Afghanistan’s New Leaders Forge Steep Path to Security and Stability

Ashraf Ghani was made President of Afghanistan and Abdullah Abdullah the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) in a power-sharing deal in September 2014.

The departure of former President Hamid Karzai and the installation of a national unity government is providing some optimism that long-term stability may be possible in Afghanistan. It demonstrates that Afghan leaders can come together when the future of their country is at stake, writes World Review expert Lisa Curtis.

Afghans are counting on the new unity government to shore up the economy. Weak budgets have been endemic in Afghanistan and recent cuts in foreign assistance have brought the issue to a head. In order to create long-term fiscal stability in the country, the new government will have to create a stable investment climate which encourages private sector development, especially of the country’s vast mineral and natural resources.

As US and international forces draw down from Afghanistan, aid levels are bound to decrease. Future US aid allocations will depend to a large extent on how confident US lawmakers are that the new unity government will pursue economic reform and control rampant corruption.

Ashraf Ghani’s signing of the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) with the US shortly after assuming power sends a signal to Afghans and to the region that Kabul and Washington will work together to avoid an abrupt withdrawal of US forces.

With the recent gains by the Islamic State in Iraq, pressure has been building on all sides to ensure the US does not withdraw precipitously from Afghanistan. US President Barack Obama has said the US will leave a non-combat force of 9,800 troops post-2014 to train and advise the Afghan forces and conduct counterterrorism missions until 2016.

The Taliban has been conducting increasingly bold operations throughout the country over the last six months. Over 40 districts (10 per cent of the total number) saw major Taliban offensives during this period. If the Taliban regains territory and influence in Afghanistan, al-Qaeda also will regain its safe haven there.

Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, in a video released in September 2014 announcing a new South Asia wing of al-Qaeda, reiterated his oath of allegiance to Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar. With growing concern about competition with the Islamic State for recruits and financing, Mr Zawahiri was probably seeking to convey that the al-Qaeda/Taliban nexus in South Asia is alive and well and still has ideological sway in the region.

The new Afghan government also signed a Security of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with Nato on September 30 to allow 4,000 to 5,000 additional troops - mostly from Britain, Germany, Italy, and Turkey - to stay in Afghanistan in a non-combat role after 2014.

So far, President Ghani has inspired confidence - particularly in the US - that he will pursue a markedly different approach than former President Hamid Karzai, who often publicly criticised America's involvement in Afghanistan and did little to rein in corruption. And the two leaders, Dr Ghani and Dr Abdullah, appear genuinely committed to making the power-sharing deal work. The challenge, however, lies in controlling their advisors and keeping tensions at the working level in check.

While US and Nato military support and continued international funding are important for the new Afghan government’s success, improving regional relationships also will be critical. Ashraf Ghani has already given indications that he will focus more attention on building better ties with Pakistan.

Unless the Pakistan military shows greater willingness to crack down on Taliban sanctuaries on its side of the border, Dr Ghani’s gestures will be wasted and mistrust will continue to define the relationship.

Stabilising Afghanistan also will require the Afghan government to reach out to countries like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates, which have influence with Pakistan and contacts with Taliban leaders.

The Taliban is likely to try to move into areas from which US and coalition forces are departing. An early test of the Afghan security forces’ ability to maintain control of the country will come in the southern Helmand province, where US Marines and British forces vacated two large bases in October.

The Taliban’s expected offensive operations in these areas will pose a significant challenge to the Afghan forces. The Taliban may establish scattered bases of power, especially in Helmand and Kandahar.

While China is interested in increasing investment in Afghanistan to encourage greater stability, continued violence is likely to disrupt those plans.

Studies show that Afghanistan has vast untapped mineral deposits of copper, iron, cobalt, and other rare earth metals. Two Chinese state-owned companies signed a US$3 billion deal in 2007 to develop a copper mine 32 kilometers (20 miles) outside Kabul but the project has experienced numerous delays, mostly due to ongoing violence.

 - Lisa Curtis is a senior research fellow in The Heritage Foundation's Asian Studies Center.

About the Author

Lisa Curtis Senior Research Fellow
Asian Studies Center

Originally appeared in World Review