Making sense of the security situation in Afghanistan is perhaps one of the toughest judgement calls an investor will have to make. Threats exist from different sources, and vary in motive and method. Moreover, the country’s security situation is constantly changing and even the best intelligence is unspecific. At times the security situation appears to be improving only to deteriorate suddenly and without warning.
Is the country safe? The answer depends on geography and operational context. Kabul, with the presence of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), is safer than other cities, just as the north of the country is generally safer than the south-eastern areas bordering Pakistan, where extremists continue to battle with coalition forces. All over the country, the threat of factional violence remains to varying degrees.
In all cases, it is essential to undertake a thorough threat assessment and adopt appropriate security measures depending on circumstances and the nature of the project. Given its profile, Afghanistan has been a magnet for security firms, and investors should exercise care to ensure they involve the services of a credible, professional firm.
At the time of writing, the security situation in Afghanistan was tense. After a period of relative calm, May proved an unnerving month. Italian aid worker Clementina Cantoni was still being held by kidnappers, after being snatched on May 17. The following day, Afghan television presenter Shaima Rezayee had been shot at her Kabul home. She had been dismissed from independent television station Tolo TV after Muslim clerics branded her show “anti-Islamic”.
Before that, five people were reported wounded, and one killed, when violence erupted between supporters of rival warlords in a district in Faryab province, in the north of Afghanistan. On May 11, Akhtar Mohammad Tolwak, a parliamentary candidate, was killed while driving in the east of Ghazni province, along with his driver. Also that week, anti-US riots had spread across the country’s main cities, resulting in the death of at least 16 people and widespread damage to buildings.
On May 7, there was a suicide bombing at a Kabul internet café. Most recently, fears of fresh disturbances were growing after publication of accounts of brutal mistreatment of Afghan detainees by US interrogators at a Bagram detention centre.
Afghanistan’s security risks should not be dismissed or taken lightly, but the overall threat should be kept in perspective. At any time, up to 10,000 Westerners are in the country, and most conduct their business – albeit cautiously – without incident. Reports from regions widely considered “no-go” areas – such as the killing of 11 Afghans working for US company Chemonics by suspected Taliban militants, also in May, in the southern province of Helmand – should not necessarily be considered a reflection of the broader security situation.
Afghanistan faces threats on two broad fronts. The first relate to Afghanistan’s numerous tribal and ethnic factions, who have been engaged in a restless and bloody power struggle for generations. Armed and often enriched with drug money, they have the means and desire to wage a long struggle for ascendancy. Economic development that offers appealing alternative livelihoods, as well as providing government with the means to extend legitimate rule and security to these areas, is a long-term project. In the short term, Afghan president Hamid Karzai has attempted to isolate regional warlords by bringing them into government and shifting them away from their traditional powerbases.
Flare-ups of violence point to the fact that this problem is far from solved. Drug eradication programmes also cut off funding to these groups, pushing them towards other criminal activities. For example, kidnapping for ransom is a growing concern.
The second threat relates to Islamic insurgents and Taliban sympathisers entering Afghanistan from Pakistan. Skirmishes with coalition forces, roadside bombings, attacks on girls’ schools and kidnapping are all used to create instability and unsettle the government.
Hearts and minds
Combating this threat forms part of the broader war on terrorism. It also requires economic development to win hearts and minds by raising living standards and offering a more compelling alternative to extremism.
Significantly, US president George W Bush signed a ‘strategic partnership’ with Mr Karzai in late May, paving the way for long-term US involvement in Afghanistan’s security. The key points of the partnership allow US military forces operating in Afghanistan to continue to have the freedom of action required to conduct appropriate military operations.
Resolving the security question in Afghanistan will not happen overnight – but each step towards economic development is a step towards security.