The exercise of universal franchise in the war conditions prevailing in Afghanistan has been a tremendous landmark, not only for the Afghans themselves but for countries like Pakistan on the receiving end of every evil conceivable emanating from Afghanistan for nearly 35 years. With two of the eight presidential candidates on course to get nearly 80 percent of the partially counted vote, the run-off process, guess a choice for the very perceptive electorate to make an outright decision. Without a stable regime governing one of the most unstable countries of the world, more of the same possibly for another 35? In contrast the street smart Pakistani electorate are helpless before the pervasive fraud prevailing, despite the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) employing bio-metrics if the superior judiciary continues to benignly ignore “punctures” by the dozens.
The participants of the Eastwest Institute (EWI) Meeting on “Afghanistan Reconnected” in Berlin from April 10 to 12 as part of the Abu Dhabi Consultative Process were caught up in the euphoria of a large-turnout on Election Day and the “failure of the Taliban to disrupt the Elections”. One must be cautious and temper over-optimism, it was generally known in the Pakistani media that Mullah Umar was exhorting the TTP in Pakistan to avoid large scale engagement till late this year pending a drawdown of foreign forces and a link-up between the Afghan Taliban and the TTP in North Waziristan and elsewhere. While there were no specific Taliban instructions about not disrupting the elections the lack of any incidents, classic guerrilla tactics require lying low and avoiding engagement till a more conducive opportunity permit. While the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) deserve plaudits for keeping the peace on Election Day, the Coalition still believes they need shoring up by 10,000 plus support forces post 2014. Even with all its glaring ethnic disparities, particularly in the officer corps, reducing desertions from the present 30 percent plus annually to less than 15-20 percent will make the ANSF a potent force.
Afghan after Afghan speaker proceeded to take cheap shots at Pakistan. With three million refugees living on our soil, even US$ 1 per day in minimum sustenance comes to US$ 3 million per day, or more than US$ 1 billion annually in direct food costs borne by us alone. On humanitarian grounds let the Indians and Australians, etc symbolically each take a few thousand Afghan refugees. Our roads, ports and railway infra-structure are in shambles because of the coalition war effort within Afghanistan. More than a million tons of wheat flour goes from Pakistan to Afghanistan raising the price per Roti (bread) by 2 rupees in Pakistan. The country’s own production of sugar being negligible, most of the Afghan demand for sugar comes from Pakistan. Having no refinery its aviation fuel requirement is almost 100 percent met from Pakistan. Pakistan charges no transit fees for the transit trade to Afghanistan, but expects transit fees to be levied for the TAPI (Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India) gas and CASA -2000 electricity lines. While it is both galling and offensive to hear the Afghans badmouth us ad nauseam, unfortunately we are stuck with the ingrates. Without a stable and peaceful Afghanistan there can be no peace within Pakistan.
The real problem post-2014 is to work out pragmatically steps for transition from a war economy to one capable of sustaining the peace with minimum dole from outside. A predator nation, Afghanistan cannot live on others forever. Coping with war fatigue, donor countries are suffering from “aid fatigue!” Recent statistics suggest that the Coalition (read mostly the US) has spent well over a trillion US dollars in waging the war in Afghanistan, over a US$ 100 billion plus has been pumped in over the last decade for good governance. The rebuilding process included the infrastructure, roads and railways, bridges, power stations, transmission lines, water and sewage projects as well as those pertaining to health and education. Even with corruption taking a large chunk, there is certainly progress in some areas. The presence of large number of expatriates in the logistics of waging war kept the economy booming. While not likely to stutter to a stop, this economic slowdown is compounded by a major flight of capital. There are many rich Afghans without known means of income. Dubai’s Palm Island, the most expensive of Dubai’s residential areas, has a large number of owners of Afghan origin.
Considerable amounts are annually directed for development, particularly in the infrastructure, this has failed to develop a self-sustaining economy. With agriculture not really taking of except poppy cultivation and industries negligible, only the services sector, mainly devoted to the war effort, has shown any potential. Will the world be prepared to ignore almost 60 percent of the Afghan GDP coming from poppy cultivation and drug manufacturing thereof remaining the economy’s major hope.
Afghanistan is rich in minerals but these require energy for mining operations, this is factored in by future planned power stations energized by dams and coal. Much will depend on providing foreign expertise safe and secure access to these sites. Afghanistan’s largely unproven reserves in hydrocarbon deposits in the area adjacent to Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgystan is believed extensive with good potential for economic exploitation in the relatively secure areas. Afghanistan’s best bet is as a transit nation, not only for goods and commodities transported South from Central Asia to South Asia and vice versa, TAPI’s gas and CASA – 2000’s electricity being viable projects for earning transit fees.
Foreign commercial banks which did good business servicing foreign entities have seen transactions reduced considerably along with considerable drawdown of local deposits. Negative pressure is being exerted more and more on commercial operations of many service entities and industries dependent upon the war. While the shelves in Kabul and the major cities of Kandahar, Herat, Jalalabad, Mazar-i-Sharif, etc still stocked, the buying power seems to be still there. The slowdown in the economic cycle is likely to become drastic by end year 2014. US$ 4 billion has been committed by the US and its allies annually for the next 10 years, enough to pay and feed the Afghan military as well as conduct the civil war if it continues?
The real test will come when the money required for running the military machine is drastically reduced. More importantly where will the money come from to keep good governance alive and well and the infrastructure under necessary repair? With President George Bush revelling in the glow of winning the First Gulf War in 1991, remember candidate Bill Clinton’s devastating campaign theme in the US 1992 Presidential Elections, “it’s the economy, stupid!” Afghanistan does require continued military initiatives but the predominant solution must be economic.
The Afghans must capitalize on their strengths for finding solutions indigenously and not blame their weaknesses and problems on others, particularly their favorite whipping boy, Pakistan. Five thousand Pakistani soldiers dead and 19000 injured is far more than the combined casualties suffered by all the Coalition troops put together, some words of gratitude for the sacrifices we have given for a war that was not ours would be nice. Unfortunately we cannot choose our neighbors, in a tough neighborhood we have to learn to live with even such ungrateful ones.
The writer is a Pakistan-based defense and political analyst. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org