As the last British troops leave Afghanistan, can its government bring peace and stability to the country?

National unity hangs in the balance, but the opportunity is there

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The Independent Online

The last UK base in Afghanistan, Camp Bastion, was on Sunday handed over to the control of Afghan security forces, ending British combat operations in the country.  The move ends a UK engagement that has lasted for some 13 years and resulted, tragically, in more than 450 deaths.

The departure of UK troops comes at a critical moment for the country on the political, security and economic fronts.  In September, a potentially landmark power-sharing agreement was reached which created a ‘government of national unity’.

This represents the first democratic transfer of power in the country’s history and also marks the end of the post-9/11 Hamid Karzai era.  The agreement between Ashraf Ghani and former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, who has been given a de facto prime minister role, follows a contested, controversial election in June. 

Under the terms of the agreement (which resulted in part from heavy US pressure), a new Council of Ministers has been created, headed by the Abdullah, which implements the executive affairs of the government.  He will report to the president on progress in implementing these policies.

If the power arrangement between Ghani and Abdullah proves a success, and there is an eventual reconciliation deal with the Taliban, the power and legitimacy of the new government would be consolidated.  And, in turn, this would help preserve some of the fragile gains secured in Afghanistan since 2001.

However, if the government of national unity breaks down, there could be increased division, potentially along ethnic and/or geographic lines, in the country.  For instance, Mohammad Atta Noor, a former warlord, Abdullah ally, and current governor of Balkh Province in northern Afghanistan, had previously threatened violence unless Abdullah was declared the winner of the election.

A key issue here is that Ghani and Abdullah have different regional and ethnic powerbases.  Ghani is from the south and part of the country’s majority Pashtun community, whereas Abdullah is from the north and his support base is concentrated in the ethnic Tajik community. 

Now that a new government is in place, the country must seek to address the daunting array of political, economic and security risks on the horizon.  The No 1 item in the new president’s inbox is security with the Taliban increasing its activity in recent weeks.

Here, Afghanistan has signed a landmark new security deal which would see in 2015 a remaining (albeit significantly smaller) international force -- US and NATO combined -- of some 12,500 troops (9,800 of them US service personnel).  This will also help ensure extensive funding and training for the approximately 350,000 strong Afghan police and military forces, which may otherwise disintegrate.

While a continuing foreign force will provide a stabilising presence, Afghanistan is facing fresh assaults from the Taliban.  Hence, the reason why another key priority will be advancing reconciliation here.

Pakistan’s influence could be key in facilitating any eventual peace deal.  While doubts remain about that country’s ability and willingness to facilitate such an agreement, a potentially significant move was made earlier this year when Pakistani government representatives entered into formal peace talks with the Taliban in North Waziristan.

Turning to the economic front, the new president comes into office at a very difficult moment.  Since 2001, the fast-growing economy has become steadily more dependent on foreign aid.  

However, as international troops are drawn down, foreign aid could be cut back markedly.  In part, this is because US and NATO forces have provided a security umbrella under which some of the aid agencies have operated in recent years.

Another key problem is that there has been only very limited success in economic diversification since 2001.  The danger is that, as aid is reduced, the economy becomes increasingly dependent upon drug exports such as opium and heroin.

Taken overall, there is a limited window of opportunity for the government of national unity to consolidate its power and legitimacy and preserve gains in the country since 2001.  However, especially if the administration does not function effectively, and reconciliation cannot be advanced with the Taliban, there is also a prospect of significantly greater political, security and economic instability in the country, despite the signing of the new US-NATO security deal.

Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.  He was formerly a Special Adviser in the UK Government. 

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