Afghanistan: Will it Survive After the USA Withdrawal?

Alex Clackson 

Image © DVIDSHUB

As the United States plans to leave Afghanistan in 2014, two main questions arise. Firstly, have the USA managed to achieve any substantial goals in increasing security and stability and in the last ten years and secondly will Afghanistan be able to survive after the occupation of the country comes to an end in 2014?

Unfortunately the answer to both questions is no. While the Taliban and other terrorist organization activity is low at the moment, it is only a matter of time before they make a return after the USA has pulled out from Afghanistan. The question here though is political, not military. It is a question of depriving the Taliban of their most powerful weapon, which is the claim that they are defending Afghanistan and their enemies are non-Muslim foreigners. A swift withdrawal of Coalition forces from the front line would be a very painful test for the Afghan military, though they would be free to choose their battles. The central problem with President Obama’s strategy for the war in Afghanistan has always been his deadline. The Taliban claim that we have the watches, but they have the time. And the President has already compromised our war effort(s) by setting deadlines for troop withdrawals that are unconnected to the end state his strategy seeks to achieve.

But the reason why Afghanistan may be heading toward anarchy is not simply due to the Afghan National Army’s lack of military preparedness to fight an insurgency without foreign support. Rather, some of the most challenging problems that the government must face once the U.S. leaves will be economic. Today, the United States and its allies provide the government of Afghanistan with the vast majority of its operating budget. American taxpayers have not only built up schools, hospitals, government ministries, and the Afghan National Army and police force; they have also paid the salaries of those who man these institutions. Further, U.S. military and foreign assistance operations in Afghanistan support many thousands of soldiers, foreign aid workers, and contractors, who pump millions of dollars into the local economy. 

What will happen when the last Americans depart? If history is any guide, “foreign assistance follows the flag,” meaning that aid spending will flee in the absence of a strong military presence. First, Americans will inevitably lose interest in Afghanistan and redirect spending to the next crisis zone; today, for example, the calamity in Syria is dominating the airwaves. Second, without American troops around to provide a modicum of security, foreign aid workers will have no choice but to leave the country; they won’t be able to work in safety (and it shouldn’t be forgotten that several hundred aid workers have already been killed during the war).

As a result of the American withdrawal, both the motivation for aid spending and any possibility of monitoring aid effectiveness will quickly disappear. In preparing for its eventual departure from Afghanistan, there is much the United States could have done on the economic front but has tragically failed to implement. Incredibly, after more than ten years of war, the U.S. has no free trade agreement with Kabul, inadvertently promoting cross-border flows with Iran and Pakistan instead. Worse, these flows consist largely of needed imports, since the U.S. has promoted a strong Afghan currency that makes it near impossible to produce goods competitively within the country.

The lack of an export-oriented industry, in turn, means that Afghanistan lacks a strong and forward-looking entrepreneurial class that could have served as a foundation for an anti-Taliban society; this is an even greater shame when one recognizes the tremendous craftsmanship that Afghan society is capable of in such sectors as woodworking and glass making.

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