At the end of 2014 the majority of existing foreign troops will be withdrawn from Afghanistan. The international community (an amalgam of security, humanitarian and development agencies) arrived in Afghanistan to help build a stable and long-lasting Afghan state, capable of representing its people. Ousting the Taliban that ruled the country from 1996 till 2001 was one of its biggest achievements.
The uneasy journey to establish democracy and build peace in this fragile country began in 2001. The main successes so far have been the drafting of a new democratic constitution (2004) and the presidential and parliamentary elections (2004/5 and 2009/10). However, attempts at building democracy and democratic institutions do not always translate into ‘governments of the people, by the people and for the people’.
While most experts on Afghanistan identify institutional deficit as the main factor behind the limited functioning of the Afghan Government and its inability to deliver basic services to its people; in my view, it is the fact that most state institutions are run by individuals rather than on organisational mandates which is a key problem. Most of the mandates that exist are not operational, and it is individual leaders and executives who play an important role in formulating and executing public policies. However, many of them are incompetent and, in some cases, are former warlords, and the fact that they govern many of the central and provincial institutions by resorting to patronage, for example, hinders the ‘effective’ functioning of government.
A growing concern that public institutions are being monopolised by individuals
There are many concerns about the impact of the 2014 international withdrawal and predictions for the country’s future are difficult to make. UK Defense Secretary Philip Hammond recently said that nobody could say "with certainty what the future for Afghanistan" would be. One of the major concerns is the reversal of the current achievements and the recurrence of a civil war.
I see the source of this fear coming both from historical precedent and the recent developments around the monopolisation of institutions by ruling elites who are difficult to hold to account. Warlords, commanders, local militias and religious groups were the initial power-fillers after the Taliban regime was toppled in 2001. These informal powerbrokers have transformed into formal actors and become the main representatives of Afghans to the international community. Supported by the international community in the fight against Taliban, they gained more power. After 2014, it seems likely that these warlords will play a more influential and active role in further monopolising institutions. However, it is uncertain whether these elites will remain united after their resources dwindle in 2014 and beyond. It is also likely that they would use their leverage and influence over the current Afghan National Army (ANA) and fragment it along ethnic lines. If this happens we could potentially face another civil conflict, which will reverse the achievements, made so far.
Is there an exit strategy for Afghanistan?
The exit strategy of the international community emphasises the negotiating and signing of bilateral strategic agreements which will chart out their future engagements and document their commitments to the Afghan state after 2014.
One major bilateral agreement that will determine Afghan security after 2014 is the current security pact under negotiation with the United States. While many in Afghanistan believe that a security pact should be signed with the USA following the bilateral strategic agreement (signed in May 2012), the immunity of the American forces remaining in Afghanistan continues to be a bone of contention between the two states, so the security pact has not yet been signed. Even so, Afghanistan has already been declared a major non-NATO ally which will enable access to US military training, military supplies, equipment loans, and financing for loans.
While the negotiations, debates and rifts define the recent relationship between Afghanistan and the USA, much less has been done to address the fundamental problems. The key issue that Afghan people are concerned with is who is representing them in these negotiations, which will ultimately determine their future security and prosperity. The current exit strategy and even the peace process excludes the majority of the societal actors representing the Afghan people. Instead the process includes groups which have dubious legitimacy and controversial histories.
Building accountable, effective and legitimate institutions
Building accountable, effective and legitimate institutions in Afghanistan should focus on moving beyond the ‘individual centric’ nature which has characterised them so far. Endeavours should be made to restrict the monopolisation of particular individuals and groups over institutions. The more "institutionalised" the institutions, the more deliberative, representative, consensual and legitimate the decisions will be. By "institutionalised", I mean institutions that are run by mandates not by individual or groups.
Building post-conflict Afghanistan requires taking on board all interests and groups. But at the same time a balance between these interests and groups is critical to the stability of the country. Neutralising the enormous spoiling capability that the warlords have gained so far cannot and will not be addressed unless and until there are institutionalised institutions in place - with the ability to operate along the lines of their mandates rather than being at the whim of their leaders.
*Baseer Ahmad is currently undertaking an MA in Governance and Development at the Institute of Development Studies.