Insights and Analysis

Asia Foundation’s William Cole Discusses Afghanistan’s Transition

May 23, 2012

William ColeOn Monday, NATO leaders, with Afghan and Pakistani leaders joining, formally approved the plan for drawing down international forces and handing over security responsibilities to Afghanistan by 2014. The Asia Foundation’s Senior Director for Governance, Law, and Conflict, William Cole, joined experts live on NPR affiliate, KQED’s The Forum with host Michael Krasny to discuss the transition, the implications for the Afghan people, and more. Below is an excerpt from the interview (edited for space and readability).

Michael Krasny:
[Under the agreement] NATO troops will presumably be training and advising Afghans, and NATO Secretary General Rasmussen said the withdrawal will take place over the next two and a half years. How viable is this, particularly with all the strife and corruption in Afghanistan and with only 42 percent of operations presently being led by Afghans?

William Cole:
In terms of the viability of the Afghan state after the transition, there are obviously serious questions. The commitment of the United States to a long-term strategic alliance with Afghanistan is now clear. The U.S. won’t be leaving entirely, there will be something like 15 or 20,000 troops remaining after 2014. The real question is whether the Afghan National Army can carry the ball once the NATO troops are gone, and what happens after the Afghans have taken over the full responsibility for combat. Nobody really knows the answer to that question. What we hear from troops on the ground is that many are impressed with the progress that has been made by the Afghan National Army, but they still have a long way to go. Meanwhile, the insurgency has gotten tougher. There seems to be some willingness to negotiate on the part of the Quetta Shura, but the Haqqani network working out of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas in Pakistan seems less willing to negotiate, so there are a lot of variables here.

Do you see things moving toward an Afghan-led government?

If you look at what the international community has constructed over the last decade in Afghanistan, in many ways, it has been based on a development model, which is taking Western institutions and transferring those to developing countries. This is particularly problematic where you have a context of starting from scratch, as was the case in Afghanistan. The difficulty is that what you end up with is “best practice institutions” that you have put in place, but those institutions don’t articulate very well with the underlying distribution of power and influence among the elites. The result is a lot of corruption, a lot of malfeasance, and there will be a lot of difficulty in sustaining that kind of state.

How do we make better connection with the Afghan people?

The difficulty is that as long as NATO is present at this troop level, at the level of influence that the international community has in terms of policy and institution building in Afghanistan – as long as that’s there, we can at least on paper ensure rights – rights for women, rights for minorities. But as you move the international presence out, those forces who have the greatest voice in Afghanistan now will be able to reassert themselves and many of those voices are going to lead in a direction in which we’re not going to be very happy on the women’s front. The Asia Foundation has a survey that we do every year in Afghanistan, and one of the things that has been very clear on the issue of women is that most Afghans want their girls educated, they want women to be able to go to the marketplace freely, they want them to be in public freely, they don’t agree with what the Taliban had done in the 1990s. That’s on the one hand. On the other hand, there isn’t as much support as you might expect, and we might hope, for women in senior positions of government. When you combine those things together, they might look incongruent to Americans, but they aren’t necessarily incongruent to Afghans on the ground. As things move forward, and as deals are cut with the Taliban, and as you have more of an Afghan say in what the policies and institutions are going to be, I think you are going to see a slippage of the position of women in Afghanistan. It’s not going to be nearly as bad as it was in the 1990s, but it will slip from where we might have hoped it would be over the next few years.

Listen to full program on KQED.


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