Afghanistan’s Year of Multiple Transitions

Roundup 2014

The focus of the international media in Afghanistan has predominantly been on the transition of military planning, operations and execution from the US-led International Security Assistance Force to the Afghan National Security Forces. This skewed focus portrays an incomplete picture. There are at least three simultaneous, interdependent transitions underway: security, political and economic, insists John K Wood, while analysing the unique characteristics, challenges and opportunities of these multiple transitions

The calendar has turned to January 2014, and while almost every year since 2002 has been declared by one official or another as “the critical year for Afghanistan,” this year, 2014, may indeed prove to be the most critical year yet. Despite the continuing impasse between President Hamid Karzai and the United States regarding the Bilateral Security Agreement and the repercussions for long-term US military presence in Afghanistan, the withdrawal of US and international forces continues apace, near-complete responsibility for the security sector is now in the hands of the Afghans, and the next Afghan presidential election is only a few months away. Yet a persistent insurgency remains, there is little indication that any agreement with the Taliban is imminent or likely, the Afghan economy is slowing, and significant challenges remain in terms of relations with Afghanistan’s neighbours. In the face of all these challenges, it is encouraging to see the degree of optimism that is so overwhelmingly evident in the Afghan people.

To the extent that the international media has reported on Afghanistan, the focus has predominantly been on the transition of military planning, operations, and execution from the US-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) to the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). This skewed focus portrays an incomplete and overly-simplistic picture. There are at least three simultaneous transitions underway: security, political and economic. These multiple transitions are interdependent, yet with unique characteristics, challenges and opportunities. Focussing only on the security transition runs the risk of neglecting the effects of the other two and further delaying the development of a stable Afghanistan.

Security Transition

Of the three simultaneous transitions, the security transition is arguably the least risky. The training, equipping, and development of the ANSF, particularly the Afghan National Army (ANA), have made great progress in the last decade and in particular since 2010.1 While it is true that it takes decades to develop a professional military, few can argue that the ANA has not demonstrated significant progress in the last two years. The ANA is now in the security lead throughout the entire country, albeit with continuing assistance from ISAF, and has demonstrated increased capacity.2 Most international observers were encouraged by the performance of the ANA over the 2013 “fighting season,” and there is clear evidence that the ANA has been able to maintain the gains secured against the Taliban. On numerous occasions, the ANA prevailed against Taliban attacks, and increasingly have been able, in conjunction with the Afghan National Police, the National Directorate for Security, and international forces, to thwart attacks prior to the Taliban or the Haqqani network initiating action.

The international forces are now turning attention to increasing the ministerial capacity of the Ministries of Defence and Interior. While tactical capacity has shown consistent improvement, it will be the operational and strategic capacity of the ministries that will sustain any long-term gains and provide the framework for realistic resourcing and sustainment of the force. Lack of progress in building Afghanistan’s professional ministerial capacity potentially jeopardises the tactical gains made to date. The Afghans recognise this challenge and are working closely with their international partners to fill the gaps.3 It will be decades perhaps before the Afghan economy generates sufficient revenue for the state to independently fund the ANSF.4 At the national level, all realise that the planning, programming, and execution of the security sector budget depends on multiple factors, not the least of which is convincing the international community that the bureaucracies of the Ministries of Defence and Interior are capable of managing, receiving, accounting for, and disbursing (in accordance with international standards and with a minimum of corruption) the sizeable budget that can only be provided by international donors.5

But tactically, there is continued progress. While there have been occasional high-profile attacks, such as the January 2014 attack on the Lebanese café in Kabul for which the Taliban claimed credit, in general, the ANSF have acquitted themselves well over the last year. Most importantly, the Afghan people are growing increasingly confident in the abilities of their ANSF.6

At the operational level, the Army and Police have worked closely with ISAF to plan and execute the transfer of responsibility from ISAF to the ANSF. Tactics, techniques, procedures, and doctrine for handover of regional responsibilities are all well-understood within the ISAF forces, and the Afghans have learned the lessons quickly. NATO-standard procedures have facilitated the transfer, and are the main factors making the security transition the most predictable and, therefore, the least risky of the three transitions.

The Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) between the United States and Afghanistan remains a sticking point, primarily due to the incomprehensible resistance of President Karzai. Afghans overwhelmingly support the BSA, and are increasingly annoyed and confused by Karzai’s position. The BSA is generally seen as a security-specific agreement, but Karzai’s resistance is mainly political, and the ramifications of not having the agreement are as much about governance and economics as it is about security. While the Obama Administration continues to press for an immediate signature, there may be good reason to set the BSA aside and wait for the outcome of Afghanistan’s election, currently scheduled for April 5. None of the 11th presidential candidates have opposed the BSA, and most are outwardly and vocally supportive of immediate agreement. Being patient enough to wait for Karzai’s successor may pay long-term dividends for the United States as well as for the Afghans, as the next president would ‘own’ the agreement and would likely feel compelled to honour it throughout his term. The drawdown of international forces could continue apace in the meantime, as there is reportedly no plan to drastically drawdown the ISAF and US contingent until after the April election anyway.7

Many challenges remain in the security sector, including the challenges posed by the lack of a signed BSA, but they are challenges that depend to a very large extent on the second transition: the political transition.

Political Transition

If the security transition is the least risky of the three, the political transition is arguably the most risky. Almost every aspect of international engagement and internal stability depend upon a successful political transition over the next two years. First and foremost is the upcoming presidential election, scheduled for April 5, and for which there are now eleven candidates. The 2014 election includes ballots for the Provincial Councils, and in 2015, the Afghans are scheduled to conduct the next parliamentary election. All three of these elections are important to the political transition.

A successful political transition starts with a peaceful formal campaign season in February and March. As of this writing, the political debate has remained civil with no acts of political violence. Each of the eleven tickets demonstrates an attempt at political inclusivity, with each representing a degree of political and ethnic balance. Most of the candidates support a national unity government, and the electorate seems to be overwhelmingly in favour of an inclusive government and rejection of former warlordism. So far there is no indication that President Karzai will attempt any extraordinary measures in order to remain in office. The international community should keep an eye on President Karzai’s intentions, but make no provocations in public. The Afghan people themselves are capable of encouraging, even demanding, that President Karzai abide by the constitution and leave office on schedule.

There is concern, however, that President Karzai will use the power of the official bureaucracy to manipulate the election in favour of his preferred candidate. While there is no evidence yet that he is attempting to do so, the Afghan public, particularly the younger generation, remains wary. There is broad understanding that an illegitimate election, along the lines of the controversial 2009 election, will be rejected by the public and, equally, as importantly, rejected by the international donors. The consequences of such an outcome would be severe, with the expectation that most international funding would cease. Without considerable continued international funding, as well as the commitment to sustained support to the development of the ANSF, security and stability would suffer. At the most extreme, the ANSF would be left unpaid and unsupported, creating an enormous opportunity for the Taliban.

The good news is that the Afghan people overwhelmingly recognise the importance of the presidential election. They are encouraged by the degree to which the leading candidates recognise that a free, fair, and transparent election is essential to the future stability of Afghanistan and the continued support of the international community. There is no expectation that the election will be perfect, and there will undoubtedly be some level of corruption and irregularities. But there is a persistent and growing hope among the Afghan people that the political transition will lay the groundwork for improved security and a growing economy. For these reasons, the political transition holds the highest risk for Afghanistan – but also the potential for great reward.

Economic Transition

The third concurrent transition is the least predictable of the three – the economic transition. Already well underway, the economic transition is marked by the uncertainty of the two aforementioned transitions: security and political. Foreign direct investment in Afghanistan, already at a very low level, continues to decline. International donations still account for nearly 90 percent of Afghanistan’s development budget. Unemployment remains staggeringly high. Capital continues to leave the country in massive amounts, heading to Dubai and elsewhere. Almost every economic sector is awaiting the resolution of the US-Afghanistan Bilateral Security Agreement impasse and the outcome of the upcoming election.

There are some hopeful signs. The international community continues to support development projects.8 The Istanbul Process, with its focus on the “Heart of Asia”, shows that the region desires a stable Afghanistan and increased trade opportunities.9 While the New Silk Road is mostly wishful thinking, there remains interest in developing (some would say exploiting) Afghanistan’s mineral wealth and important location as a transit hub linking Central and South Asia. The degree to which the Istanbul Process can encourage non-interference by regional actors is perhaps as important for Afghanistan, if not more so. While some might argue for Afghanistan adopting a neutral or non-aligned status, the reality is that Afghanistan is already dependent on the West, receiving almost all of its financial support from the international community and is a major non-NATO ally of the United States. Afghans would argue that it is far more important for the regional states to declare their neutrality – that is, the neighbours’ and Great Powers’ willingness to not interfere in internal issues – and to not use Afghanistan as a venue for proxy wars.

A successful election in April, seen as legitimate in the eyes of both the Afghans and the international community, coupled with an eventual BSA with the United States are the linchpins to an improved Afghan economy and greater stability both inside the country and in the region.


Political reconciliation with the Taliban and cessation of hostilities remains elusive. None of the external actors, including the United States, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, can compel the Taliban to negotiate with the existing Afghan government. President Karzai has little authority, and whatever influence he may think he has over the process is rapidly diminishing as the end of his term approaches. The continued access to safe havens in Pakistan, a stagnant economy with persistent unemployment, and an improving but not yet overwhelming ANSF results in little of no incentive for the Taliban to negotiate. The occasional spectacular attacks, such as the January attack on the restaurant in Kabul, will continue to create the illusion that the Taliban is winning (even if the attacks are strategically insignificant) and convince the Taliban leadership that they have no reason to make any concessions. Only success in all three transitions over the next decade will create conditions favourable for a durable reconciliation.

Despite challenges there is reason to remain guardedly hopeful for the future of Afghanistan. Successful elections, conclusion of the BSA, and sustained progress of the ANSF mark the path to an increasingly stable and a bright future for Afghans and the region.

Go to Content Page


John K Wood

John K Wood is an Associate Professor on the faculty of the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies. He served as the Senior Director for Afghanistan, The National Security Council, Washington from 2007 to 2009, under both the Bush and Obama Administrations. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not represent the official policy or position of the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies, the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the US government.

  • +


    1) NATO Media Backgrounder: Afghan National Security Forces, October 2013. Accessed at

    2) Phelps, Michael and Nathan Hodge. “Afghan Forces Score Gains as U.S. Starts to Pull Back.” Wall Street Journal, January 12, 2014. Accessed at

    3) UNDP Press Release: Afghan Civil Servants to be Trained in Inclusive Personnel Development and Admin Reform, February 2013.

    4) NATO: Chicago Summit Declaration on Afghanistan, 21 May 2012. Accessed at Note that the text links a funding level of $4.1B to a combined ANSF endstrength of 228,500 – not the current level of 352,000.

    5) Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan. The Tokyo Declaration: Partnership for Self-Reliance in Afghanistan. July 8, 2012. Accessed at

    6) The Asia Foundation. “Afghanistan in 2013: A Survey of the Afghan People.” December 2013. Accessed at

    7) Hadley, Stephen J. “In Afghanistan, An Alternate Approach to a Security Pact.” The Washington Post. January 14, 2014. Accessed at

    8) U.S. Agency for International Development. Afghanistan Factsheet: Economic Growth. Accessed at

    9) Republic of Turkey Ministry of Foreign Affairs.“Istanbul Process on Regional Security and Cooperation for a Secure and Stable Afghanistan.” November 2, 2011. Accessed at

Back to Top

Diplomatist Magazine was launched in October of 1996 as the signature magazine of L.B. Associates (Pvt) Ltd, a contract publishing house based in Noida, a satellite town of New Delhi, India, the National Capital.