Monday, November 21, 2011

Afghan Leaders Meet to Discuss Afghanistan’s Future

International Business Times: Is Afghanistan Moving in the Wrong Direction?

At the invitation of President Hamid Karzai, over two thousand Afghan leaders gathered in Kabul on November 16th for a four-day meeting—or loya jirga—to discuss the future of Afghanistan, particularly regarding its relationship with the United States and the Taliban.

Among the attendees at the loya jirga were elected politicians of the national assembly and district councils, along with tribal and religious leaders. In all, there are only 250 elected officials and over 1800 non-elected tribal and religious leaders. Although the loya jirga has no official legal capacity and all its proposals must be approved by the parliament, some politicians have protested or boycotted the meeting. These politicians believe the meeting subverts the democratic political process in Afghanistan because many Afghans remain loyal to the judgment and guidance of their religious and political leaders, and many of these leaders remain loyal to Karzai. Therefore, any decision made by the loya jirga could influence Afghanis into pressuring their representatives in parliament, giving Karzai the necessary leverage to push through his plan.

In his opening remarks, Karzai stressed the need for a prolonged strategic partnership with the United States after the planned exit of foreign troops in 2014. Such a partnership could lead to the U.S. establishing temporary military bases throughout Afghanistan during the next decade, which would assist the government in fighting Taliban insurgents. Although Karzai acknowledged the need for international assistance after 2014, he stated that any long-term partnership between Afghanistan and the U.S. should not threaten Afghanistan’s national sovereignty. Specifically, he stated that such a partnership must be conditioned on foreign troops ending night time raids of Afghan homes. The U.S. contends these raids are the most effective way to kill or capture Taliban insurgents, but Karzai believes too many of these raids end up treating civilians as if they were insurgents and violating Afghans’ cherished privacy rights. The loya jirga will also discuss possible reconciliation with the Taliban. Since the U.S.-led raid in 2001, violence in Afghanistan has never been higher, and Afghans are growing weary of the persistent threat of violence. A recent poll conducted by The Asia Foundation, a non-profit, non-governmental organization, revealed that 35% of Afghanis believe their country is moving in the wrong direction—the highest level of dissatisfaction since 2004—and many Afghanis cited security and conflict as their main concerns.

Despite continued violence, political tension between elected officials and traditional Afghan leaders, and the uncertainty looming from a potential U.S. exit, there are some positive signs in Afghanistan. Afghanis are generally more satisfied with their access to education, drinking water, health services, and the role of public institutions than they were a year ago. Afghanis also are more united in their stance against the Taliban. In 2010, 40% of Afghanis sympathized with the Taliban, but only 29% of Afghans sympathize with the Taliban today. In recent years, Afghanistan has also seen a dramatic increase in the production of its agricultural sector and is close to reaching its goal of becoming a net exporter of agricultural products. This is important because the country now has enough food to feed its people, and also because this sustained growth in a key industry may convince foreigners to invest money into Afghanistan which would spur additional economic development. To sustain these perceived and real gains in economic development, it might be necessary for the loya jirga to pave a way for continued United States presence in Afghanistan. However, such a recommendation is not without risk. A continued United States presence may galvanize Taliban insurgents and lead to prolonged violence, threatening the stability of the country. Perhaps most importantly for Afghanistan’s elected leaders, a continued U.S. presence will beholden them to a foreign government and delay the true independence of the country.

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