Afghanistan: 5 areas of concern after the US leaves

Although the end of the war in Afghanistan is in sight, not everyone is looking forward to it.  The total withdrawal of US and NATO forces by 2014 will have profound, direct effects on the country's security, economy, and society. Here are five areas that are likely to see an impact.

Security and the Taliban

Captured Taliban insurgents and their weapons are presented to the media on March 22, 2012. (Mustafa Andaleb/Reuters)

The most immediate concern over the US's withdrawal from Afghanistan is how it will affect Afghan security. The Taliban and other Afghan militants still launch regular attacks against Western forces, and the Afghan military and police forces that NATO has been training are not yet prepared to take on responsibility for their own security.

The Afghan government is already worried about accelerated US plans, announced in February, to end combat operations a year before its anticipated 2014 withdrawal. "A decision to push this a year earlier throws out the whole transition plan. The transition has been planned against a timetable and this makes us rush all our preparations," a senior Afghan security official told the Monitor soon after the announcement. "If the Americans withdraw from combat, it will certainly have an effect on our readiness and training, and on equipping the police force."

And Afghan forces depend heavily on Western money as well.  If the financial support dries up, warns Mahmood Khan, a member of parliament from Kandahar Province, "there will not be enough troops to secure the country, especially the rural areas."

Such concerns are a major factor in why the US has been attempting peace negotiations with the Taliban.  But the talks remain a long shot at best, in part because the US timetable for departure is already public, lessening the Taliban's incentive to negotiate.

Security and the opium trade

Afghan boys stand in a poppy field in Golestan district of Farah province on May 5, 2009. (Goran Tomasevic/Reuters/File)

Afghanistan supplies more than 90 percent of the world's opium, and draws roughly a third of its GDP from the drug trade. Some worry that the withdrawal of Western troops will lead to a boom in the heroin market – where the Taliban finds much of its funding.

Writing for George Mason University's Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center, Nazia Hussain warns that in the wake of US troop withdrawal, "illicit trafficking... will skyrocket."  And Gen. Khodaidad, Afghanistan's former anti-narcotics chief, told the Daily Telegraph that "with the coming exit strategy for 2014, the whole [drug trade] will be completely out of control. All the provinces will go more and more back to poppy."

But the the drug problem may prove insolvable, as it's not only the Taliban that profits from opium. Government officials do as well. Brookings Institute Fellow Vanda Felbab-Brown told PBS's Frontline that alleged pro-government drug traffickers include President Karzai's late brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, Kandahar police chief Gen. Abdul Raziq, and warlord Matiullah Khan. Even the Afghan Air Force is involved in drug smuggling.

As the Cato Institute's Ted Galen Carpenter says, "pro-government factions are in the trade up to their eyeballs. Indeed, it would be much easier to draw up a list of prominent Afghan political figures who are not involved in the drug trade than it would to draw up a list of the ones who are. And it would be a much shorter list to cite the ones who are not."

The economy

The departure of the US from Afghanistan will have a profound effect on the Afghan economy. As the Monitor's Tom Peter recently wrote, 90 percent of the Afghan government’s budget comes from foreign sources, and about 97 percent of the country’s GDP has come to depend on foreign aid and international military spending. The World Bank has warned of economic collapse in Afghanistan if international donors pull funding too fast.

But attempts to foster new industries in Afghanistan, such as mineral mining, have yet to bear fruit.  The Independent writes that China plans to develop the Aynak copper mine, which some believe to be the world's second largest deposit of high-grade copper, while Indian companies are investing in Afghan iron mines. Yet the start of operations remains several years away.

Regional stability

The US withdrawal will also leave a geopolitical vacuum that will affect Afghanistan's neighbors Pakistan and Iran

Pakistan is worried about the potential destabilization of Afghanistan that could follow the US withdrawal, writes Foreign Policy's Shuja Nawaz. Possible results include "millions of new refugees if fighting breaks out in Afghanistan, and the scary prospect for Pakistan of reverse sanctuary for Pakistani Taliban and other anti-state actors." The latter would be the inverse of the problem that US and NATO forces are dealing with now: Afghan militants can hide on the other side of the Pakistani border, where Western forces cannot pursue them. But Pakistan has its own problem with militants, who could seek refuge in Afghanistan when the US and NATO leave.

The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a bipartisan think tank, writes that so far Tehran has been exerting a net positive influence in western Afghanistan by helping to stabilize the region and protect Afghan Shiites (though still supporting occasional attacks on US interests in the country).  But when the US leaves, CSIS argues that Iran will look to expand its role in the region, which could worsen the already contentious relationship between US and Iran. 

CSIS also notes that Iran has been seeking warmer relations with Pakistan so they can cooperate to prevent Afghan instability. But multiple obstacles, including the Sunni-Shiite divide and divergent security interests, could keep Iranian-Pakistani relations from developing.

Social reforms

An Afghan woman holds a pamphlet saying "according the 22nd article of the national constitution, any kind of discrimination between Afghans is forbidden, all Afghan men and woman have equal rights" during a march on March. 7, 2011, at Kabul University. (Hossein Fatemi/AP/File)

A US withdrawal from Afghanistan also raises concerns about what will happen to the fragile social reforms that have been made since the Taliban fell, particularly those that have improved the lives of women. The Monitor reported that some 2.4 million girls are now enrolled in school, compared to a mere 5,000 during the Taliban's reign, and that women are now able to enter politics and get jobs outside the home. 

But many worry that there has been a creeping return to old biases, the Monitor notes.  Karzai recently backed a government-backed religious council's statement that women are not equal to men and should not mix with them in public.  (Karzai later said the council was not limiting women, but rather enforcing Islamic law.)  And The New York Times reported last month that similar concerns are being raised about increased, invasive searches of women visiting Afghan prisons to see relatives.

“The situation of women in Afghanistan today is precarious. There has been progress around women’s education, women’s access to medical care, women’s ability to travel and to work. That’s all good, but the question is [how] we preserve that and can we improve upon it?” Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, said at a press conference.