Later this year, the NATO-led combat mission in Afghanistan comes to an end. This won’t mean the complete withdrawal of foreign troops from the country, however. The newly-elected Afghan President, Ashraf Ghani, this week signed a bilateral security deal allowing 10’000 US military personnel to remain until 2016. Many analysts warn that a complete withdrawal of foreign troops would leave a dangerous power vacuum and Afghanistan, like Iraq, could risk spiraling into civil war.
In 2007, Ashraf Ghani wrote an article for our sister policy journal, Europe’s World. He complained about the “absence of serious investment in the police, the slow pace of the expansion of the national army, the continued impunity of strongmen accused of violation of human rights, and the weakness and corruption of the judiciary”. He also offered a series of lessons for Afghanistan and its international partners from the first six years of the NATO-led operation in Afghanistan.
First, he applauded the way the transition to democracy had been handled, arguing that the process was successful “because the goal was clearly articulated”. President Ghani’s recent election represents the first peaceful, democratic transition of power in Afghanistan’s history, though accusations of widespread electoral fraud have undermined this achievement.
Second, Ghani is also positive about the various national investment programmes conducted with Afghanistan’s international partners, including the European Commission, ranging from telecoms to rural development. He argued that these programmes have helped to foster a sense of tangible progress and create stakeholders in the process of governance.
Third, he criticised the “business practices of the UN and some other partners”, arguing that they had effectively created parallel organisations to the government and inspired a loss of trust in the “accountability and transparency of the aid system”.
Fourth, he argued that too much foreign aid to Afghanistan was “wasteful” and there hadn’t been enough investment in higher education. For this reason, young Afghans were given “no credible mechanism of upward social mobility and therefore no strong sense of ownership of the development process”.
Fifth, he suggested that the NATO policy of trying to eradicate opium crops was “ill-advised” and “probably an important factor in creating the alliance between the drugs and terror networks and therefore making corruption in the legal and security organs a national disease”. Indeed, 2013 was apparently a bumper year for Afghan drug lords, with opium cultivation reaching record levels.
Sixth, and (says Ghani) most important of all, there was not enough unity of purpose from Afghanistan’s international partners. He paints a picture of competing and “fragmented national and international” interests, made worse by institutional bottlenecks and bureaucracy.
Are these the lessons that Afghanistan’s international partners should have learned since 2007? If so, have they learned them properly?
Earlier this year, we spoke to Alexander Vershbow, Deputy Secretary General of NATO, and asked him to respond to a video question from Gary on NATO lessons learned in Afghanistan. One of the key lessons learned, Vershbow argues, was the importance of building up the capacity of Afghan security forces to operate independently:
“We learned that we didn’t pay enough attention to the ultimate goal of any counter-insurgency, which is to build the capacity of the local authorities to handle their own security. Foreigners can’t impose peace or democracy. Ultimately, those have to be built from inside.”
We also spoke to General Philip M. Breedlove, a four-star general in the US Air Force who currently serves as the Commander of US European Command as well as NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe.
We had a question from Kieran asking how Afghanistan’s neighbours are preparing for the drawdown of NATO troops from the country. General Breedlove said he couldn’t speak for Afghanistan’s neighbours, but reiterated that NATO’s overriding goal was capacity-building for the Afghan security forces.
What lessons should Europe draw from the experience of intervention in Afghanistan? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below, and we’ll take them to policy-makers and experts for their reactions.