The Lessons of Afghanistan: The Post-War Deluge of Ambiguity

After nearly 12 years, the longest and most conflicted U.S. -Afghanistan war may be winding down. Thanks to President Barack Obama's decision to speed up the withdrawal of U.S. troops in the spring of this year instead of in the summer saving American and Afghan lives and wealth. This 180 degree shift in policy augurs well for the arrival of peace in Afghanistan since it has been involved in various wars for 35 years. The expectation is that fighting will stop when foreign troops are gone and the flow of suicide bombers and explosives from Pakistan will be halted. Moreover, the U.S. is now convinced that the remnants of Al-Qaeda no longer exist in Afghanistan, although doubt has been raised about the end of the war.

The critical question especially for Afghans is to consider the issue of peace and war following the withdrawal of foreign troops whose residual numbers is speculated in the range of zero and 15,000.

1. Will the Central Government be overthrown? Recent history shows that nearly two years after the withdrawal of Soviet troops in 1989 the Marxist government was overthrown. There are two factors that may obviate an overthrow. First, the U.S. is attempting to get the Taliban to participate in a peace accord with the Central government encouraging the Taliban to participate through the political process. Secondly, the U.S. is busy training and equipping the Central government's military forces to reach 350,000. The approach is problematic. First, the Taliban have been reluctant to participate in the peace process with the Central government and secondly, the shadow government of the Taliban is already in a dominant position with the population and land areas of Afghanistan. Besides, the Afghan military's loyalty is to their ethnic leaders rather than the Central government. Moreover, the emerging government may take punitive measures against those Afghans that are thought to have cooperated with the foreign occupiers unless a general amnesty is agreed upon.

A positive note on this issue is the message that the Taliban issued during the recent Paris peace conference on Afghanistan. It stated that the Taliban believed that all Afghan factions (tribes, ethnicities, etc.) were entitled to legitimate participation in the government and that women would have education and employment rights. Under this axiom it is possible that the current Central government will be replaced peacefully and a new government may emerge with minimal disruption.

We believe there is little doubt that the emerging government will do away with corruption, warlords, drug lords, and impose special taxes on the one percent of the population who became rich by exploiting government connections.

2. Is there a deep dissonance/discord between ethnic groups? Recent history demonstrates that the ethnic groups during the reign of former King Zahir Shah lived in relative peace for 40 years (1933 - 973). First of all, Afghanistan's population is nearly 100 percent Muslim. Although there is a minority of Shiites, the two factions have lived in peace for centuries. There are language differences -- two prominent languages (Pashtu and Farsi). In the capital city of Kabul most of the residents are bi-lingual. Although the Pashtun population is in majority and have dominated the government since the 1700s, the other ethnic groups are gaining relative political power. In terms of per capita income, the distribution is even. In other words, there is no mal-distribution of income, wealth or land in Afghanistan.

3. Another positive note for peaceful post-war Afghanistan is the weariness of the population over prolongs wars. It was in 1978 when the Marxist government overthrew the former established government of Afghanistan and since then some form of the wars (Soviet-Afghan, Afghan-Afghan, and U.S. - Afghan) have engulfed the country. Afghanistan needs peace to exploit its rich mineral resources, produce business including production of food and crops, promote tourism, construction, and infrastructure and continue with its rapid growth of transportation and communication. Its recent annual growth of gross domestic product (GDP) is very favorable. If these trends continue in the postwar period, Afghanistan's per capita income could converge and surpass some of its neighbors.

4. Inequality in distribution of wealth, land and income in Afghanistan is not at the forefront of ongoing conflict as landlordism is not present. Recent economic movement has created a dual economy creating certain sectors to flourish such as communication, transportation, education, art and entertainment. These have pulled ahead creating a dual economy, but others sectors most notably mineral resources and agro-business, are poised to catch up. However, a small group of individuals exploiting corruption have swindled millions of dollars out of the country that must be brought to accountability and justice.

5. Drug trafficking dominates the black market as Afghanistan is a major world poppy producer. With so much profit to be made in drug trafficking, many government officials fall victim to temptation. Afghans have rightfully lost faith in their government and crime goes largely unreported, which only provides more incentives and opportunities for criminals who have little fear of being caught. The entire approach of controlling poppy production needs to be revised by the Afghan authorities in favor of alternatives crops for farmers.

6. There has been a major gap between Donors' aid promises and disbursement as espoused in several international donor meetings. Aid has not been channeled through the Afghan system and has not had an appreciable impact upon economic development. The Afghans must be given the opportunity to be in the drivers' seat.

7. Afghan government assumption of total security apparatus must be realistic and geared to fiscal sustainability of the Afghan budget. The current contemplated security force of 350,000 soldiers is unrealistic and burdensome relative to Afghanistan fiscal capacity and security requirements. A sustainable level may be approximately 100,000 ("A Road Map to Peace in Afghanistan," Huffington Post, 1/24/2011).

8. On January 12, 2013, during Afghanistan's President Karzai's visit to the White House, President Obama was non-committal on the U.S number of American soldiers that will be stationed in the post 2014 U.S. role in Afghanistan. In view of the fact that there seems to be no al Qaeda remnant in Afghanistan, there is no need for continued military presence in Afghanistan after 2014. If anything, the U.S. and 48 NATO nations may provide economic assistance for helping rebuild the country.

9. Regardless of the U.S. role after 2014, there is indeed a deluge of uncertainty among Afghans. Afghans may have to pull up on their own and do it alone. Those Afghans who were employed by U.S. forces and international agencies fear loss of employment and punitive actions. Landlords fear loss of rent and excessive vacancy, government officials fear loss of jobs, and budget and wages, and university students are uncertain of what lies ahead. The Taliban hold is gaining on a daily basis. Currently, control of land and people are moving exactly the opposite direction, causing concern about the sustainability of Central government.

10. Needless to say, post war Afghanistan can be described as an overflow of ambiguities. Nothing is certain for Afghans as the damages of such a long war settle in. Right now, the psychological damages following this lengthy war are significant in determining the pace at which Afghanistan will attempt to recover and rebuild Afghanistan has the opportunity to accept the past and commit to a future of peace, liberty and progress. There must come a time that music, art and technology find a strong presence in the schools of Afghanistan. As the country marches in to the 21st century, the potential of electing a woman president should exist.

Afghanistan has clearly demonstrated the strength to survive. The Afghans need to acknowledge their potential and draw upon their past experiences to create a forward-thinking perspective where hardships do not control the opportunity for growth. Dwelling on the darkness of their past and allowing it to influence their current state will only produce more darkness. It is time for Afghanistan to look deeply within and invest all of their energy into education for the youth, an emphasis on ethical understanding and a passionate commitment to justice and liberty for all.

It is axiomatic that foreign invasions and occupations are to blame for Afghanistan's malaise. Afghan society is entrenched in ethnic divisions -- the central governments had become puppets of foreign powers while supporting foreign occupiers, while the freedom fighters resisted the occupiers. The sentiment of majority Afghans is that all foreign forces leave the country. We encourage, rather, forward movement on the part of Afghans to find a common identity and a peaceful solution to its problems.

We think this solution stems from making the whole of Afghan society part of the solution, including giving legitimacy and a stake to all segments in the outcome, especially women. We also believe in tapping into a common identity, its innate values -- respect for neighbors, elderly, and fellow citizens. Recreating adherence to pride, dignity, honesty and integrity. The Afghans could go back to their common heritage and to the time before the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1979. We cannot overstate the importance of finding common ground in recreating the real Afghan culture to build an environment that fosters peace.

Nake Kamrany is professor of economics at the University of Southern California. Professor Haseena Qudrat is on the faculty of the newly created American University in Afghanistan (Kabul), Michelle Kamrany, a USC graduate in theatre, is in the process of introducing music to school in Kabul, Afghanistan.