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Predicting Gloom In Afghanistan An Inexact Science

Afghan policemen carry the body of a civilian victim of a bomb blast -- is a continuation of strife and violence the only possible future for Afghanistan.
Afghan policemen carry the body of a civilian victim of a bomb blast -- is a continuation of strife and violence the only possible future for Afghanistan.
Predicting a troubled future for Afghanistan appears to be the new trend in some of the Western writing about the country. Think tanks, newspaper op-eds, and blogs in Europe and North America are warning about a range of scenarios, from a division of the country to a Taliban takeover, a civil war, and increased ethnic strife among the country's various groups.

The most discussed among these is a report called "Afghanistan: The Long, Hard Road to the 2014 Transition" by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG). It warns that Kabul is heading towards a potentially devastating crisis is 2014 when most NATO forces would leave the country:

Plagued by factionalism and corruption, Afghanistan is far from ready to assume responsibility for security when U.S. and NATO forces withdraw in 2014. That makes the political challenge of organizing a credible presidential election and transfer of power from President Karzai to a successor that year all the more daunting. A repeat of previous elections' chaos and chicanery would trigger a constitutional crisis, lessening chances the present political dispensation can survive the transition.

A recent editorial in "The New York Times" aptly titled "Time to Pack Up" advocated a precipitous withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. It says that prolonging the Afghan war will "only do more harm." It also paints a very bleak picture of Afghanistan after the departure of the Western troops:

We are not arguing that everything will work out well after the United States leaves Afghanistan. It will not. The Taliban will take over parts of the Pashtun south, where they will brutalize women and trample their rights. Warlords will go on stealing. Afghanistan will still be the world's second-poorest country. Al-Qaeda may make inroads.

The most worrying conclusions, perhaps, are drawn by Sarah Chayes, a journalist and former special assistant to senior U.S. military leaders. In an op-ed in the "Los Angeles Times" she reads deeply into the dismissal of Afghan security ministers in August. She essentially sees Afghanistan's future in the rearview mirror:

A plausible scenario upon the large-scale departure of international troops in 2014 is either disintegration into civil conflict or a de facto division of power along ethnic lines, with a Pakistan-backed Pashtun bloc in the south and east lining up against one or more northern non-Pashtun blocs that might well gain military support from India and Uzbekistan, if not Iran. Recent signs indicate that many key players are already rushing to consolidate their positions within this framework, already operating, for all intents and purposes, in a post-2014 world.

Afghans, however, strongly reject such predictions. The Afghan government and sections of the Afghan press condemned the ICG report. They called it part of a "psychological war" and even linked it to a Western effort to pressure the Afghan government into making concessions in future security pacts.

A more sobering view is presented by informed Afghans. Writing for "Foreign Policy," Afghan researcher Haseeb Humayoon warns against seeing his country's future in stark terms:

Alarmists about Afghanistan's future paint two likely scenarios: civil war, or the forceful return of the Taliban. Neither of these scenarios ring true. Even more importantly, they are predicted on perverse detachment from the realities on the ground, and colored by a view where external factors determine Afghanistan's course. More essential than what Washington or Brussels decides is whether Afghan politicians will manage to preserve and advance political stability through the constitutional order or not.

Independent international observers tend to agree. Francesc Vendrell, a former EU and UN representative in Afghanistan, is widely respected among Afghans for understanding the complexities of their country. In a recent interview, he told me that no one can destroy some of the things built during the past 12 years, including a better health-care and education system and phenomenal growth in the urban population. "Afghans are not going to revert into the kind of system that the Taliban imposed between 1996 and 2001," he said.

Vendrell, however, said that credible elections in 2014 are a must for a peaceful future for the country. "If those elections lack credibility, or if for whatever reason they couldn't take place, that definitely could lead to a major conflict," he said. "It will be a loss of legitimacy for the government and it will also be inevitably a bonus for the Taliban."

-- Abubakar Siddique