Ahmed Rashid’s Gloomy View of Afghanistan’s Future

By John Still

At a recent seminar at King’s College London (KCL), author and Central Asia expert Ahmed Rashid painted a gloomy picture of the prospect for Western success in Afghanistan. In 2008 Rashid had already made these views on the subject clear in Descent into Chaos, a catalogue of criticisms against US policy towards Afghanistan and Pakistan since 2001, and his growing disillusionment with his once-close friend, President Hamid Karzai.

Although Ahmed Rashid has been a veteran of Central Asian conflicts since the late 1960’s, he is perhaps best known for his New York Times bestseller Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia. The book was published in 2000 and went on to sell 1,5 million copies in the wake of the 9/11 attacks in the US, as many scrambled to learn more about the secretive, fundamentalist regime which ruled Afghanistan.

According to Rashid’s arguments made at the KCL seminar, when the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) pulls out of Afghanistan in 2014, the situation will become increasingly politically and economically unstable, and national security will likely deteriorate. Although Rashid set out ways in which this situation could be alleviated, the supposed political cost would be too high to bring them about, meaning that the transition process is unlikely to run smoothly.

Rashid suggested that Karzai will likely appoint his successor in some way in 2014, whereas Western backers would like to see a smooth democratic change of leadership through free and fair elections. Whether this will be done through wielding the enormous Presidential power that Karzai is granted under the Afghan constitution or, more likely, from rigging the elections, the situation is likely to create a further schism between the Afghan government and its Western backers.

Another consequence of ISAF withdrawal will likely be an end to western aid. War wariness, mounting casualties and economic problems have already made Western nations increasingly unhappy about the drawn out conflict in Afghanistan. This problem will be exacerbated if the 2014 elections are seen as corrupt and illegitimate. Also, the money currently spent on the Afghan National Security Forces will likely become even harder to justify when the vast majority of Western troops have departed and are out of harms way. This loss of revenue will lead to greater unemployment within Afghanistan as the thousands of Afghans that ISAF employs find themselves out of work. This will affect those in the major cities as well as those in the rural communities which have endured constant insecurity over the last decade.

With a weak Afghan government, regional interference is likely to increase in 2014, further destabilising the country. Although the Central Asian Republics and Russia have become a little more co-operative with the US under President Barack Obama’s leadership, the US’s relations with Iran are non-existent and its relationship with Pakistan continues to worsen. Backing local warlords in the past has been the favoured method for Iran and Pakistan to ensure their presence is felt. Whereas previously local warlords were provided employment opportunities in protecting humanitarian workers and ISAF convoys or through siphoning off Western aid money, such economic opportunities will disappear entirely once the West leaves.

Although these challenges are considerable, Rashid also set out urgent measures that must be taken in order to alleviate the problems Afghanistan and ISAF face. Over the next 18 months it is imperative that ISAF negotiate a peace deal with the Taliban in order to reduce the level of violence within the country,. This would allow for greater effort to be focused on reconstruction and would also show regional powers that the West is serious about leaving Afghanistan in a state of peace rather than a state of war. However, the US military and CIA both largely control policy within Afghanistan, according to Rashid, and these entities remain rooted in the belief that if they are given more time to pursue their current agenda then the mission could be a success. However, while continued drone attacks and night raids will decimate the Taliban leadership, the caveat is that they are quickly replaced with younger, more ideologically motivated and radicalised commanders. These new recruits are what Rashid calls “the post-9/11 generation”, with whom compromise and negotiation will be close to impossible.

Making a clear commitment to peace talks may also make Western policy clearer to Pakistan, and may alleviate tensions within the Pakistani military where considerable confusion exists over Western aims in the region. This confusion has led to deeply harmful policies at a time when Pakistan is on the brink of collapse. Pakistan faces an insurgency in Baluchistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and, perhaps most worryingly, Karachi. Instability in Karachi, a major economic hub in Pakistan, would further damage an economy already facing huge deficits and 20 per cent inflation. With Pakistan due to begin paying back IMF loans in February 2012, the call to action is becoming increasingly desperate.

Ultimately, increasing the transparency of US policy in Afghanistan is unlikely to occur. Any change of policy within Afghanistan would be to admit that current policy is failing, and this would harm the Obama re-election campaign. With Obama unwilling to spend political capital by interfering in Afghanistan before his re-election campaign, the responsibility of policy making will largely remain within the realm of the US military and the CIA. However, leaving changes until after re-election may be too late for a region which is increasingly spiralling out of control.


John Still is an undergraduate in War Studies at King's College London, and an editorial intern at The Heptagon Post. His research interests include South Asian politics and security, with an emphasis on Afghanistan and Pakistan.


13 September 2011