In projecting Afghanistan's future, it's misleading to hold a mirror to its troubled past. Many pundits assume Afghanistan will disintegrate upon the last combat soldier's departure in 2014 -- that Afghans themselves are devoid of the will to construct, better suited to blowing it all up. The future of the country, though, is neither black nor white. The truth is that Afghanistan has been transformed since 2001, rendering responsible politics a chance to define its outlook.
Alarmists about Afghanistan's future paint two likely scenarios: civil war, or the forceful return of the Taliban. Neither of these scenarios ring true. Even more importantly, they are predicted on perverse detachment from the realities on the ground, and colored by a view where external factors determine Afghanistan's course. More essential than what Washington or Brussels decides is whether Afghan politicians will manage to preserve and advance political stability through the constitutional order or not. And fundamentally, the person with the most influence over the extension and legitimacy of the system -- or the irresponsible undermining of it -- is President Hamid Karzai.
Powers amassed in the office of the presidency since 2004 have transformed Karzai from being a conciliator among different contentious factions (that saw him as harmless back in 2001) to a Machiavellian manipulator of his political competitors and international supporters. Karzai's public clashes with the U.S. Embassy during the Bush administration and his pronounced detachment from the Obama White House have made clear the diminished U.S. political leverage in Afghanistan. Indeed, the Afghan president has increasingly turned to local strongmen as a source of power, thereby embedding the chaotic mix of patronage and populism as the essence of politics in Afghanistan. In Afghan politics, real power is the prize, but no single major person or group in the country -- other than the nihilistic Taliban and former civil-war fighter Gulbudin Hekmatyar -- is pursuing it with overt force and violence. And that's a step in the right direction.
Absent parties and durable groupings, Afghan politics can seem chaotic and unpredictable. Yet the past eight years of the constitutional order offers evidence that when conflicts arise, politics moderate. In the heat of the 2009 presidential elections, Atta Mohammad Noor -- a powerful supporter of Abdullah Abdullah, the leading opposition candidate -- entered into an ugly public conflict with Hanif Atmar, then the minister of interior and a Karzai loyalist. Tensions heightened, and concerns about violent clashes between Noor and the government were real. The framework governing politics in the country, and the conduct of politicians were as yet untested -- any clash was expected to be hard to contain. Yet, just as the tension reached a simmer, so did the pursuit of a negotiated end to the brawl. Politics prevailed over the resort to force. Noor remained unapologetic for his support of the opposition, but the government recognized his right to stay within the system and yet not necessarily pledge full loyalty to the person heading it.
In the 2010 parliamentary elections, the regional and provincial strongmen who had once opted to be above the law or outside the frames of democratic institutions actually canvassed for seats. Now, they have a multitude of reasons to invest in the constitutional order: from access to power and prestige, to immunity and business. They are seeking all these perks through civilian platforms, as opposed to the sheer force or numbers of their guns and guys. The encouraging factor is that if the nascent constitutional order has grown to offer all these perks to strongmen, it should someday be able to regulate them too.
Challenges to order, nonetheless, abound. Semi-organized militias and paramilitary outfits have increased in the past two years -- under different labels such as the Afghan Local Police, Critical Infrastructure Police, and other ambiguous formations outside the standard law and order institutions. Similarly, some local officials have extended official and unofficial support to the mobilization of armed groups in some districts of provinces such as Kunduz and Baghlan. With a radius of influence limited to districts, their return to the scene, much contrary to arguments flashed out most recently in a New Yorker article by Dexter Filkins and echoed by other commentators, is not a sure sign of any looming civil war.
Civil wars do not erupt out of clashes at the provincial or district levels, but rather when the settlement for control or share of power at the center fails to offer the needed flexibility or satisfaction to most parties concerned. The much-dreaded 1992-1996 civil war in Afghanistan was not a product of any district level clashes. In fact, the trigger and sustainer of the war was violent scuffle over leadership and key posts in the central government, of course with the meddling regional forces -- in particular, Iran and Pakistan -- through the allegiances of their proxies developed in the 1980s.