July 5, 2013

A new start for Afghanistan?

Captain Rondinelle from 10th Mountain Division US Army looks around near the provincial head Intelligence Office of the Afghan National Police in Ghazni city on May 19, 2013. Afghan security forces are increasingly on the front line against the insurgents, and suffering heavier casualties, as NATO combat troops prepare to withdraw by the end of next year. AFP PHOTO/ Dibyangshu SARKAR
Captain Rondinelle from 10th Mountain Division US Army looks around near the provincial head Intelligence Office of the Afghan National Police in Ghazni city on May 19, 2013. Afghan security forces are increasingly on the front line against the insurgents, and suffering heavier casualties, as NATO combat troops prepare to withdraw by the end of next year. AFP PHOTO/ Dibyangshu SARKAR

Now that it has been announced that peace talks will start between the United States and the Taliban in Doha, Qatar, and that the ISAF has transferred security responsibility to the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) nationwide, can we now expect to have a new beginning in that proud but poor and war-torn country?

Now that it has been announced that peace talks will start between the United States and the Taliban in Doha, Qatar, and that the ISAF has transferred security responsibility to the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) nationwide, can we now expect to have a new beginning in that proud but poor and war-torn country?

It would be tempting to answer that question in the affirmative, since the most important thing that Afghanistan needs and richly deserves right now is peace. However, given the difficulties seen in the process of inteqal (the transition of security from foreign tutelage to Afghan ownership), as well as in the fits and starts of negotiations between the government and the Taliban, which began with the first tentative contacts in Mecca in 2008, one should not perhaps be overly optimistic.
It is clear that the parties to the talks will not only talk but talk and fight, and there will be Taliban factions like the Haqqani network which will only fight. But if all those who have a stake in a positive outcome – the Afghan government, the various more moderate Taliban factions, and regional players (Pakistan in particular) – feel that they may get a better deal at the negotiating table than on the battlefield, then there might be a ray of hope lighting the path to a new start in Afghanistan.
If we take a look beyond the immediate future, that is, after 2014 when foreign combat troops will have departed Afghan soil, what does the situation look like? Could small countries like Finland and Estonia have a future role in Afghanistan? Or should we, together with the rest of the international community, just forget about the country?
Disengagement is not an answer. Previous attempts to leave Afghanistan to its own devices in 1989 and again in 1996 led to bitter disappointment later on. There is a lot of useful work even for small countries to do, whether the post-Karzai government closely resembles the present one or becomes a government of national reconciliation including the reconcilable, more moderate elements of the insurgency.
So, what could we do?
First, countries like Finland and Estonia could help the Afghans improve their governance. The country is one of the most corrupt states in the world. In Transparency International’s annual rankings it regularly finds itself if not in the last place, then at least in a cluster of three other deeply corrupt countries: North Korea, Somalia and Sudan. Corruption on all levels of interaction, be it official or private, is pervasive in Afghan society. For example, police are on the take, and so are the prosecutors and the judges. Here, such countries as Finland and Estonia could decide to work together, providing guidance in good governance, civil servant education and training, and the rule of law. Such guidance programs of course already exist, but there is ample room for programs that are systematically expanded and strenghtened.
Second, there are more than 7 million Afghans out of the total population of about 30 million who depend on such relief agencies as the UN World Food Program for their daily sustenance. Farming is a highly risky business in Afghanistan. If there is no drought, then there are floods. And if there are no natural disasters, then there are outbreaks of fighting that force villagers from their homes. Still, more than 70 percent of the Afghans live in the countryside, in narrow river valleys between towering mountains.
Well-to-do peoples like the Finns and the Estonians could take up more of the burden of supporting those Afghans who are just not able to make ends meet in order to feed themselves and their families. That support should consist first of supplying emergency relief for the starving millions, and in the long term of offering the Afghans our expertise in improving their agricultural methods, providing them better seeds and machinery, and in general helping them modernize their agricultural sector.
Third, Estonia and Finland could combine their efforts in supporting those groups that tend to be most vulnerable in society: women, minorities and people with disabilities. Over the last few years, Finnish support has been focused, just to offer a few examples, on providing legal aid to women in prisons, to a women’s medical clinic in Kabul (with maternal and infant mortality rates in Afghanistan being some of the highest in the world), and to a music school, the Afghan National Institute of Music (ANIM), where most of the students are either orphans or homeless street children.
Finally, Afghanistan offers business opportunities which over a long run should be extremely lucrative. The United States Geological Survey has recently estimated that there are riches hidden in the Afghan soil – minerals, oil and gas – worth up to 5 trillion USD in total. Only a very small fraction of these resources is now being exploited, mainly by Chinese and Indian companies, but the huge potential is there. Investments required in the mining and oil extraction business will of course go much beyond Finnish and Estonian capabilities, even if we combined our efforts, but perhaps we could find larger partners to do it with.
Moreover, there are other business opportunities: Afghanistan is lacking more than 10 000 school buildings; the water distribution system destroyed by the Soviets is badly in need of repairs; dams and reservoirs need to be planned and built; power plants need upgrading and expansion to satisfy the nation’s growing need for energy; and a vocational education system should be established – just to name some of the most urgent needs.
Estonia and Finland could also join their efforts in educating, training, mentoring, and equipping the Afghan National Security Forces, as part of the post-2014 NATO-led defence and security support operation.
The recent Taliban attack on the Arg, the Afghan Presidential Palace grounds in the middle of Kabul, serves us all as a healthy reminder that Afghanistan is and continues to be a dangerous place. We should harbor no illusions that supporting Afghanistan after 2014 will be easy, be it in the realm of development assistance or in exploiting business opportunities. But for the Finns and Estonians, supporting the Afghans together would be a smart way of doing it.
(I would like to thank my colleague Erik Männik for his comments on an earlier version of this blog.)

Filed under: Blog

No comment yet, add your voice below!


Add a Comment