Who can prevent an Afghan civil war?

Posted by Nigel Wilson

In a week that’s seen three “green on blue” attacks in Afghanistan, a divided panel came together to unpick the finer details of the country’s impending challenges. With foreign troops preparing to leave in 2014, the spectre looming over Afghanistan is a return to civil war. The expert panel debated whether the Afghan National Army would be able to prevent this outcome.

The guests were united in their belief that security would be the major challenge for Afghanistan post-withdrawal. It was stressed that foreign forces would not be abandoning Afghanistan as the Soviets had done when they withdrew in 1989. The audience heard that $4.1 billion would be spent each year to support the army and that NATO would offer continuing support until 2024 albeit behind the scenes.

“This is not a Soviet style abandonment of Afghanistan. In this case there are many strategic partnership agreements with the US so the idea is that at least some US forces will stay maybe 10,15 up to 20,000 for another 10 years. There are strategic partnership agreements with UK, Germany, France, Italy, Australia, Turkey. These, the government thinks will keep Afghanistan together and keep institutions running. If this happens I think the future is bright.” 

Questions were then raised about the ethnic groups that make up the ANA. It was stressed that the army roughly represented the country’s ethnic groups proportionally and that recruitment from the Pashtun south had increased 10% last year. However it was stated that men from this region, which has been a fertile ground for Taliban recruiters, were under represented in the ANA and currently make up only 1% of the force.

The debate moved on to reconciliation. Whilst the panel agreed that it was a requirement to prevent ethnic strife, they split when it came to defining what reconciliation meant. One view given was that for the US, it seems that reconciliation means splitting and undermining the Taliban rather than including them in meaningful peace talks. A robust approach to dealing with difficult groups was offered by another speaker, considering how to deal with governors that don’t want to engage with western forces. 

“It’s not about empowering absolute winners or absolute losers. The time now is for compromise, not for protecting fiefdoms and avoiding making difficult decisions that are in the longer term interest of Afghans.”

It emerged during the night that Afghanistan would need more than just a strong army to prevent civil war from engulfing the country. The experts agreed that robust civil institutions as well as a respect for the rule of law and human rights are required to make the nation sustainable after 2014.

“It’s important to make a balance between support to the Afghan national security forces, to the civilian causes, development and support to civil society including women’s rights groups. Unfortunately the biggest concern among many Afghans is that much focus will be drawn to the security.”

The panel concluded that it’s critical for Afghanistan’s future that the voices of ordinary Afghans are heard.