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Jeffrey Simpson (Brigitte Bouvier For The Globe and Mail)

Jeffrey Simpson

(Brigitte Bouvier For The Globe and Mail)


After the pullout, where do Afghans begin? Add to ...

In the aftermath of a presidential election in Afghanistan – a country Canadian troops have left behind, having spent much blood and treasure – what does the winner face, after a recount agreed to by both candidates?

Problems everywhere, which might all get worse once most of the remaining foreign forces depart at the end of the year.

If Canadian attitudes are any guide, interest in Afghanistan plunges after the troops return home. A recent Pew poll found that a majority of Americans also believe their involvement there to have been a failure.

Americans support bringing their troops home. Whether they will keep sending aid to Afghanistan after the troops return is an open question – they currently send a staggering 64 per cent of the country’s budget, according to the World Bank. Just 10 per cent comes from Afghan sources.

A look at Afghanistan’s future is provided in reports by Anthony Cordesman for the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the invaluable International Crisis Group, whose man in Afghanistan is Graeme Smith, formerly of The Globe and Mail. Their in-depth reports make for sobering reading, Mr. Cordesman’s being the longest and most detailed.

Where to begin? Perhaps with the economy, which remains in dire circumstances.

It was hoped that mining would provide employment, but foreign investors have been scared off by the security situation. The country’s government can finance but only a small share of its expenses from its own revenues. Underemployment is huge. Opium remains the biggest agricultural crop – all efforts by Western countries failed to limit its prevalence, let along eliminate it.

Speaking of government, the World Bank says Afghanistan’s governance indicators – rule of law, control of corruption, effectiveness, accountability, political stability – approach the worst in the world. Writes Mr. Cordesman: “Afghanistan is one of the most corrupt and incompetent governments in the world.”

How corrupt? From a general population survey in 2012, half of adult Afghans said they had been obliged to pay a bribe to a government official, including 51 per cent who reported having paid a bribe to a teacher. The frequency of yearly bribes for those who paid them was 5.6 per year. The average cost of the bribe – what we might call bribe inflation – had risen by 29 per cent from 2009 to 2012.

Most of the foreign money that poured into Afghanistan was for military and security purposes, but there were billions of dollars for aid. (For a while, Afghanistan was the largest recipient of Canadian aid.) And, yes, more children are in school and health outcomes have improved. Still, the United Nations Human Development Index ranks the country 175th in the world. Transparency International ranks Afghanistan 174th out of 176 countries.

A very high birth rate, migration and conflict have left the country with a very young population. The labour force is expected to grow by four million people in the next decade. Where work will come from for these young people is unknown.

Fingers are crossed for the Afghan military to fend off the Taliban insurgency once NATO (largely U.S.) forces depart at the end of 2014. Afghan forces have done the bulk of the fighting since the beginning of 2013, with mixed results.

Mr. Smith reports on the army’s progress in four provinces: It has done well in one and not so well in three others. Mr. Cordesman’s analysis is also mixed, which, given how little fighting the Afghan army used to do, is perhaps not a bad result.

The Taliban insurgency continues apace, with violence up in 2013 over 2012. The Taliban still enjoy safe haven in Pakistan, but are not popular in large swaths of Afghanistan. The movement’s threats to disrupt the two rounds of the Afghan presidential elections failed. Indeed, voter turnout in the first round (estimated to be around 60 per cent) exceeded that in the Ontario election, suggesting that Afghans did care.

The second round featured a surge in turnout, which in turn prompted accusations of ballot-box fraud. Political controversy is the last thing Afghanistan needs as it faces the withdrawal of foreign forces, the insurgency, a weak economy, poor governance, meagre revenues and a decline in interest among donor countries.

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