The United States’ decision to extend its military presence in Afghanistan beyond 2016 has thrown the war-ravaged country’s government a much needed lifeline even as its dysfunctionality, blamed for the Taliban’s revival, shows no signs of abating.
It has been just over a year since Ashraf Ghani was sworn in as president as part of a US-brokered unity government with his main election rival, former anti-Soviet fighter Abdullah Abdullah, as chief executive.
While the deal was hailed as a breakthrough that had averted a possible ethnic civil war, experts blame the political deadlock it created for allowing the Taliban to regain momentum and unleash a wave of violence not been seen for years.
The insurgents’ seizure of the northern regional capital Kunduz last month, though brief, was a stinging blow to Western-trained Afghan forces as they struggle to maintain security after the end of NATO’s mission in December.
US President Barack Obama’s decision to keep 5,500 troops beyond 2016 has therefore been met with widespread relief by officials and residents, who hope it will prevent the country from becoming a regional hub of terror and violence like Syria.
“The announcement is an important boost to the Afghan army morale, it shows that the world is not leaving them alone,” said retired general Atiqullah Amarkhil.
But few are hopeful it can tilt the balance in favour of government forces, with a protracted stalemate seen as one possible scenario, and rising proxy battles between opposing foreign powers another.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s announcement this week that his country would create a joint task force with ex-Soviet states to defend against a spillover in Afghan violence has invoked fears of a fresh Russian-US proxy war in addition to the rivalries already being played out between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and India and Pakistan.
“What it is essentially saying is that the Americans and NATO will continue to bankroll the salaries of the Afghan army,” said Ahmed Rashid, a Pakistani author and Afghanistan expert.
“Obama’s statement wasn’t tough enough on the corrupt leadership, which has squandered the opportunities given to it and robbed the country… We’ve seen a year of hopeless governance and there is mounting pressure for a fresh government.”
At the heart of the problem, insiders say, is the unstable power-sharing deal between Ghani and Abdullah — only ever meant to be temporary arrangement before a more permanent solution was fleshed out by the loya jirga (grand assembly) and a fresh constitution.
“When we first proposed a unity government it was to keep everybody on board so we have a united vision for Afghanistan,” said Ahmad Wali Massoud, an ex-ambassador who was close to former president Hamid Karzai.