Waiting for 2014 in Kabul

KABUL - An article in Safi Airways magazine, which I read on the flight from Delhi, reports that while 10-12% is a good return on investment in the US, 50% and more is possible in Afghanistan. Waiting for luggage to come around at Kabul airport, looking up at the empty billboards offering advertising space for sale, it's easy to forget that this is a land of opportunity for businesses, contractors, and NGOs. But, although it is not clear that they'll leave very much behind when they leave, it is.

Not all the billboards are empty. Mobile networks and mobile internet are available and well represented. Other than that, there are large posters of Ahmad Shah Massoud, who I would have thought would be a more controversial figure in the capital.

I went on a little tour of the city today, starting with the bombed out royal palace, destroyed in the 1990s along with most everything else. Kabul looks like a fortress: high walls, barbed wire, armed men on every corner. Where Delhi has a diversity of old and new firearms, security men here all have the same assault rifle, and multiple reloads. Here and there, we pass sites of relatively recent fighting – a grocery store that the Taliban attacked and killed about 10 people two years ago, a street corner where a long gun battle between the Taliban and ISAF took place.

The US is drawing down here, promising withdrawal by 2014, though they will stay for “training and counterterrorism”. NATO has promised to keep providing airpower past 2014, and the drones will keep flying too. In India, Pakistan, Iran, Russia, and especially Afghanistan, the US withdrawal has left a huge question mark over the region. For 12 years, the final military word in Afghanistan was given by the US. If that is no longer the case, who will fill that vacuum?

The fear is of a repeat of the past. For decades, Afghanistan's neighbours have chosen favourite factions to support militarily while Afghans suffered and died. The story is familiar, but worth repeating: In the 1980s, Russia supported a government that held the cities while the US, through Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, supported the insurgent mujahadeen. When the Russians withdrew, the mujahadeen fought one another and destroyed whatever remained standing in Kabul, while seizing control of the areas where they had local strength: this was the time of the warlords. In the chaos of the 1990s, Pakistan sponsored the Taliban, who by 2001 had taken most of Afghanistan, driving the warlords back to their base areas, when the US came back. Today, the Taliban are strong in the rural south, while Kabul, the other cities, and the north, are leaving the south behind developmentally and politically. It is today hard to imagine the Taliban taking the capital, and equally hard to imagine the Afghan Army left behind by the US imposing its will on the Taliban-controlled south.

What is all too easy to imagine, however, is an incremental, crumbling collapse and a de facto division of the country, with the Taliban controlling the south, the government controlling some parts, and warlords taking the rest. The fact is that the US was never all that interested in helping Afghanistan develop a working state or economy. The relative amount spent on aid programs versus military operations tells the story eloquently. Afghanistan would look very different today if the West had not treated development as part afterthought, part alibi, for counterinsurgency.

But as the US sought legitimacy to go along with its aggressive operations, claims of state-building and development aid were accompanied by a trickle of funds, including budget support for the Afghan government that the US installed. If even this trickle dries up, if the US reduces its full role to flying drones and running covert operations in the south, the government that comes to power in the 2014 election will be hard pressed to offer very much. Warlords who have seen the benefit of engaging with the government could start to see more benefit in striking out on their own, or making their own deals with the Taliban. And whatever role Iran, India, and especially Pakistan try to play, it is unlikely the decision-makers will be thinking of ordinary Afghan people when they make their decisions. It would be inaccurate to say Afghanistan is about to be thrown to the wolves, because it already has been. But there is much to fear in the next phase.

Justin Podur is visiting Kabul for the next few days.