Afghanistan: Opportunities Slipping Away

Blog | July 22, 2016

EWI Distinguished Fellow James Creighton analyzes the strides Afghanistan has made since the 2001 fall of the Taliban. Although Afghanistan has made significant economic and social progress over the past 15 years, Creighton says the country cannot succeed without continued international attention.

After 15 years of international cooperation following the fall of the Taliban in 2001, Afghanistan has progressed dramatically although from an undoubtedly low starting point. Literacy rates and school attendance for both boys and girls have risen. In major cities electricity is now expected where it was non-existent 15 years ago. Large-scale projects, such as the Salma Dam, are breaking ground and others, such as the Kajaki Dam, are advancing toward utilization. Roads between all major cities that were a series of loosely connected potholes in 2001 are now functional. However, considering the massive expenditure and effort to reach this point, the results are not satisfactory. The opportunities presented to the Afghan people by overwhelming international support will slip away without persistent and patient attention.

The Afghan Government Working to Earn Respect

International commitment is waning as a result of the Afghan government’s stalled progress. The unity government remains intact but, despite an expansive vision from President Ashraf Ghani, has not lived up to expectations.  Corruption at the ministerial down to the district level is rampant as many officials are more concerned with personal rather than common interests. Cooperation between the President and the CEO, Abdullah Abdullah, exists in public, but there is growing separation and mistrust in private. After a delay of over a year, parliamentary elections are scheduled for October 15 October 2016, but planning and preparation are lagging. Government institutions suffer from a lack of funding and ineffective human capacity at all levels.

Despite all this, there are signs of hope. President Ghani’s personal energy and vision for a positive future include specific actions to address the major concerns. His outreach to improve relations with Pakistan in March 2015 failed to deliver an expected reciprocal response, which cost him significant political capital and good will with many within Afghanistan’s political environment.  

President Ghani’s dialogues with Pakistani military and ministerial leaders in March 2015 acknowledged the special relationship between the two countries and the economic and security gains that could potentially be gained by effective cooperation. Afghan-Pakistan history is fraught with mistrust, subterfuge and competition; however, the two countries’ collaboration is pivotal to the eventual defeat of the Taliban and promotion of regional economic cooperation and growth. After Ghani’s visit to Pakistan in March 2015, the Pakistani government committed to demonstrating tangible results toward improved relations. After 15 months, this commitment has fallen flat, and the relationship has continued to sour. President Ghani has subsequently shifted his focus. He is looking to Iran in the west, China in the east and the Central Asian republics to assist in developing Afghanistan’s economic potential. This extension will help but will not allow Afghanistan to maximize its economic potential nor create the environment for cooperation against the Taliban and other insurgents. The governments of Pakistan and Afghanistan must continue to work toward a more cooperative relationship militarily and economically. A close alliance does not seem achievable, but both countries need to work together to combat insurgent forces that pose an existential threat to them. There is no silver bullet that will resolve the tensions; therefore, both sides must look to small actions that can begin to build a more trusting relationship. Cooperation on visa requirements for local Pashtuns affected by the Durand Line is one area that could represent a small step forward.

A Stagnant Economy

The significant decrease in foreign investment and aide has hindered economic growth and infrastructure projects. This decrease was not unexpected. The government of Afghanistan, in close cooperation with the Resolute Support and Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan (CSTC-A), has instituted significant reform of its procurement and contracting system. Touted by the President and confirmed by CSTC-A, the procurement initiative began in early 2015 (and still ongoing) and has significantly improved transparency, and through competition, reduced considerably the costs of the hundreds of contracts in support of the government, including its army and police.  The reform has ensured compliance with Afghan law, fair and open bidding, and improved integrity of contract selection. A modified National Procurement Authority and National Procurement Commission lead the directed change. Approved this year, a new National Procurement Law has introduced multi-year and framework contracts allowing for consolidation and centralization.  All of these procurement changes have set the conditions for economy of scale in pricing, fair competition and flexibility to meet the rapidly changing needs of security operations, and a drastic reduction in total contracts to be managed. The Afghan government has introduced effective corruption-resistance measures, along with reform in procurement and contracting. These initiatives will go a long way toward improving sustainability and affordability in running the government, providing much needed services to the Afghan people and increasing the government's contribution toward the country's security and defense. The scrutiny of contractual agreements has also focused on reducing corruption and improving transparency. Combined, these initiatives will go a long way toward the development of a sustainable infrastructure.

The economy has struggled with the loss of coalition demand for goods and services. There are several demonstrative aspects hindering economic growth and regional cooperation:

  • The friction with Pakistan over the long-term status of the Durand Line has marginalized the gains achieved in durable multi-entry visas, border crossing point procedures and trade and transit cooperation.
  • Afghanistan has not been able to raise the capital and international investment needed to exploit the one trillion USD worth of mineral potential in Afghanistan.  
  • The stability of Afghanistan’s financial system and rule of law has not earned the trust of international investors, which inhibits the vast potential for regional and international direct investment in Afghanistan. 
  • The tax code and rules associated with optimal business practices are at best written but not promulgated, or at worst yet to be codified.
  • The migration of educated and capable Afghans and their capital is having a negative impact on the ability of the government and private sector to build economic capacity.  
  • The narcotics driven illicit economy continues to grow and fund insurgent activities.

Despite these many challenges, the economy grew by 1.3 percent in 2014 and 1.5 percent in 2015; trade between Afghanistan and Pakistan reaches 20,000 licit and illicit vehicles crossing the border a day; and major regional and global agreements are moving forward.

Afghanistan’s acceptance into global and regional trade associations has been slow, but continuous movement on regional infrastructure agreements bodes well for the long term. Afghanistan was formally accepted into the World Trade Organization on 17 December 2015. Afghanistan has been an active member of the South Asia Association of Regional Cooperation (SARC) since April 2007. The Central Asia–South Asia power project, CASA 1000, a center-piece for regional cooperation, has been approved for engineering and continues to move slowly through funding agreements. China’s 44 billion USD One Belt One Road agreement with Pakistan is seen as an opportunity for Pakistan and Afghanistan to cooperate. The Chinese will build the road and connect it to both Karachi and the new Gwadar Port. China’s infrastructure investment as well as India’s agreement with Iran to build the Chabahar Port will yield an opportunity to connect east and west routes to north and south routes. The approximately 100 miles between the two ports offer the opportunity to link Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran to major trade routes. Although in the near term progress is slow and tangible results are often hard to see, mid-term and long-term integration efforts continue to move forward.

Securing the People

The security environment continues to deteriorate with a resilient Taliban and the infiltration of other insurgent organizations. The killing of Taliban leader, Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, created a vacuum in the insurgent leadership, which has contributed to a delayed summer fighting season. Hezb-i-Islami, led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, appears ready to formally reconcile with the Afghan government. This would be a big win for the Ghani government and would enable it to focus on a more narrow insurgent threat base. The Taliban has expanded its influence in many provinces in the south and east as well as the region surrounding Kunduz in the north. In provinces such as Helmond and Uruzgan the insurgents have tested the Afghan National Security Forces, limiting government influence and communications, especially in the rural and remote regions.  For its part, the Afghan Army took the offensive in Kunduz where it was able to prevent a repeat of last year’s capture of the provincial capital. The army has been able to recruit over 50,000 new soldiers over the last year, replacing large losses due to enemy contact, desertion and normal attrition, which is a positive view on a difficult first year without substantial coalition military support.

The Resolute Support mission to "enhance the Enduring Partnership with Afghanistan" lends credibility to the long-term security prospects. While the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) continue to improve, they have many obstacles to overcome. They must develop strong literate junior leaders who can act independently in the rural areas of the country. Their logistics systems and accountability suffer from an over reliance on coalition support (enabled by the coalition in many cases). The inertia of a fire base mentality is beginning to give way to a more proactive posture; however, the insurgents still exploit gaps in security created by ANDSF units that stay in their secure redoubts.  

Local leaders and citizens are not blind to the resilient Taliban, persistent corruption, and economic slowdown. In general, they want a better life for their families and path to a secure lifestyle. They are willing to support whichever route will get them to this goal. Consequently, there is a general feeling that in the threatened areas people are hedging their bets. They do not support the Taliban inherently but will tolerate abuses of authority if the Taliban represents a more direct line to a secure and predictable environment. This is offset by a general deterioration in the people’s confidence that the government will prevail in providing a reasonable environment. The Afghan government has the opportunity to prove that it can provide a more stable situation and positive future; they just have to make it happen.

In addition, the inconsistent nature of the U.S. commitment to Afghanistan makes it difficult for citizens to trust the long-term viability of their own government. The government needs consistent guarantees of international commitment in order to improve and earn the support of its people.

Avoiding the Back Slide

Progress in Afghanistan is glacial. It is a unique and challenging environment where realizing positive change is fundamentally arduous. The Afghan government has failed to capitalize on the tremendous international good will and support over the last 15 years. Internally, the levels of corruption, ineffective government institutions, and inability to provide a secure environment have compromised citizen trust which jeopardizes long-term development. Externally, the coalition has squandered opportunities by not clearly understanding the unique challenges at the local level, not properly administering development funding, killing civilians through accidental (and tragically sometimes purposeful) misuse of force, and failing to adequately assist the government of Afghanistan in creating a more stable environment—despite a continued commitment of thousands of lives and billions of dollars to the challenge that is Afghan security, stability and eventual growth.  

In retrospect, the initial premise after September 11, 2001 was accurate—prevent a terrorist safe haven and help build a stable Afghanistan. Considering where Afghanistan was in 2001 with regard to social well-being, infrastructure, education, security and just about every other indicator, the country has moved the needle. The way forward remains difficult, But the coalition’s continued unambiguous support is vital for ultimate Afghan stability, while the Afghan government must redouble its efforts to fix the problems it knows all too well. Letting the achieved progress slip away would only serve to squander the sacrifices made as a result of the good intentions of an unprecedented coalition.


Colonel (ret.) James Creighton commanded a coalition brigade in Uruzgan from 2010 – 2011 and was the lead author in writing the operations plan for the surge in 2009. He is a distinguished fellow at the EastWest Institute and has interviewed dozens of officials at the highest levels in Afghanistan.