2014 Is Shaping To Be Afghanistan’s Y2K
The year 2014 is a major turning point for Afghanistan with simultaneous security, political and economic transitions. Inquiring minds want to know who will win the presidential elections and what their destiny holds after the US troops draw down?
In so many ways, 2014 is turning out to be Afghanistan’s Y2K. In December 1999, the uncertainty and fear of Y2K ranged from computer failures and data breaches to a worldwide economic collapse. Similarly, Afghans today fear their Y2K is inevitable whereby their lives may revert back to the dark Taliban days and their savings and investments could instantly disappear. So the obvious question arises: can the Afghan government secure and maintain the recent gains of the past decade and use it as a launching pad for more economic development? Or will the country stumble back in time with a possible resurgence of Taliban rule or worst turn into “the wild west” as some predict? Answers to these questions depends heavily on whether US policy shift brings a complete withdrawal of military and financial support; thus repeating past mistakes after the Soviets left Afghanistan in 1989.
Leading up to Y2K dooms day, coordination and pre-planning between government and industry led to a smooth transition; technology didn’t interrupt our lives. The same can be said of Afghanistan’s looming dooms day at the end of 2014. A pragmatic view of the current state of affairs in that country provides the foundation for this pre-planning as summarized in figure 1 below.
One key data not captured in figure 1 above is the general public’s growing voice against corruption, extremism, violence and ethnocentric leaders. Unlike the past, common Afghans now see themselves as Afghan nationals versus aligning themselves to a specific tribe. This is due to the fact that nearly 42% of the population is less than 14 years of age and 65% under 25 years of age. This large segment of the population is either too young to remember the Taliban rule or don’t have reasons to hold past grudges against rival tribes. Meanwhile, the rest of the population has let the civil war wound heal and are looking forward to electing the right leader with the moral authority to guide the country into the future.
Pundits doubted the April 5, 2014 presidential elections in Afghanistan would go as smoothly as they did. Prior to the elections, Afghan Independent Election Commission paired down the initial number of candidates from 27 down to 11. Despite fears of violence and suicide attacks, roughly 7.5 million voters, a 70% voter turnout, risked their lives to cast their ballots. This was a big success for the budding democracy and a win for the Afghan National Security Forces who demonstrated professionalism and capacity to ensure public order. Afghans not only wanted to have their voices heard, but also demonstrated their courage in choosing their next leader.
With 11 candidates in the running, it’s no surprise that neither of the front runners secured a 50% majority to win the election as illustrated in figure 2. Similarly, in 2009, President Hamid Karzai produced a double digit lead margin yet failed to secure the necessary 50% majority over Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, despite securing support of Gen. Rashid Dostum and his Uzbek tribe. However, there was no run-off election that year as Abdullah conceded the elections “to promote unity and save the country the unnecessary burden of conducting another election.”
This year’s elections produced similar results with the top two candidates, Abdullah and Dr. Ashraf Ghani, with run-off elections to be held June 14th where the leading candidate outright wins the election. A closer look at the election results indicates Abdullah a clear winner in the central and northern provinces. Whereas Ghani led in six eastern border and two northern provinces; primarily due to help of his Uzbek running mate; Gen Abdul Rashid Dostum. Neither of these contenders gathered a meaningful lead or majority in the six southern provinces. Moreover, voter turnout was higher in the northern regions of areas of the country due to overall perceived low risk of violence.
Not long after the official results were announced, Abdullah secured the much needed support from southern voters with political support of Dr. Zalmai Rassoul, Gov. Gul Agha Sherzai, Naim Nader and other prominent Pashtuns . An interesting anecdote to highlight is that a few years back, prominent figures were pressing to send Ghani’s running mate, Dostum, to International Criminal Courts for war crimes tribunals. Uzbek voters have questioned whether Ghani is interested in having Dostum as part of his cabinet or if he is being used to get their votes. In either case, voters must accept the fact that Dostum stands to become president should Ghani’s health continue to deteriorate and pass on. Recent peaceful death of vice president begs the question in every voters mind about the entire ticket, not just the lead candidate.
Most likely, the run-off election will result in a higher turnout due to an uneventful first round as well the clear choice voters have with only two candidates. Barring a scandal, many insiders do not expect any real surprises with this run-off election. Abdullah is regarded as unedifying candidate and a check against the Taliban and al Qaeda remnants. After all, it was Abdullah’s Northern Alliance faction that teamed up with US ground forces to oust the Taliban in late 2001. Whereas votes for Ghani will keep Abdullah’s coalition focused on the needs of entire country to include the 6 eastern border provinces. Based on first round election results and shift in voters’ mood with only two candidates, in the unlikely event the southern Pashtun votes are split, Abdullah would still maintain a double digit lead. As such, it is surprising to see Ghani risk it all in a run-off election instead of conceding to join in a coalition government.
In either case, going forward we should expect better collaboration and relations between the new Administration in Afghanistan and the West; specifically towards the US who will continue to fund near term security forces payroll and development projects. Afghans will elect the leader to bring change and hope for a better tomorrow. Both candidates have expressed their willingness to move forward on the US-Afghan Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) which has been in limbo for over 6 months now. This agreement will ensure a small, but agile US military presence to provide the assurance to the local Afghans that they’re not being abandoned by the US for the second time and to reverse the recent brain drain and capital flight. Looking back, President Karzai did his successor a favor by not signing the BSA. This move, considered by some as a “low hanging fruit,” should help the new administration with a quick success and provide support for launching other initiatives.
In the near term, Western nations must allow diplomacy to work and ensure that we continue to support this budding democracy. No doubt that there is reason for anxiety about what the future holds for Afghanistan. The Afghan National Security Forces will continue to need training, development and procurement of weapons to defend themselves against the Taliban and al Qaeda remnants that infiltrate from Pakistan. In addition, as the troop reduction continues over the next year, the local economy will continue to experience lower domestic spending as well as capital flight as a safety measure by locals. To counter this and stimulate the local economy, Western nations must continue to fund select public works projects and promote Afghan businesses in their country to reduce their dependence and mindset of a welfare state. The Asian Development Bank and World Bank’s recent pledges to fund local projects and economy are two good examples of a longer term view of this developing nation.
In the longer term, the new Afghan Administration will need to put more emphasis on good governance, transparency and a comprehensive economic strategy to grow the economy and attract foreign investments. Such robust economic strategy must identify ways to capitalize on Afghanistan’s existing assets such as agriculture products, mining, natural gas deposits and an abundance of water for electricity generation. Afghanistan stands to benefit from the growing trade among central Asian countries. As such, the new administration must continue to develop the country’s transportation system; especially rail lines. Currently, only a few miles of rail lines have been constructed in the northern border towns. Planners have conducted feasibility studies to develop a network to connect Tajikistan and Uzbekistan through the northern Afghan provinces. These planners should include the rest of the country with a broader rail network. Eventually, with better security, Afghans can also develop their budding tourism industry to showcase the untapped beauty of their country. Contrary to popular belief, there lies a tremendous opportunity for domestic tourism to address the appetite of those interested in the history of the region such as retracing the Silk Road, Ghaznavid Empire, Muslim and Buddhist religious sites in the north and central provinces, extreme sports such as river rafting, biking, and mountain climbing as well as others. Over the past 12 years, hundreds of thousands of foreigners worked in Afghanistan; some of these folks may want to revisit the country to see it from a different light.
We live in a world of instant gratification and while the redevelopment of Afghanistan hasn’t been a perfect story, remarkable contributions have been made to the lives of 30 million Afghans. Strategically speaking, Afghanistan is vital to our national security and economy. A total withdrawal of U.S. forces and financial support from Afghanistan would be disastrous for the local people. Twenty years ago, the communist regime of Dr. Najibullah didn’t collapse when the Soviets pulled out in 1989, but two years later when the funding stopped. Undoubtedly, this Afghan regime will also collapse with a complete withdrawal of military and economic aid. Moreover, in this interconnected world, walking away from Afghanistan this time around will alienate other budding democracies. At which point Russia, China and other regional powers will step in to fill the vacuum and use these countries to fulfil their political ambitions. As such, we simply cannot risk Afghanistan becoming the world’s terrorist training ground for the second time around.
Taymor Kamrany, MBA, is a business development professional with over 15 years of
proven leadership and management accomplishments in both domestic and international sectors. Previously, he held advisory role with the Ministry of Finance of Afghanistan and Program Manager for a Leadership Development Program of a Fortune 100 company.