Afghanistan: Economic devastation rivals security woes

Taliban gains underscore President Ghani’s tumultuous year in office, but the economy is also weighing the country down.

Ashraf Ghani
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani's one-year reign has been anything but smooth [AP]

Kabul, Afghanistan – It’s hardly been a stellar first year in office for President Ashraf Ghani.

Security is quickly deteriorating, a stagnant economy has resulted in sky high unemployment, and tens of thousands of citizens are fleeing the country in search of a better life.  

The president’s first day on September 29, 2014, was spent at a school talking with students about their future. Later, he visited wounded soldiers in Kabul’s military hospital to lend support. He even listened to prisoners voice complaints at the Pul-e-Charkhi maximum-security prison.

A year later, however, the optimism stirred by those visits among ordinary Afghans has largely faded away.

“It’s not like last year we had huge factories and today the factories have closed down and people lost their jobs. It’s just that people have lost hope,” said Massoud Etemadi, a graphic designer in the capital.

“They had very high expectations that things would change – and now their hope is gone.”

Afghan refugee Hamagai Akbar, 5, is one of thousands fleeing the country each year [Muhammed Muheisen/AP]
Afghan refugee Hamagai Akbar, 5, is one of thousands fleeing the country each year [Muhammed Muheisen/AP]

According to a recent survey, Ghani’s approval rating has declined from 60 percent a year ago to slightly below 20 percent today.

Highlighting the country’s dire security situation was an attack by hundreds of fighters on Monday on Kunduz city – just 250km north of Kabul – with reports suggesting the Taliban had taken control of several areas.

Peace talks with the Taliban and improving foreign relations have occupied much of the president’s agenda the past year. However, negotiations ended abruptly in July following the announcement of Taliban leader Mullah Omar’s death, and a series of deadly attacks on the capital.

The president’s first official trip abroad to China signified the importance of regional relations and the need to develop economic and diplomatic ties – something said to be a top priority in the run-up to presidential elections.

However, according to Gharji Elham, a political analyst, the president has failed to bring about any significant change in the area of foreign policy.

As the brazen raid on Kunduz underscores, the security situation is far from stable. Key trade and security agreements with Pakistan are left undone, and Ghani’s China policy is quickly fading.

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But some observers say there have been positives over the past year.

Ghani has created a new type of statesmanship compared to former president Hamid Karzai, one that has sought to build better state-to-state relations across the region, said Javid Ahmad, a South Asia analyst at Yale University.

“It’s unlike the past where Afghan leaders have focused more consistently on political personalities than on global affairs,” Ahmad told Al Jazeera.

 Taliban fighters capture Afghan city

“The NUG [national unity government] is putting forward carefully crafted win-win arrangements, and while there are signs of a change of direction from Pakistan, it’s yet to be seen whether they can deliver.”

Some observers say Ghani broke down the informal power circles that Karzai heavily relied on by injecting new faces in the cabinet and other top positions.

Yet, analysts question whether it was done with the vision of improving governance or to consolidate power. Concerns have also been raised about the effectiveness of installing young technocrats who lack experience in warfare at such a critical time.

His lower appointments at deputy ministerial or directorate general levels are largely ethnocentric, which has alienated other ethnic groups,” said Elham.

“It is about politics of exclusion and marginalisation: the very approach to power. Here the concern is with his power and public face. People see this, then reflect and react to it.”

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Security across the country has plummeted and crime – in particular abductions – has increased to frightening levels.  

Both Afghan and international security officials have voiced concern about the lack of both a short and long-term security strategy. Currently, nine out of 34 governor posts remain vacant, and the Afghan parliament has yet to confirm a defence minister.

The United States’ remaining 14,000 troops in the country fall under the command of the Resolute Support Mission.

“Resolute Support commanders have had no one to advise,” said one international security official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he’s not authorised to talk to the press.

The Ghani administration is quick to highlight the Afghan National Security Forces’ successes against various armed groups. There is also an estimated 12 percent increase in military enlistment in the south, said Ahmad.


Yet, attrition and desertion rates are alarming. Afghan officials estimate in the first six months of 2015, more than 4,000 Afghan security forces were killed and about 6,000 wounded.

In August, General John Campbell, the US commander in Afghanistan, said at least 4,000 Afghan forces were deserting their posts every month.

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Revitalising the economy – preventing aid from leaving the country and injecting investment – an issue at the forefront of Ghani’s election campaign, remains a major challenge.

“Domestic and foreign investments have halted, and the flight of capital is becoming a critical issue,” wrote Afghan analyst Helena Malikyar. “Projects attached to international aid – one of the largest sources of employment in the past decade – have for the most part shut down or placed in hibernation.”

Corruption and insecurity are still roadblocks preventing foreign investment, however, the Ghani government has tried to tackle debilitating graft.

After an investigation found corruption in a government fuel contract, the president immediately suspended officials, cancelled the contract, and set up an investigation.

Hundreds of millions have also been recovered by reopening the Kabul Bank corruption case.

Yet services directly affecting ordinary Afghans are perhaps even worse compared to life under the Karzai administration, according to Shakiba Muhammadi, a public health nutritionist and data analyst.

Significant achievements in areas such as school enrolment, primary healthcare, and development programmes are under threat.

According to the United Nations’ refugee agency, more than 40,000 Afghans have sought asylum in Europe from January to August this year. Economic stagnation and record unemployment rates are leading factors.

 Taliban fighters raid Kunduz in Afghanistan

Source: Al Jazeera