Compared to post-invasion Iraq, Afghanistan seems a success story; but first impressions can be misleading. The country remains on a knife-edge, and the loss of momentum in its transition from the Taliban regime puts Afghanistan at grave risk of relapsing into dangerous insecurity. Although many Afghans have contributed courageously to rescuing their country, and some key benchmarks have been achieved, Afghanistan continues to face severe difficulties. Elite political competition is fierce, and able ministers have been removed when deemed to be occupying too much of the limelight. President Hamid Karzai, while articulate and incorruptible, remains wedded to a politics of bargaining and networking that has seen unappetising figures promoted to positions they have then abused. This has created space for the resurgence of the Taliban in the south, with Pakistani backing. The new Afghan National Army is proving too expensive to be locally sustainable, and the police force offers only a pale shadow of what is needed. The predominance of opium in the economy poses the risk that Afghanistan could become a narco-state, and on a range of human development indicators it remains one of the world’s poorest countries, with popular frustration rising. While foreign governments have contributed large sums to reconstruction, too much money has gone to Western contractors, at the expense of local capacity. It is not too late to turn things around, but time is running short. Only if the Afghan government re-focuses on the delivery of competent, clean and inclusive governance, and the wider world ensures that its commitments match its rhetoric, is it at all likely that disaster can be avoided.
William Maley is Professor of Diplomacy in the Asia-Pacific College of Diplomacy at the Australian National University. He has been a visiting research fellow in the Refugee Studies Programme at the University of Oxford, and is a fellow of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia.
‘[a] slim, lucid, dispassionate overview.’ — Dominick Donald, The Guardian
‘Maley gives a balanced and sober account of Afghanistan’s situation, ably organised into sections on politics, security, human development and foreign relations. … it is a depressingly familiar story of political infighting and well-meaning but misguided interference followed up by broken promises.’ — Adelaide Review