Rebuilding Afghanistan

The current talks between the representatives of the Taliban and the US Government in Qatar are an important step but peace and stability are still beyond reach. Afghanistan's reconstruction and durable development require a satisfactory level of security and tackling issues such as unemployment, corruption, and armed violence.

Since 2001 many reconstruction and assistance efforts have been conducted in Afghanistan but their real impact is limited by the security context and corruption. Foreign material and financial assistance have been hamstrung by embezzlement and misappropriation.

Many examples can be easily found in Kabul and across the country. In Kabul's Parwan-e-seh district, the main road was in bad shape and looked as if it had been built during the 1970s or the 1980s. According to some local residents, the road had been built during the 2000s and the main cause of its deplorable condition was corruption. The pavement was only 9 cm-thick, although its design thickness was 18 cm and its maintenance was almost nonexistent.

In many rural areas, although schools were built with the financial support of foreign countries, NGOs or organizations, funds have disappeared, leaving schools often unfinished or badly constructed. with furniture, windows, heating systems, decent toilets or electricity missing.

NATO-led International Security Assistance Force Provincial Reconstruction Teams after 2001, did great work but that ended with the withdrawal of ISAF troops. The action of the teams sparked debate and was criticized by some NGOs as it could create confusion in the minds of local populations about the nature of humanitarian assistance, as well as the role of foreign armed forces and foreign NGOs.

Many foreign or local NGOs operating in Afghanistan and Pakistan have reported that after the elimination of Osama bin Laden by a team of US Navy SEALs in Abbottabad in May 2011, they faced more difficulty in carrying out their operations. That is because one of the methods used by the CIA to identify Osama bin Laden took the form of a fake vaccination program conducted in Abbottabad, which seriously undermined the trust of local populations towards NGOs, and especially foreign aid workers.

The current security context is critical. The Taliban controls 44 percent to 61 percent of Afghan districts and the Islamic State is conducting terrorist attacks. The current negotiations are an important step but their outcome will not bring a stable and immediate peace. Only a fraction of the Taliban has endorsed this process and agrees to participate to it as the whole Taliban movement remains divided. Some factions want full withdrawal of foreign troops and of all foreign presence, as well as the resignation of the current Afghan government. This precondition can't be satisfied as it would put the current Afghan government at risk and trigger a new phase of conflict.

Such possibility would not create a proper context for reconstruction. Moreover, since the fall of its Syrian and Iraqi Caliphate, the Islamic State has found new momentum in Afghanistan and some Taliban factions have pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, while others refuse to do so and are engaged in fierce competition with ISIS.

In this regard, reconstruction and development will depend on the context created by the peace deal and a satisfactory agreement for all parties, which is far from being easy. All parties have ties to foreign and neighboring countries. That means that foreign powers and neighboring countries should reassess their agendas and interests. They should also find common interests and a joint approach, at least with regard to the reconstruction.

Security conditions and corruption are also closely tied to social and economic problems affecting rural areas. Agriculture is the largest sector and the basis of Afghanistan's economy. Agriculture should be strongly supported, especially when it comes to the eradication of the opiate economy, which accounts for 20 percent to 32 percent of the country's GDP (US$4.1-6.6 billion). Although 24 of the country’s 34 provinces grow opium poppy, 69 percent of cultivation is carried out in southern Afghanistan.

Taliban groups control these areas and earn US$200 million per year from the opiate economy. Eradication efforts have led to a decline in production from 9,000 tonnes in 2017 to 6,400 tonnes in 2018, with the price of dry opium falling to its lowest level since 2004 at US$ 94 per kg. Foreign support is crucial but the US decided in February to end the Operation Iron Tempest airstrike campaign launched in 2017 against drug labs.

Providing jobs and decent revenue to rural populations plays a role in decreasing the activities of insurgent groups. This key issue was well understood by French troops in charge of civil-military operations in Kapisa province and the Surobi district.

French scholar Bernard Dupaigne explained that during the First Indochina War (1946-1954), the map of quiet areas coincided exactly with the map of regions where hydraulic works improving agricultural yields had been carried out by French engineers. The areas controlled by the insurgency corresponded to poor regions from an agricultural point of view. The French troops conducting civil-military operations in Kapisa and Surobi wished to play a role in the long-term development of these areas but their mission was ended in 2012.

Eradicating opium poppy cultivation and supporting farmers in their transition to cultivation of legal crops is expensive. Many efforts have been decreased opium production but the results are limited by corruption, widespread poverty, threats by criminal gangs, corrupt officials or Taliban commanders against farmers.

Taking into account such difficulties, some experts argue that opium poppy cultivation and opium production should be allowed and that farmers could legally sell their production to the pharmaceutical industry. Such alternative could provide stable revenues to a part of Afghan rural populations.

Education plays an important role, especially vocational education and professional training. As one of the most influential thinkers and leading practitioners in the field, Dr. Djawed Sangdel, repeatedly stressed: “Afghanistan may need businessmen and managers but it needs even more technicians, agronomists and engineers.”

Reconstruction and development will also benefit from China's Belt and Road Initiative, but it requires as well serious security improvements and a coherent regional approach from foreign and international powers. The new Great Game in Central Asia opposing the US to Russia and China could, in this perspective, could prevent Afghanistan from reaping the benefits of trade with China and hinder its development.

Competition between international or regional powers can take a violent form, especially over control and exploitation of strategical mineral resources and rare-earth elements whose value could reach US$3 trillion. Mineral resources are an important development asset but the local mining industry is opaque and Afghanistan's Ministry of Mines and Petroleum is affected by corruption. Moreover, illegal mining benefits to various criminal gangs and the Taliban.

State control on this sector should be increased, sound legal standards should be enforced, corruption should be punished and transparency should be supported. Moreover, there should be a comprehensive and coherent strategy ensuring that Afghanistan will not just own its resources but it will also use the revenues generated by minerals or oil for development and reconstruction.

The current trends on international markets and the increasing scarcity of some mineral or energy resources have also led to a crucial issue for Afghanistan. Competition among foreign powers over the access to rare and strategic minerals will also have a negative impact upon the country, increasing corruption, weak governance, and aggravating the resource curse.

There should be a multidimensional strategy taking into account these issues and supported by the United Nations, foreign powers involved in Afghanistan and regional powers or neighbors. In order to succeed there should be a common and radically new approach whereby foreign powers and regional powers should find a common ground and common goals or at least, interests.

Afghanistan is affected by the geopolitical competition opposing the US but also by the US-Iranian crisis, as well as the Indo-Pakistani rivalry. Iran and the former Soviet republics of Central Asia (Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan) should be included in this joint approach.

Saudi Arabia and Qatar should not be left aside but the effects of their past influence and their future role should be questioned. This approach is obviously too optimistic but the long-term development and stability of Afghanistan can be only ensured by a genuine commitment of all parties.

Gilles-Emmanuel Jacquet is Assistant Professor of World History at the Geneva School of Diplomacy and International Relations and a senior analyst at the Geneva International Peace Research Institute (GIPRI)