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Aziz Nayani Headshot

NATO Summit on Afghanistan Neglected Critical Discussions

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The conclusion of talks between NATO's leadership on Monday -- discussions that centered on an appropriate exit strategy for Afghanistan -- resulted in little more than the reassertion of financial and military commitments amongst the member nations, as well as solid assurances that the withdrawal process would begin soon. The early headlines from the summit have centered more around the rocky relationship between Pakistan, who was a last minute invitee to the event, and the United States, after the breakdown of talks to re-open a critical supply route that the Pakistanis have shut down since November, rather than on any significant developments or plans of action to fortify the long-term sustainability of Afghanistan as a functioning state.

The risks for Afghanistan falling into an abyss of failure once NATO troops leave in 2014 are high. Hamid Karzai has failed to inspire any confidence in his leadership, as he and his government have constantly demonstrated their ineptness and propensity to succumb to corruption, and NATO troops have failed to eradicate the Taliban thus far. If anything, the Taliban's sway has grown recently, as US and coalition forces have resigned to engage the Taliban in peace talks, giving up the notion of eliminating the group.

Cultural disparities in the country, which have evolved into rivalries amongst different ethnic groups, further raises the possibility of civil war and outright state failure once coalition troops leave and are no longer able to force cohesion and relative stability through the use of force. As long as such structural concerns go unaddressed, as they currently are, Afghanistan will be in peril.

Afghanistan will have to deal with a host of issues following the pullout in 2014, of which only a few can be mitigated through the commitment of economic, military, and developmental aid. While such programs are absolutely necessary and critical for the viability of the country, there also needs to be a greater discussion surrounding the structural foundations of the Afghan government. Is the bicameral federal system that the US has instituted for Afghanistan the best way for democracy to prevail in the Islamic Republic? Or does the current structure need to be modified in order to ensure that minority groups are appropriately represented and do not become a risk to a democracy that is dominated by a single ethnic group?

Democracy will only work in Afghanistan if there is cultural and ethnic stability in the country. While the Pashtuns make up over 40% of the population, there are at least a dozen other ethnic groups who have historically been marginalized in the country, and run the risk of being discounted in the future as well. Continued relegation has the propensity to increase violence and instability. Afghanistan only needs to look to its neighbor in Pakistan to see how similar friction between different cultural groups can destabilize a country and contribute to the failure of democracy in general. For all of the institutions that are currently in place, none restrain the larger cultural groups from overshadowing minorities.

What the Afghans need is a system that has been largely successful in inculcating stability for the Indians. India is home to hundreds of different ethnic and religious groups, which, in certain instances, have a history of conflict. But as Alfred Stepan, Juan Linz and Yogendra Yadav argue in their book, Crafting State-Nations: India and Other Multinational Democracies, the Indians have formulated democratic institutions that succeed because of their ability to establish asymmetric federalism -- democracy that allows for minority groups to have more autonomy than would otherwise be the norm.

While Afghanistan's current democratic structure certainly encapsulates components of this framework, a more concerted effort needs to be made to assess how exactly such a system should be leveraged in Afghanistan to ensure that the country does not go the way of its Pakistani neighbors. As it stands now, there is little evidence to confidently say that it will not.

An analysis of the structure of government should be a centerpiece for any NATO discussion on Afghanistan. As we have seen in Iraq following the withdrawal of US troops, simply pledging dollars and military assistance is far from sufficient. Iraq currently teeters on the edge of chaos and is increasingly close to becoming a nation that is democratic in name only, as the government cracks down on free speech and demonstrations in the country, and violence continues amongst sectarian groups.

Simply instituting a democracy is not enough for the future viability of Afghanistan. There needs to be discussion and increased thought behind what that democracy should look like, and how it can best fit the Afghan model. Without such discussions, NATO, and the world, is setting Afghanistan up for volatility and outright failure.