International Crisis Group's Gloomy Afghan Assessment

As if it needed to be said again, the Brussels-based International Crisis Group has become the latest to paint a bleak picture of Afghanistan as United States and NATO forces come closer to their planned withdrawal in 2014.

“Plagued by factionalism and corruption, Afghanistan is far from ready to assume responsibility for security when U.S. and NATO forces withdraw,” the report notes. In fact, the war-torn country is “hurtling toward a devastating political crisis,” with the Afghan administration headed by President Hamid Karzai more focused on holding onto power than doing anything to forestall disaster.

The International Crisis Group is hardly the first to warn of the impending catastrophe in Afghanistan. With the war now 11 years old and basically in stalemate, and with the number of incidents growing in which Afghan Army troops turned on their US counterparts and shot them, an increasingly bleak outlook permeates operations. Ahmad Rashid, perhaps the most authoritative commentator on the Afghan situation, has long warned of the impending crisis.

The big question is what to do about it. It appears that a growing segment of the US policy community would privately be happy to simply wash their hands of the place, despite the fact that a vast portion of the population – almost all of Afghanistan’s women – don’t want the Taliban back in any form.

With development funding from USAID, the World Bank and European Union member states, millions of women have acquired an education and gained access to health care.

These achievements are among the few bright spots of the international mission in Afghanistan. Improved education is a priority. In 2002 only 900,000 boys attended primary school. Today more than seven million girls and boys are enrolled in school. School attendance rates have increased sevenfold over the past decade. Girls now comprise 37 per cent of the student population.

More than 4,000 new schools have been built, many through cooperation between international programs and local civil society. The number of teachers has increased from 20,000, all men, in 2002 to more than 150,000 today, almost 30 percent of them women, who are terrified that they will be forced back under the burqas.

Politically, however, the country is simply stunted. Karzai and parliament have long known what needs to be done to ensure a clean vote in elections intended for 2014, “but they have steadfastly refused to take any serious steps in that direction”, said Candace Rondeaux, the Crisis Group’s senior Afghan analyst. “Karzai seems more interested in perpetuating his own power by any means rather than ensuring credibility of the political system and long-term stability in the country.”

The political challenge of organizing a credible presidential election and transfer of power from Karzai to a successor is all the more daunting, Rondeaux wrote.” A repeat of previous elections’ chaos and chicanery would trigger a constitutional crisis, lessening chances the present political dispensation can survive the transition.”

In the current environment, prospects for clean elections and a smooth transition are slim. The electoral process is mired in bureaucratic confusion, institutional duplication and political machinations. Electoral officials indicate that security and financial concerns will force a delay in the 2013 provincial council polls to 2014. Karzai appears to be hoping to stack the deck for a favored proxy.

“Demonstrating at least will to ensure clean elections could forge a degree of national consensus and boost popular confidence, but steps toward a stable transition must begin now to prevent a precipitous slide toward state collapse. Time is running out,” Rondeaux wrote. “Institutional rivalries, conflicts over local authority and clashes over the role of Islam in governance have caused the country to lurch from one constitutional crisis to the next for nearly a decade. As foreign aid and investment decline with the approach of the 2014 drawdown, so, too, will political cohesion in the capital.”

Just about everybody – including frustrated American officials who have attempted to work with Karzai since he came to power – agrees that under current conditions the 2014 elections will be plagued by massive fraud. Vote rigging in the south and east, where security continues to deteriorate, is all but guaranteed. High levels of violence across the country before and on the day of the polls are likely to disenfranchise hundreds of thousands more would-be voters.

“Although Karzai has signaled his intent to exit gracefully, fears remain that he may, directly or indirectly, act to ensure his family’s continued majority ownership stake in the political status quo,” Rondeaux wrote in the report, titled Afghanistan: The Long, Hard Road to the 2014 Transition. “This must be avoided. It is critical to keep discord over election results to a minimum; any move to declare a state of emergency in the event of a prolonged electoral dispute would be catastrophic.”

The political system, according to the report, is too fragile to withstand an extension of Karzai’s mandate or an electoral outcome that appears to expand his family’s dynastic ambitions. Either would risk harming negotiations for a political settlement with the armed and unarmed opposition. It is highly unlikely a Karzai-brokered deal would survive under the current constitutional scheme, in which conflicts persist over judicial review, distribution of local political power and the role of Islamic law in shaping state authority and citizenship. Karzai has considerable sway over the system, but his ability to leverage the process to his advantage beyond 2014 has limits. The elections must be viewed as an opportunity to break with the past and advance reconciliation.

The International Crisis Group, appearing to hope against hope or any rational belief of success, sets out a series of six recommendations to plan for 2014 elections. They can be found here, in the report.

US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, in a press conference after signing a mutual defense pact, said that "The most important point is that we're not going anyplace. We have an enduring presence that will be in Afghanistan. We'll continue to work with them on counterterrorism. We'll continue to provide training assistance and guidance, we'll continue to provide support."

Maybe so. But Robert MacNamara and a long string of other defense chiefs made the same statements about Vietnam. Panetta oversees a wearied army that has precious little to show for its 11 years in the country and a political process that has almost nothing at all. After the US elections are over, it could be a question whether the US once again comes out on the skids.

Romney advisers say the governor also wants an "enduring presence" in Afghanistan, but he hasn't been as specific about what that presence will look like. Military commanders, for their part, are considering 10,000 or more troops.