As Afghanistan is falling off the global agenda the security situation there is continuing to deteriorate. This presents two key concerns for the international community – that once again the country could become a haven for extremism through Daesh and that huge numbers of Afghans may continue to become displaced and leave to become migrants. British Council policy analyst Elizabeth Cameron, who has worked in the country for several years, argues that it needs a renewed focus from Western policymakers.
Most Afghans celebrate their birthdays on January 1st. After the fall of the Taliban in 2001, international NGOs, agencies and armies entered to try and stabilise the country; bringing with them job opportunities and governance reforms. To apply for these jobs Afghans needed a date of birth - something that went largely unrecorded in the turbulence of the past - and what date is easier to remember than New Year’s Day?
But this New Year, Afghanistan itself is struggling to be remembered. It has gradually fallen off the international agenda since entering a supposed ‘decade of transformation’ following its political, military, and economic transition in 2014. International governments hoped this transformation would bring it greater self-reliance after Presidential elections and the withdrawal of most international forces and much foreign aid. Journalists have moved on, the news and political agendas overtaken by other crises - not least in Syria. The once busy schedule of Afghanistan-based discussion events in western capitals has almost evaporated.
The Great Game Continues?
Yet the conflict in Afghanistan continues and insecurity is increasing. Coalition troops, scheduled to be pulled out by the end of 2014, quietly remained
Yet the conflict in Afghanistan continues and insecurity is increasing. Coalition troops, scheduled to be pulled out by the end of 2014, quietly remained, though reduced in numbers and with an ‘assist and advise’ role. The UK took on the responsibility of leading the training at the Afghan National Army Officer Academy, which has trained more than 1,300 graduates. This year, amidst a worsening security situation, British military personnel in Afghanistan will increase by 10%, taking the number to around 500. 300 US Marines will also be deployed to Helmand – the first to return to that province since 2014. From time to time incidents still happen where international coalition support is still needed, such as in late 2015 when the Taliban captured the provincial capital of Kunduz province. Recent weeks also saw several deadly attacks close to Parliament and in the southern province Kandahar, killing more than 45 people including 5 diplomats from UAE.
The effects of the conflict are still being felt widely. In the first half of 2016 over 5,000 civilians were killed or injured, more than third of whom were children (UNAMA). This is the highest half year total since 2009. The numbers of ground engagements and attacks are going up. Conflict dynamics are increasingly complex, with splits in the Taliban, and Daesh off-shoot the ISKP (‘Islamic State Khorasan Province’) coming across the Pakistan border and making inroads across the country (they are reportedly now present in 11 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces). Government forces are probably only in control of about two thirds of the country.
‘Afghan Good Enough’
In October 2016, Ministers met in Brussels in the latest of a regular cycle of development conferences on Afghanistan. International governments reaffirmed $15.2 billion of assistance through to 2020, in exchange for progress and reforms from the Afghan government.
Clearly Afghanistan hasn’t been completely forgotten, and the need for investment both in security and development is recognised in the $15.2 billion commitment. But experts have pointed to a clear shift in direction from donors. It could be argued that this reflects the often-expressed doctrine of ‘Afghan good enough’, which encompasses a move away from the nation-building project of the early years of Western intervention, recognising what is achievable and lowering expectations accordingly. The Brussels conference certainly set expectations at a lower level: of the 24 commitments made at the conference, only one (which was unspecific) related to corruption, and human rights (previously a key benchmark for international aid) were excluded.
The most pressing current concerns of western donors, namely the refugee crisis in Europe and the expansion of Daesh, have taken precedence. The latter concern is particularly important as it links precisely to one of the justifications for the 2001 invasion: to prevent Afghanistan being a safe haven for terrorists. Daesh has also exacerbated sectarian conflict and several attacks have focused on the Shia Hazara minority ethnic group.
With increasing conflict, more than half a million Afghans were internally displaced in 2016 (UNOCHA). The majority of Afghan refugees are based in Iran and Pakistan, but in 2016 more than 600,000 returned from the latter. Over a quarter of a million Afghans fled to Europe in 2015 and 2016, with Germany in particular receiving more than 180,000 asylum applications. In the UK, in the year to June 2016, 2,690 asylum applications were received from Afghan nationals - more than from Syrian nationals.
Afghanistan has been marked by UNHCR as a safe country to which to return failed asylum seekers. The Brussels conference was a critical moment to ensure progress from the Afghan government on accepting returnees from Europe. The readmission agreement was initially resisted by the Afghan government and Afghan civil society. This was because, despite (largely inadequate) financial assistance provided to returnees, many face uncertain futures back in Afghanistan, having sold everything when they left and being unable to return to their communities due to safety concerns. Also, with around 400-500,000 people entering the Afghan job market every year, employment prospects for returnees are dismal. For these reasons, some have estimated that as many as 80% of those deported are likely to migrate again.
What is clear is that Afghan civil society will face many challenges in the years ahead, with increasing insecurity, large numbers of returnees, and the need to hold the Afghan government accountable as the $15.2 billion is spent. Efforts to strengthen civil society, employment and skills will need to continue, along with scrutiny from international governments to hold the Afghan government to account.
History has shown that Afghanistan’s problems have a tendency to become problems for the wider world
Afghanistan may have slipped down the agenda, but the international community, including the UK, cannot afford to let it slip too far. History has shown that Afghanistan’s problems have a tendency to become problems for the wider world. This new year, a commitment to the right long-term civil society engagement with Afghanistan would be the best birthday present many Afghans could ask for from the international community.
Elizabeth Cameron, Policy Analyst, British Council