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Lack Of Afghan Political Strategy Worrisome As West Prepares To Relinquish Security

Afghan protesters burn an effigy of U.S. President Barack Obama. With just three years before the West hands off full control of the country's security, questions remain over Afghanistan's political maturity.

Afghan protesters burn an effigy of U.S. President Barack Obama. With just three years before the West hands off full control of the country's security, questions remain over Afghanistan's political maturity.

According to the Lisbon Treaty signed in November 2010, the international community will transfer full responsibility for Afghanistan’s security to the Afghan government beginning this year. If all goes as planned, Kabul will have full control over all security forces in the country by 2014.

With the clock ticking, the issue of transition has been high on the agenda of NATO and Afghan government officials. Just a few days ago, two key Afghan ministers visited Washington for talks on the details.

But Alvaro de Vasconcelos, the director of the Paris-based EU Institute for Security Studies, warns that policymakers run the risk of neglecting a key component of overall Afghanistan strategy.

"It's striking that we're still talking about only one phase of what is supposed to be a multiphase strategy," he says. "We're talking about the transition of power in Afghanistan, but the question is, transition from what to what? Do we know what type of government and society we would like to see in Afghanistan beyond 2014?"

He says people know what they don't want.

"They don't want the Taliban back in Kabul with full power, controlling completely the country, and they don't want Afghanistan to be a platform for Al-Qaeda," he says. But, he says, "Are we there to support democratic forces or...just stability?"

Vasconcelos says the problem is that U.S. and other Western policymakers tend to see Afghanistan's political development through the prism of war. That strategy, he says, is now concentrated on creating conditions so that Western troops can leave the country as planned – mostly by training Afghan security forces to replace them. But that’s an approach that doesn’t say anything about the political future of the country.

Fragile Institutions

With a little more than three years remaining before the international community hands off power, the status of Afghan institutions remains fragile.

The most recent example of this is the political tension between Afghan President Hamid Karzai and parliament over results of the last parliamentary elections held in September.

Embroiled in allegations over vote-rigging and fraud, Karzai spent months resisting calls to convene the new parliament. He finally agreed to inaugurate it in January but only after parliamentarians threatened to go ahead without his blessing.

Karzai’s authority had previously been undermined by allegations of massive fraud in presidential elections held in 2009.

“If holding elections is a sign of democracy, it’s true that since the fall of the Taliban regime Afghans have voted twice for parliamentary and twice for presidential elections,” says Muhammad Saleh, a political commentator based in the northern Afghan city of Mazari-e Sharif. “But in my opinion, each of them proved to be more controversial than the one before. I don’t know whether to call it a step forward or a step back.”

The international community also remains critical of the Afghan government’s inability to curb corruption.

According to the Washington-based Freedom House, Afghanistan’s rating on political and civil rights has worsened, dropping from 5 in 2009 to 6 (7 being the lowest) in 2010.

The Freedom House assessment cited allegations of fraud during the presidential election that included a compromised election commission and low voter turnout due to intimidation.

Back To The '90s?

Kabul-based researcher and activist Zuhra Bahman worries that the Western powers are in a hurry and may leave Afghanistan in a state where the future of the country remains up for grabs.

She sketches out a worst-case scenario in which the international community focuses on finishing military projects but not those to develop governing mechanisms or industry.

A man dips his finger into ink before voting at a polling station during parliamentary elections in Kabul on September 18, 2010.

“In 2014,” she says, “[it could be that] we won’t be able to hold elections and we’ll go back to the chaos we experienced in the 1990s.”

As NATO and Western leaders talk about transferring power to the Afghans, they cite optimistic statistics about military progress. Martin Howard, the assistant secretary-general for operations of NATO, says that NATO’s training mission is showing good results.

For example, he says, the size of the Afghan National Army has grown.

“By the end of this year, it will be close to 200,000 [troops], and security forces, as a whole, close to 300,000 or more," he says.

Not everyone agrees with this assessment, however.

Speaking in Geneva on February 23, Robert Watkins, the outgoing deputy UN envoy for Afghanistan, expressed concern about a deteriorating security environment.

“It’s fair to say that security in the country is at its lowest point since the departure of the Taliban,” Watkins said. “Today, UN relief agencies don’t have access to 40 percent of the territory in Afghanistan; access to 30 percent is mixed; while only 30 percent of Afghan territory is regularly accessed.”

Afghan activist Zuhra Bahman says the coming three years are critical. She hopes that the continued presence of the international community can help Afghans to create genuinely pluralistic democratic institutions. But she worries that time is growing short.