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Homepage > Regions / Countries > Asia > South Asia > Afghanistan > Afghanistan’s Insurgency after the Transition

Afghanistan’s Insurgency after the Transition

Asia Report N°256 12 May 2014

The Executive Summary is also available in Dari.

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY AND RECOMMENDATIONS

The war in Afghanistan entered a new phase in 2013. It now is increasingly a contest between the insurgents and the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). Many within and outside the government are more optimistic about stability in the wake of a relatively successful first round of presidential elections on 5 April 2014. However, any euphoria should be tempered by a realistic assessment of the security challenges that President Karzai’s successor will face in the transitional period of 2014-2015. Kabul may find these challenges difficult to overcome without significant and sustained international security, political and economic support.

The overall trend is one of escalating violence and insurgent attacks. Ongoing withdrawals of international soldiers have generally coincided with a deterioration of Kabul’s reach in outlying districts. The insurgents have failed to capture major towns and cities, and some areas have experienced more peace and stability in the absence of international troops. Yet, the increasing confidence of the insurgents, as evidenced by their ability to assemble bigger formations for assaults, reduces the chances for meaningful national-level peace talks in 2014-2015.

A close examination of four provinces – Faryab, Kunar, Paktia and Kandahar – reveals underlying factors that may aggravate the conflict in the short term. Historical feuds and unresolved grievances are worsening after having been, in some cases, temporarily contained by the presence of international troops. In Faryab, these are largely ethnic tensions; in Kandahar they are mostly tribal; but in all transitional areas there is a variety of unfinished business that may result in further violence post-2014. Similarly, clashes among pro-government actors may become more frequent, as predicted by local interlocutors after recent skirmishing between government forces in Paktia. The situation in Kandahar also illustrates the way mistreatment of Afghans at the hands of their own security forces, operating with less supervision from foreign troops, breeds resentment that feeds the insurgency. Finally, despite its rhetoric, Pakistan has not reduced safe havens and other support for the insurgency, while Afghanistan’s hostile responses – especially in Kandahar and Kunar – risk worsening cross-border relations.

None of these trends mean that Afghanistan is doomed to repeat the post-Soviet state collapse of the early 1990s, particularly if there is continued and robust international support. In fact, Afghan forces suffered record casualties in 2013 and retreated from some locations in the face of rising insurgency but maintained the tempo of their operations in most parts of the country. Afghanistan still has no shortage of young men joining the ANSF, offsetting the rising number of those who opt to leave them or abandon their posts. The government remains capable of moving supplies along highways to urban centres. ANSF cohesiveness, or lack of it, may prove decisive in the coming years, and Paktia notwithstanding, only minor reports emerged in 2013 of Afghan units fighting each other. As long as donors remain willing to pay their salaries, the sheer numbers of Afghan security personnel – possibly in the 370,000 range today – are a formidable obstacle to large-scale strategic gains by the insurgents.

That will not stop the Taliban and other insurgent groups from pushing for such gains, however. Despite a short-lived gesture toward peace negotiations in Doha, the insurgents’ behaviour in places where the foreign troops have withdrawn shows no inclination to slow the pace of fighting. They are blocking roads, capturing rural territory and trying to overwhelm district administration centres. With less risk of attack from international forces, they are massing bigger groups of fighters and getting into an increasing number of face-to-face ground engagements with Afghan security personnel, some of which drag on for weeks. The rising attacks show that the insurgents are able to motivate their fighters in the absence of foreign troops, shifting their rhetoric from calls to resist infidel occupation to a new emphasis on confronting the “puppets” or “betrayers of Islam” in the government. The emerging prominence of splinter groups such as Mahaz-e-Fedayeen is a further indication the insurgency will not lack ferocity in the coming years.

For the first time, the insurgents inflicted almost as many casualties on Afghan security forces in 2013 as they suffered themselves, and several accounts of battles in remote districts suggested the sides were nearly matched in strength. There are concerns that the balance could tip in favour of the insurgency, particularly in some rural locations, as foreign troops continue leaving. President Karzai has refused to conclude agreements with the U.S. and NATO that would keep a relatively modest presence of international troops after December 2014. The two presidential runoff candidates have vowed to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) with the U.S., which would in turn allow for a NATO Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA). While retaining a contingent of foreign soldiers would not be sufficient on its own to keep the insurgency at bay, its absence could prove extremely problematic. The ANSF still needs support from international forces, and signing a BSA and a SOFA would likely have knock-on effects, sending an important signal of commitment at a fragile time, thus encouraging ongoing financial, developmental and diplomatic support.

With or without backup from international forces, the Afghan government will need more helicopters, armoured vehicles, and logistical support to accomplish that limited objective. Such additional military tools would also permit the government to rely increasingly on the relatively well-disciplined Afghan army rather than forcing it to turn to irregular forces that have a dismal record of harming civilians.

Certainly, the future of the Afghan government depends primarily on its own behaviour: its commitment to the rule of law, anti-corruption measures and other aspects of governance must demonstrate its concern for the well-being of all Afghans. However, responsibility also rests with the international community; its patchy efforts over a dozen years to bring peace and stability must now be followed not with apathy, but with renewed commitment.

RECOMMENDATIONS

To help Afghan security forces withstand a rising insurgency

To the government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan:

1.  Sign a Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) with the U.S. and a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with NATO.

2.  Take urgent steps to reduce casualties among Afghan forces, including a large-scale effort to train police and soldiers in the basics of emergency medical care.

3.  Strengthen anti-corruption measures to ensure that security personnel receive their salaries and other benefits, and confirm that ammunition, diesel and other logistical supplies reach Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) units.

To the government of the United States:

4.  Significantly increase the size of the Mobile Strike Force (MSF) program, so that sufficient ANSF quick-reaction units are available to handle many of the worsening security trends of 2014-2015 and beyond.

5.  Find a way, possibly by working with other donors, to expand Afghan capacity for tactical air support, including more helicopters in support of government efforts to retain control over remote district centres.

To all donor countries:

6.  Convene a meeting of donor countries as a follow-up to the 2012 NATO summit in Chicago, with a view to expanding annual pledges of support, realising them on schedule and allowing the ANSF to maintain for the time being personnel rosters approximately equal to their current levels. Those ANSF levels are not indefinitely sustainable or desirable, but reductions should progress in tandem with stabilisation.

7.  Support anti-corruption measures by the Afghan government to ensure, inter alia, that salaries are distributed to all ANSF members and logistical supply chains function as required.

To reduce tensions between Afghanistan and Pakistan

To the government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan:

8.  Increase diplomatic outreach to regional governments, including Pakistan, to find ways of reviving peace talks with the insurgents; maintain, at a minimum, lines of communication between Afghan and Pakistani civilian and military leaders; and explore ways to increase bilateral economic cooperation as a way to ease tensions with Pakistan.

9.  Refrain from taking direct military action inside Pakistan or supporting anti-Pakistan militants.

To strengthen the rule of law

To the government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan:

10.  Reduce reliance on and ultimately phase out the controversial Afghan Local Police (ALP) program, given the ALP’s abuse of power and destabilising effect in most parts of the country.

11.  Respond with transparent investigation and disciplinary measures as appropriate to any report of ANSF failure to protect or deliberate targeting of civilians, in violation of obligations under Afghan and international law.

To all donor countries:

12.  Assist with programs aimed at encouraging the ANSF to respect the constitution and the country’s obligations with regard to human rights and the laws of armed conflict.

To improve political legitimacy and state viability:

To the government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan:

13.  Encourage open public and media discussion and debate of security problems so as to find solutions and keep policymakers informed; and acknowledge that, aside from the conflict’s external factors, internal Afghan dynamics such as corruption, disenfranchisement and impunity  also deserve attention.

14.  Strengthen efforts to make the Afghan government more politically inclusive, particularly at the provincial and district level.

15.  Refrain from interfering in the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) and the Independent Complaints Commission (IECC) processes of disqualifying voters and adjudicating complaints in connection with the 2014 and subsequent elections.

16.  Direct propaganda messages toward front-line insurgents that publicise the absence of international forces in their areas of operation in order to undermine the logic of jihad after the departure of foreign troops.

To all donor countries:

17.  Sustain economic assistance for the Afghan government and work with the finance ministry to encourage growth in customs and other forms of government revenue.

18.  Encourage the IEC and the IECC to comply strictly with electoral laws, including requirements to conduct their work in a transparent manner, in the processes of disqualifying voters and adjudicating complaints.

19.  Provide diplomatic support for the Afghan government’s efforts to improve relations with Pakistan and revive peace talks, when feasible, with insurgent factions.

Kabul/Brussels, 12 May 2014
 
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