As I have done at the beginning of every Congress since my appointment as the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, I recently released our agency’s High Risk report listing the most serious threats to America’s 18-year, $133 billion reconstruction effort there. But this year, something is different — the spring air brings a faint whiff of the possibility of peace and a hoped-for end to our nation’s longest war.
The long-suffering Afghan people would welcome a peace agreement. Likewise, it would be welcomed here at home. More than 2,400 members of the U.S. Armed Forces have lost their lives in Afghanistan, and the United States has obligated more than $780 billion for total efforts in that country, with about 15 percent of that going toward reconstruction.
A peace agreement could bring its own set of challenges to sustaining what the United States, its coalition partners and the Afghan government have achieved. Likewise, an agreement could present risks to the goal of leaving behind a stable Afghanistan at peace with itself and its neighbors, and which respects the rule of law and human rights.
There are serious threats facing Afghanistan that will not miraculously disappear with the drying of the ink on a peace agreement. To ensure these problems do not derail the negotiations, policymakers here, in Afghanistan, and in the capitals of 39 coalition partners, need to start planning now and not wait until the “day after” peace is declared. As the old adage goes, failing to plan is planning to fail. Policymakers should be planning for what may come in the days, weeks, months and years after any peace agreement is reached.
The first matter that every policymaker should take into consideration, whether or not a peace deal is reached, is basic: Without financial support from international donors, the government of Afghanistan cannot survive. Should peace come, if that peace is to be sustainable, it will come at an additional price that only external donors can afford. Sluggish economic growth, historically anemic revenue collection, and a general lack of economic opportunity, combined with massive government obligations and rampant public corruption, means that Afghanistan will not have the capability to fully finance its own expenditures for many years to come.
Another area of concern will be the long-term, peaceful reintegration of as many as 60,000 heavily armed Taliban fighters and their families back into Afghan society. Those fighters and their families will face challenges from the weak Afghan economy, few employment prospects, political uncertainty, ongoing insecurity and distrust from a population traumatized by over four decades of conflict. Unfortunately, Afghan government capacity remains weak and any reintegration efforts may suffer from the government’s inability to properly fund them. Again, international donors would be called upon to foot the bill. A failure to successfully reintegrate Taliban fighters would threaten any peace agreement as disaffected former Taliban who may have been expecting a peace dividend may return to violent, predatory behavior.
Everyone is aware of how Afghan women suffered at the hands of the former Taliban regime. Unsurprisingly, many Afghans are concerned that any return of the Taliban to the halls of power would set back the progress that has been made by Afghan women over the past 18 years.
Despite recent tweets to the contrary, previous Taliban behavior indicates that an attempt to reverse the gains that have been made is certainly a high risk. Any effort to roll back those gains would almost certainly trigger negative consequences. The United States alone has spent over $1 billion for gender-related programs in Afghanistan, and improving the status and rights of women in Afghanistan has been a top American and coalition priority since the beginning of the reconstruction effort.
A return to systematic repression of Afghan women risks diminishing or ending U.S. and coalition support for continued assistance to Afghanistan and, in the process, threatens any government reliant on that support. Policymakers should be aware, therefore, that the viability of a post-agreement Afghan state may well depend upon whether women’s rights are protected in both word and practice.
As I have learned over the past seven years as the SIGAR, predicting the future is often a fool’s errand, doubly so in Afghanistan. Eighteen years’ worth of assumptions that often turned out to be false have left us where we are — with a dependent Afghan government facing a stalemate on the battlefield. While the winds of optimism about peace wax and wane, bombs continue to go off in Afghanistan, killing soldiers and civilians alike.
Much has been gained in Afghanistan over the past 18 years, but at a steep cost. We must all be clear-eyed about what peace may mean for reconstruction and the risks we may be forced to address. Neglecting to ask the right questions, failing to plan, and assuming 18 years’ worth of challenges will suddenly evaporate the day after any agreement is signed will only imperil all that we have spent and do a disservice to the memory of all who lost their lives.
Hope is not a strategy. That is why we at SIGAR encourage policymakers, both here and in Afghanistan, to vigorously plan now for the hoped-for “day after.”
John F. Sopko was appointed Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction in 2012. An attorney, he previously served as a congressional investigator and federal prosecutor.