractured again
Although many analysts and reporters have caught on to the fact that ethnicity, regionalism and patronage play an important role in Afghan politics, there is an immense and potentially harmful level of simplification in much of the writing. There is often little understanding of the intricate and varied nature of political networking in Afghanistan, of the determination among many Afghans not to be violently fractured again and of the continuous efforts by countless individuals to defuse conflicts and to reinforce a commitment to unity. There are of course spoilers and politicians tempted to play on emotionally charged issues, as well as crowds that can be easily mobilised and moved around. There are also grievances – real and imagined – and the fear of marginalisation (or worse), particularly now that the situation is in flux. But there is also alertness and vigilance, which ensure that crude ethnic politicking is currently still likely to backfire.
Analysts and diplomats should realise that scenarios, informal policies and diplomatic brain-storming based on the smug belief that one should be pragmatic – for instance because “Afghanistan has never been a nation” or “the regions will refuse to be governed by the centre” – are out of step with how most Afghans see both their country and their future. Viewing Afghanistan as a country divided into large ethnic blocks that may fight each other over power is a dangerous oversimplification, but it may become a self-fulfilling prophecy if politicians are left without alternative narratives to frame their contests in.
One of the assumptions underlying many of the bleak assessments is that Afghanistan is a fragmented country, awash with weapons and spoilers, and that as it has not been fixed by the efforts towards institution building and democratisation, it can only fall apart. That its fragility will be battered by each shockwave until breaking point is reached.
And this is also what many Afghans fear: not just the return of the Taleban (which, many believe, can only happen if allowed by the internationals), but in general the return of the ‘wolves’: the rule of and predation by wild commanders, not just locally or incidentally, but again as the main overriding principle of governance (or non-governance). Over the last years this has never been fully absent; it has been a continuous refrain, with old commanders as well as a new generation of violence entrepreneurs behaving with impunity (see for instance our reporting here). But it was clear that it was not the norm; even if the government in many cases was unlikely to act on complaints, there was still the hope that it might change. Although in many places impunity reigned, there was also the potential to put pressure on those who were violent and corrupt, for instance through complaints or mobilisation of the media.
But what, people ask, if there is no longer money and power to buy off the spoilers? What if the centre no longer has enough control over the means of violence to be respected? What if the consensus breaks that the status quo should be maintained and protected, rather than captured and wrested from the others? What if nobody stops the neighbours and other meddlers from fomenting discord and instability?
Change, a mixed bag
Speaking about Afghanistan and about its future is like trying to hold two melons in one hand – which, according to a well-known Afghan proverb, cannot be done (and should probably not be tried).
When talking about the deep concerns and everything that is lacking, everything that we had hoped for and that is not happening, everything that we had feared and that is now taking place, a rather dark picture emerges. But that picture does not sit right with the determination of many Afghans, with their resilience and their unrelenting efforts, to hold their country together. It also does not sit right with the times over the past years that violence and mayhem have been predicted and then did not, or not fully, materialise. The bleak assessments are too bleak; the country may well do better than many are now predicting.
But at the same time, doing better than expected – not collapsing – is still a pretty low bar. It will mean muddling through and hobbling on. It will involve continued widespread poverty, low-level violence and injustice. How to argue that this is not a bleak future for many? It is a fine balance, to keep up hope without making light of all the people who will continue to suffer in the coming years; to have “realistic expectations” without accepting that this may be all Afghanistan will get.
What to do?
First of all, it would be helpful to agree that change in Afghanistan has been a mixed bag. That much of it has neither been purely progress, nor just clear failure; that in fact much of it was an unintended and rather messy mix of incremental changes and underlying dynamics. There is a good chance that the future will be a lot like the past: a messy mixed bag.
Second, it would be helpful to be less obsessed by the role of the international community. So much of Western policymaking narrative is based on the illusion of control and the belief that plans, programs and the spending of money are the main forces that shape social realities.
For those of us involved in policy analysis, much of our work is based on the belief that change can happen once policymakers are jolted into action: to muster the needed ‘political will’ to start doing the ‘right things’ so that progress and reform can follow. But this approach affects the analysis, the choice of subjects, the presentation of facts. It contributes to a focus on what is broken and dysfunctional and what needs to be fixed. I am not arguing that we should, in some artificial way, be looking for happy stories. But there is a need to look at Afghanistan in a way that includes both its problems and its efforts to deal with them. There is a lot more ingenuity, resilience and internal stability than is covered in most of the reporting and analysis.
Finally, it would be helpful to admit that none of us knows what is going to happen. That there are many junctures where things can go wrong, but that it doesn’t mean they can only unravel.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020