The West Could Easily Fail in Afghanistan

In the excitement of the German elections and the uproar over the use of poison gas in Syria, the situation in Afghanistan has fallen under the radar. After 12 years, a war in which even Germany is heavily invested is coming to an end. This was never a war that could be won. Again and again, international troops have been killed, most recently last weekend. Now the question is whether any sort of peace can be salvaged from the fog of war.

The Afghans are preparing for a presidential election on April 5, 2014. Starting now, applicants for the successor of Hamid Karzai can register with the election commission. It is still unclear who could run as a favorite. It is also undetermined whether the current state of the nation’s security will allow for an undisturbed free election.

In the meantime, the ISAF allies have begun pulling troops, weapons and machinery out of Afghanistan. By the end of 2014, they want to have completely withdrawn all fighting troops. After that, only mission Resolute Support will remain: a rearguard commissioned to educate and offer counsel, with between 12,000 and 20,000 soldiers. That’s what Washington is saying. Germany, until now the third largest provider of troops, has offered 600 to 800 men. But yet again, NATO waits on Barack Obama’s personal decision.

It is not an easy decision for the U.S. president to make. He and the intractable Karzai disagree about the status of the American troops: Karzai refuses to sign any agreement that will solidify the current arrangement, in which U.S. troops stand exclusively under U.S. military jurisdiction. Obama has already warned that he, in that case, supports a zero option, in which no troops at all would remain stationed in Afghanistan.

This is exactly how Obama acted in Iraq, with devastating consequences. The fear that things in a tribal and religiously divided Afghanistan will turn out as badly is not to be dismissed out of hand.

The memory is still vivid in Western planning divisions: When the Soviets withdrew their troops after ten years, Mohammed Najibullah‘s communist regime lasted less than four more. A terrible civil war and the terror regime of the Taliban were the result. How long then can Karzai’s successor last without the support of NATO?

It is true that many things have been accomplished. Four colleges with 4,000 students have grown to 26 with 80,000 students, 20 percent of whom are women; millions of girls can now attend primary school; the health system has improved, as well as the infrastructure. But the life expectancy is still a pitiable 50 years. The $55 million in economic support since 2002 has drained away without visible effect, partly lost in the pockets of corrupt politicians. Unemployment is at 50 percent. The national budget relies up to 80 percent on foreign aid. As the largest opium producer in the world, Afghanistan exports 90 percent of the world’s heroin.

Most importantly, however, is that according to NATO, the Afghan army has basic skills in combat, but suffers from deficient planning, logistics, intelligence and air support. Where the ISAF [International Security Assistance Force] leaves, the Taliban move in and construct no-go zones. Around 400 soldiers die monthly in battle against the rebels. The desertion rate is shocking. In the police force, more people are lost every year in attacks than complete training.

The international community has pledged support for a 10-year transformation phase, beginning in 2015. Security forces are supposed to receive $4.1 billion, and the development support should continue at the level of previous years. This could all be in vain.

Specifically, if the capabilities of the army and the police do not strongly increase, if the government stays as corrupt as it is now, if the peace process succeeds as little as in Iran and Pakistan or if Afghanistan’s economic prospects do not finally brighten.

Let’s not delude ourselves: The possibility of failure is real.

That is also the conclusion of a study by the Berlin think tank Stiftung für Wissenschaft und Politik. In a paper published this month about “eight situations which require political attention,” the authors sketched out three bad but believable scenarios: a new civil war in Afghanistan, a division of the country or the return of the Taliban and creation of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.

What does this mean for NATO? For Germany?

It is high time to reflect.

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