If Afghanistan survives 2016, UN will consider it a success

Passengers wait to load buses in Kabul, Afghanistan, in October 2015. A fragile economy, intensifying insurgency, and fractious political elite are among the main challenges facing President Ashraf Ghani, the U.N.'s top envoy to Kabul, tells the Security Council.


By ELTAF NAJAFIZADA | Bloomberg | Published: March 17, 2016

The United Nations has set a low bar for success in Afghanistan this year: Survival.

A fragile economy, intensifying insurgency, and fractious political elite are among the main challenges facing President Ashraf Ghani, Nicholas Haysom, the U.N.'s top envoy in Kabul, told the Security Council in New York. Pressure to win enough foreign aid and achieve sustainable peace are also on the list.

"Some may criticize this benchmark as being low," Haysom said on March 15. "Yet Afghanistan must overcome each and every one of these five hurdles to avoid severe consequences."

Here are the main obstacles:

Fragile economy

When U.S.-led forces began to plan their exit from Afghanistan in 2012, they assumed annual economic growth of 8 percent and revenue from as much as $1 trillion of untapped mineral wealth.

"It is now clear, however, that neither would occur," Haysom said.

Per capita incomes have fallen since 2012 and the International Monetary Fund predicts they will continue to decline this year. A job shortage is boosting domestic instability and fueling an immigration crisis.

The U.N. recommends that Ghani work harder to integrate with South Asia, which is poised to be the world's fastest growing economic region.

Intensifying insurgency

Violence killed or wounded a record 11,000 Afghan civilians last year — a quarter of these being children — taking the total toll to 60,000 since the U.N. began compiling the data in 2009. The war against the Taliban is now in its 15th year, having already cost more than $700 billion and killed more than 2,300 American soldiers.

U.S. National Intelligence Director James Clapper testified last month that the intelligence community assesses "fighting in 2016 will be more intense than 2015, continuing a decade-long trend of deteriorating security."

Fractious elites

Ghani's government, which was itself born of compromise, is being criticized for the worsening economic and security concerns.

The administration "is being challenged by a fractious political elite, the erosion of a necessary sense of national unity, and consequentially that most precious political commodity, confidence in the future," Haysom said.

Secretary of State John Kerry had brokered a deal in 2014 following disputed Afghan elections that gave Ghani the presidency and made Abdullah Abdullah chief executive officer. That agreement is due to expire in October, and Abdullah is already disputing the election commission's announcement of an Oct. 15 parliamentary vote.

Foreign aid

International finances account for 69 percent of Afghanistan's government expenditure. An increase in global conflict will diversify available resources, so it's important that Ghani shows he's tackling corruption that eats into the cash pile, Haysom said.

Integrity Watch Afghanistan estimates that 1,400 mines operate illegally throughout Afghanistan, compared with the 200 the government reports as licensed and paying taxes. Almost 90 percent of Afghans say that corruption is a problem in their daily lives, the highest percentage in a decade, according to a 2015 survey published by the Asia Foundation. The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, a U.S.-appointed watchdog, had 309 pending graft investigations as of January.

Sustainable peace

Haysom welcomed efforts of the United States, China and Pakistan to work with the Afghan government to push the Taliban toward peace talks. The militant group has, however, rejected the call and urged continued conflict. It seeks full withdrawal of foreign forces, freedom for jailed fighters and removal of Taliban members from a U.N. blacklist.

More lawmakers now disagree with the government's moves to reconcile with the Taliban, reaching 40 percent in 2015 from 26 percent in 2012, according to a survey published by U.S.-based Democracy International in February.

"Afghanistan would have severe political and other consequences" if it failed to tackle each of these issues, Haysom said. "I'm not saying that would mean that the country would collapse, but it would certainly deepen the crisis in which Afghanistan finds itself."

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