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Mainstream, VOL LV No 27 New Delhi June 24, 2017

What ails Afghanistan?

Saturday 24 June 2017, by Apratim Mukarji

After spending more than $ 117 billion for Afghanistan’s reconstruction in fifteen years, the “largest expenditure to rebuild a country in our nation’s history” (as the latest report of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan’s Reconstruction describes), it is but natural that the US Administration is keen to find an answer to the question, “What ails the country?” In simple language, “How much longer will we have to carry this awesome burden?”

As various US Government agencies seek answers to this question, the still evolving complexities of the situation in Afghanistan are coming to the fore. With the Taliban digging in for longer stays in vast swathes of the country in the south and east (perhaps exaggerated as statistics show that only nine per cent of the country’s population lives under Taliban rule compared to the 66 per cent under government control, the rest living in “contested territories”), the overall inadequacy of the national defence and police forces is also in sharper focus than before. Even the correct numerical strength of the defence and police forces is now under scrutiny. The total officially available strength, as in June 2016, was 3.19 lakhs. But to go by an unnamed Afghan official quoted by media, the “best internal estimate” was around 1.2 lakh.

Frankness now marks the US Adminis-tration’s diagnosis of what ails Afghanistan. Elaborating on the absurdly “inflated” numbers of Afghan soldiers and police personnel, a new epithet “ghost soldiers” is being used to describe how a virtual fraud is systematically perpe-trated. John Sopko, the Special Inspector General referred to above, is quoted saying: “What we are talking about are policemen, Afghan police-men, Afghan military, Afghan civil servants who don’t exist or they have multiple identity cards and we’re paying their salaries. By ‘we’ I mean the United States and the international community.” He added that there was absolutely no way to prove that the money being sent to pay salaries was going to a “real live person”.

Concern over Kabul’s persistent failure to take things in its own hands and deal with the Taliban, Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and disparate other fundamentalist groups relatively effectively is no longer confined to the largest benefactor but to other donor-countries as well. It is essentially out of an assessment, reached by all the external stakeholders, that the overall situation is worsening rather than improving and this has led to a proliferation of peace initiatives, such as, the Pakistan and US-led processes and the more recent Russian initiative. It is a different matter altogether that each such initiative originated from an individual country’s own geopolitical calculations. In the latest manifestation, the Afghan President Ashraf Ghani-led Kabul Process appears to seek to wrest the initiative away from others and restore Kabul’s primary position in the matter.

While the massive international aid poured into Afghanistan to rebuild it from the very scratch has led admittedly to huge scales of corruption which, in turn, weakened the very institutions the donor countries sought to build, it would however be a mistake to gloss over the large number of benefits the efforts at reconstruction and development have spawned.

Among these foremost are the healthcare and education sectors, particularly girls’ education, with various resultant effects. In a round-about manner, a telling acknowledgement of the good work being done by the government with international assistance in these sectors has come from a very unlikely source, the Taliban. On March 23 this year the Islamist force overtook the district headquarters in the Sangin district of the Helmand province, the centre of opium cultivation in the country, after a year-long battle with the Afghan National Army. Sangin had proved to be a graveyard for British soldiers 400 of whom had perished in defending it from the Taliban since 2004. Later, it was passed on to Afghan soldiers.

However, the point of interest lies in the fact that after wresting control, the Taliban faced an unprecedented challenge. The population had grown so used to benefits under the government in healthcare and education that contrary to their known practice, the Islamists have been forced to maintain the hospital and the school which are, in another surprise, still being funded by Kabul, and the occupiers have no problem with the situation. “We want to prove that we are serious about governance,” the latter told a BBC reporter who was allowed to spend four days in the town. Today, the Taliban’s special forces called the Red Unit are focussed on maintaining healthcare, regulating and running trade, and ensuring that traders stick to fair trading standards, and taking care to run the school. It is obvious that the Islamists are keen to win the Sangin population’s approval. Does this gel with the common perception of the Taliban as a rabid fundamentalist force bent on establishing the strictest form of Sharia law, once so brutally demonstrated all over the country?

But there are further surprises, and this time from Afghan women. Several hundred women in the Jowzjan province, which sits right on the border with Turkmenistan and close to Uzbekistan and Tajikistan (the very gateway through which fighters of the Islamic State are infiltrating into Afghanistan), have joined the Afghan Police to fight the growing danger. They are at present undergoing arms and combat training and will be deployed on the ground soon.

Down in Kabul, the first-ever all-women TV station has gone on air last month. Hoardings in the capital and notifications on social media proclaim this small but symbolic advance in a country still overwhelmingly committed to resist tooth and nail every little progress registered by women. Zan TV, the all-female channel, is fighting to make room for itself on a shoestring budget provided by a gritty promoter, Hamid Samar, in a crowded TV landscape of around 40 stations, and there is no guarantee of success. The staff are fighting both family disapproval and external threats of physical violence.

These two recent instances of women coming forward to be socially counted as important members of the nation contrast sharply with the ignominious failure of the US embassy-backed efforts to increase women’s participation in cricket, by far the most popular modern sport in the country. The magnificent pioneering efforts by the Afghan women’s cycling team to break the traditional barriers and its near-total defeat in the face of stiff societal opposition add to the tragic tale of Afghanistan sliding back in empowering women. Still considered an extremely backward country in respect of women’s education with an 85 per cent rate of illiteracy, Afghanistan has nevertheless pro-gressed in this sphere remarkably in the last decade but social and religious abuses are holding back further progress in myriad ways, eventually impacting on the overall development of the country.

However, above every other aspect of life in Afghanistan today hovers the precarious security situation. Consider the plight of the women’s cycling team which dreams of practising long-distance cycling in the provinces but cannot afford to do so because of a wobbly security environment. This is true of almost all other sectors where development tumbles over obstacles born of insecurity, an outcome of the government’s inability to provide a sustainable shield against manifold disruptive forces.

The ceaseless search for answers to the ills of Afghanistan has turned up a formidable array of urgent and essential chores: restore cohesion to the rapidly developing internal rift within the National Unity Government (NUG) led by President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah. The latter, kept away from the promised prime ministership, is now seen to be lending credence to ongoing talks to unite ethnic groups that had once fought the Taliban under the banner of the Northern Alliance. Further disunity in the NUG is now well-anticipated. Corruption is so wide-spread, eating into the vitals of both the government and the military, that it is now beyond corrective measures despite President Ghani’s personal determination.

While both the US and its European allies have decided to stay put in Afghanistan at least till 2020 with more funds and personnel, an essential task at hand is to strengthen the Afghan Army and police. There is unanimity in one respect: enlarge the air support system by deploying more helicopters. “We need to double the size of the Afghan helicopter fleet,” says a knowledgeable military source. Improving the maintenance and logistics capability of the air support system is the other major task, which in turn can help the military to hold on to territory and expand government control over rural areas. Motivating soldiers and police personnel to remain loyal to the government is a more complex business but this can be facilitated to some extent by reducing the extreme deprivation through which the Army and the police are obliged to function.

Apratim Mukarji is an analyst of South and Central Asian affairs. He is a former Senior Fellow, Indian Council of Social Science Research, New Delhi.

ISSN : 0542-1462 / RNI No. : 7064/62