The crisis in Iraq and an Afghanistan prognosis

June 30, 2014

(Any opinions expressed here are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters)

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has rampaged through western Iraq. A few thousand kilometres away in Afghanistan, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) is withdrawing, with Americans contemplating less than 10,000 troops on ground.

The Iraqi and Afghan landscapes have festering ethnic and sectarian divides in common. In Iraq, the ISIL has crafted one of the best success stories for radical Islamists in recent history. Is a similar manoeuvre on the cards in Afghanistan?

The genesis of the crisis in Iraq has its roots in Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s reluctance in exercising inclusive governance. The Kurds, 17 percent of the population, remained at the periphery – only to become more and more assertive. Further, Maliki never really made the effort required to draw Sunnis, who make up approximately 30 percent of the population, into the fold.

In Afghanistan, ethnic faultlines have proven, historically, more difficult to negotiate than sectarian divides. However, the Afghan parliament has a fair representation of ethnic groups. The army, though dominated by the Pashtuns and Tajiks, is quite representative.

In Iraq, the Sunni rebels took full advantage of the increasing sectarian rift to graduate from being a radical al Qaeda offshoot to making lightning gains in Iraq. In Afghanistan, the Taliban has displayed adequate resilience in resisting military operations launched by NATO or Afghan forces. They have bases across the Durand Line in Pakistan that serve as sanctuary just like Syrian territory has been for the ISIL.

The Americans, aided by NATO forces, raised and trained both the Iraqi and Afghan Security Forces with a common objective of building truly national institutions, without sectarian or ethnic leanings. However, in Iraq, Maliki found a depoliticized and professional Iraqi Security Force not too amenable for his designs and gradually pushed out Sunni and Kurd officers.

The Afghan National Army (ANA) is not yet fully trained and equipped to undertake counter-insurgency operations. The Taliban is better placed in Afghanistan than the ISIL was in Iraq before the Syrian conflict. The al Qaeda also retains enough of a following to stage rapid growth.

Both nations suffer the handicap of a variegated social fabric that can easily fragment. Violence in Iraq kept increasing because Maliki promoted Shia interests while barely making attempts to draw Sunnis into the mainstream.

If Afghanistan is to survive after the ISAF withdraws, it will require an inclusive regime at Kabul committed to democratic governance. The denial of opportunities to any ethnic group will magnify ethnic rifts, with a cascading effect on the cohesion of its armed forces.

Sustained economic growth, adequate foreign aid and investment and strengthening democratic institutions are very important for Afghanistan to remain a stable nation, but the ultimate test will be a truly democratic regime with a thoroughly professional and apolitical ANA to avoid a blitzkrieg like the one staged by the ISIL in Iraq.

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