Afghanistan today between terrorism and geopolitics: interview with Jill Suzanne Kornetsky

by Giuliano Bifolchi

Afghanistan is a strategic country in Eurasia, a land where superpowers (British Empire, Soviet Union, the United States) had known their limits trying to control the local population and include it in their geopolitical strategy. Therefore, we decide to discuss current dynamics and future developments of Afghanistan with Jill Suzanne Kornetsky, a Kabul-based consultant, researcher, analyst and social entrepreneur.

Jill Suzanne Kornetsky holds a BA from Harvard University, two MA’s from Brandeis University, and two graduate fellowships in Persian Language and Culture from The Melikian Center at ASU and the United States Department of State.  For the last decade, Jill has lived and worked across MENA and Central Asia. She has spent the last six years in Afghanistan, where she owns Integrity Afghanistan Consulting Services, a consultancy registered with the Afghan government from 2017 through 2023.  IACS’s mission is to offer subject matter expertise and technical leadership in support of development and stabilization efforts, creating innovative concepts, effective programs, and social enterprises tailored for sustainable success in the Afghan context.

What is the current situation in Afghanistan after the US-Taliban peace deal?

I would not call any agreements or deals reached between the Taliban and the US as a real negotiation or a serious attempt at peace.

The situation in Afghanistan as of October 2020 is not great. Negotiations hinge on parties being able to make concessions in exchange for other concessions.  Overtures made by the US Administration going back through 2020 and as far back as the summer of 2019 have done nothing but throw fuel on the fire, here.  When President Trump announced plans for unilateral withdrawal, he simultaneously pulled the negotiating teams’ chips off the table and yielded a huge victory to the Taliban without extracting anything in return. Each time he does this there is a spike in violence against police, against local people, and against infrastructure, by the Taliban.

Since 2018/2019, and with renewed vigour since the second announcement of a drawdown in early 2020, Taliban have acted accordingly to the information given – that regardless of what they do, the West is leaving.  Outside of Doha, there are no illusions towards peace, but instead, they are preparing for the day when the US and NATO will pull out completely, so they can attempt to retake the capital.

Neighbourhoods and villages all around Kabul are filling up with Taliban recruits, The package they offer is generous, 100,000afs per month (about $1200 per month or 6x what a police officer or military NCO makes), to stay home all day with family, not travel far from home to fight, and patrol the streets of their own villages at night as small gangs enforcing curfew and recruiting any adult males out late.  As a result, those neighbourhoods are seeing executions in the streets (recorded to be posted online), more robberies, more shootings, and more criminality overall.

The gradual drawdown of troops and projects means fewer jobs for Afghans than ever since the early 2000s. Covid meant the closure of many more offices and businesses, forcing even more people out of their jobs.  Altogether this has made people desperate for income, so Taliban recruitment has been fruitful.  Today they released videos from their advanced training camps – they are well-armed, well-camouflaged, and seem to be training for big things.

Daesh takes advantage of the chaos when they can, but they largely operate separately from the Taliban.  There was a brief stint of them trying to join forces in 2015-2016, but internal rifts had them in large shootouts with each other and they lost quite a few of their own guys in the shuffle – some kind of non-aggression treaty was reached in 2016… since then Daesh sticks to the non-Sunni-Islam targets and the occasional large-scale, showy, high collateral damage, high body count events, and leave most of the anti-government attacks and attacks on infrastructure (including the wireless cable from Pakistan, the electrical grid, and highways all around the ring road) to their Talib cousins.  Rumours that they want to work together again in 2020 (or have, depending on who you ask) to me indicates both groups are weaker than they were… strong enough individually to keep up the war of attrition against their main and most-hated targets, but not strong enough singly to make a push for total control.

Anti-Taliban warlords are sharpening their swords too.  General Dostum and others are forming their own local militias in the same neighbourhoods, not with their usual ethnic-group-specific men, but instead paying locals to prepare to fight, against the local Taliban gangs.  Things are getting messy.  People are being forced to pick one side to fight on so their families can eat.  At the moment its local gang-style vying for territory and dominance, but it won’t end there if the promises made on Twitter are kept.  This is civil war stuff.  Which would be bad enough. Civil War in Afghanistan would result in the terrorist playground they’re fighting against now, in the disputed places, taking over the entire country.

At the end of the day if the US maintains SOF capabilities in Afghanistan, even with reducing base and outpost counts, and reducing standard troops, eliminating US manpower on patrol, reducing visibility… those are all just the violent fantasies of a couple of terrorist groups.  They wouldn’t try anything as largescale as “taking Kabul” while a foreign military presence is here, especially one with drone capabilities and SOF force strength.  I think that NATO and the Pentagon must understand this, and I have to believe they are lobbying for a sensible path forward, rather than a cut-bait-and-run situation.”

Afghanistan territorial division – September 2020 (Source: Al Jazeera)

What is the impact of COVID-19 on Afghanistan society and which strategy the government is adopting to contrast the spread of the virus?

Early in the pandemic, the Afghan government, the UN, individual project offices and businesses, the local hospitals and the newsmedia put a lot of focus on the response to Covid.  There was a government-mandated shutdown, followed by a long stretch running essential departments, ministries and the banks on half-time.  Businesses paid for trucks to sanitize some of the roads in sponsored trucks.  Schools were out of session until very recently.  Deaths were covered on the news, especially the losses of some front-line doctors and healthcare workers.  Cleaners and house workers were sanitizing everything on a daily basis. Masks and gloves, as well as citrus, ginger and garlic (recommended by the local telecoms in a recording played every time a call connected), were being price-gouged in local markets.  Things have started to go back to normal, with project and government offices reopening, many working remotely from home and schools back in session. Masks on the street, while for some months were required to enter supermarkets and such are less common, and people seem to be resuming a lot of their normal routines.

That’s not to say the pandemic is over here, or that its toll hasn’t been profound.  Speaking with my assistant, whose family lives on a farm on the outskirts of the capital, he believes that roughly 80% of the oldest generation, the grandfathers drinking tea in the corner of every family shop overseeing things, are gone.  Funerals, not uncommon in Afghanistan to begin with, are more than anyone remembers since times of open war We’ll never know exactly how many died from the virus or from complications of it – outside of the hospitals of the major cities, families don’t generally report deaths to the government, even if Afghanistan had the capacity for mass testing.  The dead are buried the same day they die, and the family mourns – Afghans are too accustomed to sickness and death and loss.  A more reliable measure of how things are progressing in Afghanistan come from the airlines stopping and restarting flights based on their own sources of information about how the infection rate was changing over time.  After stopping and restarting several times, Turkish is operating on a reduced schedule, and flights to Dubai are back up with required testing.

More concerningly, especially as winter sets in, is the increase in unemployment, already something like 40% pre-Covid, as a result of the pandemic.  Project offices and businesses have reduced staff as many are working from home, switched their offices from larger villas to smaller apartment spaces, or have closed entirely, leaving support staff like cooks, guards, and drivers without work.  Restaurants and cafes, which had begun to spring up all over Kabul are struggling to stay open.  Taxi drivers, a huge source of income for many Afghans, saw almost no traffic during the mandatory shutdown and the extended voluntary shutdowns of many offices.  A woman-owned toilet paper company was forced to shut down operations, as the cardboard waste used to make her products were unavailable from shuttered government offices and businesses. Day labourers who line strategic street corners, sitting in a wheelbarrow that signals their availability for work, found none.  Even the goat and sheepherders who lead their animals through the streets to eat the organics out of the garbage heaps, and the pickers and trash collectors who salvage metal and such from them, saw little or nothing to keep them going with businesses and offices closed.  It’s going to be a very hungry and cold winter for Afghanistan’s most marginalized populations.”

Media agencies reported the confrontation between Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah. In which way these two politicians are influencing domestic politics and the fight against the Taliban?

The Afghan political sphere is a unique and strange bird.  Much like the time of the last presidential hybrid arrangement, the NUG, the two men (at the time, three), actually have political and executive strengths which can complement each other.  Ghani is more an internationally-connected leader, with his experiences working with and for large organizations abroad, while Abdullah has broad strengths nationally which can bridge Pashtuns and Tajiks, based on his own family history, and Dostum is best let loose on the Taliban, in the field, where his fighters are notably brutal but effective, and fiercely loyalIn theory, these two or three men could work in synergy for the betterment of the country.  Unfortunately, that’s not how things work around here – the dynamics of power and money and ego are blown so far out of proportion, particularly at those upper levels of domestic politics.

The fight against the Taliban was until recently making slow but steady progress, with ANDSF taking on greater levels of independence, aided by NATO training and SF support, making gains against not only the Taliban, but also Daesh, and some of their various affiliates and splinters.  I think credit on that front goes to longtime employees and military personnel of the ANDSF, leaders and frontline fighters from the MoD and MoIA, NATO and American personnel numbers still in-country, and all the Expat and Afghan trainers and support personnel over the last 20 years, as much or more than Afghanistan’s executive leadership.  Similarly, the non-existent progress of the Doha negotiations hinges far more on American politics and the knock-on effect any unilateral American withdrawal would have on the continued presence of NATO and the global diplomatic corps, and which powers would fill any potential voids of influence, than it does on Afghan civic politics.

The security situation in Afghanistan in 2020: attacks by Taliban and US/government forces in 2019-2020 (Source: Afghanistan Analyst Network)

Afghanistan has a strategic position which makes the country a logistic hub. Also, the Afghan territory is rich in natural resources. How is it possible to exploit these advantages to make Afghanistan more interesting for investors and foreign businessmen? 

“If Afghanistan is ever going to see a stable future where the national budget is funded entirely by internal revenues, and where the economy is large enough to lift the entire population out of poverty and grow sustainably, natural resources in the forms of agriculture and extractives must be the cornerstone of the future tax base and the workforce.  The world knows very well the mineral wealth of Afghanistan, with huge mineral interests, both corporate and state, watching closely the political, legal/regulatory and military situations here, poised to swoop in and drop large investments on equipment and operations.  In the absence of a signed peace treaty and/or an extended period of nonbelligerency in a large swathe of the country, at a minimum, however, most of these interests can’t stomach the risk and are waiting for a more opportune time to begin.  For those interests comfortable working in conflict zones, the next hurdles are corruption and impunity – the ability to trust that the legal and policy pathways are solvent and enforceable, including confidence they won’t be changed, blocked, or banned as is the current case with all mineral-related permitting and licensing.  Then there are the political requirements, as initially the Afghan government and donor-funded extractives programs focused on the Billion-dollar deals, rather than the existing networks of artisanal and small-scale operations.  Predictably, those contracts became highly politicized, and sources of further nepotism, patronage, corruption, bribery and mismanagement resulting, thus-far, in little to no measurable outputs, and wasted resources equalling or exceeding expected profits.

In the meantime, the illicit market for Afghan minerals is booming.  Everyone from government employees to warlords and mujahid commanders to elected officials and the well connected by position or family dabbles in the trade.  From gemstones and gold to talc to lithium and even radioactive materials, active trafficking corridors operate with impunity throughout the country.  Rather than GIROA drawing tax revenues from these smaller, more consistent, and more sustainable operations, the profits are taxed by the Taliban and other insurgent groups controlling the ground routes, or go entirely untaxed when materials leave the country by air.  In response, President Ghani has temporarily shut down all trade licenses and activities in minerals and extractives while the policies and procedures are being reworked, and the staff and ministers are being reconfigured, nominally to reduce corruption and increase investment.  Indeed, the MoMP, as well as individual organizations,  donors, and donor-funded programs, are promoting investment in the Afghan gem and minerals sector.  As usual in Afghanistan, the right-hand doesn’t coordinate with the left, so entrepreneurs and potential investors are left somewhat in a pattern of hurry up and wait.  In reality, the powers that be and the powers that wish to be all understand the potential profitability of the sector, and we are witnessing a jockeying for position, while also trying to make superficial but publicizable advancements to satiate the appetite of potential future investors, and the current donors keeping such programs afloat.

Afghanistan mineral resources map (Source: WhoWhatWhy)

A new Minister of Petroleum has been appointed and approved by Jirga this week. I hear the Palace is developing new systems for managing the export licensing and taxation of mining products and confining those activities to a new ministerial body.  We will see what happens in terms of smallholder mining, export licensing for gems and minerals, and how they will be hindered by nepotism, patronage, and other forms of corruption.”

Which sectors are more open and suitable for foreign direct investments (FDIs) or joint ventures between foreign and Afghan companies? 

“Despite the security situation, and issues of trust and legal recourse, Afghanistan is full of opportunities for investment.  There is a large potential workforce, comparatively low cost of living for local personnel, undeveloped spaces available for a 99-year lease from the government, several hundred million dollars in investment facilitation and export corridor support programs currently underway with bilateral and multilateral support.  It’s more or less a virgin market with little competition – the competition that exists operates on a limited number of business models, leaving gaps in the market where a smart concept can easily become a market leader.

While this may not seem like a huge market now, Afghanistan, just as any country, evolves, grows, eventually stabilizes, and (especially with enormous global effort) will eventually expand its purchasing power as revenues from extractives, power projects, and long-term agricultural investments gradually kick-off. Those who enter the Afghan market now with fair policies and quality products will eventually be rewarded as the businesses with the most longevity in a mineral economy.  That’s a different animal entirely, and one any savvy businessperson should find appealing.

The trick is investing smartly, as years of too much money and not enough oversight has made many of the most active players, both big and small, both greedy and slippery – this is not a place for quick partnerships and the non-questioning of local partners because their sales pitch is shiny and persuasive… that’s how most donor investment and even substantial investments by OPIC and the Pentagon have leaked out of the system with little to show for it.  Any project or investment too large or too bureaucratic is almost destined to fail, as large dollar amounts attract all the wrong kind of attention, and governing from afar without a constant in-country presence, and one where company leadership doesn’t have freedom of movement in-country is simply inviting more of the same bad behaviour – the system is primed and ready for it.

The solution I see is to take an alternative approach.  I believe, somewhat ironically, that the newest humanitarian approaches to investment -that is, benefit corporations, impact investment, and social enterprises, in the Afghan context, not only will advance social, environmental and civil causes but will be the most resistant to government corruption and systematic waste.

Development projects are largely seen as free money for the taking if it can just be tricked out of the grantmakers, whereas private business has an incentive to create marketable goods and services and to manage their customers and affairs for the long-term survivability of the enterprise.  Porous procurement systems, sloppy contracting work, and poor quality goods are less acceptable when the proprietor has to make the business work with the startup funds at hand, without any guarantee of future boluses of ‘free cash’ as the reward expected for milestones not achieved.  I have a number of concepts in various stages of development, from a mineral benefit corporation to SMEs providing needed products and services to local people, municipal ideas turning waste into profits, high-value agricultural products, commercial and retail concepts, all designed for this context, all sustainable after startup, and all designed as social enterprises to make a positive change over the long term… I continue to seek investors, though to say it’s tricky is a comical understatement.

Historically Afghanistan has always had an agricultural economy, with saffron, fresh fruits, dried fruit and nuts, honey and similar making up substantial portions of current exports.  More orchards are being planted by the day, as landowners start to see a viable export market by air, road, and sea for the first time in decades. While cycles of drought and flooding have been an issue for the last decade, decimating farms and herds, proper water and landscape management, and the use of more sustainable agricultural techniques and technologies can easily account for current challenges.

With a growing population and a government buying between 400 and 650MW of energy from Afghanistan’s neighbours, investment in renewable energies to supply energy to the Afghan grid is needed, and could be highly profitable when built for longevity and managed diligently through a structure independent of GIROA political interference.  Similarly, there is a need for management of borders, as the number of people and goods crossing the border was increasing steadily pre-Covid.  I have been hearing pitches thrown around about a Build-Operate-Sell approach for a system of whole-container and whole-vehicle scanners which really need to be installed at the border crossing points along major trade routes in and out of Afghanistan, for reasons not only of security but of customs enforcement and revenue generation.    As the economy grows in the future these crossings, particularly in Western Afghanistan, as goods travel to Chabhar Port for export by sea, or out overland to Turkey on newly finished and renovated land routes, as well as routes in and out of Pakistan. Such systems have the potential to generate appropriate revenues for the Afghan government through import/export fees as well as controlling illicit trade.  The prevailing sense is that the powers that be don’t really want these kinds of projects, as they themselves profit off of activities at the border.  I was personally approached by a lead attorney for one of the provinces, offering me $100K per month in salary, from his wealthy provincial contacts, if I could somehow get him a high-level job down at a particular border crossing.  He wasn’t kidding, either.”

Security is fundamental for national economic development. If US troops will withdraw from Afghanistan in which way the country economy will be affected? 

“A complete drawdown of US and NATO troops would predictably result in a dramatic escalation in violence in the country, with a fair chance of devolving into a full-scale civil war.  Already there is direct evidence of an emboldened Taliban, making renewed preparations to try to retake the government and the country writ large.

Announcements by the US Administration that the US will drawdown troop strength, or even withdraw entirely, regardless of how a ceasefire or further negotiations progress has reversed years of progress in containing the Taliban’s reach and reducing their force strength.  With the announcement of unilateral withdrawal, a flood of new money has come into Afghanistan to pay new recruits – The Taliban is offering $1200 per month in salary in places where a police officer makes $150-200 per month, and where there is widespread unemployment.  What was gained in neighbourhood safety has been lost, and any adult male out after dark will face recruitment, harassment or violence.  They have started shuttering schools and slaughtering teachers within a stone throw of Kabul.  Brazen daylight assassinations have been caught on video and broadcast, with promises of more to follow.  MIED strikes against police vehicles happen multiple times per week now, as often as multiple times per day, in addition to other attacks against government facilities, health facilities, schools and universities, and infrastructure.

Such announcements haven’t just emboldened the Taliban, but other Anti-Government entities such as Daesh and the Haqqani network and their splinters, as well as mafias and warlords.  Petty and violent crime is up in the cities, likely in part because of increased disorder and uncertainty, and partially because of loss of income – many of the criminals being arrested at nights are smash and grab robbery teams, and armed robbery gangs.  Warlords, on the other hand, see the writing on the wall.  Dostum and others like him are reportedly reinforcing their already robust and loyal ranks, in places they normally wouldn’t be working because of ethnic silosThe Taliban has set up its gangs in the outskirts of Kabul, and where they are building strength, he is also actively recruiting and forming local militias, preparing to fight them directly, when ANDSF will inevitably become spread too thin to be effective everywhere, like currently, but worse.

NATO Resolute Support Mission in Afghanistan Source: NATO)

It’s a catch-22.  Without economic development, stabilization will be impossible, but without a more stable and easily understandable environment, the risk calculations are too uncertain for most investors.  That isn’t to say there isn’t the potential for good business here, actually, there is quite a lot of low hanging fruit and market voids, they just require a tailored approach, willingness to be in-country for the long term to be hands-on with the endeavour, and a thorough understanding of the style of play on this particular chessboard.  Outside the halls of power, everyday Afghans live their lives… feed their families, furnish their homes, clothe their kids, find recreation and fun where they can… and they are eager for simple, honest lives with regular everyday goods and services.  Given the chance to work with someone powerful versus someone honest, most will choose a straight path.  There just aren’t many straight paths to follow.  Life doesn’t have to be zero-sum, but it has been treated that way for so long and the ones who play that game the hardest seem to live in luxury while the common man toils… it’s hard for people to remember easier, simpler times.  Yet, they still gravitate towards it when it is offered.

It is a shame that most of the world gets only the most violent and flashy tidbits about Afghanistan, it gives the impression the whole country lives in UNHCR tents in muddy fields, with no prospects for economic growth or cultural revival – that is very much not the case.”