As the international military presence in Afghanistan winds down, fears of unrest, civil war, and backsliding on fragile gains loom large. An October 2012 International Crisis Group (ICG) report states that “Afghanistan is far from ready to assume responsibility for security when U.S. and NATO forces withdraw in 2014,” arguing that “…steps toward a stable transition must begin now to prevent a precipitous slide toward state collapse. Time is running out.” The increase of green-on-blue attacks and green-on-green attacks—Afghan soldiers and police attacking international forces colleagues and one another—raises serious questions about the state of the Afghan forces. Mohammad Ismail Khan, a former mujahadeen member who was ousted from his position as governor of Herat by President Hamid Karzai in 2004, recently called on his supporters to rearm, another ominous sign that former warlords are once again preparing for war.
In this uncertain environment, Afghanistan also faces the challenge of holding another national election, now scheduled for April 2014. Although Karzai’s constitutional term limits have expired, it appears that his brother Abdul Qayum Karzai, or someone else who could extend the Karzai family’s influence, will seek the presidency. Already, concerns about the potential for corruption in the elections—a widespread problem the last time around in 2009—are growing. Some are already speculating that whoever wins the presidency in 2014 won’t be able to hold on to power very long given the centrifugal forces tearing at the country. After the last Soviet troops departed Afghanistan in 1989, it took only three years until the mujahadeen ran Soviet-installed President Mohammad Najibullah out of office in 1992.
Interestingly, the Asia Foundation’s most recent survey of the country–its eighth annual such survey since 2004–suggests that the central government, despite high levels of corruption and an inability to deliver services effectively to the people, still enjoys more support than is often assumed by pessimistic projections. Afghans also have little sympathy with armed opposition, and a majority thinks they are better off today than during the Taliban. According to the survey, Afghanistan in 2012: A Survey of the Afghan People:
- “Three-quarters (75 percent) of respondents give central government performance a positive assessment, including 15 percent who say it is doing a very good job and 60 percent who say it is doing a somewhat good job. Over time, an increasing number of people report satisfaction with the way the central government is carrying out its responsibilities.”
- “A majority of respondents say they have no sympathy at all (63 percent) with armed opposition groups in Afghanistan, while 10 percent say they have a lot of sympathy and 20 percent say they have some level of sympathy. Over time, there has been a decline in the number of people who sympathize (either a lot or little) with these armed opposition groups that use violence.”
- “Over half of respondents (53 percent) reported that their families are more prosperous today than they were during the Taliban era. Fewer than one-third (31 percent) say they are less prosperous.”
Surveys of course can be misleading, but reading through these results suggests that while the central government faces enormous odds, its survival is not a lost cause. The Afghan people have made substantial gains over the past decade, which clearly would be swept away with a return to civil war. But with more international troops departing every month, the likelihood of war increases despite Afghan public opinion.