An upcoming election, unprepared local security forces and endemic government corruption may compromise America's $100 billion investment in Afghanistan, Middle East experts warned lawmakers.
"Within two years, it will be largely up to the Afghan government to sustain the reconstruction effort in which the U.S. and others have invested so much," according to Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction John F. Sopko.
Sopko's comment came in his latest quarterly report to Congress, which was released Oct. 30.
The Afghan National Security Forces, mainly funded with U.S. reconstruction money, presents a major challenge to post-2014 security, Sopko said.
"SIGAR continues to be concerned about the capabilities of the Afghan National Security Forces," Sopko said.
"The success of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan depends to a great extent on the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police's ability to protect Afghan civilians and prevent al Qaeda and other terrorist groups from establishing strongholds from which to mount attacks against the United States and its allies," he said.
The Taliban has tried infiltrating the local police forces, but because members of the force protect their own villages, they quickly recognize outsiders and prevent them from joining, he said.
Afghan forces, which include army, air force and police, are still about 15,000 short of a 2012 goal of 352,000 personnel, according to Sopko.
Women make up less than one percent of the army and about one percent of the Afghan National Police.
Afghanistan's upcoming election highlights the necessity of women in the army and police, according to Michelle Barsa, senior manager for policy at the non-governmental organization Inclusive Security.
Without women to register female voters and staff female polling stations, Afghan women will be unable to vote, Barsa told a House Armed Services subcommittee Oct. 29.
Barsa told the subcommittee that Afghanistan's Independent Elections Commission plans to hire thousands of temporary female security personnel to staff polling places.
The Afghan election commission has no comprehensive database of registered voters, has never removed dead voters from rolls, has more voter registration cards in circulation than eligible voters, and no assigned polling stations, according to Sopko.
Government corruption will continue to threaten U.S. projects once troops have left, making oversight of 80 percent of the country nearly impossible.
Four possible scenarios, ranging from the status quo to civil war, could unfold after 2014, Kenneth Katzman, a specialist in Middle Eastern affairs at the Congressional Research Service, told the Armed Services Committee on Oct. 29. The hearing focused on women's rights in Afghanistan after next year.
The first scenario, relative stability, depends on enough international forces remaining to prevent Taliban gains. In this situation, the government would remain in place to secure most of the recent improvements to women's rights. But over time, the "gradual backsliding that has occurred since 2008 — a period when the Taliban made gains and international influence on Karzai began to wane — will likely continue to slowly erode some of these gains," Katzman said.
The second picture of post-2014 Afghanistan is the worst-case scenario for political stability and women's rights: a return to the Taliban's Islamist rule, which most experts agree is unlikely, Katzman said.
A third situation, and the one Katzman said many experts predict is mostly likely, is increased influence from the faction leaders and militias largely "demobilized" with international pressure after the fall of the Taliban. Several of these faction leaders are on the 2014 presidential ballot as vice presidential candidates.
"A victory by the presidential ticket containing any of these leaders will give the faction leaders substantial influence after 2014," he said in written testimony.
This scenario would also harm the progress women have made if leaders show a preference for local practices over national law.
The final possibility is a political settlement with the Taliban, favored by President Hamid Karzai. according to Katzman. Minority communities worry a settlement could give members of the Taliban positions in government, which could erode their freedom, especially women's rights.
"Under almost any conceivable outcome in post-2014 Afghanistan, it is likely that some of the gains made by women since 2001 will be eroded," Katzman told the subcommittee.