Staying true to his initial vision of self-reliance laid out in the The Afghanistan National Peace and Development Framework (ANPDF), a trade and economic development plan is currently under formulation. President Ghani is attempting to reconcile almost identical elements to those he faced in 2014 as the National Unity Government. have we learned?

By Karim Merchant,
NAC member

Growing Security Concerns

Just as in 2014, as ISAF was reducing its national presence. At that time, to a more centralised version of Operation Resolute Support refocusing its interests on training, advising and limited operational support in the security sector. The security transition placed the Afghan National Defence and Security Forces (ANDSF) as the lead in pushing back a growing Taliban presence as demonstrated by expanded areas of contestation across the country.   There were huge concerns over the lack of capacity of the ANDSF, which eventually proved accurate. In the background, a series of informal approaches were made to various Taliban leaders exploring the grounds for a ceasefire and some semblance of peace, including possible power sharing.

Six years later, a better trained and equipped ANDSF still faces a revitalised Taliban using its newfound political legitimacy created by direct negotiations with the U.S. While the fragile informal ceasefire is still partially holding across most of Afghanistan, the Taliban have a new political front on which to challenge the government. With the proposed withdrawal of US troops by early 2021, will the ANDSF be prepared for the vacuum left behind? Given the inability to retain current security force numbers due to fatalities and desertion, will local militias be mobilised again – is this going to be a realistic way forward given diverse loyalties and competitive nature of local militias?

Political Rivalry Undermining Progress

Just as the disputed 2014 elections paralysed the country to the point of external intervention by John Kerry, the then US Secretary of State forcing a power sharing agreement in the form of a National Unity Government.

In 2020, a similar form of political paralysis is just coming to an end as the same actors have finally reached an agreement over the distribution of power and assets in order to move on and address the backlog of priorities such as the impact of the pandemic response and economic challenges. In addition, the US-Taliban Peace Agreement result may result yet another power sharing model being explored that may well promote various models of Taliban inclusion or power sharing. Will women and youth activists retain a space for their rights and priorities?

Reduced International Assistance

With optimistic reports from international institutions in 2014 stating between 1 to 3 billion USD of wealth underground and planned investments in the agriculture sector announced, Afghanistan was poised to move from a war economy to a more global and market-driven model. The underlying message from the international community was a clear desire to reduce assistance to an Afghanistan that now had the opportunities to become economically self-reliant.

This year for very different reasons, the international community and the private sector are looking inwards, coping with a potential global depression created by the COVID19 pandemic. Official Development Assistance from the international community will be reduced and probably even more politically driven by donors. With over half of Afghanistan’s national budget dependent on this financial source, the government is once more faced with exploring ways in which to underwrite the cost of a stable, and enduring peace in Afghanistan.

Currently, the High Economic Council is working on an outward-looking package of agreements on trade diplomacy and economic development with a series of regional and international partners. At the same time the government needs to be able to support its claim to be a promising primary commodity producer of agricultural goods and extracted materials ranging from highly valuable rare earth elements to marble and talc.

Increased Productive Infrastructure

both agriculture and the extractives sectors lack a coherent sub-national network and structures linking producers to markets with enforceable legal and technical frameworks, despite having the capacity to do so, undermined by corruption and a flourishing illegal trade. Under the previous National Unity Government, the extractives sector saw little coherent legislative support enforced or sustained returns on international investment. The Agriculture sector appears to have fared better with increased productive infrastructure and extension services, but has a huge deficit in capacity and internal reforms to overcome.

Yet these are within reach if there is political will and an inclusive approach to ensure those that have suffered the longest and lost the most finally benefit along with civil society organisations that have stayed with them through these crises. After all, self-reliance is only as strong as its weakest group.

Karim Merchant has been a senior researcher, policy and programme advisor for 20 years on Fragile and Conflicted Affected States, peacebuilding and Central Asian Affairs.