The Missing Piece in Ensuring Afghanistan’s Peace

Much has gone right in Afghanistan. It’s more secure, stable, and even optimistic. But there's one final tweak needed before America says goodbye.

So now the United States approaches the endgame -- long predicted -- in Afghanistan.

While it is tempting at times to simply walk away, doing so serves no geopolitically sensible purpose, and indeed may be snatching certain defeat from the jaws of a very possible success.

All is not lost: The United States still has a better-than-even chance of a successful outcome in Afghanistan. That is to say, Washington should execute its strategy and move forward -- not take counsel of its fears and frustrations to abruptly depart.

The security situation and the upcoming elections have been a focus of the attendant political process. Both are, of course, important. But the real key to whether the United States succeeds will be the health of the Afghan economy and its long-term prospects. To be effective, Washington should emphasize developing growth and stability through private-public partnerships.

But what does success look like, exactly? Recognizable security throughout most of the populated areas of the country, with a low-grade insurgency rumbling around parts of the south and east; a roughly credible democratic political process, albeit with some corruption and malfeasance; a functioning economy with the possibility of improvement based on minerals; improved medical and educational benefits; and enhanced rights for women and children throughout most of the urban areas. Not perfect, but vastly better than a 14th-century existence under the Taliban.

Why are the odds better than even? Despite all the challenges, much has gone right in Afghanistan -- in terms of security, politics, economics, and culture.

In the security sector, more than 50 nations have contributed troops over the past decade, and a principal focus has been the build-up of 350,000 Afghan police and security, which have the approval of more than 70 percent of the population according to recent surveys. Today, the Afghan National Security Forces are fully responsible for ensuring security throughout the nation's 34 provinces, conducting patrols along the borders, and flying their own aircraft. They are holding territories that the Taliban deeply desire to occupy, including the spiritual heartland of the Taliban movement in the south and the rugged mountainous east. Despite a certain amount of Sturm und Drang, the Baseline Security Agreement (BSA) will almost certainly be signed in the next few months (by Afghan President Hamid Karzai's successor), and somewhere between 10,000 and 15,000 troops from the NATO-led coalition will likely remain to train, mentor, and monitor the Afghan forces. In all, it is a sustainable and positive outcome, assuming that the 50 or so contributing nations continue the some $4 billion in annual funding -- a bargain compared to keeping 150,000 allied troops there, which cost upward of $100 billion a year.

Politically, Afghanistan seems on track for a reasonably successful election in April. There is a vibrant campaign in progress: Many views and ethnicities are on offer among the candidates, security planning is moving apace, and Karzai seems content to hand power peacefully to an elected successor. While there will be both security and corruption challenges to overcome, at this stage most observers feel that Afghanistan will have the first handover between elected leaders in its history this spring.

In terms of culture, there is enormous progress since the Taliban days -- 9 million children are in school (4 million of them girls); life expectancy is climbing rapidly; medical care is available to five times more people; 17 million cell phones; improved rights for women; and the sense of optimism among the population is higher in Afghanistan than in many Western countries (over the past few years, a stunning 57 percent of Afghans say their country is "headed in the right direction.")

But what about the economy?

While growth has been fairly high over the past decade, averaging over 8 percent annually and over 12 percent in 2012, it is largely dependent on outside economic aid. The narcotic sector is a big part of the overall economy (Afghanistan is the world's largest producer of poppy, opium, and heroin). Worst of all, it is the NATO-led coalition war machine that consumes huge amounts of good and services. As the NATO forces redeploy to their home nations, falling 90 percent from the peak in terms of boots on the ground, the economy will be hit with a body blow.

The good news is that longer-term prospects offer some hope, especially in extractive industries. The Ministry of Mines and Petroleum continues to work toward arrangements to reap the benefits of as much as $3 trillion worth of valuable minerals -- iron, copper, nickel, cobalt, rare earths, and lithium among them. Oil and gas show promise. Entrepreneurship is strong and growing, and the geographic location of Afghanistan along the Silk Road makes it a prospect as an inter-modal transport and shipping hub. Agribusiness is expanding, as is the export of cashmere, carpets, and jewelry.

The key for the international community in the economic sphere is to work with the Afghans to formulate a "bridge strategy" to get the economy from its dependence on outside assistance and military activity to a more legitimate and sustainable underpinning. The keys to such an approach are:

1. Draft an agreed-upon plan between the Afghan government and the international community -- the equivalent of the BSA in the economic sphere. This cannot be done on the military side, but should instead be led by the United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan and its special representative, Ambassador Jan Kubis.

2. Write a strategy to strengthen indigenous industries (agriculture, mining, hydrocarbons, construction) led by the development community, i.e. U.S. Agency for International Development and their counterparts.

3. Harness the power of private-public partnerships, using models like the U.S. Task Force for Business and Stability Operations, an innovative group resourced by the U.S. Department of Defense but driven by its connections to private sector actors. Bringing private sector analysts to Afghanistan and showing them the potential for growth (and profitability, of course), will create business opportunities.

4. Identify sources of investment in the Afghan diaspora and from capital flows willing to take a higher level of risk with the potential for higher return (venture capital, rich sovereign wealth funds, hydrocarbon and mining companies).

5. Energize a strategic communications plan to let people know of both the risk and the opportunity in Afghanistan. Like other parts of the world that emerged from turmoil (Colombia, the Balkans, to name a few), there are opportunities for those willing to accept the risk. More than 70 percent of Afghans feel their economic circumstances have improved over the past decade: Build on that narrative.

None of this will be easy, of course. The security, political, and cultural gains remain at risk. But the chances of bringing home a limited but sustainable level of stability to Afghanistan ultimately rest on how the economy unfolds -- and that will take international, interagency, and private-public collaboration, as well as strategic communications writ large, to succeed.



Jumbo in the Jungle

Is Southeast Asia a haven for hijackers, pirates, and terrorists?

Since Malaysian Airlines flight 370 (MH370) disappeared on March 8 on its way from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, commentators have worried that it could be the result of terrorism. Two passengers had boarded the plane using passports stolen in Thailand, and of the 153 Chinese passengers aboard the flight, one was reportedly of Uighur ethnicity -- a Muslim minority heavily concentrated in northwest China's troubled region of Xinjiang. The flight is still missing; much remains unknown and many of the details circulating, including those hinting at terrorist involvement, are unconfirmed or incorrect. But Southeast Asia, with its often poorly managed borders and extensive smuggling networks -- for weapons, drugs, contraband, and people -- has long concerned foreign governments and international terrorism experts.

The ease of illicit cross-border travel in Southeast Asia helped make the region a second front in George W. Bush's War on Terror in the early 2000s. Back then, Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), a terrorist group with links to al Qaeda, was the poster child of a transnational extremist threat in Southeast Asia. Established in 1993, JI eventually organized terror cells in five countries across the region, with Malaysia serving as a safe haven for the organization's two Indonesian founders. JI, whose name means "Islamic Congregation," became notorious after organizing the 2002 nightclub bombings on the Indonesian island of Bali, which killed 202 people, nearly half of whom were Australians, and injured 240. (Before that, authorities had foiled an attempt to bomb embassies in Singapore in 2001 using explosives smuggled through the Philippines.) Bali bombing mastermind Riduan Isamuddin, now detained at Guantanamo Bay, moved between safe-houses across maritime and mainland Southeast Asia before his 2003 arrest in Thailand.

In part because of the threat from JI and other extremist groups, many Southeast Asian nations have strengthened security at established border crossings and airports, and tightened visa and customs procedures. Steady pressure from foreign governments and intelligence agencies, including the United States, to mitigate the threat of terrorism in Southeast Asia also helped to spur improvements. There is now little credible evidence that the region remains a haven for international terrorists, who can much more easily operate out of countries in North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.

But the large, often remote maritime and land borders between Southeast Asian nations remain relatively porous and are exploited by insurgent groups with a domestic focus. Indonesia, Myanmar, the Philippines and Thailand all face domestic armed threats facilitated by nationals working across the border. Southern Thai insurgents, including the Patani United Liberation Organization, the National Revolutionary Front, and other ethnic-Malay separatist groups, run extensive smuggling networks into Malaysia. Armed forces along Myanmar's frontiers, such as the Karen National Liberation Army and the Kachin Independence Army, regular cross international borders for safe haven and supplies, though some also smuggle drugs and weapons across borders. And the nexus between the southern Philippines' Sulu Archipelago and the island of Borneo, split primarily between Malaysia and Indonesia, is a hotbed for trafficking in weapons and persons, as well as an area of contestation among governments, criminal organizations, and extremist groups.

Southeast Asia's insecure borders do not just threaten the region's own prosperity, but also hinder efforts at stability in neighboring countries. Separatists from the Indian province of Nagaland have long used bases over the border in Myanmar for sanctuary and support. Bangladesh, meanwhile, houses more than 200,000 Rohingya, a Muslim minority who have fled violence and persecution in neighboring Myanmar. Bangladesh could face a destabilizing flood of refugees should that violence grow worse.

Perhaps the biggest regional threat is that Southeast Asia could be used as a staging area for extremists attacking China. There is evidence that the decades-old resistance to China's heavy-handed rule in Xinjiang, which has traditionally been confined to the region itself, might be morphing into an extremist threat aimed at China as a whole. Beijing accused Uighur radicals of committing an Oct. 2013 vehicle attack on Beijing's Tiananmen Square, the symbolic center of the capital, and of committing a gruesome knife attack in the southwestern city of Kunming on March 1 that killed 29 people and injured more than 140. Kunming is the capital of Yunnan province, which borders Vietnam, Laos, and Myanmar, and Dru Gladney, an expert on Western China at Pomona College, told the Telegraph that the attackers may have been influenced by Southeast Asian groups.

Malaysia's borders are relatively secure. But Kuala Lumpur still has trouble controlling illicit traffic of goods, people, and occasionally armed groups. The disappearance of MH370 may not have been caused by a terrorist act, but the speculation that has erupted serves as a reminder that Southeast Asian borders are extremely porous, often poorly managed, and that smuggling networks remain well and alive throughout much of the region.