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"I Love You, But I'm Leaving": Afghanistan's Alimony

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The World Bank forecast approximately US $7.8 billion will be required annually to finance the aid gap in Afghanistan for the decade post-2014. Last year, I was involved in collecting some of the data that eventually filtered into this projection. My colleague and I drove around the Bamiyan valley, back and forth past the hollowed Buddhas, pressing local government officials to produce tallies of their operation budgets and assets. I left disillusioned. The Bamiyan Department of Justice was whittled down to two rooms in an entire complex of un-plastered pillars. We were told construction was paused years ago. Their function appeared equally paused. The local Department of Interior was frustrated by the lack of water to supply their offices. Apparently, inside deals had led to a line of administrative offices being perched upon a barren plateau. Yet, as I think back in the midst of the stampede to rush out of Afghanistan, I am reminded of children pacing the lush fields putting lessons to memory, farmers tending to crops, the bustling single-street bazzar. Suddenly, beneath the encumbrance of cynicism, the task in Afghanistan has begun to seem monumental but not Sisyphean. It is our abandonment that will make it the latter.

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The future of the regime in Kabul will rest on three pillars: legitimacy, force, and money. In the past decade Afghans have experienced democracy without accountability, force without order, development without sustainability. For a few years, the blame game exhaustingly made its rounds. But with the withdrawal inked, pressed and 'tranched' into motion, finger-lifting has been deemed too cumbersome, and rightly so. Not so right, however, is the near-unanimous resignation to the uncertainty that looms. While strategic agreements are being signed with smiles, handshakes and declarations of solidarity, few are unaware of the arm-twisting and guilt-tripping entailed in nudging allies and partners up to the plate. The tacit message to Afghans resounds: "I love you, but I'm leaving."

At May's NATO summit in Chicago, some points were made clear. International security forces (ISAF) will depart by 2014, with residual forces to support the Afghan security forces (ANSF). The coalition will scrape together $4.1 billion annually to support the ANSF for the coming decade. And -- or perhaps but -- the "transparency, inclusivity and credibility" of the 2014 presidential elections will be of "paramount importance" in eliciting ISAF assistance. The apparent straightforwardness of this equation belies the complexity and criticality of decisions that await. As one future Afghan voter poignantly observed, "We need to get the elections right or else we will be abandoned." Afghans have two years to get their act together, backtrack, and tastefully re-embrace participatory politics. So what happens if they don't?

The logic is simple: if the elections fail to abate the unending wrangling for power at the center, sufficient international forces will not be able, as in 2009, to prop up remnants of the government in Kabul through the interval. The portioning of political control will directly affect ISAF's ability to keep a foothold in the country. If Kabul cannot piece together a semblance of functionality, the collapse of its political legitimacy will deprive the foreign military domestic political cover for even minimal presence. It is often forgotten that even the military needs to guard its safety. The rising 'green-on-blue' violence, attacks on ISAF forces by Afghan security personnel, has brought this to bear. The scenario grows gloomier when one considers that some of these attacks are alleged to be the result of inter-establishment quarrels and not insurgent infiltration.

If international military units struggle to stay on for even the most basic guidance for Afghan forces or counter-terrorism operations, there is little chance of a foreign civilian presence to oversee development investments. On what basis then can foreign countries authorize the flow of aid to a government severely undercut by a crisis of legitimacy? The upshot: if there is no international presence to ensure accountability for aid investments, pledges will plunge. If we pull the rug from under the Afghan government, the buck stops, yet again. Kabul financially bankrupt is politically bankrupt. Political vacuum in Afghanistan spurs a chaotic region. As Asia rises and Islamabad threatens to spiral down the vortex with Kabul, the risks cannot be ignored. The world's prosperity in the 21st century is increasingly anchored on Asia's continued rise, which stands to benefit immensely from securing and opening the Afghan corridor.

Tokyo can matter. This week economically fatigued nations will halfheartedly gather to extract promises for assisting Afghanistan's development in the coming decade. Every penny pledged in Tokyo will only matter if there is a meaningful framework to account for its actual delivery and genuinely productive outcome. The international community's goal to boost the legitimacy of the center and support its expansion from the periphery into the Afghan heartland can still be attained. Prioritization is key. First, to ensure free and fair elections, most of the political heavy lifting should take place beforehand. The option of electoral crisis must be eliminated. The upcoming elections in Afghanistan should not be treated as a litmus test for involvement. Second, with regard to aid, besides the army and police, a focus on transportation networks to connect rural Afghans to the cities; higher education to continue crucial capacity-building efforts of the past decade; local healthcare -- an especially valued service -- as an alternative to depending on Pakistan, Iran and India; and a well-developed mining sector to increase domestic revenues can help wean Afghanistan off of its neighbors. Finally, donors will need to discuss details transparently in order to promote an urgently needed assurance of long-term commitment. The international community's willingness to stay will significantly undercut local power-holders' hedging their bets on Kabul's failure.

There is little doubt that Afghans agree on the value of having a government in Kabul to facilitate bargaining among the country's communities and between Afghanistan and the world. They just haven't settled on the Bonn-initiated political system. The response I received to my quandary of how one dealt with the looming uncertainty was strikingly common: "We will choose our path where the road forks." It is in our interest, the international community's, to push that fork further down the road. This task will require acknowledging the crisis of commitment that looms and constructively designing Afghanistan's alimony before its too late.

Sonia Pinto worked in Afghanistan for over a year. She is currently a Research Associate on South Asian affairs at a research organization in Washington D.C.