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Lost in transition

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Lost in transition
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by Cristiana Era
Six months ago, President Karzai announced the beginning of the first phase of the transition of security responsibility from ISAF to the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), thus marking a slow but steady draw down of the international military presence. Due to economic constraints and domestic political issues, the United States is eager to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan no later than 2014. And by then ISAF mission will also come to an end, entailing the country’s return to full sovereignty. Whether it will be ready to stand alone on its own is quite another issue. 
Even though Afghanistan has entered the second phase of the transition at the end of November, few would agree on the successful completion of the first one. Since July, a bloody series of IED (Improvised Explosive Device) explosions and terrorist attacks occurred in several parts of the country. But in order to minimize the power strength of a revived insurgency, the violence upsurge was quickly dubbed as the Taliban’s flick of the tail, evidence of their diminished control over the territory. To most analysts this is, instead, a clear sign of a renewed fighting capability, which reached its apex with the killing of the Head of the High Peace Council and former Afghan President, Burhanuddin Rabbani, on September 20. This has been the latter of a series of high profile political killings that racked Afghanistan during this ongoing transition, and that was anticipated  by the attack to the US Embassy and NATO premises in Kabul one week earlier, and then followed by the Ashura bloodshed in Kabul, Kandahar and Mazar-i-Sharif, just in the aftermath of the Bonn Conference on Afghanistan.
Notwithstanding the increased efforts by ISAF in training, mentoring and equipping the Afghans Forces, the 2014 goal of creating an independent and effective security establishment seems to be out of reach. Kabul has indeed supported the recruitment effort among the population, trying to link ANSF image to a sense of pride and honor, values that are strongly felt in the Afghan culture.  The number of ANSF troops is now up to more than 300,000, but nonetheless quantity does not keep the pace with quality. Literacy among soldiers and policemen is as low as 14%, and even though the Government and the coalition have arranged mandatory literacy courses, it will take at least one generation before Afghanistan can employ fully operational army and police institutions, capable to perform all the duties and tasks pertaining to their role. Widespread corruption, bribery and drug abuse are also major issues among security officers, plagues that Karzai has not been able to significantly reduce despite the many presidential statements aiming at reassuring the international community of the effectiveness of ad hoc Government policies. 
NATO and the international community continue to point to the successes of the training efforts by underlining the positive outcome of ANSF-led operations, but in fact in most cases such operations would not have been possible without the decisive contribution of ISAF troops. The result is a limited operational capability, which both the population and the insurgents are aware of. In the first case, the outcome is a low level of trust in the effectiveness and legitimacy of the security forces. In the second case, the terrorist groups are taking advantage of this weaknesses (by resorting to both increased violence against governmental representatives and institutions), and of political propaganda undermining the Government legitimacy, presenting themselves as the only force able to restore security. Afghans’ perception about the inability of the regular forces to protect them is thus helping the Taliban to regain popular support. Time is also on their side, and once NATO troops are withdrawn, it will be easier to win back. Some analysts also assume that a number of insurgents are pretending to surrender to the peace process, in order to reorganize and exploit the resources that the international community is providing for their reintegration. The current security deficit, combined with a general judicial system deficiency  and lack of rule of law in many provinces and districts, is posing a question mark not just on the success of the transition to full security responsibility, but – even worse – on the transition and consolidation of the whole democratic process in Afghanistan. As Juan Linz and Alfred Stepan argued in a 1996 thorough study on democratic transition and consolidation, free elections are certainly a necessary condition in democracy. But they warn against what they call the “electoralist fallacy”, that is the belief that free elections are also a sufficient condition for democracy survival in absence of the overall control of force by the legitimate Government, rule of law, protection of rights for all citizens and minorities (rights of women and of ethnic groups other than Pashtun and Tajik) and effective agreement on peaceful conflict resolution.
The attack to the US Embassy premises in Kabul on September 13
The attack to the US Embassy premises in Kabul on September 13 

The outcome of the December 5 Bonn Conference indirectly acknowledged that the Afghan  fragile political and economic system will not survive to the 2014 deadline in absence of a constant support by the international community. In other words, a massive injection of financial resources will still be needed in order to avoid the collapse of the Afghan economy and of the political institutions. But the rationale for the foreign troops’ withdrawal is exactly the unwillingness of the major contributor, the United States, to lavish a financial aid - which has reached the sum of 7 billion US dollars per month - on Afghanistan and which represent a burden for a strained American economy. The coalition partners are also facing domestic economic challenges and will seek to reduce their contribution. Furthermore, private foreign investment is likely to shrink in presence of a persistent unsecure environment, with negative consequences on the infrastructure development and natural resources exploitation.
Therefore, the end of the transition and the beginning of the so called Transformation Decade (2015-2024) will unlikely mark the passage to a consolidated democracy and self-reliant country with a “sustainable and equitable growth” as envisaged in the conclusions of the Bonn Conference. The renewed commitment to provide assistance to economic development and security while also supporting Kabul priorities in the field of public administration, rule of law, education, health and infrastructures risk to remain a mere declaration of intent, with the consequence of highlighting the failure of the international community stabilization policy in Afghanistan. And the failure to “win the hearts and minds” of the Afghan population. 

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