By Arab News
By Dr. Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg*
A bomb blast on Friday killed 12 worshippers and injured 15 in a mosque on the outskirts of the Afghan capital Kabul, ending a short-lived calm during the Eid holidays. There were also several terrorist attacks earlier in the month, including one near a Kabul high school that killed at least 90 and injured scores more, many of them schoolgirls, according to a report by the New York Times. That attack appeared designed to inflict as much damage as possible. According to the Afghan Interior Ministry, a car bomb was detonated in front of the school and, as students rushed out in fear, two more bombs were set off.
Targeting schoolgirls in a district of the capital inhabited by the Hazara minority evoked fears that communal and anti-women violence could resurge after the impending American troop withdrawal. Since the US announced its intention to leave Afghanistan, relief organizations and human rights groups have warned of such attacks.
The US-sponsored intra-Afghan talks and the US announcement of its plan to depart have not led to a cessation of the violence and, judging by this month’s events, may lead to an escalation as different groups vie for control. The US withdrawal is now scheduled to be completed in September, 20 years after its invasion of the country following the 9/11 attacks. It is not clear what the US plans are for any future presence in Afghanistan after September. The plans of America’s NATO partners are also unclear, although some have already withdrawn their forces or reduced their numbers in anticipation of the US withdrawal.
The US involvement with Afghanistan goes back decades, predating the events of 2001, with the US and NATO having handled the security situation in partnership with the Afghan government since then. As such, there is a special responsibility for Washington to lead an international effort to restore peace and stability to the war-ravaged country.
Several great powers have invaded Afghanistan in the past, only to leave it in chaos, but the US and NATO should not repeat that pattern. The Soviet Union could be blamed for much of the mess today, with years of meddling in Afghan affairs followed by a brutal invasion that lasted 10 years and claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of Afghan civilians, while also creating millions of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs). That invasion was met with a powerful insurgency that drove Soviet troops out and later turned the country into a haven for terror groups, which sow death and destruction around the world even today. The US invasion of 2001 sought to bring an end to those activities, but it has failed and, in frustration, America has decided to leave prematurely.
Located at an important crossroads between different parts of Asia, Afghanistan has been involved in great power rivalry for centuries — and that fate may continue for the foreseeable future. The British invaded Afghanistan several times in the 19th century, ostensibly to ward off imperial Russia’s meddling. Russia also tried and failed, and then the US and NATO. After America’s withdrawal, it is expected that other countries may try their luck at shaping Afghanistan’s future, including China, India and Iran.
Regardless of the merits of the American decision to leave, after two decades of calling the shots on security matters in Afghanistan, it now needs to lead the peace process before it departs. The UN’s auspices are the most obvious option for such efforts, but other avenues could be pursued to reach a negotiated political solution endorsed by both the international community and regional organizations, such as the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. That process should aim at preventing a security vacuum following the American withdrawal, which could lead to malign meddling from neighbors and others. At a minimum, a UN peacekeeping presence is necessary to protect Afghan civilians, especially vulnerable groups such as women, minorities, refugees and IDPs. Relief organizations need to be given access and protection to provide the necessary assistance to those in need. Until such a security network is in place, a US or NATO presence is needed to prevent a security breakdown.
In addition to security concerns, Afghanistan is facing an economic meltdown. A recent report by the US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) estimated that Afghanistan’s overall poverty level increased in 2020 from an already high level of 55 to 72 percent. The rise is due to deteriorating security and economic conditions, as well as the unmet challenges of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19). At the end of 2020, the unemployment rate was estimated to be about 38 percent, compared to 24 percent in 2019. In November 2020, more than 11 million people — about 30 percent of Afghanistan’s population of 38 million — faced either a crisis or emergency state of food insecurity.
Government finances are also askew, according to the SIGAR report. While its revenue declined by about 3 percent in 2020, its expenditures increased by about 8 percent in order to meet the pandemic’s challenges.
Trade has also been in decline. In July 2020, exports to Pakistan — Afghanistan’s top trading partner — decreased by about 57 percent compared to July 2019, while its imports from Pakistan decreased by about 44 percent.
To meet these hardships, the UN Development Programme last year estimated that the Afghan government would need an additional $6 billion in international grants over the next five years — a 30 percent increase from current levels — to offset COVID-19-related budget losses and maintain expenditure levels. However, with security worries and concerns about governance, it is unlikely that donors and investors will meet these targets.
Afghanistan clearly needs help at the political, security and economic levels, as well as help mediating its internal conflicts. Its social safety net is broken and its economic governance system is badly in need of repair to weed out corruption and establish robust accountability structures.
The international community should lend a hand to address these needs. A discussion is needed between potential partners, led by the US as the current and most recent outside power in Afghanistan, to agree on a division of labor between interested countries and international and regional organizations to work at different levels.
- Dr. Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg is the GCC Assistant Secretary-General for Political Affairs & Negotiation, and a columnist for Arab News. The views expressed in this piece are personal and do not necessarily represent GCC views. Twitter: @abuhamad1