News coverage of political developments in Afghanistan evokes a unique sense of chaos and confusion. Headlines on Afghan politics focus on a wide range of issues, such as the Taliban insurgency, the drug trade, the approaching American military withdrawal, government corruption, and upcoming national elections. Such complexity has been intrinsic to Afghan politics since the colonial era, when the British and Russians, stymied by their inability to hold the territory despite their vastly superior resources and capabilities, described Afghanistan as the “Graveyard of Empires”. Since the colonial period, it has been extremely difficult to develop a single, convincing narrative that explains the myriad ongoing political processes and dynamics of the country. This is in part because Afghanistan has experienced a full spectrum of political regimes and ideological influences: colonial battleground, monarchy, communist dictatorship, rule by regional and tribal warlords, and Islamist extremism.
The fledgling democratic state of contemporary Afghanistan has been secured by over a decade of Western military presence, but its continued viability is far from certain. Throughout these political changes, the issue of how to form a cohesive and durable modern Afghan state has been an intractable challenge that none of Afghanistan’s many regimes has been able to conclusively resolve. Most importantly, this central challenge of state cohesion is implicated in internal security dynamics, the economy, and foreign aid.
Recent Taliban strategy has been predicated upon the success of efforts to undermine the credibility and cohesion of the Afghan state. This strategy is evidenced by recent reports from Western intelligence officials that have revealed that the Taliban’s future plans during the winter fighting season include “attempts at high-profile attacks, attempts at targeted killings of political officials, election officials and candidates.” This contrasts to the usual pattern of Taliban action, as Taliban insurgency efforts usually decline during the winter season when Afghanistan’s mountain passes are sealed by snow. Furthermore, these Taliban plans reflect the increased priority given to political targets over military ones and are principally focused on interfering with the democratic process ahead of national elections this spring. If the Taliban can successfully disrupt the elections and eliminate key members of the unstable Afghan regime, Afghanistan’s state capacity and the domestic legitimacy of democratic government will weaken. By sabotaging the Afghan elections, the Taliban would effectively jam up a system which depends on a working electoral process to function coherently and distribute power.
The dichotomy between Afghanistan’s formal and informal economy can also be explained through this lens of state cohesion. The future success of a formal economy in Afghanistan will be critical to state cohesion. The Afghan state, which will soon depend more on tax collection as international aid commitments decline, needs a strong formal economy. Despite the dire problems that characterize the economic transition away from international aid dependency, there is good news on this front. Several sectors of the Afghan economy been surprisingly successful and productive. In particular, Afghanistan has effectively leveraged its natural resource wealth, which includes oil, gas, gold, copper, and iron ore. The Afghan marble industry is perhaps greatest success of the extractive sector, as Afghanistan produces some of the highest quality marble in the world and has developed an export industry which could yield 700 million dollars in revenues by 2018. The Afghan government recognizes the importance of this industry and has focused security efforts in the region to ensure the uninterrupted of marble for export internationally. Since the cohesion of the national economy depends on the development of a strong industrial base in Afghanistan, it is essential that the techniques and successes in the Afghan marble industry be extrapolated to other nascent economic sectors.
Despite the importance of resources as an economic foundation for Afghanistan, resource wealth does not universally strengthen state cohesion. Much of the extractive industrial growth does not provide employment to large numbers of Afghans, forcing them to find work in other sectors. One of these is opium production. Indeed, one of the most pressing challenges for the new Afghan state is the regulation of the illicit poppy trade. This is the dominant source of revenue in Afghanistan’s large informal economy, as well as one of the primary sources of revenue for the Taliban. The state is unable to control or extract tax revenues from this informal economy, because of the illegality of opium harvesting and Western demands that it cease. The opium trade though is one of the largest employers of seasonal workers in Afghanistan, and it is estimated that the opium trade employs in some way 8 out of 10 working-age Afghan men. The formal economy’s unemployment crisis will become even more acute once ISAF withdraws, as the presence of international forces provides close to one third of jobs in the Afghan economy. If the international community fails to provide sufficient economic aid, the opium economy will likely strengthen substantially, which would increase the risk of Afghanistan turning into a “narco-state”. The poppy trade demonstrates the difficulty of developing a formal economy amidst a strong informal one where demand is strong and production is closely linked with criminal enterprises and underground insurgent networks. In effect, the formal economy must out-compete the informal one if the state is to maintain a cohesive national economy.
The challenges in developing an effective formal economy highlight the continued importance of foreign aid in the development of the Afghan economy. The International community has sent 57 billion dollars in aid to Afghanistan thus far, excluding the operating costs of the war with the Taliban. With international forces withdrawing, the international community will lose a significant amount of oversight over its development projects in Afghanistan. An example of this decline in oversight is the Pentagon’s plans to delegate its oversight to private contractors and the absence of international supervision will make development projects increasingly vulnerable to corruption and mismanagement. Therefore, the International community faces a costly dilemma in Afghanistan, particularly since it has already spent billions on a country and not seen much of the desired results. Without the presence of international forces, many countries will be reluctant to continue providing aid. Yet if the International community does not continue to provide large amounts of aid to Afghanistan, the cohesion of the Afghan state will suffer greatly.
The current situation in Afghanistan has increasingly become an all-or-nothing gamble. Ultimately, Afghanistan’s political and economic trajectory after the US withdrawal in 2014 will depend on the cohesion of the Afghan state. Despite promising steps towards economic diversification, the dire weaknesses in the formal economy and the severe threats posed to the preservation of law and order indicate that maintaining state cohesion will be a very difficult task for Afghan policymakers to achieve.