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Trump’s bromance with Putin will split the West in Two

CNN, December 19, 2016

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When the Financial Times and Time magazine both named President-elect Trump as their person of the year, the publications did so as less of a plaudit and more of a recognition that his election is a pivotal event for the West. Certainly, it represents a major challenge to the shared foreign and security policies of the broad community of nations known as the Western alliance. Only two years after Russia illegally occupied a sovereign nation’s territory in Crimea and then began a proxy war in eastern Ukraine, an American leader has come to power, promising to improve relations with Moscow. How will Trump’s “pivot to Russia” affect European security, and what impact will his increasingly hard line on China have on Washington’s Asian allies? Trump has revealed time and again on the campaign trail — and now, more disturbingly, over the hacking scandal — a willingness to give Moscow the benefit of the doubt.

However, despite his apparent soft spot for authoritarian leaders, Trump has not extended this friendliness to Chinese leader Xi Jinping. In the wake of the Taiwan phone call and the President-elect’s ambiguity over the “One China policy,” the Chinese have responded by flying a bomber over the South China Sea. They have also held life-fire drills on the PLA Navy’s new aircraft carrier and revealed that they are arming their illegal island bases in the South China Sea, one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes. Then, on Friday, China seized a US underwater drone in the South China Sea. The country used its state media to declare “the drone that emerged from the South China Sea is just the tip of the iceberg in US military strategy on China.” President-elect Trump has responded in the manner to which we have become accustomed, tweeting: “China steals US Navy research drone in international waters — rips it out of water and takes it to China in unpresidented (sic) act” and “We should tell China that we don’t want the drone they stole back.- let them keep it!”

Some commentators, like David Martin Jones in the Telegraph, have wondered if Trump is trying to execute a reverse Henry Kissinger by building ties with Moscow while freezing ties with China. While such a diplomatic move is technically feasible, is it probable? After all, Russian President Vladimir Putin is well positioned at the moment vis-a-vis Beijing. While China has clearly become the dominant partner, and its One Belt, One Road strategy unilaterally consolidates Beijing’s influence over central Asia at Russia’s expense, China has been careful to pay the Russians lip service and accord them the face that Moscow craves. Putin’s ties with China’s Xi Jinping are commonly described as a “bromance,” as the two have met 19 times in four years.

Trade between the countries mushroomed in the wake of Crimea-related Western sanctions against Russia, and the defense forces of the two nations are growing closer. Last September, Russian forces drilled alongside their Chinese counterparts, in apparent support of Beijing’s claims. As a consequence, any ideas Trump may have of splitting the two continental giants should be tempered by reality. We simply aren’t at the position in the Cold War where Beijing and Moscow were eyeball to eyeball and welcomed American balancing. So, if a Kissinger-style swap isn’t on the cards, what are the likely effects of Trump’s new foreign policy? Unfortunately, his policy is likely to exacerbate a tension already running through the Western alliance, in which the European allies — like the EU, NATO member states, and Sweden — balance against Russia while welcoming warm diplomatic and trade ties with China. This is the polar opposite in the Pacific, where Washington and its allies — concerned about Beijing’s intentions in the South China Sea — are attempting to balance against China while improving ties with Russia. While it may not look like much, this split is likely to divide the West in two, while doing little to worry China and Russia.

There are some very real dangers that might arise from this: Europeans might soften on the arms embargo to China, or dampen their criticism of Chinese moves in the Pacific even more than they have already done. Washington, for its part, might undo sanctions on Russia, effectively legitimizing the first territorial invasion of a state by another in post-War history. This would not bode well for the Baltic states.

So, what’s to be done? Well, first it’s a long way to January 20. Trump’s Cabinet is still being picked, and it is difficult to know how much his foreign policy tweets represent the actual future positions of his administration. Furthermore, his administration may yet be challenged– either by the hacking scandal or even by a rejection of Trump’s polices within the Washington policy establishment. US presidents are notoriously dependent on the other branches of government to implement their policies. Any number of things could collide, making Trump a sitting-duck president before he’s even hung his name up in the Oval Office. Regardless of all this uncertainty, neither Americans nor Europeans can afford to ignore the very real possibility outlined above that Trump’s attempt to split the two authoritarian states will actually split the West. Much diplomacy and intra-alliance dialogue will be necessary in the next four years. No less than the future of the liberal, rules-based global order is at stake.

The Special Relationship and Western Grand Strategy

The International Security Network, June 26, 2015

The anxiety over Britain’s ‘resignation’ as a global power speaks volumes about the incoherence of Western strategic thinking and the need for a unified approach to a complex security environment. Here are some recommendations for righting the ship.

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In the past year, there has been a growing debate in Washington about Britain’s loss of stature on the world stage. This increasingly public conversation has suggested that Britain’s will to be a global power may be eroding and that the future of one of the key alliances of the 20th century may therefore be uncertain. Yet this debate actually represents a wider problem: i.e., the lack of a coherent Western strategy and the need for a unified approach to an increasingly complex security environment. In this new context, three measures can help the West to negotiate its current strategic impasse: 1) reconsidering retrenchment; 2) downgrading humanitarian intervention; and 3) increasing strategic dialogue.

The sun finally sets?

Over the past year or so, quiet conversations have been taking place in Washington regarding the trans-Atlantic relationship. After US requests for information met with silence in Whitehall, these conversations began to spill out into the public arena. In March, General Ray Odierno, the US Army Chief of Staff, said he was “very concerned” about the UK’s planned defence cuts. As if on cue, the former Chief of Staff of the British Army, General Peter Wall, then argued in a Telegraph article that the UK had “a lower level of ambition for UK involvement in global security than ever before.”

This opened the floodgates: in the following week, the Washington Post published an article worrying about the UK’s ‘shrinking military clout’; then, in April, the New York Times published a longer article about Britain’s ‘drift from the global stage.’ Finally, in May, CNN journalist Fareed Zakaria argued that Britain had essentially ‘resigned’ as a world power. Only the Independent’s Washington correspondent, Peter Foster, pointed out that the US itself also seemed to be in retreat. After ‘leading from behind’ in Libya, it had ducked behind the British Parliament over Syria and failed to produce tangible defence guarantees to the Ukraine. Foster was not right about everything, but his point illustrates a wider problem: that the West has an alarming ‘strategy gap’ and is undergoing a review period.

It is true that the UK is in the midst of a slow-motion constitutional crisis and deep financial retrenchment, but it is also – like the US – experiencing a crisis of strategic thought after a decade of setbacks. To illustrate, consider how the Cold War unified the UK, the US, and their ‘first world’ allies behind two basic notions: that there was a single overarching threat (communism) and that they had a strategy for dealing with it (containment). With these two reference points, the Treasury could get down to the tricky business of allocating resources to Britain’s Armed Forces and intelligence agencies and coordinating parallel and complementary goals with the United States and its NATO allies. It was as effective as it was simple.

A brief look at priorities of the 2010 National Security Strategy indicates how much has changed. The report includes four major high risk areas: (1) terrorism, (2) cyber, (3) international crises, and (4) major accidents or hazards. There are also a number of lesser risk areas, such as energy security, organized crime, and border security, and a number of variables, such as the rate of technological change, demography, the diffusion of power in the international system, and environmental factors, among others. To cap things off, the report then makes clear that “Our most urgent task is to return our nation’s finances to a sustainable footing.”

To simplify: the UK would like to have a medium-sized military force that would work closely with others (i.e., the US and NATO allies) to defend against terror attacks at home and abroad; to defend against cyber- espionage, cyber- crime, and cyber- attack; to carry on nuclear deterrence at sea; to defend Britain’s trade routes; and to get involved in short-term humanitarian interventions in fragile or failed states. The UK would like to do all of this while continuing to modernize its ISR capabilities – and while saving money. This is not a strategy: this is what President Obama and many others are beginning to refer to (in an American context) as the “ whack-a-mole” approach. One prioritizes everything, so that, in the end, nothing is prioritized. With the tail wagging the proverbial dog, such an approach blinds strategists to two emerging realities: that great power politics is returning to the global system; and that the age of humanitarian interventions and ‘soft’ security is over.

Whitehall is not completely to blame for the current strategic drift. American critics of the UK’s downsizing are no less critical of their own strategic ambiguity. After all, what is Western – or even American – strategy in Ukraine? Or the Middle East? How should we deal with the resurgence of great power politics, in the South China Sea and elsewhere? If the US is to lead, then it must communicate an overarching strategic vision to its Western allies, one that gives meaning to the allied blood and treasure already lost in Iraq and Afghanistan and to any future blood and treasure that will be spent. It must also attempt to reset its Asian Rebalance to match the realities of growing European insecurity.

A new strategic vision

If the West is not only to survive but to thrive in the modern age, it will have to make difficult choices in an effort to anticipate future developments rather than simply react to them. In this regard, three courses of action can help to resolve its current strategic crisis.

(1) Prioritize spending

As London’s foreign policy choices have highlighted, this is ultimately an age of economic scarcity where smart resource allocation is needed. With this in mind, Prime Minister Cameron has attempted to husband his resources. While this has not stopped him from sending troop trainers to Ukraine or from bombing ISIL, it has meant making difficult choices, for example, when asked by the US not to join China’s new infrastructure bank, the AIIB. However, it should be noted that there has been a degree of political side-stepping by the Cameron government on spending. Despite claims of austerity, the UK remains the world’s fifth largest economy, hosts one of the largest global financial hubs, recovering far faster from the financial crisis than many of its European counterparts. The fact that it is being outspent on defence by a historical peer competitor, Russia, is galling – particularly since its budget revenue, at $986 billion, is nearly  twice that of Russia’s $416 billion. The fact that Osborne is again likely to ringfence DfIDS’s aid budget indicates that there is more latitude in this debate than Whitehall has admitted. In other words, there are alternatives to the planned defence cuts. They should be discussed, rather than assumed behind closed doors.

(2) Prioritize threats 

The UK cannot treat all threats as equal. Threats to the system should be prioritized over threats to humanitarian values. This means that Ukraine is more important than Syria because of the effect it would have on Europe’s eastern flank. In the wake of failures in Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan, the West should abstain from the humanitarian interventionism of the 1990s. The idealism represented by such interventions was well-meaning and occasionally effective (as in Sierra Leone and the Balkans), but it also occurred in a much more benign international environment, in which revisionist Russia and China were themselves engaged in domestic retrenchment. What has become clear to many, particularly after Libya, is that while Western nations can carry out front-end kinetic operations against lesser regimes, they lack the stomach and resources for peace-building and state-building. The continued lack of a strong state and the flow of refugees from Libya suggests that, without this necessary institution-building, interventions may hurt more than they help. Power vacuums present non-state actors with opportunities, while creating further problems for those they were intended to help. It is unclear that bringing about Assad’s downfall in 2013 would have alleviated the suffering of civilians: indeed, ISIL would have been the clear winner in territory, population and resources.

(3) Talk more with each other

The UK-US Alliance is certainly experiencing problems, but these are exacerbated by a lack of communication over delicate issues. Some place the blame for this at the level of the incumbent administrations, pointing to a lack of dialogue between this Prime Minister and this President. Others emphasize a necessary phase of navel-gazing in the UK during a period of constitutional difficulties relating to the Scottish situation and the upcoming referendum on EU membership. In the case of the UK’s domestic turmoil, the United States has little choice but to remain patient with this loss of focus in Whitehall. However, the UK cannot take an indefinite break from talking to its allies or from the work of providing security in and around Europe. Now more than ever, it must communicate its commitments to enemies and allies alike. Happily, alliances are seldom based on the personal foibles of leaders but on common interests, values, institutions, and history. The deeply enmeshed intelligence relationships, for example, involve common institutions with a legacy of working together for shared goals. The bureaucracies can continue working closely together – but strategic vision is policy, and that must be coordinated at the political level. In the run-up to the November release of the NSS and SDSR, the UK and United States should build on the track 1 and track 1.5 work that is already taking place – to discuss their worries, concerns and possible solutions in a way that is clear and useful for other Western / NATO allies. While some question the need for an overarching Western strategy, the very process of debate is in itself, a useful one, focusing minds and clarifying common goals and means, an essential part of procurement cycles.

Conclusion

It seems that one of the defining features of alliances is the assumption that they are in trouble. Since the beginning of the US-UK Alliance after the Second World War, a year has scarcely passed without the publication of a newspaper article or book worrying about its health. Indeed, worries about the state of affairs between Washington and London are arguably an offshoot of the decline narrative, one of the most common tropes in Western political discourse – one that should be treated with respect but also with a certain amount of stoicism. What is needed now is more discussion rather than more alarming headlines.

The US-UK Alliance is certainly experiencing a triple challenge of war-weariness, insecurity overload, and resource scarcity. However, these are problems that the West writ large is also facing; better to hang together than hang separately. The Special Relationship has been one the most significant alliances of the 20th Century – one that has endured two world wars, numerous civil wars and insurgencies, and countless other conflicts including the current intervention against ISIL in the skies of Iraq. The two intelligence agencies and defence industries work closely together in a way that adds values to their respective capabilities. Even now, American and British diplomats are working closely on Iran’s nuclear programme, over Russian revanchism in eastern Ukraine, and on NATO’s readiness. We cannot afford to take this partnership for granted. It is one of the cornerstones of Western security.


Scottish independence would have a negative impact on security

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British Politics and Policy at the LSE, 17 September, 2014

For most of the past few weeks, debates about Scottish independence have focused on the financial impact of separation, dominated in turn by the currency debate. Indeed, what independence will mean for defence and security have been obscured by this debate. Unfortunately, as with currency and EU membership, the SNP seems to have a penchant for having its cake and eating it. The party has laid out defence priorities without due consideration for cost, nor has it considered the degrading of its own (and UK) capabilities by doing so. Its impact can be analyzed at two different levels: firstit can be examined at the transatlantic level, in the realm of intelligence and defence; secondat the UK level, and how it will affect the defence of the British isles.

The Scottish White Paper, released by the SNP, identifies five defence priorities for an independent Scotland:

  • Maintaining the commitment to a budget for defence and security in an independent Scotland of £2.5 billion
  • Securing the speediest safe withdrawal of nuclear weapons from Scotland.
  • Building a focus on maritime capabilities, such as air and sea-based patrol, and specialist forces able to operate around Scotland’s coasts. These assets will initially be drawn from the current Royal Navy.
  • Progressively building to a total of 15,000 regular and 5,000 reserve personnel over the 10 years following independence.
  • Reconfiguring the defence estate inherited at the point of independence to meet Scotland’s needs, including the transition of Faslane to a conventional naval base and joint headquarters of Scottish defence forces. This approach would appear to be focused on maritime defence.

In addition, the Paper also states that Scotland would establish a Scottish intelligence agency (SIA), that would combine the work of the three agencies that currently do such work in the UK, MI5, MI6, and GCHQ. The White Paper also establishes that Scotland would seek to remain inside NATO, playing a more ‘Nordic’ role in defending the Alliance’s northern maritime border.

Scottish independence would affect transatlantic security at two levels: at the five eyes, intelligence-sharing level, and at the NATO level. In terms of the five eyes, an intelligence-sharing network dating to World War 2, which counts the US, UK, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia as members, it’s likely that Scotland would be pushed outside the tent of this force-multiplying alliance. Certainly, the other five agencies would seek to continue a relationship with the new SIA, due to their areas of common concern such maritime security and terrorism. They might even lend a hand to ‘capacity-building’, helping the new agency get on its feet. But in terms of sharing wider global intelligence, there would be little incentive to share too much with an untested and potentially leaky new agency.

Furthermore, though the new SIA could potentially professionalise quickly with a cadre of Scottish employees from UK agencies, it would have to make do with fewer resources – the White Paper claims a minuscule £2.5 billion per annum without reference to start-up costs, no small matter for developing costly cyber defence capabilities. In terms of intelligence-sharing, it would be a question of what Scotland brought to the table to justify it. The Home Secretary, Theresa May, has argued that this would be a two-way vulnerability, as Scotland would be a soft target for foreign intelligence services, impacting the UK as a whole.

Another area of concern involves the SNP’s goal of remaining inside NATO while at the same time reducing NATO’s nuclear capabilities in the form of a Trident base at Faslane. This is one of the most incredible cases of cake/eating put forward by Salmond. By removing one of only two independent nuclear capabilities in Europe, the SNP will be hurting its own case for NATO membership – indeed, this was discussed at a private meeting on July 6th in the Brussels NATO HQ between Scottish civil servants and senior NATO leadership. At a time of increased insecurity between the West and Russia, chaos in the Middle East, and a potentially ‘revisionist‘ China, the West as a whole will be made considerably weaker. Lord Robertson of Port Ellen, himself a Scot and former Secretary General of NATO, has stated that “the global balance will be substantially upset should one of the West’s key unions and its second-biggest defense power, split up.”

Along with defence capacity, defence industry in both Scotland and the UK will suffer as British companies like Rolls Royce, Thales, and BAE Systems move south of the border. Maintaining their classified building programs in a foreign country would be near impossible without strong intelligence guarantees, something a nascent SIA would be hard-pressed to provide for at least a decade. With such a move, British ship-building would be seriously undermined, possibly forcing London to buy off-the-shelf platforms from NATO providers.

All in all, Scottish independence would not destroy the West or NATO, nor would it lead to irreparable harm to the UK, but it would have negative consequences for UK standing and capabilities, for NATO nuclear deterrence and for the global and European balance of power. For a Scottish nationalist, this may seem a reasonable price to pay, but not all will agree. Their behaviour – though democratic and part of a positive search for identity – will have repercussions, and they should acknowledge them and seek to minimise them. The damage might be relatively short-lived – say a only decade long – if Scottish agencies quickly came up to scratch, the new country spent the required amount on defence (2 per cent of GDP for NATO membership), and if it offered some sort of compromise on the nuclear issue. However, there are a lot of ‘ifs’ before this issue is resolved. We will become extremely familiar with these ‘ifs’ should the vote go against the union on September 18th.


NATO and the ‘Pivot’ after Wales

 

David Cameron hosts the 2014 NATO Summit in Wales.International Relations and Security Network, 12 September, 2014

 

Now that the NATO Summit in Wales is over, analysts are working to understand its implications for the strategic landscape around Europe. One issue that lay behind many of the discussions was the impact of US global strategy on the force-posture of US military assets in and around Europe. Although Hillary Clinton famously quipped that the United States “can walk and chew gum at the same time”, European allies still wonder how the US ‘pivot to Asia’ will affect its ability to defend the European continent and manage instability in the Middle East.

Overall, the Summit was a success: 28 world leaders came together as a symbol of transatlantic solidarity and moved past much of the awkwardness that had characterized US-German and US-EU ties over the past year. Vladimir Putin’s revanchist policies had reminded them of the purpose of the alliance, as had the growing instability on Europe’s southern border. On the whole, there were no significant differences of principle among member-states, and the leaders of the United States, Germany, France, the UK, and others committed – on paper, at least – to keep Europe “ whole, free, and at peace.”

Some have called the crisis over Ukraine a ‘Munich moment’, referring to the Munich Conference of 1938, when Germany won control of Sudetenland, a Czechoslovakian territory. However, the comparison is a favorable one for this generation. Rather than accepting the dismemberment of Ukraine, NATO member-states pledged support to Kiev in the form of a planned military exercise in Western Ukraine to show the alliance’s commitment. Furthermore, NATO members agreed to invest in reinvigorating the Alliance’s capabilities in three ways: 1) through the development of a new 4,000-strong deployment force, 2) through increased defense spending, and 3) through strategy readjustments to cyber warfare and ‘ambiguous warfare’.

Losing focus?

At a joint NATO-Cardiff University Conference held prior to the official summit, policy-makers and academics struggled to understand how the pivot would affect America’s ability to defend Europe. More than once, the US commitment to allocate more military resources to the Asia-Pacific was questioned. Some even wondered if the pivot was still in place, given the amount of traction that the Ukraine crisis and rise of ISIL were getting in Washington. This was despite US efforts to allay such fears at a press conference held on the 14th of August, where Admiral John Kirby stated that, despite instability on Europe’s eastern and southern flanks, the US remained very committed to the pivot, as illustrated by Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel’s recent trip to Asia (his sixth as Secretary).

At the August 14th press conference, Admiral Kirby pointed out that five out of seven US treaty allies were located in the Asia-Pacific region, in addition to 350,000 troops and 200 ships. He might also have pointed out that the region is home to some of the world’s largest militaries and now outspends Europe collectively on defense. In addition, as powers like China and India rise, fissures and tensions along their peripheries have begun to threaten the stability of a region that already dominates global trade and is predicted to represent 51% of global GDP by 2050. If the US continues to turn towards the Asia-Pacific, it is out of long-term strategic necessity. Its European allies must recognize this.

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NATO Wales and the Future of Western Grand Strategy

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Creative Commons - Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported Creative Commons - Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

International Relations Security Network, 7 August, 2014

By John Hemmings for ISN

By all accounts, the upcoming NATO Summit in Wales is likely to be one of the most important since the end of the Cold War. Originally cast as a post-Afghanistan ‘lessons-learned’ and maritime security summit, events in Ukraine and Crimea have dramatically shifted the agenda since February and highlighted the need to redevelop NATO’s core mission of collective defense and deterrence. The sudden massing of Russian armor and more than 150,000 Russian troops on Ukraine’s eastern border in February at the height of the crisis, reminded Western leaders – particularly those in Poland and the Baltic states – of their vulnerability to old-fashioned conventional forces. However, it has already become clear that these threat-perceptions of Russia are not held equally by all 28 member states in the Alliance, as Germany and Italy balance their security concerns with dependence on Moscow’s energy imports.

These differences may emerge as a serious problem during the summit, stymying a collective path forward. Worse still, European policy elites continue to worry about shifts in US global strategy, particularly the US Pivot strategy and how the shift of US attention away from the European theatre to the Asian one will affect force posture in-region. These fears are likely to run into US frustration over NATO members’ under-spending, a common feature of every NATO summit since the 1990s, and one that will have real – rather than symbolic – meaning this year. Of course, despite all of these challenges, NATO remains the most powerful global defensive alliance, in terms of its combined GDP, military spending, and military technology. As with all collective efforts, its real weaknesses lie in coordination. With the US Pivot to Asia likely to become a permanent feature of its global strategy, the NATO Wales Summit must find a strategic posture for the West that accepts and complements that reality.

What does the Pivot mean to Europe?

The US Pivot to Asia is still poorly understood in Europe. Some believe that the policy is merely rhetorical in nature, while others see it as a misjudged containment attempt towards China, one that – as Australian academic Hugh White contends –fans the flames of great power rivalry. Primarily, European elites view the Pivot in terms of its effect on European security.

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Take, Hold, Build: Hope for Afghanistan?

PNXY Comment on Global Security and Politics, 11th October 2011

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Flying over Afghanistan, one cannot help but be intimidated by the view from the air. Dry, brown craggy mountains reach into the horizon with few signs of human habitation or life. Below, small patches of greenery stubbornly cling to rivers basins, which meander through the bleak landscape. It is altogether too easy a metaphor for the conflict in Afghanistan – now in its 10th year, to suggest that the efforts of ISAF, the US, and UK are swallowed by such a landscape. But flying into Kabul presents one with another vision altogether, an ever-expanding cityscape, with new roads, newly-built apartment blocks, and office blocks next to traditional walled houses. And littered throughout this landscape, are parks of cargo containers, in their hundreds of thousands. Whole neighbourhoods seem to be built out of the heavy metal containers, and the sheer scale of their presence is a hint at the massive undertaking in supplying, feeding, clothing, and providing for the international effort that is Afghanistan. Flying over the airport, one sees lines of trucks bearing the cargo containers lining the highways, as traffic pushes as sluggishly as any Western city.

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The population of Kabul in 2001 was around 500,000 and it is now almost 4 million. This growth shows itself in the haphazard nature of development that seems to have mushroomed along the road from Kabul Airport, with apartment complexes; marriage centres and shopping centres hugging the congested highway. While one is constantly aware of the security situation, one cannot help but be impressed by the hustle and bustle of the city. Certainly, the steely faces of Afghan National Police manning weapons at roundabouts and intersections reveal the underlying tension, but that is not the only story. As night falls, the city glows with light, an improvement in power generation from only a few years ago. Furthermore, side streets reveal busy night markets, with men sitting in doorways, fanning flames at kebab stalls. Yes, it is a city under siege, but it does not seem to be – odd as this may sound – a city at war. Certainly, the hotels, the embassies, and the government ministries are heavily fortified, but the overall sensation is one of business, commercial success and vibrancy.

Notable on the sidewalks are crowds of male and female students dawdling on their way home. In 2001, fewer than 1 million children attended some form of education. Now, according to the UK Department for International Development (DFID), more than five million attend school, and almost a third of them are girls. While Afghanistan remains one of the poorest countries in the world, its economic growth – bolstered by international aid – is impressive, with growth at 22.5% in 2009/10. Last year’s harvest also saw a growth of agriculture output of 36%. In 2006, President Karzai established the Independent Board for the Development of Kabul New City, brought together the private sector, urban specialists, and foreign donors like the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) to carry out a massive redevelopment plan for the city. The project, it is estimated, will eventually end up costing some US$35 billion dollars, and push many of Afghanistan’s 35% unemployed into of the largest development projects in modern history.

While all of this is good news, there are still a lot of ‘ifs’ involved before such projects bear fruit. The main question is whether the current system is sustainable, and this is what donors in Afghanistan should be focused on. While agriculture has improved, Afghanistan’s arid landscape means that the sector is heavily dependent on rainfall and snowmelt, so while modern methods can continue to improve output, this will remain volatile.

This volatility will also be true in terms of the security situation and the commitment of international partners to the Karzai government. Around 47% of Afghanistan’s GDP is dependent on international donors, which means that Kabul will have to negotiate a continuation of funding for some years to come from countries already beginning to feel the pinch at home. One answer to this conundrum has been for Kabul to woo investment into its largely untapped mineral and mining sectors, aided by a 2006 government mining law and a 2010 US geological survey. According to a New York Times article, the US-backed survey discovered nearly US$1 trillion in untapped mineral deposits – including lithium, copper, iron ore, and cobalt – enough to fundamentally reshape the Afghan economy and make the country a world supplier. The Aynak Copper Mine in the mountainous region of Logar Pronvince is one indication of how things could go with a Chinese firm winning the bid by promising US$3 billion in direct investment and infrastructure projects.

What is clear, is that the world is doing something in Afghanistan aside from soldiering. It is building something, or trying to. The question is whether this will have a real effect, but certainly there are plenty of hopeful signs for those who would look for them. Easy metaphors aside, Afghanistan may stand as ‘a graveyard of Empires’, but this should not stop us from viewing the good being done there, however many ‘ifs’ are required to keep it going.

 

Jeremy S. Maxie

Energy & Political Risk Consultant

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