World Views
12:07 pm
Thu January 2, 2014

Looking Ahead: Why 2014 Will Be A Huge Year For Afghanistan

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry greets Afghan President Hamid Karzai before a trilateral meeting with Pakistani Chief of Army Staff General Ashfaq Kayani in Brussels, Belgium on April 24, 2013.
Credit U.S. Department of State / Flickr Creative Commons
Listen to Suzette Grillot's conversation with Andrew Wilder, Director of Afghanistan and Pakistan Programs at the United States Institute of Peace.

In April, voters in Afghanistan head to the polls to elect a successor to the term-limited President Hamid Karzai. The controversial-at-times leader is the only democratically-elected head of state the troubled country has known since the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001.

Andrew Wilder, the Director of Afghanistan and Pakistan Programs at the United States Institute of Peace and a close observer of Afghanistan for nearly 30 years, says it’s very important April’s elections are credible, and produce a legitimate outcome.

“As much as President Karzai has had his flaws and problems, ultimately he was a legitimately-elected president, and no one’s really contesting that other than the Taliban,” Wilder told KGOU’s World Views. “But if we end up with no legitimate president to succeed him, a lot of Afghans are fearful that things could disintegrate and head back into outright civil war.”

Despite pessimism from many Afghan citizens, Wilder says he’s optimistic many political elites in Afghanistan have benefited tremendously during the last decade, meaning they have more of a stake in ensuring civil war doesn’t return.

“It’ll probably be a messy process, but ultimately there will be an elected successor to Karzai that they can all agree to support,” Wilder says. “I think it’s going to be a lot of deal-making and patronage being distributed – winners trying to accommodate losers so that they stay on their side.”

USIP Director of Afghanistan and Pakistan Programs Andrew Wilder testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Subcommittee on Near Eastern and South and Central Asian Affairs - May 21, 2013.
Credit Provided / U.S. Senate

The highly-publicized security transition from international to Afghan forces is also scheduled to be fully completed by the end of 2014, and Wilder says the ensuing economic transition will be just as critical.

“As someone who used to criticize that we’re trying to spend too much money in Afghanistan, let’s not go from that extreme to the extreme of spending too little,” Wilder says. “If you created this war-and-aid-economy bubble, the key is don’t pop the balloon. Let the air out of the balloon in a controlled manner.”

Wilder testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Near Eastern and South Central Asian Affairs in May 2013. He told lawmakers the long-term relationship between the United States and Afghanistan “depends on a legitimate post-2014 government.”

He outlined five key recommendations for the United States to consider during the April 5 elections:

  1. The top priority of U.S. policy in Afghanistan should be to support credible elections on April 5, 2014, in accordance with the Afghan constitution.

  2. The U.S. should appoint an official of ambassadorial rank in the embassy in Kabul specifically tasked with focusing on elections, offering both technical and political guidance.

  3. The U.S. must avoid the impression that it supports any specific candidate.

  4. The U.S. should actively support civic education efforts of civil society organizations and the Media.

  5. We should work with Afghanistan’s regional partners to improve the environment in which the elections take place.

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INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS

On how development and aid to Afghanistan has changed over three decades

I started working in Afghanistan in 1986, based in Pakistan, but running some of the refugee programs and cross-border programs into Afghanistan. So I spent quite a bit of time working on refugee/humanitarian aid programs, both for refugees in Pakistan as well as in Afghanistan. Including during the very difficult time during the Taliban rule, as director of Save the Children. So trying to run women and child-focused programs in Afghanistan was challenging, and yet still a lot of good work could be done even in that context. But then after 9/11 everything changed, and the real focus then became on how to rebuild the country and much more ambitious state building agendas, and how to rebuild the devastated health sector, education sector, so in the last ten years, 12 years you've seen a big change in focus to longer-term development programs as opposed to the humanitarian work we saw earlier.

On the differences between 1980s and 2000s intervention in Afghanistan

We abandoned Afghanistan once before and when the Soviets withdrew, it came back to haunt us and hurt Afghanistan tremendously, and Afghans in particular. But we made promises that this time we won't do that again, because they realize that if all international troops left, it would be very difficult to see how the current Afghan National Security Forces that we've invested tens of billions of dollars in creating could sustain themselves. They're not ready yet to stand on their own. They are ready to the lion's share of the fighting, and they're already doing that, but the support systems, the training systems, maintaining all the equipment they've been provided, all these kinds of details are still going to take time to develop to capacity. But also, psychologically, it's not just support to the military forces. It's the psychological importance of international forces remaining behind. If the Americans make a commitment, then the NATO allies will follow suit. If the Americans decide to go to the zero-option, as it was being discussed, then our NATO allies would also not be able to stay on in Afghanistan. So I think that's, for Afghans, they're really concerned that if all troops left, these things will fall apart.

On “slowly letting the air out of the balloon” in Afghanistan

I do think that's where the U.S. does need to be forceful in reiterating time and again its long-term commitment to remain engaged in Afghanistan. And not at the levels we were, but a sustainable level moving forward that we're not going to abandon Afghanistan. And yes, from my perspective, a longer-term commitment of some troops in Afghanistan - both for the political and psychological reasons I mentioned - but also for the important security reasons, because we've invested a lot of blood and treasure in Afghanistan. I think to protect that investment now, that's not, again, go down to zero and let's reassure Afghans that we're there for the long haul.

FULL TRANSCRIPT

SUZETTE GRILLOT, HOST: Andrew Wilder, welcome to World Views.

ANDREW WILDER: Thank you very much. Great to be here.

GRILLOT: So you have this background in humanitarian and development programs, and leading those efforts. What would you say, over the past many years, is the primary humanitarian and development activity or need in Afghanistan?

WILDER: Well it's really evolved. I started working in Afghanistan in 1986, based in Pakistan, but running some of the refugee programs and cross-border programs into Afghanistan. So I spent quite a bit of time working on refugee/humanitarian aid programs, both for refugees in Pakistan as well as in Afghanistan. Including during the very difficult time during the Taliban rule, as director of Save the Children. So trying to run women and child-focused programs in Afghanistan was challenging, and yet still a lot of good work could be done even in that context. But then after 9/11 everything changed, and the real focus then became on how to rebuild the country and much more ambitious state building agendas, and how to rebuild the devastated health sector, education sector, so in the last ten years, 12 years you've seen a big change in focus to longer-term development programs as opposed to the humanitarian work we saw earlier.

GRILLOT: So you've moved from relief services to really trying to provide them with some infrastructure, schools, hospitals, health care, general assistance for their development over the long haul.

WILDER: Yeah, and that certainly was the objective. Before, the level of resources was tiny, and it was mostly focused on life-saving interventions. There were education programs and health programs, but they were very small in nature. So now it's been how to rebuild the systems, for the health and education in Afghanistan. And I think there's lots of bad news in Afghanistan in the headlines these days, but I think it’s really important to recognize what has been achieved. As someone who worked there in the 80s and 90s, it's phenomenal to me what has been accomplished. To me, I think the best example of that is in the health sector, where when I was working there in the 90s, the average life expectancy was believed to be about 42 years of age in Afghanistan. One of the lowest in the world. And today, a decade or so later, it's 62. That's largely due to very impressive reductions in maternal mortality rates, and particularly infant mortality rates. And that's one fantastic story coming out of Afghanistan that often doesn't get told amongst all the gloom-and-doom news from Afghanistan. So amongst a lot of the problems, and again, many of us who've been working there are disappointed that more wasn't achieved, and there's been problems of corruption and other things, but it's important not to lose sight that there have been tremendous gains.

GRILLOT: I think that's such an important point, because as you said, so much of what we hear is gloom-and-doom, so the narrative about Afghanistan is "Oh my gosh, you can't go there. It's a terrible place. It's dangerous. It's difficult. Everybody dies." But it sounds like that what has been done on the ground, and to connect that to this notion of effectiveness of aid of this sorts, it sounds like it's really worked. There have been major success stories of aid and development projects that have really resulted in good news.

WILDER: Yeah, and there is definitely good news, and of course there's bad news. And I think that's where a lot of the research I was doing a few years ago at Tufts University was showing about how some of the aid wasn't spent effectively, and my main focus then was on the efforts to use development aid to promote our stabilization and security objectives in Afghanistan. And the conclusion I reached there was actually, in that context, development aid wasn't very effective in bringing security to the country. But actually, it was quite effective in achieving development objectives. But I think that's where one of the problems in terms of U.S. development aid, is it's increasingly we fund development because we think it will achieve security objectives, for which I think it's not terribly effective.  But we don't value it sufficiently for achieving the development objectives for which it is quite effective.

GRILLOT: Right, the human security objective as opposed to the state security, or the security of the region or the rest of the world. So maybe we could move to something that you're also working on. We're looking forward to some upcoming elections in the country, and maybe moving from the development to more of the state building. Is that where we see more of the doom-and-gloom? Can we be optimistic at all? What can we expect in this upcoming election?

WILDER: Well there is a lot of fear in Afghanistan about what's going to happen. With the upcoming transition, one transition is the security transition from international forces to completely handing over the authority to Afghan forces. That's well underway, and is scheduled to be fully completed by the end of 2014. There's also going to be an economic transition where we've had lots of money pouring into Afghanistan, and as a lot of the troops pull out, a lot of the resources are going to be pulled out with it. So we're going to go from a big economic transition, and this is where I would caution, as someone who used to criticize that we're trying to spend too much money in Afghanistan, let's not go from that extreme to the extreme of spending too little. If you created this war-and-aid-economy bubble, the key is don't pop the balloon, you know? Let the air out of the balloon in a controlled manner. So I think managing that economic transition is going to be critical. But to me, the most important transition in terms of future peace and stability in Afghanistan is going to be the political transition in 2014 from President Karzai to hopefully an elected successor. In April, presidential elections are scheduled, and it's very important I think that those go forward, that they are credible elections, and produce a legitimate outcome. Or else it's unclear what is going to be the glue that holds the country together, because as much as President Karzai has had his flaws and problems, ultimately he was a legitimately-elected president, and no one's really contesting that other than the Taliban. But if we end up with no legitimate president to succeed him, you could see, and a lot of Afghans are fearful that things could disintegrate and head back into outright civil war.

GRILLOT: So obviously there's a tremendous amount of uncertainty going on here. In many different directions - politically, economically, security transition, all of this leading to uncertainty. But what are the prospects? As you talk about Karzai stepping down, are the prospects pretty good that we're going to be able to have a solid transition politically in this country? And then how will that relate to, because most of us look at this country and understand that it isn't a country where the president really governs. The government really governs all of Afghanistan. What is the prospect for that change as we enter these additional transitions?

WILDER: I've worked in Afghanistan long enough to know it's very dangerous to make predictions. Often my predictions are wrong, I hasten to add. I think there are many challenges, and it's going to be a very difficult transition. I think one of the things that gives me hope is that actually so many of the political elites in Afghanistan have benefitted so tremendously from the last decade that they have much more stake in ensuring that things don't return to civil war. So that's what gives me some hope that they will collectively work to try to ensure - it'll probably be a messy process, but ultimately there will be an elected successor to Karzai that they can all agree to support. And get something in return. I think it's going to be a lot of deal-making and patronage being distributed. Winners trying to accommodate losers so that they stay on their side. So I think this is why a lot of Afghans are currently debating is even if the election doesn't go terribly well, how can we get an agreement among some of the main candidates contesting not to let this lead to a return to civil war? Because then everyone would lose from that.

GRILLOT: So I have to imagine that the United States is not just going to completely withdraw from this situation. That there would still be some engagement here on these issues? Particularly overseeing elections, the U.S. and others for that matter, so that it isn't, as you mentioned, the balloon has just popped, everybody just runs away? But there's a real engagement process that will lead to hopefully some sort of stability in the future?

WILDER: I certainly hope so, and that certainly was the commitment that the U.S. and the international community made when we went in in the fall of 2001. We abandoned Afghanistan once before and when the Soviets withdrew, it came back to haunt us and hurt Afghanistan tremendously, and Afghans in particular. But we made promises that this time we won't do that again, because they realize that if all international troops left, it would be very difficult to see how the current Afghan National Security Forces that we've invested tens of billions of dollars in creating could sustain themselves. They're not ready yet to stand on their own. They are ready to the lion's share of the fighting, and they're already doing that, but the support systems, the training systems, maintaining all the equipment they've been provided, all these kinds of details are still going to take time to develop to capacity. But also, psychologically, it's not just support to the military forces. It's the psychological importance of international forces remaining behind. If the Americans make a commitment, then the NATO allies will follow suit. If the Americans decide to go to the zero-option, as it was being discussed, then our NATO allies would also not be able to stay on in Afghanistan. So I think that's, for Afghans, they're really concerned that if all troops left, these things will fall apart.

GRILLOT: Well I think it's interesting that you mentioned the psychological impact of this. Because the reality of this is that as international forces and American forces withdraw, and that assistance goes away, and Afghans have to take more responsibility for their own country, is that perhaps will open up some sort of opportunity for other players to come into the arena that perhaps aren't going to be as helpful? And perhaps will detract from the gains that have been made in Afghanistan?

WILDER: And I think that's the dilemma for Afghans. A lot of Afghans don't like the fact that there's foreign troops that have come into their country, and that they're dependent on them. However, they are in a difficult neighborhood, with Pakistan to the East, Iran to the South, Tajikistan and other '"stans" to the North, and other interference in internal affairs there. So there is this concern that if the U.S. withdraws, they'll be at the mercy of their neighbors.

GRILLOT: And that's somewhat of a reality, right?

WILDER: Absolutely.

GRILLOT: Not just a perception, but a reality. So just having that perception of that assistance is going to be critical for their own psychology.

WILDER: Yeah, and already that psychology is having an impact. There's a report last year that something like $8 billion of capital flew out of Afghanistan. Afghans are moving some of their money out because of the uncertainty of what's going to happen. I know a lot of Afghans, those who have the option, are trying to move some of their families out of Afghanistan and are preparing exit strategies. I was just in Afghanistan a few weeks ago and heard a very poignant story about a media organization. There are lots of young men and women working in it, and many of them were postponing their marriage - that's a big deal in that part of the world - until after 2014 because there's so much uncertainty about what's going to happen next year.

GRILLOT: I think that's what's so fascinating about it, is we just don't know where this is headed. So the uncertainty, the volatility, all of these things coming together. But it sounds like the groundwork has been laid, and if that balloon isn't popped, and we can let that air out slowly, as you say, which is a wonderful metaphor, we can see them continue on the right track.

WILDER: You could, and I do think that's where the U.S. does need to be forceful in reiterating time and again its long-term commitment to remain engaged in Afghanistan. And not at the levels we were, but a sustainable level moving forward that we're not going to abandon Afghanistan. And yes, from my perspective, a longer-term commitment of some troops in Afghanistan - both for the political and psychological reasons I mentioned - but also for the important security reasons, because we've invested a lot of blood and treasure in Afghanistan. I think to protect that investment now, that's not, again, go down to zero and let's reassure Afghans that we're there for the long haul.

GRILLOT: Yeah, protecting that investment, certainly a lesson learned from the past, hopefully. Well Andrew, thank you so much for joining us today on World Views. Such an interesting part of the world, and I appreciate you sharing your thoughts about it.

WILDER: Thanks for having me.

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