What Does Future Trade Look Like in Light of the Afghanistan-Pakistan Transit Trade Agreement?

Following several months of talks between trade representative from Pakistan and Afghanistan, the two countries appear poised to finalize a preferential trade agreement (PTA) by the end of January, just one month before the Afghanistan-Pakistan Transit Trade Agreement (APTTA) is set to expire. Previous discussions have struggled to resolve numerous trade-related concerns raised by both sides, leading to a sharp decline in bilateral trade between the two countries last year.

Trade remains one of the more complex aspects of the relationship between Islamabad and Kabul. Complaints of extortion by government officials, customs obstacles, and insecurity has culminated in frequent border closures, compelling both sides to seek costlier alternative transit routes and ink multilateral trade deals that exclude one another.

For Pakistan, the opportunity to cultivate strong trade linkages with Afghanistan has little to do with access to the Afghan market. Instead, Pakistan views Afghanistan as a gateway to the more lucrative markets found in China and Central Asia. Having borrowed billions to improve its own transport infrastructure, Pakistan’s economic success is contingent on directing the flow of goods to its maritime ports, particularly the port of Gwadar. As the flagship project of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), the port of Gwadar is particularly useful to landlocked Central Asian states like Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, each of whom have seen their South Asian trade aspirations hindered by over 40 years of instability in Afghanistan, which remains the critical bottleneck in linking South and Central Asian supply chains.

Though it has spearheaded a near 26-year old attempt to circumvent Afghanistan via the Quadrilateral Traffic in Transit Agreement (QTTA), Pakistan still remains Afghanistan’s primary trading partner, accounting for over 40% of all Afghan exports. Furthermore, Pakistan’s motives in maintaining a stable relationship with the Afghan government stems from its stake in the outcome of ongoing intra-Afghan dialogue. Given the strong possibility of the Taliban converting into a recognized political party in a potential peace deal, Pakistan’s post-conflict relationship with Afghanistan will depend on its ability to operate within the Afghan state, giving it an opportunity to supplement its support base from the Taliban by appealing to a wider coalition of parties and officials.

In spite of their differences, both sides continue to affirm the need and desire to strengthen bilateral trade ties, particularly as it relates to formalizing border markets across the porous and insecure Durand Line. Border skirmishes remain a critical point of contention, as seen with instances like the July 2020 clash that resulted in the deaths of 15 Afghan civilians as well as Pakistan’s unilateral decision to build a 2,600-kilometer border fence that is scheduled to be completed in less than two months. For decades, trade talks have zeroed in on border issues, including the desire to formalize the booming black markets that have proven profitable for traders and militants that traverse the Durand Line to traffic stolen goods, arms, drugs, and humans.

To Pakistan’s chagrin, the Afghan government has been unwavering in its demand to incorporate the trade of Indian goods in the terms of its deal with Pakistan. Lobbying pressure from Afghanistan’s private sector and industry groups have demanded that their government work out an arrangement that would allow Afghan traders to use overland routes through Pakistan to access India via Wagah border, which splits the Indian and Pakistani halves of Punjab province.

Among the main gripes cited by the Afghan business community include inadequate market access and expensive transit costs in its trade with India, which is Afghanistan’s second largest trading partner. The existing trade routes available to Afghanistan and India include an expensive air corridor and the circuitous use of Iran’s Chabahar Port. Barring an abnormal modification in its foreign policy, Pakistan is unlikely to grant accession to such a provision, making it likely that the status quo will persist unless Afghanistan can make several favorable concessions to Pakistan.

The nature of the Pak-Afghan trade relationship underscores the formidable obstacles to both intra-regional trade within South Asia and extra-regional linkages between Southern and Central Asian supply chains. In spite of its natural geographic advantages and the potential for mutually beneficial trading arrangements, the essential prerequisite lies with the trajectory of intra-Afghan talks, where Pakistan remains the most important foreign stakeholder. In the absence of a political compromise, the litany of trade woes afflicting both sides are unlikely to fade, exacerbating infrastructure gaps and the ability to attract and sustain investment to the region, putting it at a further disadvantage to other emerging markets.

The Kafala Controversy: Migrant Labor Reform in the Gulf

Among the seismic economic changes to emerge in the twentieth century, few were as drastic and consequential as the growth enjoyed by the member-states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Prior to the discovery of its expansive oil wealth between the 1930s-1950s, the GCC states (Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates) largely depended on subsistence agriculture, reflecting the nomadic lifestyle that defined the region’s economic and social fabric.

The subsequent increase in foreign investment and the accrual of resource wealth in the decades to follow bolstered much of the bloc’s economic activity, paving the way for other non-oil sectors, like construction and services, to flourish. However, given the constraints from the local labor force and the workforce demands of such sectors, the GCC states were ultimately compelled to import their manpower, relying instead on exported labor from the stagnant economies of South and Southeast Asia.

Such conditions explain the origins of the widespread, yet controversial kafala labor system that continues to power most of the GCC economies. Under this system, ambitious workers ranging from the Indian subcontinent to the Philippines, are brought to the GCC states by private sponsors to fulfill labor demands for areas like domestic help and construction activity, incorporating everything from infrastructure projects and housing, to glitzy skyscrapers and sporting stadiums, including facilities that will be used in the 2022 FIFA World Cup, hosted by Qatar.

Though the practice of importing labor surpluses from other countries is commonplace, the tenets of the kafala system underscore grave concerns for the well-being of GCC migrant workers. Much of these concerns stem from the substantial level of privatization involved in the kafala system, shifting the onus for accountability of migrants and their living/working conditions on the private entities. Though the exact level of privatization varies between the GCC states, the common method cedes considerable control over migrant workers by their respective sponsors, which can include businesses and/or private citizens. In the absence of vigilant state-led monitoring and regulatory efforts, sponsors maintain an unhealthy amount of leverage over their workers, creating opportunities for exploitation with little to no legal recourse for migrants.

Allegations of abuse run the gamut, from seized passports and exit restrictions, to squalid accommodations and dangerous working conditions. While such experiences are well-documented and have been reported upon extensively by countless NGOs and media outlets, the allure of high-wage employment continues to attract a substantial number of migrants to the Gulf region, many of whom send remittances that benefit the economy of their respective home country.

The concerns raised by international labor and human rights organizations, coupled with diplomatic pressure, has led to modest improvements in the last decade, with some GCC states contemplating and implementing more significant reforms this year. Yet, the impetus behind these reforms is not limited to the desire to avoid scrutiny. Rather, the planned reforms coincide with a cascading set of circumstances that’ll challenge the Gulf’s economic model in the years to come.

Amid low oil prices, widening fiscal deficits, and staggering youth unemployment figures, the GCC member-states face crucial questions about their development trajectories. Though oil remains integral to the world economy, demands from policymakers and investors alike has increased the call for cleaner forms of energy, with options like solar and wind experiencing a surge in capital flows as the cost of generating from renewable sources decreases. The stark reality of oil dependence can be found in the government budgets of the GCC member-states, each of whom plan and fulfill their public expenditures on the basis of assumed oil and gas prices. Given the whims of such benchmarks in recent years, several GCC member-states have been forced to choose between politically sensitive budget revisions or increases to mounting fiscal deficits.

One critical component of these deficits includes the tendency of GCC states to rely on the public sector to create jobs for their citizens, leading to chronic overstaffing. In Saudi Arabia for example, public sector pay counterintuitively dwarfs the compensation levels offered by the private sector, with the difference in pay reaching as high as 59%.

Thus far, efforts to shift job creation to the private sector have had mixed results, with employers citing payroll expenses and skill deficits as major barriers to employing citizens in private sector positions. Though the current overlap between the work performed by migrants and citizens remains relatively small, the future economic strategies of most GCC countries remains contingent on non-oil diversification, with areas like tourism, media, financial services, and trade-related infrastructure featuring prominently in most GCC “visions” and developmental plans.

Realizing such visions will require a herculean effort to diversify away from sectors that heavily rely on cheap migrant labor for profitability. Attracting non-oil foreign direct investment (FDI), remedying training and skills gaps, and even attitudinal shifts toward certain types of work, like retail, will be required to maximize opportunities available for citizens.

The pressing need to reform the kafala system is not a purely economic decision. Decades of reliance on foreign labor has resulted in demographic concerns as well, with non-nationals outnumbering the domestic populace in every GCC state, with the exception of Oman and Saudi Arabia. These figures range from the low-end of 38% in Saudi Arabia to 88% in Qatar, elevating fears of political disruptions, a threat that the GCC states originally faced in the early days of the kafala system, where migrants were first brought in from neighboring countries that experienced political upheavals and instability in the age of Pan-Arabism.

At present, gradual reforms to the current kafala system have either been announced or implemented recently in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Oman. Though some GCC states, like Bahrain, claim to have abolished the sponsorship practice, reality suggests more is needed for adequate protections. Establishing a minimum wage, enforcing contracts with fair provisions for laborers, and allowing migrants to change employers or leave the country without present bureaucratic obstacles have all been floated as potential solutions. By slow-walking its reforms, the GCC states risk perpetuating the status-quo, a scenario that not only hurts migrants, but poses long-term ramifications for the region’s post-oil future.

Gender Analysis and Representation of Women as a Counterterrorism Approach

At a time where women can be victims, violent actors, and agents of positive change, the consideration of gender analysis in peace building is increasingly important. A gender analysis involves the representation of women in the security sector. It also means acknowledging the different experiences of men and women in extremism, as a direct result of the gender stereotypes exploited by violent extremists.

Women are vulnerable to becoming victims of terror from both inside the organisation and outside the extremist group. Foreign terrorist fighters (FTFs) recruited for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) are constituted of a significant number of women. Violent extremist organisation groups manipulate gender stereotypes for their recruitment purposes, highlighted in a report published by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe in 2019.

A defining feature of the group Boko Haram is the group’s kidnapping of women, seeking women as wives for extremists within the group, and using them as suicide bombers. In an attack in the northeastern Borno state of Nigeria, 10 women were among those missing in the massacre.

Gender roles established and adhered to at ground level, perpetuate gender-based violence and oppression, meaning that women’s rights are abused by extremist ideologies. Traditional familial structures incorporating gender roles have a myriad of influences on extremism. Evidence surrounding the roles which women are ascribed in the familial structure suggests women have influence, only through the role ascribed to them as ‘teacher’, within their families to dissuade their family members from violent extremism, through dialogue and education.

To counter these means of violent extremism, there must be gender analysis and representation of women at the policy level, in order to debunk these stereotypes. It is important this happens at ground level, within communities and law enforcement, as well as in police and law-making, to strengthen tolerance and prevent violent extremism.

Gender stereotypes which lead to the polarisation of gender in the household, further perpetuates violence and oppression in the culture of the state. There is therefore greater chance of gender-based violence being experienced by women and girls in the national violence and militarisation of that state. Masculinity, rooted in patriarchy, situates itself well in extremism. Violent extremists are labelled as heroes, presented as the honorary thing to do for men. These roots start from the ground up, in what has been called ‘pathological narcissism’, linked by psychologists to violent extremism and terrorism.

In order to combat terrorism, policy and lawmakers in the security sector, and education and community at ground level, must take into consideration a gender analysis. This may be unsupported at present, but the importance of the role of women is becoming increasingly supported. Therefore approaches to countering violent extremism must be gender sensitive. Approaches must prioritise the underlying causes of violence which lead to women becoming victims of extremism.

It has been found that women are in a position to recognise signs of extremism and violence, due to the roles ascribed to them in the home, due to their gender. Women are also more inclined to recognise violent extremism, as they are often direct victims of those ideologies themselves. The restriction of women’s rights has a direct correlation to the rise of extremist groups, leading the United Nations to recommend increased women’s participation in policies and measures in countering violent extremism. Including women in peace negotiations addresses the root of the violence. Violence in homes and negative attitudes towards women, is the precursor for social violence and tolerance of gender-based violence.

Extremism is not a natural ideology. It is bred from hatred, intolerance, and bias at ground level. It comes from a culture of internalised and accepted gender norms, in which women are given an oppressed familial role. In turn, society is divided, which becomes a means of production for the patriarchy, which then leads to one part of society being oppressed by another. The social subordination of women by men is perpetuated from the ground up, from the family home, to the community, to the militarisation of the state. It then feeds into the legal arena in the form of violent extremism.

But women are not simply a consequence of gender norms, to be subsequently used to the state’s benefit in countering terror through recognising violent tendencies or to dissuade their family members from extremism. Gender Perspective Training in the Turkish Armed Forces (TAF), supported by the European Union, focuses on legal empowerment and women’s rights and gender equality. TAF also incorporate a Gender Advisor, who addresses a gender analysis in peacekeeping missions. These policies surmount to achieving the TAF’s goals of having female personnel in all task fields, as well as in senior positions.

Women are underrepresented in the security sector at the highest level. Women need to be elevated to roles in policy making and in the legal sector. There needs to be further data research and collection about women in extremism, carried out by women, to further understand their roles and to create policies to build peace, incorporating women in the process. Women, as those directly affected, need to be involved in the gender in extremism discourse. Addressing cultural bias from the ground up, leading to a change in policy through gender analysis, is imperative to countering terrorism and achieving peace in the global arena.

–Caitlin Hopwood

Afghanistan: Peace Talks and an Increase in Violence

Since peace talks in Doha commenced in September, violence has escalated in Afghanistan, however, recent developments could present a way to turn this around. It is appropriate to examine what has changed and how it could have positive effects.


Shortly after the intra-Afghan talks commenced, they were stalled due to both technical and fundamental differences. Afghan representatives and the Taliban could not agree on how they should be referred in the agreement (as they do not recognize each other) and they did not hold similar views on the political future for Afghanistan.

Since then, the parties have now agreed on how to conduct the talks and the negotiators are now likely able to move forward on issues such as a political roadmap and a ceasefire. The three page agreement is an important step, and will be a stepping stone, for the future discussion of peace in Afghanistan and was immediately welcomed by the United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Escalating Violence

As noted, violence escalated in Afghanistan once the talks got underway in Qatar. According to a report from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), there has been an increase of violence since the peace deal between the Taliban and the U.S. was signed. The attacks have increased by more than 50% compared to the quarter before the talks began.

During this quarter, the report stated there have been 2,561 civilian casualties, including 876 deaths. This is an increase of 43% compared with April to June. On November 2, an attack on Kabul University killed at least 22 people of which many were students.

The violence is affecting the talks in Doha, as mentioned in the SIGAR report: “NATO Resolute Support (RS) and USFOR-A commander, General Austin Scott Miller said the high level of Taliban violence around the country ‘is not consistent with the U.S.-Taliban agreement and undermines the ongoing Afghan peace talks’”.


Violence negatively affects the legitimacy of the current peace process both from the perspective of the negotiating parties and the civilians. Trust between the relevant parties and civilians is an important factor for the peace talks to continue. Without trust, further delays may be expected. Consequently, in combination with an U.S withdrawal and more violence, the result may be an even more violent Afghanistan.

Another factor that can affect violence in the country is the withdrawal of American troops. If most of the American troops leave Afghanistan this might create a power vacuum which in turn can be used by violent groups to harm civilians and the peace process. As stated, the violence undermines the ongoing peace talks and raises the lack of trust within the country.

For the peace talks to move forward it is necessary that violence deceases. When one of the actors at the negotiating table keeps on fighting, it creates a more difficult situation for the negotiators.  Therefore, recent progress can hopefully bring more substantive issues to the table, such as a ceasefire, which can rapidly decrease the violence in the country.

How Can Afghanistan Reduce Its Aid Dependency?

While violence escalated across the country, the intra-Afghan peace talks were stalled for weeks because of difficulties agreeing on procedural issues. It has been argued that it was unlikely to see any significant progress anytime soon because neither side “has an incentive to compromise before the incoming Biden administration lays out its policy.”

A recent Rise to Peace article discusses the meaning of the United States presidential election on the Afghan peace talks and indeed, it could have a big impact depending on President-elect Joe Biden’s Afghanistan policy.

However, just a few days ago, the Afghan government and the Taliban announced that they had made a major breakthrough in the talks. They reached a preliminary deal — their first written agreement in 19 years of conflict — which allows for discussions on more substantive issues, including talk of a ceasefire.

The 2020 Afghanistan Conference

As the peace talks are taking place in Doha, Qatar, governments of Afghanistan and Finland, with the United Nations, co-hosted the 2020 Afghanistan Conference, which is a ministerial level pledging conference aiming to set out the development priorities and financial support for Afghanistan for the upcoming four years. It took place on November 23–24 in Geneva, Switzerland, and saw participation from more than 70 nations and organizations.

The issue of dependency on foreign aid is of great importance for the future of Afghanistan since the country has been dependent on foreign aid for a very long time. Regardless of the outcome of the ongoing peace talks “Afghanistan will remain highly dependent on foreign aid for the foreseeable future.” The US alone has, since 2001, appropriated an amount almost equivalent to what the US spent on rebuilding Western Europe in the aftermath of World War II. Moreover, the country depends on donors to fund at least half its annual budget, something which is unlikely to change anytime soon.

The 2020 Afghanistan Conference demonstrated the international community’s commitment to Afghanistan and donors pledged at least US$ 3.3 billion for the first year of the upcoming quadrennial with annual commitments expected to stay at the same level year-on-year. It remains clear that foreign aid is important for the future development of Afghanistan with regards to politics, peace, and security in the country. In addition, it can be a way for donors to place pressure on the parties to reach an agreement in the current peace talks.

However, there is a risk that donors are expecting the Afghan government to do more than it is able to which might jeopardize future aid. In addition, the Taliban were not invited to participate in the Afghanistan Conference, which could turn out problematic since they are a major stakeholder in the peace talks as well as in Afghanistan’s future. In turn, it might create problems should other actors appear committed to a particular Afghan administration. For the same reason, the current Afghan government might be under the impression that it does not have to compromise with the Taliban on certain points.

Addressing Corruption to Decrease Aid Dependency

A recent report shows that approximately 30% of money spent by the US on the reconstruction of Afghanistan since 2002 was “lost to waste, fraud, and abuse.” With regards to corruption, in 2019, the country ranked 173/198 on the Corruption Perceptions Index and this has a negative effect as Afghanistan tries to move towards a more peaceful and just society. It is therefore vital to address issues like corruption which essentially undermine reconstruction and development efforts. Addressing it will, over time, help reduce Afghanistan’s need for foreign aid.

Consequently, the parties involved in the peace talks must do more than agreeing to stop the violence. The talks can potentially be seen as an opportunity for a new start to “lay out a new vision for the country that can assure donors as well as the international community at large that things are going to be different in the post-settlement era.”

As demonstrated, commitment from donor countries is important, but what is of significant importance is that Afghanistan increases its own contribution to national development to convert the rhetoric of self-reliance into reality which will enable the country to, eventually, stand on its own two feet.

Europe counterterrorism

Investment in Prisons as a Counterterrorism Approach

At a time when Europe is undergoing a new wave of terrorist attacks, the challenges posed by prisons and the monitoring of ISIL prisoners should be a focus in the fight against terrorism.

Prisons are places where inmates may be vulnerable, in contact with extremist ideas, and subject to recruitment. There the creation of networks between skilled criminals and radicalized detainees is facilitated. But prisons also face new challenges as the number and the diversity of profiles of radicalized detainees are increasing. And although they serve very different sentences, they are mainly of short duration, which poses a threat to Europe as many of them will soon be released. To reduce this threat, governments should invest in the prison system, even if it is not popular.

All these challenges regarding radicalized detainees were highlighted in a report published in July 2020 by the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR). At the time of its release and amongst the ten European countries they surveyed, 54% of detainees who showed signs of radicalization were convicted for “regular” crimes. And 82% of all extremist inmates categorized by ideology were jihadists. According to Europol, it is indeed the terrorist affiliation that counted the most arrests in Europe between 2015 and 2019.

stchart - Investment in Prisons as a Counterterrorism Approach

Source: Basra, Rajan, and Peter R. Neumann. “Prisons and Terrorism: Extremist Offender Management in 10 European Countries”, International Centre for the Study of Radicalization (ICSR), July 22, 2020, pp. 7-8.

The ICSR report indicates as well that the repatriation of European ISIL fighters – due to the loss of the territory of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq – is an element that could impact radicalization in prison. The danger with their incarceration is that they may influence others and create more radicalization within the prisons, which could aggravate this problem even further.

Radicalization in prison is true all the more worrisome since some of the terrorists who have carried out attacks in Europe have been radicalized or have had contact with affiliations in prison. A case that illustrates this is the shooting at Charlie Hebdo and the siege of the Hyper Cacher in Paris, which took place in January 2015. Two of the assailants, Chérif Kouachi and Amedy Coulibali, met at the Fleury-Merogis prison, the largest prison in Europe. There, they met Djamel Beghal, who trained in Al-Qaeda camps and who became their mentor.

This case, which is back in the news with its trial, shows that the prison system has failed to prevent radicalization. Currently, most of the countries have adopted a mixed approach in their prison regimes to prevent extremism, which means that the most dangerous inmates are separated while the others are dispersed among the prison population. But even separated, dangerous detainees are not totally prevented from interacting with others or taking action.

Another challenge is the imminent release of hundreds of radicalized prisoners due to the fact that most of them have received short sentences. According to Europol, the average length of prison sentences for terrorist offenses in Europe was six years in 2019. Because some prisoners strengthened their beliefs and commitment to their extremist ideas in prison, they emerged much more dangerous than before. The challenge then is to reintegrate them into society in the best possible way.

With the exception of a minority, the terrorist attacks linked to prison since 2015 in the countries surveyed in the ICSR report have generally occurred between four months and two years after the release of the offenders. To take a current example, Kujtim Fejzulai, the perpetrator of the attack in Vienna on November 2, 2020, was released from prison 11 months earlier, in December 2019.

The rate of recidivism is low, but a characteristic of terrorism is that the impact of attacks is disproportionate to the resources and people involved. This rate is also not representative of reality and could be undervalued because some die in their attack or go abroad and do not return to prison.

In order to reduce radicalization in prisons, governments should take what may be unpopular but necessary decisions by investing in prisons. According to Rajan and Neumann, the ICSR report’s authors, they must ensure that prisons are neither overcrowded nor understaffed to ensure their security and control. Prison staff should also be trained to develop expertise that would help them notably to differentiate radicalized behavior and prisoners who just practice their faith.

Moreover, governments should encourage the sharing of information between the different services involved in the prison system and the fight against terrorism. Failure to communicate is recurrent and can lead to the release of radicalized prisoners who commit attacks. Also, extremism assessment tools should be frequently evaluated with a prison staff trained in their use and provided with the resources to implement them. And defining what “success” means is important to evaluate the results.

Prison regimes should be evaluated as well and readjusted to the behaviors and characteristics of specific offender groups. In addition, probation should be linked to prison and be seen as a stage of the same process and governments should adapt proactively their procedures and processes to changes in reality.

Last but not least, treating radicalized prisoners with respect and fairness should be the norm. Extremist ideologies rely on tales of humiliation and representations of their enemies. This game should not be played rather there should be a focus on fundamental values such as human rights and the rule of law.

Radicalization in prisons is not a new phenomena but it is currently reaching high levels. The prison population is changing and includes more radicalized inmates with more diverse profiles who serve different but often short sentences. While the repatriation of European ISIL fighters could aggravate radicalization in prison, the imminent release of radicalized prisoners worries European countries and that is why prisons should be at the center of the authorities’ concerns in their fight against terrorism. Investing in prisons may be unpopular but it is necessary.

Rise of ISIS in Afghanistan

Special Report: The Rise of the Islamic State in Afghanistan

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is one of the deadliest and most potent terror groups the world has ever known and has made its way to Afghanistan. It emerged due to interstate fragility, foreign policy failure, and perennial instability in the Middle East. The 2003 United States’ intervention in Iraq and the Arab Spring contributed to the creation of ISIS. The United States’ removal of late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein — hardly the region’s first socio-political convulsion — facilitated figurative tectonic shifts in political and religious realities. Sunni Muslims, who long ruled Iraq, suddenly found themselves overtaken and systematically oppressed by Shiites. ISIS capitalized on the subsequent Sunni grievance. Given the recent developments which have included President Trump dropping the “mother of all bombs” which targeted a network of tunnels used by ISIS in 2017,  the loss of territory in Syria and the continued battles with the Taliban, has led ISIS to look for new opportunities. This search has led ISIS to move toward Afghanistan as they are geographically strategic and currently the government is very fragile.

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Afghan Aid Dependency: Two Alternatives for Foreign Donors

With just over 77% of its government budget dependent on foreign aid, Afghanistan’s prospects of establishing a self-reliant state in the near future appears bleak. In spite of the billions spent by individual countries and multilateral institutions, the question of how to sustainably use donor funds to embed resilience in Afghanistan has confounded policymakers for decades, culminating in several reports highlighting the country’s “phantom aid” problem.

After receiving much criticism for its sudden departure from Afghanistan in the aftermath of the Cold War, the United States has since spent anywhere from $800 billion USD to upwards of $1 trillion USD in what remains America’s longest war. Of these expenditures, just 14% is constituted as foreign aid, with 75% of this aid earmarked as military/security assistance, as opposed to economic aid.

Yet, a cursory review of Afghanistan’s developmental woes suggests many of its ailments remain tied to economic obstacles like chronic unemployment, corruption, poor provisioning of government services, and an overreliance on the agricultural sector. Incessant frustrations from the donor community have led to fatigue, which has been exacerbated by political infighting within the Afghan government, as well as an unclear strategy or criterion for when international forces may exit the country.

This perception of little to no return on investment (ROI) for Western taxpayers has made foreign aid a recurring target among populist candidates and parties demanding retrenchment from “forever wars”. In the case of the US, foreign aid to Afghanistan reached its peak in 2012 at $13 billion USD, a sum that was followed by steep cuts that now amount to just under $5 billion USD sent in 2019.

Regardless of the outcome of intra-Afghan dialogue, the continuation of gradual cuts toward aid (which began during the second of the Obama administration) seemingly conflicts with the public-facing objective of the development community, which ostensibly seeks to address underlying socioeconomic factors that feed into conflict.  USAID figures demonstrate that donors remain fixated on funding kinetic solutions to resolve insecurity in Afghanistan, as well as neighboring Pakistan, which has seen its US foreign aid inflows dwindle in a similar fashion.

A peace deal cinched with the Taliban won’t necessarily result in increased revenues or even decreased expenditures from the government. Instead, Afghanistan’s fragility suggests injections of aid will be most critical in the months and years after an agreement is reached and statecraft can begin in earnest. As the appetite toward military-aid dissipates, donors should turn to alternative financing options when allocating funds, including “Aid for Trade” and Conditional Cash Transfers.

Aid for Trade

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) defines Aid for Trade as an effort “to align donor and partner countries’ strategies in promoting trade as a leverage for poverty reduction.” In short, aid for trade seeks to reduce the cost of facilitating goods and services and promote the recipient nation’s export sector by addressing infrastructure deficits and providing technical assistance to the private sector. Such a strategy has proven successful in funding efforts like port upgrades to improve maritime trade, expanding access to affordable Internet services, and digitization training for Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (SMEs).

In the context of Afghanistan, Aid for Trade can harness what has traditionally been the country’s greatest economic advantage: its geography. Notwithstanding its status as a landlocked state, Afghanistan sits at the nexus of some of the fastest-growing regions in the world, which provides opportunity to reap advantages in overland trade. Yet harnessing this advantage requires building the necessary physical and digital infrastructure that can support the reliable and safe transportation of goods withing Afghan borders.

At present, the standard mechanism for aid delivery has been conditioned on a number of restrictive measures that stipulate what can be purchased with the aid, and from whom it can be purchased from. Ostensibly, the logic behind the conditional aid was designed to create strict parameters that compelled accountability from the aid recipient. Yet, as exhibited by the “Waste, Fraud, and Abuse” reports published by the US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), such conditions have not repelled opportunities for graft, which is often carried out through opaque procurement regimes that allow funds to disappear among the lengthy supply chain of contractors and sub-contractors.

Furthermore, conditional aid can often stipulate requirements that damage the recipient’s economy. This is particularly true in the case of food aid, where donor governments will use aid to pay their own farmers to export the products, which undercuts the prices that the agricultural sector in the recipient country can charge. Considering the fact that Afghanistan’s agricultural sector employs roughly 40% of the workforce and is responsible for contributing nearly one-quarter of the country’s GDP, reorienting aid to focus on productive investments (e.g. irrigation, equipment/materials, transportation) that lower the cost of trade is more likely to boost incomes instead of distorting local markets.

Conditional Cash Transfers

Though still conditions-based, conditional cash transfers (CCTs) differ from the status quo in that they tend to be far smaller in scope and scale. The “conditional” in this context refers to the requirement that the recipient fulfill a certain objective before the funds are released, which stands in stark contrast to other programs that deliver larger sums in shorter timeframes. The advantage of Conditional Cash Transfers is latent in the psychology of incentives, where signs of waste, fraud, and abuse can result in the immediate termination of future disbursements, giving donors more flexibility over their purse strings, while also encouraging long-term adherence to specified goals.

CCTs have proven successful in a number of policy realms, including decreasing homicides in Brazil, improving healthcare delivery to vulnerable children in Ghana, and incentivizing farmers across South America to cease the cultivation of illicit crops in favor of legal alternatives. For Afghanistan, CCTs can be especially useful in combating illicit poppy farming which fuels 90% of the world’s opium and heroin production. Though forceful eradication programs have been implemented, they have failed to make a dent in production, leading to an entrenchment and reliance on the opium trade to sustain rural household incomes.

The economic, political, and security ramifications of targeting poppy farmers has made the Afghan government reluctant to tackle cultivation of illicit crops. Yet, CCT programs provide a useful medium in establishing and sustaining evidence-based programs that have demonstrated efficacy in illicit crop eradication such as crop substitution programs supported by subsidies that are paid directly to farmers and that minimize institutional involvement.

The politicization of foreign aid is a consequence of misaligned objectives between donors and recipients, in addition to flawed and ineffectual distribution. Achieving such objectives requires recalibrating the criteria that donors use to both allocate aid and subsequently measure its efficacy. Though security remains pivotal, a lasting reconstruction agenda will depend far more on targeting aid toward economic initiatives that enable Afghans to gradually reduce their dependency on foreign aid, replacing it with sustainable revenues generated by the country itself.

Remembering Rajani Thiranagama and Examining the Roles of Women in Post-Conflict Sri Lanka

”One day some gun will silence me and it will not be held by an outsider but by the son born in the womb of this very society, from a woman with whom my history is shared.”

The quote above is from Rajani Thiranagama just few months before her assassination in 1989. She was assassinated by the people she sought to represent. While this event occurred 31 years ago, it begs the question where do women in Sri Lanka stand now, especially after the Sri Lankan Civil War?

Rajani was an individual who loved peace, order, equality and strove for a harmonious society. What made her memorable was her courage to realize this philosophy into reality. When the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) betrayed her hope for peace for the people of Jaffna, she officially cut ties with the organization. She was forced to flee to the United Kingdom with her children shortly afterwards.

In the 2005 documentary “No More Tears Sister” it was mentioned how Rajani felt like evading the conflict and moving far away. However, for the people of Jafffna, she overpowered her fear and returned to Sri Lanka.

When atrocities committed by the Sinhalese government, the LTTE militants and the Indian peacekeeping forces peaked, Rajani along with fellow university colleagues formed an organization that criticized the actions of the atrocious groups and strove to achieve basic rights for the people of Jaffna. She also documented each and every local woman whose male family members were either killed or missing, and highlighted their plight. She compiled her report and named it “No More Tears Sister.”

Looking into the situation post-war, according to an article by United Nations Women, there is underrepresentation of women in political and public decision making in Sri Lanka. Even though it claims that women are 56% of voters, there is only 5% representation through legislators. The source of such plight is considered to be lack of educational opportunities and lack of encouragement of women in decision-making.

During the civil war, political movements and organizations that strove for peace were initialed by women, such as Mother’s Front. However, after the war, hardly any such large-scale representation of female participation is evident. In consequence of poor representation, laws in the country discriminate against women. To give some examples, marital rape remains legal, there are discriminatory legal restrictions on women in the workforce and limitations have been imposed in relation to inheritance and property.

In a common-sense point of view, women are linked with peace. Due to perceiving their roles as nurturers, women are considered to be effective mediators. Ironically this role seems to be limited to only resolving conflicts at the familial level or just remains unsung as “unofficial” contributors to their communities. There are few instances of the official recognition of women in the peace-building process as well as much less encouragement of their role in it.

During the period of the Sri Lankan Civil War, women suffered the most. They had to go through the trauma of losing their children, husbands, fathers and brothers throughout the conflict. In those times of helplessness, they had to gather courage and run their household. As they have experienced the state of vulnerability during the war, they know the value of peace.

This is why there is a need to empower, encourage and acknowledge women in their potential to take on roles in the peace-building process. The first step towards it can be through proper representation, especially in decision-making.  Peace can be only achieved through equal access to opportunities and proper representation.

–Nelofer Laskar

From Bonn to Doha: Why Is Afghanistan Still at War?

In December 2001, the city of Bonn, Germany hosted a conference on Afghanistan after the joint operation by the United States military and the Northern Alliance toppled the Taliban regime. The conference ushered in a new era for Afghanistan in which a democratic government was established that ensured elections, women and human rights, and civil and political liberties.

War was thought to be over and the reconstruction process funded by massive amounts of international aid that had poured into the country began. Nineteen years later, Doha is hosting another conference on peace for Afghanistan. Why does Afghanistan continue to find itself at war?

After the collapse of the Taliban regime, Afghanistan experienced a couple of peaceful years with no war and political turmoil. As the US redirected its military and political focus on the Iraq war, the Taliban based in their safe haven of Peshawar, Pakistan, used the opportunity to regroup and reemerge. The first question that comes to mind is how did they manage to grow as strong as they are now in the face of coalition forces and the fairly well-equipped Afghan national army?

The first response would be the fact that they have safe havens in neighboring Pakistan. Originally, they were supported by the Pakistani government and used as a proxy army to ensure Pakistan’s benefits in Afghanistan. After their collapse, and especially because Pakistan’s role was completely ignored at the Bonn conference, they still seemed to be of use for fulfilling Pakistan’s strategic goals.

This means that they had both safe havens and the support and encouragement from Pakistan which enabled them to retreat any time they were under attack, get medical services, re-equip and re-launch their attacks wherever possible. The question why the US and the world have not held Pakistan accountable and for supporting many other terrorist groups is yet to be answered.

The second response is ethnic supremacism. New research by Civil Society of Afghanistan indicates that ethnic supremacism is one of the main roots of war in the country. This is in line with the stances of the Afghan presidents since 2001. Hamid Karzai, the former president of Afghanistan, in an interview with BBC denies calling the Taliban a terrorist group. In another interview, he even says that the Taliban have every right to control some parts of the country since they are also Afghans.

Likewise in 2015, current president, Ashraf Ghani, objected that it was unjust that 98% of the prisoners in Bagram prison were speakers of the same language while he knew that those prisoners were convicted of terrorist actions. Both presidents have repeatedly called Taliban brothers instead of terrorists or enemies of Afghanistan.

The former first vice president, Younus Qanuni, in his recent interview said that President Karzai dealt with the Taliban, after their reemergence, under the influence of ethnic emotions. That was one of the reasons why the Afghan government never drafted a clear strategy for fighting terrorism and allowed the Taliban to grow into the deadly group they are today.

In general, one can assume that a decisive determination to fight the Taliban into their collapse did not happen for different reasons. Perhaps, military use was not an ideal solution.

Now that peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government are in progress in Doha, brutal attacks in Kabul saps optimism about achieving peace and security. Recently, terrorist gunmen attacked Kabul University and killed more than 22 students, injuring at least 22 others. Although ISIL claimed responsibility for the attack, the first VP of Afghanistan, Amrullah Saleh, declared that they had found evidence indicating that the attack was performed by the Taliban.

A couple of days before that, terrorists stormed a cultural center in Kabul and killed 41 people while injuring 84 others. Again, ISIL claimed responsibility for the attack. The main question that comes to mind, thus, is if ISIL or any other terrorist groups are capable of perpetrating such deadly attack in the capital city of Afghanistan, to what degree people can be hopeful that a peace deal with Taliban will actually bring peace to their country?

Rise to Peace