National Security

The un-happening of a civil war

As coalition troops prepare to leave Afghanistan next December, reports of an impending civil war, sensationalized and embellished by foreign press mostly, have dominated many international headlines. These reports cite rampant corruption in the Afghan government, violent insurgency, spectacular attacks by the Taliban in major cities, fears of more restrictions on women's rights, and ethnic divisions as signs of a doomsday awaiting to befall post-2014 Afghanistan.

But if you ask ordinary Afghans about their future in 2015 and beyond, they are more likely to express fears about an economic recession, increased violence by militants, total abandonment by the international community, and uncertainty about President Karzai's replacement than a civil war or a triumphant return of the Taliban to power.  

This discrepancy is because the political dynamics in today's Afghanistan are radically different from those in 1992, when various armed factions of anti-Soviet rebels took power. Back then, the mujahedeen, as they called themselves, enjoyed a certain level of public support. There were no independent media outlets, no civil institutions, and no major commitments by the international community to support Afghanistan after the communists' fall. In 1992, Afghans did not have the opportunity to democratically elect their leaders and thousands of armed rebels took positions outside the gates of Kabul, effectively cutting off the capital from the rest of the country. Most importantly, the Soviet Union, Afghanistan's primary patron, not only ended all of its aid to the Afghan National Army (ANA), but ceased to exist as a country itself.

Afghans take these factors into account when they calculate their future. Uncertainty and economic fears may be well founded and prevalent, but no one in Afghanistan believes the takeover of a half-finished construction site by a bunch of violent extremists, whose grim visions are so far away from the realities of today's Afghanistan, is an indication of a looming civil war like the one they experienced in the 1990s. In fact, many are dismayed when foreign analysts and reporters call fighting between Afghan security forces and foreign extremists in the mountains of Kunar and Nuristan provinces a civil war, but consider NATO advisers training and supporting the ANA as part of the invasion.

While some foreign analysts appear to have concluded a post-withdrawal Taliban takeover is inevitable, public opinion surveys inside Afghanistan show that Afghans beg to differ en masse. For example, a 2012 public opinion survey by the Asia Foundation found that Afghans' confidence in their security forces and in their future has steadily risen over the last six years. In fact, the foundation found that this confidence, especially in the ANA, runs in the 90th percentile (93 percent of Afghans expressed a "fair amount" or a "great deal" confidence in ANA). Meanwhile, sympathy for insurgents has declined steadily, especially in the last few years as the Taliban and other militant groups have stepped up their violent terror campaign, primarily attacking and killing civilians in the country. The survey's findings show that almost two-thirds of Afghans now oppose the armed insurgents. This data clearly indicates that the elusive leader of the Taliban is as likely to win a free and fair election for the Afghan presidency as the Newtown shooter would for becoming the governor of Connecticut.

Some analysts have expressed concerns that there will be more restrictions on women, and that gains made over the last 12 years will disappear once the coalition troops withdraw. These are genuine fears, especially as the Afghan government attempts to reach a peace settlement with the Taliban. However, over the past decade, Afghan women have gained the confidence to organize themselves and fight for their own rights. For example, when the Afghan government wanted to take control of shelters for battered women in 2011, female activists successfully fought back. This was a unique victory for Afghan women, who could never have raised their voices under the Taliban, let alone protest.

Also, using local media and support networks across the country, women's rights activists have brought national and international attention to domestic cases of violence against women that have shocked the Afghan public. In December 2011, for example, local media extensively covered the story of Sahar Gul, an Afghan girl who had been brutally tortured for months by members of her husband's family. First reported by local female journalists, it was one of the first cases that allowed the Afghan public to see the level and extent of violence against women in their country. Had the Taliban still been in power, Sahar Gul and the brave female reporters who covered her story would have been quietly suffering behind their all-enveloping burqas. But this is no longer the case. Even though there are still many cases like Sahar Gul's which go unreported, extensive coverage by the local media and courageous Afghan reporters are gradually raising awareness about domestic violence and women's rights in the country.

This is not to say the suffering of Afghan women has ended since the arrival of coalition forces. What is different though is that now Afghan women have at least a fighting chance to protect the achievements they have made over the last 12 years. For many leading Afghan rights activists, fighting for women's rights is more than a battle for equality. It's a fight to ensure the gains they have made since 2001 never again disappear in the alleys of a Taliban-governed country.

Some analysts have also pointed to the pervasive presence of former mujahedeen warlords in the government, as well as the power and wealth they have accumulated over the last 12 years as signs of a potential political resurgence. A flurry of foreign press reports have even suggested the warlords are re-arming themselves and waiting for international troops to leave before they go back to waging wars against each other. For example, Ismael Khan, a powerful warlord from the wealthy province of Herat, was reported to have urged his followers to "coordinate and reactivate their networks" and ready themselves for the upcoming civil war.

What many of these outlets failed to mention, however, is that Khan was removed from his traditional seat of power seven years ago when President Hamid Karzai appointed him Minister of Water and Energy. Khan, who is believed to be around 70 years old, does have influence in Western Afghanistan but his once-feared militia members were disarmed in the mid-2000s. It would take substantial resources to re-arm them, and he cannot justify this rearmament if there is already a national army operating across Afghanistan. Khan may be boasting about his influence in his calls for rearmament, but he also understands there has been a generational shift which is not necessarily in his favor.

This is not to say that the warlords have lost all of their leverage in Afghan society. Ethnic grievances and traditional tribal patronage network systems still exist in Afghanistan, and tensions remain high in light of growing uncertainty about 2014. However, there is a new outlet that allows these tensions to be addressed: local Afghan media.

Tolo TV, for example, a well-known local station in the country, aired a report last January which implicated the three major so-called warlords -- Governor Noor Mohammad Atta of Balkh province, Uzbek warlord General Abdul Rashid Dostum, and Hezbi Wahdat leader Mohammad Mohaqiq -- of being involved in the embezzlement of millions of dollars in revenues from a major land port in northern Afghanistan. The report noted that the three men were "gleaning personal benefits from the Hairatan region's income."

In the past, such reports would have caused violent reactions from these men and could have even led to the death of the reporter. However, instead of staging an armed raid or an assassination, they took to the airwaves to defend themselves and there was no violent reaction from any of them. Even those warlords involved in the armed insurgency have recognized the growing influence of the local media.

Some of them, like the infamous warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, whose militant group Hezb-e Islami once assassinated a BBC reporter, has given interviews from his hiding place to a select number of local outlets in the hope of rebuilding his image. But Hekmatyar and other warlords are finding it increasingly difficult to connect with larger swaths of the Afghan population, namely because most reporters and media workers in Afghanistan are quite young and grew up in a very different age, with values that are a stark contrast to the traditional views of the aging warlords.  In fact, Afghans under the age of 25 make up almost 70 percent of the population, and are more likely to remember the atrocities committed by the warlords than the battles waged against the Soviets. This new generation is also more likely to connect with their friends on Facebook than to find themselves captivated with calls of war by warlords.

The Taliban and other insurgent groups have also failed to make their usual talking points gain attention in the local media. This is primarily because their vision of a post-2014 Afghanistan is radically different from what the majority of the public wants to see. Nader Nadery, a famed Afghan human rights activist, recently highlighted this fact in an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal. Having met with the Taliban delegation at a meeting in France in December 2012, Nadery wrote: "The gap between the perceptions of the Taliban and the rest of the participants was stark."

But the Taliban have learned that staging spectacular attacks on Kabul and other major cities in Afghanistan gives them plenty of international media coverage instead. Such attacks achieve little in terms of military significance, but they confirm the narrative that the Taliban are "at the gates of Kabul." As a journalist friend once commented, such attacks throw cold water on reports concerning positive developments in Afghanistan. The insurgents know this and they have masterfully chosen their targets to hit the heart of major economic and diplomatic hubs, something that reaffirms this inaccurate view of inevitable doom. In contrast, the improving conduct of Afghan security forces and police units in repelling these attacks is often given little or no coverage in the foreign press.  

For many Afghans, the Taliban's mass suicide attacks and roadside bombs, which are the two biggest killers of civilians, represent nothing but the militants' attempts to spread fear and kill their way back to power, something very unlikely now and in the future. In post-2014 Afghanistan, Taliban militants and terrorist groups like the Haqqani Network may continue to stage suicide attacks on government facilities and major population centers but this will not indicate the beginning of a civil war. If the United States is unable to stop Mexican drug lords from spreading violence into some southern U.S. cities, nobody should expect the Afghan government to end attacks by Taliban militants who operate from safe havens in Pakistan.

It is true that Afghanistan may continue to face an assortment of issues, including corruption, ethnic rivalries, regional power struggles, poppy cultivation, and a weak economy, for some time beyond 2014. But with some sort of democratic continuity and a peaceful political transition, as well as continued international support -- especially from the United States -- for the growing civil society and security forces, Afghanistan can address these issues.

Ahmad Shafi is an Afghan journalist and a former producer for National Public Radio.

SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images

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