Afghan Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah and President Ashraf Ghani exchange signed agreements regarding the country's unity government, in Kabul, Afghanistan, on 21 September 2014. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani
Report 285 / Asia

Afghanistan: The Future of the National Unity Government

The power dispute between President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah is imperilling Afghanistan’s fragile security and recent economic progress. To avoid the collapse of the U.S.-brokered National Unity Government, both actors must end political partisanship and prioritise the public interest.

Executive Summary

Two and a half years after it was created to prevent the bitterly contested 2014 presidential election from plunging Afghanistan into turmoil, the future of the National Unity Government (NUG) is shaky, as is broader political stability. The NUG is beset with internal disagreements and discord and facing a resurgent insurgency. Several options are being discussed in Afghan and international circles for how best to tackle the political and constitutional tensions that, if left unresolved, would increase the risk of internal conflict and insecurity in an already fragile state. The only promising way forward is for the two protagonists, President Ashraf Ghani and his Chief Executive Officer (CEO), Abdullah Abdullah, to acknowledge that the stability of their government and country requires them to work together.

Abdullah believes the agreement gave him an equal share in government; Ghani and his advisers insist that ultimate power, as defined in the constitution, resides in the presidency.

Their discord stems from the vagueness of the U.S.-devised power-sharing agreement that frames the government and the widely diverging interpretations of their powers and authority. Abdullah believes the agreement gave him an equal share in government; Ghani and his advisers insist that ultimate power, as defined in the constitution, resides in the presidency.

Even where the agreement is being implemented, notably on appointments to senior civil and military posts, both sides are stacking the government and security agencies with allies, mainly on ethnic grounds, with Ghani favouring fellow Pashtuns and Abdullah fellow Tajiks. The resulting perception of discrimination within excluded communities, particularly Hazaras and Uzbeks, exacerbated by the lack of consultation, including on development programs, is contributing to a widening ethnic and regional divide.

Political partisanship has permeated every level of the security apparatus, undermining the command structures of the Afghan National Defence and Security Forces (ANDSF) and their capacity to counter a growing insurgency. While the Afghan National Army (ANA) has thus far prevented the Taliban from capturing and holding any major population centre, it is thinly stretched and suffering high casualties. Though the Afghan National Police (ANP) is in urgent need of reform, the unity government’s leadership has yet to tackle the corruption, nepotism and factionalism within it. These weaknesses have played a major role in allowing Taliban advances countrywide, including in Uruzgan’s capital, Tirin Kot.

Despite insecurity and political tensions, though, some progress has been made in stabilising the economy: fiscal reforms and tighter control over tax collection have increased domestic revenues. Yet, sustainable growth requires improved security, political stability and progress in countering corruption. Efforts to reduce corruption are strongly resisted by resilient networks within and outside government. Other vital reforms, particularly of the electoral system and institutions, without which future polls will likely be as controversial as the 2014 presidential contest, have been stymied by the troubled relationship between the executive and legislature, which contributes to governmental dysfunction.

As parliamentary and district council polls have repeatedly been postponed due to security and political instability concerns, a constitutional Loya Jirga (Grand Assembly) cannot be held to formalise the CEO’s position, as pledged in the NUG agreement. Suggestions to end the political impasse by the NUG’s opposition, spearheaded by former President Hamid Karzai and his allies, including early elections or a traditional Loya Jirga to determine a future governing arrangement, are unlikely to find favour with either the president or CEO. Ghani mistrusts Karzai, while Abdullah is unwilling to risk losing his CEO position; neither wants to cut the NUG’s five-year tenure short.

Yet, as their differences mount, with Abdullah facing challengers from his own power base in the Jamiat-i Islami and Ghani negotiating with Abdullah’s rivals, particularly Balkh Governor Atta Mohammad Noor, the NUG’s future is increasingly in doubt. Even if Atta and other Jamiat leaders were to join Ghani’s government, the result could be more disgruntlement and internal discord since the president is unlikely to accept their power-sharing demands.

 International assistance, fiscal and military, is important for forestalling insurgent advances, but the country’s stability ultimately depends on Ghani and Abdullah resolving their differences and working together to meet the many security, economic and humanitarian challenges that confront the country and threaten their government roles and political survival.


To restore political stability, improve governance and ensure security

To the Afghan government

  1. The president and chief executive officer should end hostile public rhetoric and/or negotiations aimed at undermining each other’s power and authority.
  2. Consult more closely with parliament, particularly on reforming the governance system and on a roadmap for presidential, national legislature and district council elections.
  3. Consult those ethnic communities that are excluded or under-represented in government, including Hazaras and Uzbeks, on major political and economic initiatives so as to prevent perceived biases from fueling alienation and discord.
  4. Announce the schedule for parliamentary and district council elections, along with a firm date for presidential elections in 2019, and reform the electoral system prior to holding the polls.
  5. End appointments on partisan, including ethnic, grounds in the executive branch of government.
  6. Strengthen the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF)’s ability to counter the insurgency, including by appointing competent professional officers, and holding those responsible for dereliction of duty to account.

To support political stability and security in Afghanistan

To the international community

  1. Respect commitments made at NATO’s July 2016 Warsaw summit to fund the ANDSF until 2020, and at the Brussels conference in October 2016 to provide Afghanistan $15 billion in financial aid for 2017-2020.
  2. Encourage impartially the president and CEO to work toward resolving their differences, while refraining from imposing any externally-driven political or security agenda on the NUG.

Kabul/Brussels, 10 April 2017

I. Introduction

The National Unity Government (NUG), beset with internal factionalism and embroiled in disputes with the legislature and opposition groups, confronts governance, economic and humanitarian challenges and an insurgency that is gaining momentum.[fn]For Crisis Group analysis of political and security developments in Afghanistan, see Asia Reports N°s 268, The Future of the Afghan Local Police, 4 June 2015; 260, Afghanistan’s Political Transition, 16 October 2014; 256, Afghanistan’s Insurgency after the Transition, 12 May 2014; 236, Afghanistan: The Long, Hard Road to the 2014 Transition, 8 October 2012; 221, Talking About Talks: Toward a Political Settlement in Afghanistan, 26 March 2012; and 207, The Insurgency in Afghanistan’s Heartland, 27 June 2011; and Briefing N°141, Afghanistan’s Parties in Transition, 26 June 2013.Hide Footnote Differences over appointments, priorities and the future of the governing structure, including Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Abdullah Abdullah’s powers, are straining internal cohesion amid growing concern about the NUG’s future and political stability more generally. Divisions and dysfunction in government are also undermining the capacity of the Afghan National Defence and Security Forces (ANDSF) to counter the insurgency, as civilian and military casualties as well as the numbers of the conflict-displaced and those in need of urgent humanitarian assistance continue to rise.

This report examines the unity government’s shifting power dynamics and the manner and extent to which internal tensions are challenging both its power and legitimacy at the national and sub-national levels and its ability to manage escalating ethnic and regional tensions. It also assesses the adverse impact of political polarisation on ANDSF command structures and thus on the security of citizens and the state.

It is based on interviews with NUG officials, ANDSF personnel, members of parliament, political party leaders, civil society activists, journalists, business leaders and Western diplomats and security officials. These were conducted in Kabul, the locus of the national contest for power; Kandahar, an important political battleground between the NUG and its opposition, spearheaded by former President Hamid Karzai; and Mazar-i-Sharif, the stronghold of powerbroker, Jamiat-i Islami leader and Balkh Governor Atta Mohammad Noor.

II. NUG: Formation and Performance

The unity government was the result of a U.S.-brokered agreement between Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah after both claimed victory in the 2014 presidential election. Rejecting the Independent Election Commission (IEC)’s 7 July preliminary results, which gave Ghani 56.4 per cent of the vote and Abdullah 43.6 per cent, the latter’s powerful supporters threatened to form a “parallel government”. Some reportedly seized government centres in three provinces and threatened to storm government offices in Kabul, including the presidential palace.[fn]Crisis Group Report, Afghanistan’s Political Transition, op. cit. “IEC announces preliminary results of the 2014 Presidential election run-off”, press release, 7 July 2014; “Anxious moments for an Afghanistan on the brink”, The New York Times, 14 July 2014.Hide Footnote

To defuse a political crisis that risked dividing Afghanistan along political and ethno-regional lines, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry mediated the agreement, signed by the two leaders on 21 September, that resulted in formation of a “National Unity Government” with Ghani as president, Abdullah as CEO and both committing to a “genuine and meaningful partnership” to govern together. Later that same day, the IEC announced Ghani’s appointment as president but not as the official winner of the election.[fn]“Agreement between the Two Campaign Teams Regarding the Structure of the National Unity Government”, Kabul, 12 July 2014. The agreement was witnessed by the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General Jan Kubis and U.S. Ambassador James Cunningham and released by the U.S. embassy on 21 September.Hide Footnote

The NUG agreement included pledges to convene a constitutional Loya Jirga (Grand Assembly) that would formalise the position of CEO as “prime minister” within two years; and to adopt comprehensive electoral reforms within a year and prior to parliamentary elections. Two and a half years later, the agreement’s lack of clarity in defining the roles and responsibilities of the president and CEO is largely responsible for internal tensions and hence governmental dysfunction. Yet, despite rifts and deteriorating security, the government, belying the expectations of many sceptics, remains intact and has made limited progress in stabilising the economy.

A. Socio-economic Reforms

Economic revival and reform have been high on the agenda of the NUG and particularly President Ghani. Yet, the growing insurgency and insecurity pose major challenges in enacting socio-economic reforms. A senior presidential aide characterised the government’s first year as one of “survival”, when internal divisions threatened to destabilise it, and the second as one of “defence”, during which it faced an uphill battle against the insurgency following the December 2014 international military drawdown.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Kabul, November 2016.Hide Footnote It has, nevertheless, maintained macro-economic stability, increased the collection of domestic revenues and overcome some budgetary shortfalls, including by securing donor commitments.

Fiscal reforms and tighter control over tax collection have helped with domestic revenues, the NUG’s most significant economic success. According to the World Bank, those revenues increased to 10.4 per cent of GDP in 2015 from 8.7 per cent in 2014. In 2016, revenue mobilisation continued to yield higher results, between $173 and $180 million monthly, a 33 per cent increase in total in the first six months. The second half of 2016 also saw some economic and infrastructure development policies and strategies take more tangible shape, including the Afghanistan National Peace and Development Framework 2017-2021 (ANPDF).

Officials complain that achievements are “overlooked and underestimated” because many programs are infrastructural projects that will take years to produce visible results.[fn]“Afghanistan Development Update: Afghanistan Riding into the Headwinds of Lower Aid”, World Bank, 20 April 2016. Data provided to Crisis Group, Kabul, August 2016. Presented at the Brussels conference in October 2016, the ANPDF set out strategic policy priority programs to advance sustainable development and stability (including the Citizens’ Charter Afghanistan Project; women’s economic empowerment; urban development; comprehensive agriculture and national infrastructure). Crisis Group interview, President Ghani’s chief infrastructure, human capital and technology, Kabul, November 2016.Hide Footnote Along with revenue collection and World Trade Organization (WTO) membership in July 2016, the following examples of progress often cited:

  • working toward self-reliance in energy, including by designing and completing the bidding process for the CASA 1000 (Central Asia-South Asia) and Turkmenistan 500 KV power projects; completing the Salma Dam project; and signing the contract for two large hydroelectric projects as part of public-private partnerships;
  • expanding and deepening regional trade, including through the Sino-Afghan Special Transportation Railway between Haimen (near Shanghai), through Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan and Afghanistan’s Hairatan rail port on the Uzbek border; inauguration in November of the Lapis Lazuli Railway Project connecting Afghanistan through Turkmenistan to Azerbaijan, the Balkans and Central Europe; planned construction of six logistical hubs to provide export access to each of Afghanistan’s major regions; and construction of the Iran-Afghanistan rail line that has begun in Herat; and
  • launching the $800 million Citizen Charter Afghanistan Project (CCAP) in September, an inter-ministerial, multi-sectoral national priority program to improve delivery of core infrastructure and social services to communities.[fn]
    The two hydroelectric projects resulting from a public-private partnership are with the Ghanzanfar group in the north and the Alokoza group outside Kabul. “Afghanistan and Turkmenistan open first rail connection”, BBC, 28 November 2016; “New railway route to China carries hope for Afghan economy”, Stars and Stripes, 7 September 2016; “Afghanistan-Iran railway construction kicks off near Herat”, Khaama Press, 8 September 2016. “Government Inaugurates Citizen Charter to Target Reform and Accountability”, World Bank, 10 October 2016.Hide Footnote

As presidential candidate, Ghani made several pledges in 2014 to redress the government’s gender imbalance, including by appointing more women to the cabinet and other senior positions. Though very few have been given leadership positions at the sub-national level, and the parliament rejected his candidate who would have been the first woman on the Supreme Court, there are now four women in cabinet and far more in senior executive posts. Ghani has also been vocal about protecting women in the workplace and the ANDSF, and because of the proactive first lady, Rula Ghani, the women’s rights community is more directly connected to the palace than ever before.[fn]As of February 2016, the NUG had appointed only one woman governor and one deputy governor and no female district governor (in 375 districts). Mohammad Aqil Zada, “Women and political participation: Challenges, achievements and opportunities”, Free and Fair Election Forum of Afghanistan, January 2017.Hide Footnote

With a glaring gap between expenditures and resources [...] Afghanistan will be dependent on foreign military and civilian aid for several years.

Better relations with donors, another achievement, helped secure commitments at NATO’s July 2016 Warsaw summit for up to $5 billion annual funding of the ANDSF until 2020, and $15.2 billion in financial aid through 2020 at the October 2016 Brussels conference. With a glaring gap between expenditures and resources and a $7.4 billion trade deficit, Afghanistan will be dependent on foreign military and civilian aid for several years.[fn]“Warsaw Summit Declaration on Afghanistan issued by the Heads of State and Government of Afghanistan and Allies and their Resolute Support Operational Partners”, NATO press release, 9 July 2016; official communiqué, Brussels Conference on Afghanistan, 4-5 October 2016. “Afghanistan Trade Summary 2015”, World Integrated Trade Solution, World Bank, 2016.Hide Footnote Commitments for economic and military assistance are important for several reasons: economic stabilisation, development, military security and assurance of continued international help.

NUG officials insist the government has already “laid the foundation” for steady economic growth. Though some progress has been made, the economy remains weak and prospects for recovery slim. Important partners believe growth prospects over the next three years will depend on improved security, political stability and essential reforms, particularly on corruption.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior finance ministry official, Kabul, August 2016. According to Central Statistics Organisation (CSO) estimates, which include the opium economy, from March 2015 to March 2016, real GDP shrunk 2.4 per cent. This was attributed to a 48 per cent drop in opium production, due to adverse weather conditions and a more effective eradication campaign. After excluding the opium economy, GDP grew by 0.9 per cent. “Quarterly Report to the United States Congress”, U.S Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), 30 April 2016.Hide Footnote

B. Countering Corruption

Both candidates pledged to fight corruption during the presidential campaign. In one of his first initiatives, Ghani set up the National Procurement Authority (NPA) to centralise the procurement system. In November 2016, it said it reassessed around 2,000 contracts, approving $3 billion worth, while rejecting 90, “generating savings of $270 million” and blacklisting some 100 companies.[fn]“Reforming the Procurement: The Journey So far”, pdf presentation prepared for the weekly donor stakeholder meeting, Kabul, 12 February 2017Hide Footnote

In preparation for the Brussels conference, the president set up a number of anti-corruption structures, including the Anti-Corruption Justice Centre (ACJC), a specialised court to combat serious cases, under the attorney general’s direct supervision. In March 2016, the High Council on Governance, Justice and Anti-Corruption was created to improve coordination among anti-corruption structures, including the High Office of Oversight (HOO) and the Independent Joint Anti-Corruption Monitoring and Evaluation Committee. On 2 October, Ghani, chairing a High Council meeting, said his office had submitted sixteen cases, some involving senior Karzai government officials, to the ACJC for prosecution.[fn]The ACJC has seven primary and seven appellate court judges, 25 prosecutors and twelve Major Crimes Task Force investigators, plus administrative staff. “Presidential Decree”, 30 June 2016, cited in “Quarterly report to the United States Congress”, SIGAR, 30 October 2016.Hide Footnote In January 2017, Transparency International reported that Afghanistan had slightly improved over the previous year in its annual Corruption Perception Index ranking to 169th from 175th. Critics, however, argued that the NUG was merely attempting to assuage donor demands; other than prosecuting two minor cases in November, the ACJC has made little progress.[fn]The most significant change was in the Rule of Law Index score which increased from two to thirteen. During the London conference, in December 2014, the NUG pledged to draft an anti-corruption strategy by mid-2017 but little progress has been made. Crisis Group interviews, board member, Monitoring and Evaluation Committee, Kabul, November 2016.
Hide Footnote

With donors also increasingly frustrated at a perceived lack of political will on corruption, HOO head Ghulam Hussain Fakhri criticised the ACJC for failing to “meet people’s expectations” and asked it to investigate major cases. On 15 January 2017, the centre’s head, Alif Erfani, said investigations had been finalised into a major embezzlement case involving nine defence ministry generals as well as a case linked to the urban development ministry involving 27 officials. In March, a senior general, appointed in December 2015 to counter ANDSF corruption in Helmand province, was reportedly arrested on corruption charges.[fn]“Afghan general tasked with cutting corruption is now accused of it”, The New York Times, 28 March 2017.Hide Footnote

Such efforts have yet to dent the massive corruption. Integrity Watch Afghanistan’s (IWA) 2016 National Corruption Survey concluded that some $3 billion was paid in bribes in 2015, an almost 50 per cent increase over 2014. The IWA survey and the 2016 Asia Foundation Survey found that after insecurity and unemployment, Afghans ranked corruption as the most serious and growing problem. Officials, however, reject criticism of government efforts in this field. They emphasise that reform takes time, and they are dealing with strong, resilient corruption networks at a time when a fragile government and state face several serious challenges.[fn]“ACJC fails to meet public’s expectations: HOOC”, TOLOnews, 1 December 2016. “ACJC making progress in tackling corruption”, TOLOnews, 16 January 2017. “2016 National Corruption Survey”, Integrity Watch Afghanistan, 8 December 2016; “Afghanistan in 2016: A Survey of the Afghan People”, at Crisis Group interviews, senior palace officials, Kabul, November 2016.Hide Footnote

C. Electoral Reform

Though the NUG agreement included pledges to hold a constitutional Loya Jirga to formalise the CEO’s position as “prime minister” within two years, such an assembly cannot be constituted without elections that allow district councils to be set up.[fn]According to the constitution’s Article 110, the Loya Jirga is composed of members of parliament and heads of district councils.
Hide Footnote
These elections and those to parliament have yet to be held. Nor have pledges to enact urgently needed electoral reforms prior to any polls materialised, stymied by internal NUG mistrust and the power play between the executive and legislature (see below).[fn]For Crisis Group analysis on the electoral system, see Report, Afghanistan’s Political Transition, op. cit.; Briefings, N°s 117, Afghanistan’s Elections Stalemate, 23 February 2011; 96, ElecAfghanistan: Elections and the 
Crisis of Governance, 25 November 2009; and Report, N°171, Afghanistan’s Election Challenges, 24 June 2009.Hide Footnote The NUG took some steps to kickstart the process, notably setting up a Special Election Reform Commission (SERC) in June 2015. It recommended important reforms, including replacing the Single Non-Transferable Vote (SNTV) system with mixed proportional representation; invalidating current voter cards and introducing electronic national identity cards (E-taskera); 25 per cent representation of women in provincial and district councils; and a greater role for parties. The Wolesi Jirga (lower house) rejected these in December 2015.[fn]The SERC also recommended including two foreigners in the Independent Election Complaints Commission (IECC). “The IEC Announces 2016 Election Date – But What About Electoral Reform?”, Afghanistan Analysts Network (AAN), 18 January 2016.Hide Footnote

In March 2016, Ghani issued a presidential decree that focused more narrowly on the structure, authority, and duties of the Independent Election Commission (IEC) and Independent Electoral Complaints Commission (IECC). Changing the requirements and tenure of electoral commissioners, the Selection Commission appointed seven new IEC members (two women, one less than in 2010-2016), and five new IECC members (one woman) in November.[fn]“The law on the structure, duties and authorities of Independent Election Commission and Independent Election Complaints Commission”, IEC statement, 5 March 2016.Hide Footnote

Elections to district councils but particularly to parliament [...] cannot be postponed indefinitely.

Without consulting the government, the IEC announced on 18 March 2016 that Wolesi Jirga and district council elections would be held on 15 October. Ghani’s and Abdullah’s teams rejected this, partly because of concerns about weak support bases, but also due to apprehension an early vote in the current state of political polarisation could produce more instability.[fn]“Press Release to announce the date for conducting WJ and DC elections”, IEC, 18 March 2016. Meeting with the electoral commissions in December 2015, Ghani said parliamentary elections would be held in either summer or autumn 2016. “Parliamentary elections to be held in mid-next year, President Ghani”, Kabul Times, 30 December 2015. Crisis Group interviews, Abdullah’s and Ghani’s advisers, Kabul, May 2016.Hide Footnote There now appears to be some consensus on electoral reform, including replacing voters’ cards and distributing electronic ID cards. Elections to district councils but particularly to parliament, already delayed, cannot be postponed indefinitely; it is in the interest of both the president and CEO to implement major electoral reforms prior to polls, as provided in the NUG agreement.[fn]“Breakthrough: Govt leaders agree to rollout e-NIC”, TOLOnews, 28 February 2017; “The Troubled History of the E-tazkera: Political Upheaval”, AAN, 25 January 2016. Ghani extended parliament’s five-year term, due to expire in June 2015 because of security concerns and NUG disagreements on electoral reform.Hide Footnote Yet, even the most credible election could be disputed if they do not overcome the mistrust that mars their relationship and their government.

III. Stresses and Strains

In September 2016, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Afghanistan (SRSG) Tadamichi Yamamoto said the NUG was “at a defining moment” amid a “precarious political situation”. In December, NATO’s Resolute Support Mission and U.S. Forces Afghanistan (USFOR-A) commander, General John W. Nicholson, warned of the threats to stability posed by political “fracture” and urged the government to act quickly to improve the “leadership situation”.[fn]“Briefing to the UN Security Council”, UNAMA, 14 September 2016; Department of Defense press briefing, 2 December 2016.Hide Footnote Though the NUG remains intact, Ghani and Abdullah have yet to bridge many fundamental differences, including about their respective roles and powers.

A. Power-sharing Challenges

Tensions between the president and his CEO largely stem from widely divergent interpretations of the NUG agreement. While Ghani is the main beneficiary of a centralised constitutional framework that vests considerable powers in the presidency, the vaguely worded agreement gives the CEO’s office, which lacks any constitutional or formal legal standing, few defined powers or responsibilities other than shared responsibility with regard to senior appointments. Yet, Abdullah and his team claim he has the right to function as prime minister, pending national deliberation through a constitutional Loya Jirga to legalise the position. As an influential pro-Abdullah Tajik parliamentarian representing the Jamiat’s Panjshiri faction said, “we got what we wanted: we wanted the creation of the prime minister’s position for our team, and we achieved it”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Kabul, September 2016. Panjshir province is in the north east.Hide Footnote

Ghani and his team, however, maintain that ultimate power, as enshrined in the constitution, lies with the president. They also refer to the agreement’s text, which says, “the position of CEO will be created by Presidential decree on the basis of Article 50 of the constitution” and that the relationship is a “political partnership” under the “authority of the President”. While they also contend that the CEO has no “veto” power over appointments and NUG policies, including its reform agenda, Abdullah and his team insist that the agreement clearly defined a”50-50” power-sharing arrangement, including such veto powers.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, senior palace officials, Abdullah’s aides and advisers, both Kabul, November 2016; “Agreement between the Two Campaign Teams”, op. cit.Hide Footnote

The text does refer to “parity” on appointments to ensure “equitable (barabarguna) representation from both parties and with attention to inclusivity” along political and social lines. While there is no explicit reference to a “50-50” power-sharing arrangement, it states: “the President and the CEO will agree upon a specific merit-based mechanism for the appointment of senior officials” and will “consult intensively on the selection of senior appointees” not covered by the Civil Service Commission. In a July 2014 op-ed, aimed at clarifying the arrangement, Secretary Kerry wrote: “It creates a new position of chief executive who will report to the President until the President convenes a Loya Jirga to determine whether a permanent change is in the best interests of the country”. Visiting Afghanistan in April 2016 to reinforce the NUG’s legitimacy and counter its opposition, he also confirmed that the government has a five-year mandate.[fn]Agreement between the Two Campaign Teams”, op. cit. “Op-Ed from Secretary Kerry”, TOLOnews, 30 July 2014; “Joint Press Availability with Afghanistan President Ghani”, Dilgusha Palace, Kabul, U.S. State Department, 9 April 2016.Hide Footnote

While such support from a powerful international backer should have given the NUG leaders sufficient incentive to work together, they have instead attempted to undermine each other. Ghani has increasingly sidelined Abdullah over key appointments. Some on his team even allegedly attempted to remove Abdullah before the Brussels conference and to abolish the CEO position by presidential decree, but abandoned these efforts in the face of Western, particularly U.S., opposition.[fn]Ghani consulted Abdullah neither on Nader Nadery’s August appointment to head the Independent Administrative Reforms and Civil Service Commission (IARCC) while remaining senior presidential adviser on strategic and public relations, nor in naming IEC head Yusuf Nuristani ambassador to Spain. “Announcement on the Appointment of the New Head of IARCC”, press release, Administrative Office of the President, 9 August 2016; “Ex-IEC chairman appointed as ambassador to Spain”, Pajhwak News, 11 July 2016. Crisis Group interviews, Western officials, Kabul, November 2016.Hide Footnote Publicly declaring that Ghani was “unfit for the presidency” less than a month before Brussels, Abdullah was equally unhelpful. Western officials at the conference insisted that the unity government was the only practical option, and there was no alternative that excluded Abdullah. This gave both an opportunity to mend fences, but they have not done so meaningfully.[fn]“Afghan Chief Executive Abdullah denounces President Ghani as unfit for office”, The New York Times, 11 August 2016. Crisis Group interviews, Western officials, Kabul, November 2016.Hide Footnote

Though Ghani’s desire for efficiency and oversight may be driving his efforts at administrative reforms, many in the opposition mistrust his intentions and say he and his aides are trying to monopolise power and centralise decisions around the Administrative Office of the President (AOP). That office, described by some staff as the locus of decision-making, has expanded rapidly, with more deputies and general directorates appointed and new High Councils created and run by advisers to coordinate policy development and monitor progress in key sectors.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, senior presidency staff members, Kabul, August 2016. In one of his first decisions, Ghani merged the Office of the President and the Administrative Affairs Office into what is now the Administrative Office of the President (AOP). According to information provided to Crisis Group, Ghani has some 130 advisers. He has also set up five sectoral High Councils for economic development; governance, justice and the fight against corruption; human resources; water and energy; and urban development.Hide Footnote Led by the president’s close aide, Hanif Atmar, the National Security Council, responsible for coordinating security policy, has also been expanded, presumably to cope with the resurgent insurgency, and now has two additional deputies and several new directorates.

Abdullah’s team perceives Ghani’s administrative restructuring as primarily aimed at undermining the CEO’s powers.

Abdullah’s team perceives Ghani’s administrative restructuring as primarily aimed at undermining the CEO’s powers. For instance, the Afghanistan Investment Support Agency (AISA), which had been headed by Abdullah’s aide in accordance with the power-sharing arrangement, has been integrated with the trade and industries ministry controlled by the president’s team. The finance ministry, headed by Ghani’s aides as the result of the NUG agreement, has been given more responsibilities, including over regional trade and transit.[fn]The Afghanistan Investment Agency (AISA) was responsible for facilitating registration, licensing and promotion of investment. Ghani also issued a decree, reasserting his authority under the constitution to appoint officials at director and director-general levels in all ministries and independent directorates. Presidential decree, 29 September 2014.Hide Footnote

B. Executive versus Legislature

The president’s and CEO’s relations with parliament are as strained as their mutual ties. The February 2016 Democracy International survey of 215 members of parliament (MPs) found that 59 and 70 per cent were “dissatisfied” or “somewhat dissatisfied” with Ghani and Abdullah respectively. Several factors are responsible, some dating back to the presidential election in which MP support for the candidates was almost evenly divided. Abdullah’s backing has since declined among MPs affiliated with the Jamiat-i Islami, the most powerful party and his main power base, as well as with ethnic Hazara MPs who supported him during the campaign. Many accuse him of failing to represent their interests by standing up to a president they perceive is empowering fellow Pashtun officials.[fn]A Survey of the Afghan Parliament”, Democracy International, February 2016; Timor Sharan and Srinjoy Bose, “Political networks and the 2014 Afghan presidential election: Power restructuring, ethnicity, and state stability”, Conflict, Security & Development, vol. 16, no. 6, December 2016; Crisis Group interviews, parliament members (MPs), Kabul, November 2016.Hide Footnote

Many of Ghani’s parliamentary supporters who had hoped to benefit from his victory are equally disappointed and alienated by his refusal to give them perks and privileges. In his inauguration speech, for instance, he demanded that MPs “do not ask for personal meetings with the ministers or managerial departments”, and should stop “recommending employment, or ask to discharge or transfer staff within the state institutions”.[fn]“President Ghani’s Inauguration Speech”, AOP, 29 September 2014.Hide Footnote This likely contributed to most rejecting the first round of NUG-recommended ministers in June 2015. Some, with stakes in mining, oil and gas industries, also opposed Ghani after he tasked the National Procurement Authority (NPA) and mines and petroleum ministry to re-evaluate contracts and halt large extraction for a time.

Beyond personal and business interests, opposition in the legislature stems from the executive’s lack of consultation on key governance reforms.

Beyond personal and business interests, opposition in the legislature stems from the executive’s lack of consultation on key governance reforms and the NUG’s failure to hold parliamentary elections, which many MPs see as undermining the credibility of both branches of government. Though Ghani has extended parliament’s term, MPs believe the government takes advantage of a constitutional vacuum and question the legality of his decrees.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, MPs, Kabul, November 2016.Hide Footnote Fraught executive-legislative relations resulted in the November Wolesi Jirga vote of no confidence in seven of sixteen ministers, including two of the four women. A female MP called the vote an opportunity to “showcase our power and remain relevant”.[fn]Ministers who had failed to spend less than 70 per cent of their development budget for the fiscal year 1394 (2015) were dismissed. Crisis Group interview, Kabul, November 2016. Thomas Ruttig, “Parliament kicks out ministers again: A multi-dimensional power struggle”, AAN, 19 November 2016.Hide Footnote

On 12 November, Salahuddin Rabbani, the foreign minister and acting Jamiat-i Islami leader, was dismissed along with the ministers for labour, transport and civil aviation, public works, higher education, education, and social affairs, martyrs and disabled. The next day, the government called on parliament to postpone further confidence votes, an intervention many MPs rejected as “unconstitutional” and an “insult” to the house.[fn]“MPs discussion during the plenary session in Wolesi Jirga”, weekly report, Assistance to Legislative Bodies of Afghanistan project, U.S. Agency for International Development, 13 November 2016.Hide Footnote The president’s team managed to muster sufficient support, mainly among Pashtun MPs, to gain approval of some Pashtun ministers, including Finance Minister Ekil Ahmad Hakimi. Ghani referred the dismissals to the Supreme Court, which has yet to rule.

Rabbani and his party were the biggest losers. On 13 November, the Jamiat released a statement claiming his rejection was the result of a “deceptive political process” initiated by “a certain circle”. Jamiat’s anger could have more adverse implications for the political future of Abdullah than Ghani. The Jumbish-i Milli Islami of First Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum, now a staunch Ghani foe, also questioned the impartiality of the process.[fn]“Statement of Jamiat Islami of Afghanistan in relation to interpellation of Ministry of Foreign Affairs”, 13 November 2016. The Jumbish party’s 13 November statement, released on its Facebook page, said “lawful oversight of government and questioning and interpellation of cabinet ministers is a key responsibility of the parliament …. However (Rabbani’s) dismissal questions the impartiality of MPs. According to Salahuddin Rabbani, he was rejected even though he provided supporting documents outlining the spending of 73 per cent of the ministry’s budget”.Hide Footnote

C. The Jamiat Factor

Abdullah is under immense pressure from non-Pashtun backers for failing to protect the interests of their ethnic constituents. On 22 September 2016, ethnic Uzbek and Turkmen leaders including ex-Minister Wahidullah Shahrani and ex-MP Sardar Rahmanoghlu publicly withdrew their support.[fn]“Wahidullah Shahrani and Sardar Rahmanoghlu, supporters of Turkic people withdraw their support from Abdullah Abdullah”, 1TV News Channel, 22 September 2016.Hide Footnote At a gathering in Kabul on 9 February, hundreds from Khost province and Freng and Gozargah-e-Noor districts of Baghlan province accused Abdullah of “failing to deliver on his election promises” and to implement the NUG’s power-sharing arrangement.[fn]Crisis Group interview, demonstration organiser, Kabul, 12 February 2017.Hide Footnote

The most serious threat is from his main base in Jamiat. Many prominent party leaders strongly criticise his “inability to stand up to the president” and protect their and party interests. A fortnight before the Brussels conference, at a Kabul dinner senior Jamiat leaders hosted, he was given an ultimatum: either confront the president or risk being “removed” or “abandoned”.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, senior Jamiat officials, Kabul, December, Mazar-i Sharif, October 2016; former Abdullah supporters, Kabul, September 2016.Hide Footnote This disaffection has given the party’s chief executive, Balkh Governor Atta, an opportunity to present himself as a more effective advocate for party interests in dealings with Ghani.

Since September, Atta has reportedly discussed with Ghani inclusion in the unity government while retaining his Balkh province powerbase. Citing Abdullah’s representation failures as motivation for a deal with Ghani, he insists the 2014 agreement was between the president and Jamiat, not Abdullah, and says his negotiations are aimed at “breaking the current political impasse”. Abdullah’s aides accuse Atta of promoting his own interests and say “only Abdullah has the authority to discuss and negotiate the content of the [NUG] agreement”. [fn]Atta wrote: “With the good intentions I have seen from the President, I feel that the only way to strengthen the government and improve legitimacy [is to] establish a common axis [mehvar] to end the current crisis”. “Afghanistan’s situation needs a closer political grouping”, BBC Online, 18 December 2016. “Fazel Sangcharaki’s interview”, Freedom Radio, 24 December 2016. Crisis Group interview, senior CEO advisor, Kabul, August 2016.Hide Footnote

The Jamiat has been beset with factionalism since the 2011 assassination of its leader, Buhanuddin Rabbani, and the 2014 death of Marshal Qasim Fahim. The rifts have further widened, and the party is now split into two main factions, supporting Abdullah or Atta. The CEO’s faction currently includes influential leaders such as former Vice President Yunus Qanuni, former Defence Minister Bismillah Khan Mohammedi and MPs mainly from Panjshir province. The governor appears to have the support of, among others, Jamiat President Rabbani and Ahmad Zia Masoud, the brother of the late anti-Soviet mujahidin leader Ahmad Shah Masoud. His success inside the party is reflected in its 5 February statement that the “Leadership Council of Jamiat recommends … Ustad Atta to continue to negotiate with the palace on behalf of the party”.

Yet, while Atta might succeed in sidelining Abdullah, he could lose support if he does not gain concessions for the party from the president. Regardless of the outcome of those negotiations, Ghani has the opportunity to consolidate power vis-à-vis a weakened CEO and an internally divided Jamiat, putting, as an MP said, “the last nail in the coffin of one of the oldest mujahidin parties”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Kabul, November 2016.Hide Footnote

D. Political Opposition

Even if Ghani and Abdullah were to mend fences, the NUG would still be challenged by the opposition led by ex-President Karzai, who, meeting regularly with disgruntled serving officials, generals and tribal chiefs, has publicly criticised it on issues ranging from foreign policy to governance. Senior officials say Karzai seeks to exploit internal NUG divisions to make a comeback and or bring one of his allies to power; some ex-Karzai senior officials call the government “illegitimate” in private meetings and are actively lobbying for a Loya Jirga or an early election. Ghani’s supporters even allege Karzai has supported protests such as the Enlightenment movement (see below) to incite anti-government violence.[fn]In interviews, Karzai, among other issues, criticises Ghani’s outreach to Pakistan’s military, hoping to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table. “We want a friendly relationship but not to be under Pakistan’s thumb”, he said. Also criticising the NUG for blaming his government for failures, he said, “rather than going back into the past, they should begin to deliver”. “Interview with Hamid Karzai”, video, The New York Times, 5 August 2016; “Afghanistan is in chaos. Is that what Hamid Karzai wants”, ibid, 5 August 2016; “Hamid Karzai: Afghanistan in danger of sliding ‘under thumb’ of Pakistan’”, The Guardian, 9 March 2015; “Hamid Karzai in his retirement, says of Afghanistan: ‘We should not be failing’”, Los Angeles Times, 27 December 2016. Crisis Group interviews, National Security Council officials, Ghani’s advisers and ministers, Kabul, August-November 2016.Hide Footnote

Senior officials say Karzai seeks to exploit internal NUG divisions to make a comeback.

Old Karzai officials and allies are prominent in opposition groups, including the Afghanistan Protection and Stability Council (APSC), formed in early 2016, that reject the NUG’s legitimacy. Chaired by ex-mujahidin leader Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, with ex-Northern Alliance leader and Vice President Yunus Qanuni as vice chair, it includes Karzai’s erstwhile presidential aide, Sadiq Modaber, and the water and energy and interior ministers, Ismail Khan and Omar Daudzai.

A smaller group, the New National Front of Afghanistan, formed in January 2016, is led by Karzai’s one-time finance minister, Anwar ul-Haq Ahadi, who supported Ghani’s election but now backs an early election, because the NUG faces a “legitimacy crisis”. The High Council of Jihadi and National Parties (Shora-ye-Aali Ahzab Jihadi wa Melli), another small opposition group of ex-mujahidin leaders, formed in 2015, is led by former President Sebqatullah Mujaddadi and a Karzai vice president, Karim Khalili. Members supported Ghani’s election but distanced themselves largely because they were excluded from government. However, they seem to be keeping their options open. Mujaddadi told a press conference: “We support the government and want to make sure that the current situation does not lead to political instability”.[fn]“Newly-launched party calls for fresh presidential polls”, Pajhwok News, 14 January 2016. “Live coverage of High Council of Jihadi and National Parties press conference”, Ariana News Channel, 1 November 2016.Hide Footnote

Ghani also faces opposition within his own camp, primarily from First Vice President Dostum.

Ghani also faces opposition within his own camp, primarily from First Vice President Dostum. Relations between the two have been strained since the president ordered an investigation into the alleged June 2016 mass arrests of villagers, destruction of property and killings of suspected insurgents by Dostum’s militias in Faryab province. The rift grew when Ghani called for an investigation in December into allegations by Ahmad Ishchi, the vice president’s rival, that he had been forcibly confined in Dostum’s house in Sheberghan city and subjected to torture and sexual assault. Dostum’s office denied the accusations, saying they were designed to discredit him in the wake of a failed assassination attempt. On 17 December, the attorney general’s office said it had begun an “impartial and transparent investigation regarding the recent incident with Mr Ahmad Ishchi”.[fn]“Afghanistan, Forces Linked to Vice President Terrorise Villagers”, Human Rights Watch, 31 July 2016. Crisis Group interviews, Dostum’s staff, Kabul, December 2016; “Afghan vice president escapes unhurt after Taliban ambush convoy”, Reuters, 17 October 2016; “Taliban ambush Vice President Gen. Dostum’s convoys in Faryab”, Khaama Press, 17 October 2016. “Proclamation 17 December 2016”, attorney general’s office, Kabul. 17 December 2016.Hide Footnote

Dostum came to Kabul with hundreds of armed men and has since refused to comply with a summons from the attorney general’s office. Ghani’s aides say Dostum will be removed from office if there is sufficient evidence to prosecute; Dostum’s office insists vice presidents have constitutional immunity, though there does not appear to be such a provision.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Ghani staff member and adviser; Dostum staff, Kabul, December 2016.Hide Footnote The attorney general’s office issued arrest warrants for nine of his bodyguards on 23 January but appears to be backtracking on its initial summoning of Dostum, whose prosecution seems unlikely.

IV. Discord and Dysfunction

A. Insecurity and Political Dysfunction

With the Taliban challenging the state’s writ from Helmand and Uruzgan in the south to Farah and Faryab in the west and Sar-e Pul and Kunduz in the north, 151 of the country’s 375 districts were under “high threat” from the insurgency by December 2016, 65 were under “medium threat”, and eleven had “collapsed”. According to the U.S. Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR), 57.2 per cent of the 375 districts were under Afghan government control or influence on 1 February 2017, an almost 15 per cent decline since end 2015. According to SIGAR, 6,785 Afghan forces were killed and 11,777 wounded from January to November 2016. The UN Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) also reported a 3 per cent increase in 2016 in civilian casualties (3,498 killed, 7,920 wounded). On 21 January, the Afghan government and humanitarian community, including UN agencies, launched the “2017 Afghanistan Humanitarian Response Plan”, which estimates that 9.3 million people will need humanitarian assistance in the year.[fn]In March 2017, the Taliban captured Helmand province’s Sangin district. “Taliban capture an Afghan district, Sangin, that many marines died to keep”, The New York Times, 23 March 2017. From January to December 2016, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), 530,470 were conflict-displaced. “ANDSF Provincial/District Threat Assessment”, interior ministry, 7 December 2016; “Quarterly Report to the U.S. Congress”, SIGAR, 30 January 2017; “2016 Annual Report on Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict”, UNAMA, February 2017; “2017 Humanitarian Response Plan”, OCHA, Kabul, November 2016.Hide Footnote

In its first year, the unity government failed even to appoint heads of key security ministries, including defence and interior, thus undermining ANDSF command structures.

The sanctuary and other support Pakistan gives the Taliban will remain a major counter-insurgency challenge, but the NUG’s internal rifts make the ANDSF’s task all the more difficult. More than a year ago, in testimony to the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee, General John Campbell, then Resolute Support Mission and U.S. Forces Afghanistan (USFOR-A) commander, warned that at least 70 per cent of the problems Afghan security forces faced were the “result of poor leadership”. SIGAR identifies two main interlinked stabilisation challenges: NUG internal discord and weak ANDSF leadership. In its first year, the unity government failed even to appoint heads of key security ministries, including defence and interior, thus undermining ANDSF command structures.[fn]On Pakistan, see Crisis Group Asia Reports, N°s 271, Revisiting Counter-terrorism Strategies in Pakistan: Opportunities and Pitfalls, 22 July 2015; and 262, Resetting Pakistan’s Relations with Afghanistan, 28 October 2014. “The Situation in Afghanistan”, testimony, 4 February 2016; “Quarterly report to the United States Congress”, SIGAR, 30 October 2016. For Crisis Group analysis of ANDSF performance, see Asia Reports, Afghanistan’s Insurgency after the Transition and The Future of the Afghan Local Police, both op. cit. It took the NUG a year to nominate Masoum Stanekzai as defense minister, but the parliament rejected him.Hide Footnote After appointments were made, NUG rifts and mistrust have penetrated the security apparatus down to its directorates, hampering its capacity to counter security threats.

Under NUG power sharing, Abdullah’s team appoints senior interior ministry (MoI) officials and has some influence in the Afghan National Army (ANA), since the chief of army staff appointment falls under that ministry’s purview. Ghani’s team appoints senior officials of and controls the defence ministry (MoD), the National Security Council (NSC) and the main intelligence agency, the National Directorate of Security (NDS). In an apparent effort to strengthen command and control and oversight and improve the appointment process, Ghani has tried to centralise ANDSF decision-making and operation procedures around the office of the armed forces commander-in-chief. That office is now responsible for day-to-day planning of military, MoI and intelligence agencies operations as well as MoD oversight. It is also authorised to recommend to the president appointments of ANA and Afghan National Police (ANP) commanders and generals. Yet, since this is perceived as a bid to further concentrate presidential power, it has aggravated NUG tensions and spurred rivalries between security ministries and directorates.[fn]SIGAR, 30 October 2016, op. cit. Crisis Group interviews, NSC; office of the armed forces commander-in-chief; resolution support mission advisers, all Kabul, December 2016.Hide Footnote

The security challenges would have been graver had the unity government failed to retain international financial and military support. The “precarious” security situation resulted in President Barack Obama’s July 2016 decision to keep 8,400 U.S. troops in country and loosen rules of engagement to allow them to fight the Taliban directly and carry out more airstrikes. While President Donald Trump’s Afghanistan policy is still being formed, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has backed NATO’s Resolute Support Mission, whose commander, General John Nicholson, called in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee on 9 February for an additional “few thousand troops” to fill a “shortfall”. In 9 March testimony to the committee, Central Command Chief General Joseph Votel backed such an increase.[fn]“Obama: 8,400 U.S. troops to remain in Afghanistan through January”, U.S. Department of Defense, 6 July 2016; “Obama approves broader role for forces in Afghanistan”, Reuters, 10 June 2016. On 31 March, Tillerson told a NATO foreign ministers meeting in Brussels: “NATO’s train, advise, and assist mission is essential to our shared goal of ensuring that Afghanistan develops the capability to contribute to regional stability and prevail over terrorist threats, including al-Qaeda and ISIS”. “Afghanistan plans to double special op forces, use drones”, Voice of America, 2 April 2017. “U.S. general seeks ‘few thousand’ more troops in Afghanistan”, The New York Times, 9 February 2017; “Top U.S. general: Send more troops to Afghanistan”, US News and World Report, 9 March 2017.Hide Footnote Even if coalition numbers stay static, ANDSF will continue to benefit from NATO’s commitment at its June Warsaw summit to train, advise and assist it and provide $4.5 billion annually until 2020.

A. The Afghan National Army

ANA and Afghan Air Force (AAF) personnel are 169,229, 13 per cent short of the approved 195,000 target.[fn]Women are only 1 per cent of the force. In August 2016, Resolute Support Mission set the goal of 5,000 women in the ANA and 5,000 in ANP, but there are only 877 and 2,866 respectively. SIGAR, 30 October 2016, op. cit.Hide Footnote The government and NATO are generally satisfied with overall performance in 2016. Though stretched thin and suffering high casualties, the army repelled insurgent advances in conflict-hit provinces, including Kunduz, Helmand, Uruzgan and Nangarhar, and prevented the Taliban from retaining a major provincial capital or district centre. According to General Nicholson, special forces mostly now operate independently of coalition advisers, forces or enablers, unlike two years ago when they were heavily dependent on international military and air support. Yet, reliance on these some 17,000 elite forces for 70 per cent of the army’s offensive operations risks overburdening them.[fn]General Nicholson said the ANDSF was “tested” and “prevailed” in 2016. Department of Defense press briefing, 2 December 2016. Crisis Group interviews, senior Afghan security and Resolute Support Mission officials, Kabul, December 2016; Kandahar, September 2016.Hide Footnote

Though stretched thin and suffering high casualties, the army repelled insurgent advances in conflict-hit provinces

A senior MoD official, claiming the delay in appointing a minister had adversely affected ANA’s “resource management and strategic planning”, said the army still faced considerable hurdles in “organising offensive operations at the zone level and coordinating across command structures”. In a letter leaked to the media, another senior MoD official called Defence Minister Lt. General Abdullah Khan Habibi “one of the most incompetent in the cabinet”, with “few management skills” and whose incompetence had contributed to an “increase in the casualty numbers …”, an assessment widely shared by security officials.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Kabul, December 2016. “Abdullah Habibi, the most incompetent minister in cabinet”, ITV 6 O’clock News, 24 December 2016. Crisis Group interviews, security officials, Kabul, December 2016.Hide Footnote

With many corps-level appointments still patronage based, the NUG, in talks with the defence ministry and Resolute Support Mission, is exploring options to reform personnel and command structures prior to an expected Taliban spring offensive. Possible reforms include creating a special army committee under the president to streamline appointments.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Western ambassadors; Resolute Support Mission commander, Kabul, December 2016.Hide Footnote

B. The Afghan National Police

ANP personnel are 148,480, just short of the 157,000 target, excluding the Afghan Local Police (ALP) which is not part of the structure.[fn]Women are 1.8 per cent of the ANP. SIGAR, 30 October 2016, op. cit.Hide Footnote While it suffers higher casualties than the army because it is often at the front during the “hold” phase of counter-insurgency operations, its poorly rated performance is largely due to “inadequate training in counter-insurgency, poor planning processes and sub-optimal force postures” that leave personnel vulnerable at static checkpoints. The ANP and ALP are, moreover, ridden with corruption and nepotism. ANP officer appointments are often patronage based; staff positions are stacked with junior and inexperienced officers, appointed due to nepotism, corruption or simply the ability to read and write. The many weaknesses, including lack of professionalism and internal power struggles, were evident in the siege of Uruzgan’s capital, Tirin Kot in September 2016.[fn]SIGAR, 30 April and 30 October 2016; Crisis Group Report, The Future of the Afghan Local Police, all op. cit. Crisis Group interviews, senior MoD, NSC advisers, Kabul, December 2016; also, Kenneth Katzman, “Afghanistan: Post-Taliban Governance, Security, and the U.S. Policy”, Congressional Research Support Report, 8 November 2016Hide Footnote

The assassination of Uruzgan’s controversial police chief, Matiullah Khan, in April 2015 and the political and tribal rifts that ensued set the stage for a Taliban assault on the provincial capital. Khan, a Karzai ally and fellow Popalzai tribesman who also had strong NATO backing, had kept the insurgents at bay but was perceived by rivals to favour his tribe. His successor, General Gulab Khan, was killed in an insider attack a month later. Subsequent political and tribal tussles over the police chief post undermined ANP discipline and capacity. The bid of Maitullah’s brother, Rahimullah, to take over the job was thwarted by MP Obaidullah Barekzai, representing the rival Barezkzai tribe. Rahimullah’s disaffection with the government grew after he was appointed only deputy chief, while reforms by the new chief, on Ghani’s instructions, to counter ANP corruption, further weakened his power base, including his late brother’s militia.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Uruzgan MPs, security officials, Kandahar, October; Kabul, November 2016; “Taliban kill second police chief from same Afghan province”, Reuters, 26 April 2016; “Taliban close to taking over Afghan provincial capital”, The New York Times, 8 September 2016. The reforms included new police appointments and removal of “ghost soldiers” from salary rosters, a lucrative form of income.Hide Footnote

On 6 September 2016, hundreds of insurgents attacked checkpoints on the three main routes to Tirin Kot city. As fighting continued for three days, officials and local politicians alleged that police under Rahimullah’s command, including Qaher Tokhi, the third brigade commander, deliberately abandoned some 60 posts on the outskirts, allowing the Taliban to capture ALP headquarters on the morning of 8 September. Kandahar police chief and regional strongman General Abdul Raziq broke the siege that afternoon with international air support, and the Taliban, fearing his ruthless reputation, abandoned the city.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Uruzgan MPs, security officials, Kandahar, October; Kabul, November 2016. Raziq is known as the “killer of Taliban” for how he deals with captured insurgents.Hide Footnote

B. Ethnic Tensions

ANDSF ethnic and tribal rifts are reflected in the polity more generally. Ethnic partisanship perceptions within the NUG fuel mistrust and alienate excluded minorities. Ghani and Abdullah appear to have favoured ethnic constituents in appointments to senior posts, as have the vice presidents and their deputies. Even if solely made on merit, Ghani’s decision to appoint mainly fellow Pashtuns to positions of power and authority is seen as reflecting bias; all four of the president’s closest advisers are Pashtuns, while Abdullah appears to favour fellow Tajiks.

According to data a diplomatic mission collected on ethnic identities of appointments to the NUG cabinet and provincial governorships, fourteen of 23 made by Abdullah were Tajiks, five Hazaras, and only three Pashtuns or Uzbeks. Of 40 made by Ghani, 29 were Pashtuns, five Uzbeks and five Tajiks and Hazaras. A dataset that compared 150 appointments found that the president’s team favoured Pashtuns and the CEO’s Tajiks over ethnic Hazaras and Uzbeks. A June 2016 study by an Afghan newspaper found that sixteen senior posts were filled by Pashtuns, fourteen by Tajiks and two each by Uzbeks and Hazaras in 46 Afghan embassies and consulates.[fn]Data provided to Crisis Group. “Assessing the election promise against composition of embassies and consulates”, Etilaatroz, 28 June 2016; also, Sharan and Bose, op. cit.Hide Footnote

[T]aking urgent remedial measures to deal with ethnic grievances is particularly important in a country already in the grip of conflict.

Preventing perceptions of ethnic bias in appointments and taking urgent remedial measures to deal with ethnic grievances is particularly important in a country already in the grip of conflict. Ethnic competition and bargaining is inevitable in multi-ethnic, multi-regional Afghanistan, but if left unaddressed, grievances can fuel alienation and discord, as the Enlightenment movement shows.

The 30 April 2016 cabinet decision to reroute a power transmission line from the originally proposed route through Bamiyan, a Hazara-dominated province, to the Salang pass in the north sparked a major confrontation between the president and Hazara leaders and civil society activists. On 6 May, calling the TUTAP “our red line”, former Vice President Khalili, an ethnic Hazara, warned that the “government must not provoke people [ethnic communities] against each other”.[fn]“Karim Khalili on TUTAP Route via Bamiyan: ‘Government should not create crisis’”, Mitra News Channel, 6 May 2016. TUTAP stands for Turkmenistan-Uzbekistan-Tajikistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan but the transmission line no longer includes Pakistan.Hide Footnote By mid-month, Hazara civil society activists, backed by their political leaders, had set up the Enlightenment movement (Jonbish-i-Roshanayi), managed by a 40-member High Council of the People. The protestors alleged that the new route was yet another “deliberate attempt” by Pashtun leaders “to systematically discriminate against Hazaras” by depriving them of the benefits of an economic development project. Seeing this as an opportunity to target the NUG, non-Hazara, pro-Karzai NUG opponents, including former Interior Minister Daudzai and former NDS Director-General Rahmatullah Nabil backed the movement.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Enlightenment movement leader, Kabul, June 2016. Thomas Ruttig, “Power to the People (2): The TUTAP Protests”, AAN, 16 May 2016.Hide Footnote

On 16 May 2016, more than 10,000 Hazaras took to Kabul streets calling on the government to reverse the decision.[fn]The government blocked major roads to the presidential palace with containers the night before, fearing a repeat of the 12 November protest, the “Tabasum Revolution”, when the gates were stormed over beheadings of Hazaras claimed by the Islamic State-Khorasan. “Protesters angry about ISIS beheadings storm Afghan presidential palace”, CNN, 12 November 2015.Hide Footnote Though the protests, which continued in many Afghan cities, were largely peaceful, there were some skirmishes with the police. Justifying the Salang route as shorter, thus accelerating the project and saving costs, the government proposed a sub-line to Bamiyan that some Hazara leaders, including Mohammad Mohaqqeq, Abdullah’s second deputy, accepted; others urged more protest. The protests fuelled tensions between Hazaras and Pashtuns; counter-demonstrations in Pashtun-dominated cities criticised Hazaras for turning a national infrastructure project into an ethnic controversy.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Ghani advisers, officials, July 2016. “Announcing the ten routes of demonstration for 27 Saur in Kabul”, Enlightenment statement no. 6, 12 May 2016; “Thousands of Afghan Hazaras join power line protest in Kabul”, Reuters, 16 May 2016. Rutting, “Power to the People”, op. cit.
Hide Footnote

The anti-Shia Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K) attacked an Enlightenment movement demonstration in Kabul in July 2016, killing over 85 and injuring some 400. With four further strikes by IS-K, including the 21 November suicide bomb at a Kabul mosque that killed 32 and injured 50, failure to protect the predominately Shia Hazaras and the TUTAP controversy have undermined the administration’s and particularly the president’s standing with Hazaras.[fn]“UNAMA Human Rights special report on 23 July Kabul Attack”, press release, 18 October 2016; “Afghanistan: Shia Bombing Spotlights Need to Protect”, Human Rights Watch, 21 November 2016.Hide Footnote

Hazara protests have remained peaceful, but ethnic grievances and tensions have in the past triggered conflict and continue to do so. Indeed, conflict in multi-ethnic provinces such as Baghlan, Kunduz and Faryab has as much to do with disputes between rival pro-government ethnic militias as with the Taliban insurgency; the Taliban’s ability to muster support, too, is largely the result of portraying itself successfully as the defender of Pashtuns.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, politicians, security officials, Kabul, June 2016; Reports, The Insurgency in Afghanistan’s Heartland, op. cit; N°62, Afghanistan: The Problem of Pashtun Alienation, 5 August 2003.Hide Footnote

Perceptions of ethnic discrimination only benefit spoilers; the NUG should make appointments on merit, rather than ethnic or other partisan grounds. By engaging all ethnic communities on governance and security policies that affect their interests, it would be better placed to prevent misperceptions that mar its credibility and thus mitigate conflict risks.

V. The NUG’s Future

Internal divisions, governmental dysfunction and mounting political opposition have raised concerns about the NUG’s future and political stability more generally in an already fragile state. Several options are being discussed in Afghan and international circles on how to address political and constitutional challenges that, if left unresolved, could increase conflict risks.

A. Policy Options

A. Constitutional versus “traditional” Loya Jirga

Though Ghani and Abdullah pledged in the NUG agreement to hold a constitutional Loya Jirga to formalise the CEO position within two years, this cannot be done without district council elections. Ex-President Karzai and his supporters now back a traditional (informal) Loya Jirga in which delegates selected by the convenors would be authorised to transform the current presidential system in accordance with the NUG agreement. Ghani’s and Abdullah’s advisors question Karzai’s motives. Given the extensive patronage network he cultivated during his presidency and his considerable popular support, particularly in the south and south west, they believe he could manipulate the forum to undermine the NUG and engineer “a comeback as Afghanistan’s saviour”.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Karzai aides, Ghani and Abdullah advisers, Kabul, November 2016.Hide Footnote Lacking the political capital and support to shape such a Loya Jirga’s agenda or outcome, neither Ghani nor Abdullah supports the option. Ghani is concerned about Karzai’s potential spoiler role, while Abdullah is unwilling to risk losing his CEO post.

B. Early elections

One opposition group, the Afghanistan Protection and Stability Council (APSC), calling the NUG “illegitimate”, wants early simultaneous presidential, parliamentary and district council polls. But this appears to be a bargaining demand. Erstwhile Interior Minister Omar Daudzai, who allegedly lobbied for it in Washington, and other influential APSC members seem willing to drop it if Ghani includes them in his administration.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, opposition leaders, Kabul, November 2016; Western officials, Washington DC, November 2015; Ghani advisers, Kabul, September 2016.Hide Footnote Otherwise, they will continue to push it. Neither Ghani nor Abdullah wants early elections. Along with concerns about security, they would not wish their terms cut short. Given the lack of preparations, such an option is also logistically unfeasible.

C. Chapter 11 (bankruptcy)

High-ranking ex-ministers and senior bureaucrats shared a document with Western embassies in Kabul and U.S. State Department and National Security Council officials in Washington in October. Titled “Plans for Strengthening National Unity and Enhancing Political Stability”, it became widely known as “Chapter 11”, or “bankruptcy”. Arguing that a “bankrupt” unity government needs renewed credibility to keep power until the end of the president’s five-year term, its stated objectives included preventing a looming political crisis, building consensus on key national issues and garnering support for the government by including opposition groups in the political process and peace efforts. It proposed NUG leaders present their reform agenda and plans to a traditional Loya Jirga for deliberation and vote. A “panel of independent Afghan scholars”, as arbitrators, would devise “a solution about the position of CEO and deputies” in a way that “preserves the spirit of the NUG through the end of this presidential term”. Loya Jirga approval would give the NUG the legitimacy to run the country until its term ended.[fn]Text provided to Crisis Group. The proposal also included an Independent Appointment Commission to interview, nominate and recruit candidates for all positions above grade 3, based on merit and representative of all ethnic groups. The bureaucracy has seven grades, with one the highest.Hide Footnote

International backers are unlikely to take this option seriously, since it would weaken Ghani’s control. They would rather the NUG broaden its political base, which would help to stabilise the government and polity more generally.

D. Broadening the NUG’s base

Since September 2016, Ghani has been under international pressure to govern more inclusively, which could involve reaching out to disgruntled opposition leaders such as Khalili, Sayyaf, Daudzai and former NDS head Asadullah Khalid. Yet, he seems more focused on broadening his powerbase through overtures to key Jamiat leaders, including Qanuni and the former NDS director-general, Amrullah Saleh, whom he made state minister for security sector reforms in March.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, senior presidential advisers, officials, Kabul, November 2016. “Saleh appointed as state minister for security reforms”, TOLOnews, 11 March 2017.Hide Footnote

Much depends on the talks with Jamiat powerbroker Atta. While Ghani might gain from a divided Jamiat and weakened CEO, using Atta to undermine Abdullah’s party support could potentially spur intra-Tajik conflict.[fn]“After two years and a few months”, said Atta, “we separated [Abdullah] from the decision-making within the party. We categorically told him that he cannot cope with … what the nation wants”. The CEO, he said, “did not have the ability to perform his duties …. It is better to separate our political ways now”. “Noor apologises for supporting Abdullah’s presidential bid”, TOLOnews, 13 March 2017. Crisis Group interviews, pro-Abdullah Jamiat officials, informed journalists, Kabul, December 2016.Hide Footnote More importantly, even if Atta and other Jamiat leaders were to join Ghani’s government, the result could be more disgruntlement and internal discord, since the president is unlikely to accept their power-sharing demands. Given Afghanistan’s security straits, it cannot afford another political crisis that would only benefit spoilers.

B. The Way Ahead

A credible election in 2014 and a peaceful, constitutional transfer of power from one government to another would obviously have been preferable to an imperfect, U.S.-devised power-sharing agreement that has spawned new stability challenges. Yet, with security threats mounting and slim chances of generating consensus around a new governance arrangement, retaining the NUG as presently composed remains the most desirable option. But Ghani and Abdullah must put aside their differences and forge the “genuine and meaningful partnership” they pledged in the NUG agreement.

It should be possible to overcome tensions from their divergent power-sharing interpretations, a by-product of the vaguely worded agreement, by more consultation on appointments, priorities and programs. The president and CEO must also ensure that their appointees, including in the security apparatus, refrain from the partisanship that has undermined governance and security.

Some of Ghani’s aides favour not only consolidating power in the president’s office, but also doing away with the CEO position on the grounds that it prevents timely, effective decisions.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Ghani advisers, Kabul, November 2016.Hide Footnote Such radical restructuring would likely unravel the political order at a time when there is no consensus on future governing structures.

The NUG’s credibility and political stability more generally also depend on making preparations now for credible parliamentary and district council elections. The government should prioritise reform of the electoral system and related institutions to ensure that poll outcomes are accepted by all stakeholders, forestalling the fierce disputes that followed earlier elections.

The international community should give the NUG the fiscal and military resources it needs to provide both services and security. At the same time, influential actors, particularly the U.S., Russia and China, should resist the temptation to dictate an externally-driven political or security agenda that, lacking domestic ownership, could further destabilise the state. While the international community should press Pakistan to end sanctuaries and support to the insurgents, Kabul should have the lead on agendas and processes with regards to negotiations with the Taliban and should also be closely consulted on the use of force against the insurgents. Moreover, any future political framework for post-NUG governance should emerge out of inclusive consultations among Afghan stakeholders, instead of an internationally-devised backroom deal.

VI. Conclusion

In 2014, an externally-devised power-sharing arrangement might have been the only option available after a bitterly contested election threatened to plunge the country into turmoil. But two and a half years later, widening internal disagreements and mistrust, exacerbated by resistance to reform from entrenched patronage networks, are undermining unity government ability to govern effectively. Political partisanship has penetrated the state machinery, including security sector institutions, hampering efforts to deliver governance and tackle insurgency.

Strained relations between Ghani and Abdullah, largely resulting from a vaguely worded power-sharing deal, have been exacerbated by perceived efforts to sideline the latter. Moreover, their propensity to favour ethnic constituents is contributing to growing fragmentation within both the government apparatus and the multi-ethnic, multi-regional polity.

If the NUG is to survive and the country stabilise, the president and CEO must urgently resolve their differences, prioritising public over personal interest. Only if they work together can their government begin to address in earnest the many challenges – including economic decline, a rising humanitarian crisis and a growing insurgency – that confront the country.

Kabul/Brussels, 10 April 2017


Appendix A: Map of Afghanistan

Map of Afghanistan United Nations Map No 3958 Rev. 7. June 2011

Appendix B: Glossary

ACJC: Anti-Corruption Justice Center, a specialised court to combat serious corruption cases.

AISA: Afghanistan Investment Support Agency.

ALP: Afghanistan Local Police, operating outside the formal policing structure.

ANA: Afghan National Army.

ANDSF: Afghan National Defence and Security Forces, refers to all security forces including ANA, ANP, ALP and the Afghanistan Border Police.

ANP: Afghan National Police.

ANPDF: Afghanistan National Peace and Development Framework, presented in October 2016 at the Brussels conference, setting out strategic policy priority programs until 2021.

AOP: Administrative Office of the President.

APSC: Afghanistan Protection and Stability Council, an opposition group, formed in early 2016, chaired by former mujahidin leader Abdul R Rasul Sayyaf.

CCAP: Citizen Charter Afghanistan Project, a follow up to the National Solidarity Program, launched on 25 September 2016 to improve delivery of core infra-structure and social services.

CEO: Chief Executive Officer, a position created by presidential decree for Abdullah Abdullah following the NUG agreement.

HOOAC: High Office of Oversight and Anti-Corruption.

IARCC: Independent Administrative Reforms and Civil Service Commission.

IEC: Independent Election Commission.

IECC: Independent Election Complaint Commission.

IS-K: Islamic State-Khorasan, an affiliate of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in South Asia.

Jamiat-i Islami: Afghanistan’s most powerful party, set up in 1972 and composed predominantly of Tajiks, with a strong presence in northern and western Afghanistan.

Jumbish-i-Milli Islami: A predominantly ethnic Uzbek party led by First Vice President General Abdul Rashid Dostum.

Jonbish-i-Roshanayi: Enlightenment Movement, ethnic Hazara movement formed May 2016 in response to rerouting of the TUTAP power transmission line from Hazara-majority Bamiyan province to the Salang pass.

Loya Jirga: Grand Assembly, convened at times of national crisis or to settle important national issues.

NNFA: New National Front of Afghanistan, an opposition grouping, formed on 14 January 2016, led by President Hamid Karzai’s former finance minister, Anwar ul-Haq Ahadi.

NPA: National Procurement Authority, formed in 2014 to centralise Afghanistan’s procurement system to control corruption.

NSC: National Security Council, responsible for coordinating policy on security issues.

NUG: National Unity Government, a U.S.-brokered power-sharing arrangement between the two contenders in the 2014 presidential election, Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah.

TUTAP: Turkmenistan-Uzbekistan-Tajikistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan electricity transmission line, which, however, no longer includes Pakistan.

SERC: Special Election Reform Commission, set up in June 2015 to propose electoral reform before the parliamentary elections.

SIGAR: Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, the U.S. government’s oversight authority on Afghanistan reconstruction.

Shora-ye-Aali Ahzab Jihadi wa Melli: High Council of Jihadi and National Parties, an opposition group, formed on 26 August 2015 and led by former President Sebqatullah Mujaddadi.

Wolesi Jirga: Lower house of parliament.

Sunni fighters opposing the Islamic State gather in formation along the front line near the Islamic State-controlled village of Haj Ali in the southern Mosul countryside, near Makhmour, Iraq, on 19 November 2015.
Sunni fighters opposing the Islamic State gather in formation along the front line near the Islamic State-controlled village of Haj Ali in the southern Mosul countryside near Makhmour, Iraq, on 19 November 2015. MAGNUM/Moises Saman

Counter-terrorism Pitfalls: What the U.S. Fight against ISIS and al-Qaeda Should Avoid

This report examines President Trump’s emerging counter-terrorism policies, the dilemmas his administration faces in battling ISIS and al-Qaeda across the Middle East and South Asia, and how to avoid deepening the disorder both groups exploit.

Executive Summary

In pledging to destroy the Islamic State (ISIS), U.S. President Donald J. Trump looks set to make counter-terrorism a centrepiece of his foreign policy. His administration’s determination against groups that plot to kill Americans is understandable, but it should be careful when fighting jihadists not to play into their hands. The risks include angering local populations whose support is critical, picking untimely or counter-productive fights and neglecting the vital role diplomacy and foreign aid must play in national security policy. Most importantly, aggressive counter-terrorism operations should not inadvertently fuel other conflicts and deepen the disorder that both ISIS and al-Qaeda exploit.

The new U.S. administration has inherited military campaigns that are eating deep into ISIS’s self-proclaimed caliphate. Much of Mosul, its last urban stronghold in Iraq, has been recaptured; Raqqa, its capital in Syria, is encircled. Its decisive defeat is still a remote prospect while the Syrian war rages and Sunnis’ place in Iraqi politics is uncertain. The threat it poses will evolve in its heartlands and elsewhere, as fighters disperse. But ISIS is in retreat, its brand diminished. For many adherents, its allure was its territorial expansion; with that gone, its leaders are struggling to redefine success. Al-Qaeda could prove harder to suppress. Its affiliates fight across numerous war zones in coalitions with other armed groups, its operatives are embedded in local militias, and it shows more pragmatic adaptability to local conditions.

Though the roots of ISIS’s rise and al-Qaeda’s resurgence are complex and varied, the primary catalyst has been the turmoil across parts of the Muslim world. Both movements grow when things fall apart, less because their ideology inspires wide appeal than by offering protection or firepower against enemies, rough law and order where no one else can or by occupying a vacuum and forcing communities to acquiesce. The U.S. can do only so much to reboot Arab politics, remake regional orders or repair cracked fault lines, but its counter-terrorism strategy cannot ignore the upheaval. So long as wars continue and chaos persists, jihadism will thrive, whatever ISIS’s immediate fate. In particular, the new administration should avoid:

  1. Angering communities. Campaigns against jihadists hinge on winning over the population in which they operate. Offensives against Mosul, Raqqa or elsewhere need to avoid destruction but also need plans to preserve gains, prevent reprisals, stabilise liberated cities and rebuild them; as yet, no such plan for Raqqa seems to exist. “Targeted” strikes that kill civilians and alienate communities, as appears to have been the case in the January Yemen raid and the 16 March strike in Syria’s Aleppo province, are counterproductive, regardless of immediate yield. Loosening rules and oversight designed to protect civilians, as has been suggested, would be a mistake.
  2. Aggravating other fronts. The new administration’s fight against ISIS and al-Qaeda intersects a tinderbox of wars and regional rivalries. No regional state’s interests dovetail precisely with those of the U.S.; few consider jihadists their top priority; most are more intent on strengthening their hand against traditional rivals. The U.S. should be careful that the Raqqa campaign does not stimulate fighting elsewhere, particularly among Turkish and Kurdish forces and their respective allies. Success in Mosul hinges on preventing the forces involved (the Iraqi army, Kurdish peshmerga units, Shiite militias and Sunni tribes; Turkey and Iran) battling for turf after ousting ISIS. Likewise, support for Gulf allies should not mean a blank check for the Saudi-led Yemen campaign, which – if wrongly prosecuted – would play further into al-Qaeda’s hands.
  3. Picking other fights. Confronting Iran, which the administration identifies as a priority alongside the fight against ISIS and al-Qaeda, requires careful consideration. Militarily battling Tehran in Iraq, Yemen or Syria, questioning the nuclear deal’s validity or imposing sanctions that flout its spirit could provoke asymmetric responses via non-state allies and put Iraq’s government in an untenable position. Iran’s behaviour across the region is often destabilising and, by aggravating sectarian tensions, provides fodder to jihadist groups; as with similar conduct by others, it calls for a calibrated U.S. response. But the answer ultimately lies in dampening the Iranian-Saudi rivalry, not stimulating it with the attendant risk of escalating proxy wars across the region and reinforcing sectarian currents that buoy jihadists. Similarly, sabre-rattling with China hinders diplomacy with Pakistan and thus efforts to stabilise Afghanistan; effective counter-terrorism in South Asia requires cooperation with Beijing.
  4. Defining the enemy too broadly. ISIS and al-Qaeda thrive on confusion generated by how the U.S. defines its foe: violent jihadists, political Islam or Muslims as a whole. Designating the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist group would be a self-inflicted wound, alienating an ideological and political counterweight to jihadism. Similarly, many armed groups fight beside al-Qaeda in alliances that are tactical and do not signal support for jihadists’ goals of attacking the West or establishing a caliphate. Prising them away from al-Qaeda would be wiser than fighting them all.
  5. Neglecting peace processes. From Libya to Somalia, Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Afghanistan, no country where ISIS or al-Qaeda branches hold territory has a single force strong enough to secure the whole country. Without accommodation, factions will either ally with jihadists against rivals or use the fight against them for other ends. Backing forces for counter-terrorism while neglecting efforts to promote compromise will deepen instability.
  6. Fighting terrorism without diplomacy. Navigating allies’ rivalries, preventing a free-for-all in Mosul, managing the fallout from Raqqa, mediating between Afghan, Iraqi or Libyan factions – all are diplomats’ work. Multilateral engagement matters too, whether to back UN mediation, enlist its help for reconstruction and stabilisation or use UN and other multilateral frameworks for counter-terrorism cooperation. Staffing the State Department’s top levels and sustaining its expertise are priorities. The cuts proposed to U.S. diplomacy and foreign assistance, including to the UN’s budget, would damage U.S. security.

That the new administration wants to prioritise operations against groups that plot against the U.S. is understandable, but counter-terrorism does not exist in a vacuum. The U.S. administration’s executive order banning entry from certain Muslim countries; the troubling rhetoric of some of its officials; the calling into question of some of the restraints imposed on military operations; and the proposed slashing of the State Department and development budgets all undermine its goal of protecting Americans from terrorism. More broadly, it should be cautious not to overlook or aggravate other sources of instability even as it takes steps to defeat jihadists. The big winners from any new disorder in the Muslim world would be groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda – whatever guise they ultimately assume.

Washington/New York/Brussels, 22 March 2017

I. Introduction

U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis submitted an initial battle plan against ISIS in late February.[fn]This report adopts the acronym ISIS, as that is the version used by the new U.S. administration, to which it is primarily addressed.Hide Footnote Its precise contents are not public, but the administration appears ready to accelerate operations against ISIS and al-Qaeda-linked groups across the Muslim world.

The jihadist landscape has evolved fast in recent months.[fn]For a definition of “jihadist” and an explanation for its use, see Crisis Group Special Report N°1, Exploiting Disorder: al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, 14 March 2016.Hide Footnote ISIS has lost swathes of its Iraqi and Syrian heartlands. Its Libyan branch, with closest ties to the Iraqi leadership, has been ousted from the Mediterranean coastal strip it held. Boko Haram, whose leaders pledged allegiance to ISIS, menaces the four African states around Lake Chad but has split and lost much of the territory it held a year ago. Though smaller branches exist from Afghanistan to the Sinai and Yemen to Somalia, the movement has struggled to make major inroads or hold territory elsewhere. Fewer local groups are signing up. Fewer foreigners are travelling to join; a main danger now is their return to countries of origin or escape elsewhere.[fn]This report focuses on U.S. military operations against ISIS and al-Qaeda, not the danger posed by the potential dispersal or return of foreign fighters or the risk ISIS remnants may inspire attacks elsewhere.Hide Footnote

Al-Qaeda, too, has changed. Its affiliates, particularly its big branches in Somalia, Syria and Yemen, are more influential than the leadership in South Asia.[fn]Other affiliates include al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, now part of a new coalition of jihadist groups in the Sahel, and al-Qaeda in the Indian subcontinent.Hide Footnote Osama bin Laden’s successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, still inspires loyalty and offers guidance but has less influence on daily operations. Many significant al-Qaeda operatives are in Syria or Yemen. The affiliates’ primary identity is more local than transnational. While cells within them aim to inspire attacks against the West, they fight local wars and have opened their doors to many fighters motivated by local concerns.

As grave a threat as ISIS or al-Qaeda is the disorder across parts of the Muslim world that has enabled their growth. Neither it nor the fraying social contracts and regional power rivalries beneath much of the chaos show signs of abating. The pool both movements draw from has deepened, as more young people have come into their orbit.

A main dilemma facing the Trump administration is to find the right balance between military action against jihadists and policies aimed at tackling the conditions they exploit. This report, drawing from Crisis Group’s decades of research on war and jihadism, explores potential pitfalls in getting the balance wrong. It poses four questions the new administration’s ultimate plan should answer: (i) how to fight ISIS in Iraq and Syria; (ii) how to tackle jihadists elsewhere without aggravating the chaos on which they feed; (iii) what direction for Afghanistan and Pakistan policy?; and (iv) how to define the enemy. Though jihadists pose a threat elsewhere, with Africa of particular concern, it focuses mostly on the Arab world and South Asia – roughly corresponding to U.S. Central Command’s area of responsibility – as the main arena for U.S. counter-terrorism operations and the regions hosting the largest numbers of U.S. forces.[fn]For analysis of the Sahel, see Jean-Hervé Jezequel and Vincent Foucher, “Forced out of Towns in the Sahel, Africa’s Jihadists go Rural”, Crisis Group commentary, 11 January 2017. For Crisis Group’s extensive Boko Haram work, see Footnote

II. How to Fight ISIS in Iraq and Syria?

In Mosul, ISIS is hemmed in. The agreement the Obama administration forged before the offensive has largely held: U.S.-trained elite Iraqi counter-terrorism forces, Iraqi army divisions and local Sunni auxiliaries are fighting ISIS in the city, with support from Western advisers and special forces; Iran-backed Shiite militias and the Turkey-backed peshmerga of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, both forces distrusted by Mosul’s inhabitants, have mostly remained in the outskirts. Parts of the city east of the Tigris have been recaptured. The warren of alleys in its old quarter and adjacent neighbourhoods to the north west, where ISIS fighters are entrenched, are likely to see even fiercer battles.

Greater challenges will follow Mosul’s capture. The first will be to secure the city and, to the extent possible, prevent reprisals. Divisions within the local Sunni Arab community mean that intra-Sunni bloodshed is as much a risk as Shiite, Kurdish or Yazidi violence against Sunni Arabs. Preventing clashes among forces involved in the campaign and among their foreign backers over spheres of influence in the city and its surroundings is another challenge. Whatever remains of ISIS may escape into the desert but is likely also to operate cells in Mosul and other cities – perpetrating attacks, sowing division, extorting reconstruction funds, offering a path for those angry at whatever arrangements follow its rule or simply lying low to await more opportune times.

The best way to inoculate Iraq against the return of ISIS or a jihadist successor is to help Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s government re-enfranchise Sunnis and bring them back into the political fold.

Sunnis’ role in Iraq’s politics and security, or even what Sunni political identity will emerge, is unclear. Sunnis are traumatised and atomised, fragmented between tribes, within tribes and between generations. Shiite and Kurdish forces entrenched in Mosul’s surroundings will not easily relinquish areas under their control, which also hinders any potential devolution of political authority and security responsibility. The best way to inoculate Iraq against the return of ISIS or a jihadist successor is to help Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s government re-enfranchise Sunnis and bring them back into the political fold. Strengthening the state is vital, and will help as long as it is also inclusive.

Iran is vastly influential in Iraq, but its outsized role is resented and contested by a large array of Iraqi politicians. These include Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr, who has adopted a nationalist platform ahead of provincial and national elections, as well as the Shiites’ foremost religious authority, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. Many residents of Baghdad, regardless of religious affiliation, complain that Iran-backed militias are morphing into a multi-functional and corrupt para-state, running businesses as part of an extending patronage network. Efforts by Iran-backed militias in the north to forge a land corridor to Syria risk setting the stage for a next phase of conflict.  

Paradoxically, however, more aggressive U.S. efforts to turn Iraq into a battle-field to reverse Iran’s influence would likely have the opposite effect. They would not only be destabilising, given Tehran’s sway over the Iraqi government, powerful Shiite militias and parts of the army, federal police and body politic, but would also vastly complicate counter-ISIS operations and – by placing Prime Minister Abadi squarely at the centre of U.S.-Iranian competition – undercut Baghdad’s efforts to forge a path more independent from Tehran.

A better way to sustain momentum against ISIS and promote Iraq’s stability would be for the U.S. to play a balancing role: preserving Baghdad’s independence by supporting its military as well as economic and humanitarian efforts, while keeping Iran, Turkey and their respective allies at bay. Flashpoints – such as Sinjar, where Turkey’s archenemy the Kurdish insurgent group Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) holds territory; Bashiqa, where Turkey maintains a military presence despite Iraqi objections; and the Turkman town of Tel Afar, where Shiite militias’ advances sow fear among Sunnis – will necessitate deft diplomacy and management. In particular, the U.S. should invest in deepening security cooperation among the Abadi government, the Kurdistan Regional Government and Sunni Arab fighters, while acknowledging that Shiite militias also will have to play a role lest this delicate balance unravel.

Critical for the new U.S. administration is to learn from mistakes made after the Sunni Awakening and U.S. surge defeated ISIS’s precursor, al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), a decade ago. The Awakening movement was subsequently handed over to and promptly betrayed by the government of Abadi’s predecessor, Nouri al-Maliki. Military gains were not translated into a sustainable political order. Doing so now will be harder still, given considerably diminished U.S. military presence and leverage, Iran’s entrenchment, the fracturing of Sunni politics and a legacy of distrust deriving from that betrayal. It requires rebuilding liberated areas but also ensuring that international aid does not create new division by favouring some groups over others. It also means working with communities – arranging joint security arrangements and local governance – to avert another descent into sectarian chauvinism and revenge that would allow ISIS to re-emerge.

The campaign against ISIS in Syria is yet more complex. Taking back Raqqa, and subsequently Deir al-Zour, would deal major blows to both the movement’s propaganda and operational capacity. Western intelligence sources assert Raqqa is a hub for ISIS external operations planning. Secretary Mattis reportedly has recommended a beefed-up variant of the Obama plan under which the U.S. would deploy additional troops to back an offensive on Raqqa by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a U.S.-supported group. No other force in Syria offers a better alternative: Turkish troops and their rebel allies fighting with the Euphrates Shield operation do not currently appear capable of taking Raqqa; an offensive by the regime and its allies – Hizbollah, Iran and Russia – or by Iraqi militias would be disastrous, provoking greater Sunni resentment.

The SDF option, however, raises its own problems, not least that its commanders and fighting core, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), have direct operational links to the PKK, which Turkey and the U.S. designate a terrorist group. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan – his repeated, if ambivalent, acquiescence to previous aspects of the U.S. plan notwithstanding – is already furious at Washington’s backing for the YPG and apparent failure to keep it east of the Euphrates.

Arming the group to assault Raqqa would further anger a NATO ally that has a critical role in the fight against ISIS and al-Qaeda. Turkey would fear that the YPG could win political capital from the West (indeed, for the Kurds, Raqqa’s only strategic value is as leverage) and divert U.S.-supplied weapons to the PKK in Turkey after the fight. Even leaving aside the longer-term pitfalls of alienating Ankara, Turkish forces and their rebel allies could escalate against the YPG and its local allies elsewhere in Syria, such as in Tel Abyad, which would force the YPG to redeploy fighters away from Raqqa. The U.S. has already felt the need to intervene around Manbij to prevent clashes escalating between Turkish-backed and YPG-backed forces, which both benefit from U.S. military support.

Nor should the U.S. enlist the YPG as the occupying force in Raqqa after an assault, particularly in light of its reported reprisals in some of the non-Kurdish towns already taken from ISIS. The city could not be handed over to the regime or its allies without further outraging its Sunni Arab inhabitants.

U.S. generals should also deepen the coordination they appear to have begun with Turkish and Russian counterparts to avoid clashes among their forces or proxies in Syria.

An alternative would be to slow the battle tempo to minimise the risk of aggravating other fronts in Syria’s war and push for the type of consensus the U.S. built ahead of the Mosul operation. However, if the White House presses ahead – motivated by fear of operations planned against U.S. interests by Raqqa-based militants – steps to mitigate Turkish concerns would be crucial. As U.S. officials have suggested, they could, for example, guarantee not to give the YPG heavy weapons, particularly advanced anti-tank systems; offer to help police the Turkish border; reiterate opposition to linking the three Kurdish cantons in northern Syria; and/or press the YPG to disassociate itself from the PKK militarily. U.S. generals should also deepen the coordination they appear to have begun with Turkish and Russian counterparts to avoid clashes among their forces or proxies in Syria. A realistic plan is also needed for holding Raqqa once ISIS is ousted; local tribes should police inside the city, even if the YPG provides perimeter security.

III. How to Fight Other Jihadists Without Creating Further Chaos?

Beyond fighting ISIS in its heartlands, the new administration confronts al-Qaeda-linked groups elsewhere. Even in Syria, al-Qaeda may pose a graver threat over time than ISIS. There, as in other Arab war zones, its “long game” strategy – embedding within popular uprisings, forming alliances with other armed groups and displaying some pragmatism and sensitivity to local norms – could prove more sustainable than that of ISIS. Picking a fight with everyone, as ISIS has discovered, travels badly outside Iraq.

Syria’s al-Qaeda branch, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS), formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra, is the largest force in the newly-formed Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and among the most powerful armed groups in the north west.[fn]Though JFS has formally broken with al-Qaeda, it retains a close link to the movement.Hide Footnote The war’s evolution has worked in its favour. As violence escalated, it forged alliances, if often uneasy, with rebels. Its discipline and suicide bombers have meant that it often serves as shock troops during rebel offensives. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s policies – sectarian rhetoric, pitting Alawites and other minorities against the Sunni majority and collective punishment that razes cities – have also played into its hands.

After the rebels’ defeat in Aleppo at the end of 2016, the balance within the opposition, particularly around Idlib, has shifted further toward jihadists, as HTS has encroached on areas controlled by other rebels. To portray the north west as entirely al-Qaeda-run is wrong, however. Much of it is outside HTS control: rebels, particularly Ahrar al-Sham, a large Islamist force that confines its goals within Syria’s borders and has, in principle, accepted political and religious pluralism for a future Syria, controls parts. HTS, though JFS-dominated, includes diverse factions, some non-jihadist. Even JFS is heterogeneous, comprising a core of al-Qaeda and fighters with local motives.

Attacks that kill civilians […] bolster local support for al-Qaeda and undercut non-jihadist groups that portray the U.S. as a potential ally.

No present option against al-Qaeda in Syria is good. The new U.S. administration can continue targeting its leaders and external planning capacity, even as it supports the Raqqa offensive against ISIS further east. Strikes against targets in Idlib, which accelerated in the last months of the Obama administration, have killed dozens of al-Qaeda operatives but cannot reverse that movement’s expanding influence while conditions on the ground enable it. Attacks that kill civilians, as those in al-Jina, near Aleppo, on 16 March appear to have done, bolster local support for al-Qaeda and undercut non-jihadist groups that portray the U.S. as a potential ally.[fn]The U.S. military’s Central Command (CENTCOM) disclosed it conducted a raid against “a meeting location” in Idlib, Syria on 16 March, “killing several terrorists”. “U.S. forces strike Al Qaeda in Syria”, CENTCOM press release no. 17-104, 17 March 2017. A Pentagon spokesman initially told reporters officials thought there were “zero” civilian casualties, but after reviewing further information, the Pentagon launched a casualty “credibility assessment” to evaluate claims of civilian casualties. “Pentagon launches probe after strike near Syria mosque”, Agence France-Presse, 20 March 2017. Local media, activists and human rights groups estimated some 50 civilians were killed and dozens injured, with many more possibly trapped under rubble. Michael R. Gordon and Hwaida Saad, “U.S. military denies reports it bombed mosque in Syria”, The New York Times, 16 March 2017.Hide Footnote

Turkey can shape rebel dynamics in the areas held by Euphrates Shield forces east of Aleppo, where it intervened directly in part to prevent the YPG from connecting the non-contiguous cantons it controls. It has less interest in doing so within and adjacent to HTS strongholds in north-western Idlib province, which, with no Kurdish presence, have less strategic value and where an intervention could provoke an al-Qaeda backlash in Turkey.

An assault by the regime and its allies around Idlib is no solution either. It could weaken HTS temporarily but would ultimately play into al-Qaeda’s hands, stoking resentment and leaving the regime facing a war of attrition against a jihadist insurgency able to recruit from an angry population. Overall, the regime is no counter-terrorism partner in Syria. Even with Russian and Iranian support, it cannot secure the whole country, as shown by its inability to control Palmyra while simultaneously fighting to retake Aleppo. More importantly, its methods of prosecuting the war (use of indiscriminate weapons and targeting of civilians, hospitals and doctors, among others) bolsters the appeal of jihadists it claims to be fighting.

While the Assad regime, Iran and Hizbollah seem inclined to press their advantage, Russia appears to recognise that it and its allies cannot destroy all rebel forces.

Ultimately, the only way of sustainably eroding al-Qaeda’s influence in Syria is through a settlement between the regime and a non-jihadist opposition that has some ability to end violence on the ground. While the Assad regime, Iran and Hizbollah seem inclined to press their advantage, Russia appears to recognise that it and its allies cannot destroy all rebel forces. Shifting the balance in the north west away from HTS would require strengthening more pragmatic rebels and, where possible, peeling fighters with national goals away from al-Qaeda-linked groups. In other words, progress toward settlement, or at least sustained de-escalation, would require deeper U.S. cooperation with Turkey to get the opposition’s house in order and engagement with Russia and Iran. Though this seems remote for now, the Syrian war drives radicalisation across the region, and abandoning efforts to end it would leave a big gap in U.S. counter-terrorism strategy.

In Yemen, as in Syria, al-Qaeda has been a main beneficiary of the war.[fn]See Crisis Group Middle East and North Africa Report N°174, Yemen’s al-Qaeda: Expanding the Base, 2 February 2017.Hide Footnote Its local branch, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), was dangerous to the West but a sideshow in Yemeni politics until the state collapsed. In the aftermath of the 2011 Yemeni uprising, it established Ansar al-Sharia, parallel but aligned militias, to popularise the movement and lower the bar of entry for recruits. As fighting escalated in 2015 between the rebel Huthis and ex-President Ali Abdullah Saleh, on the one hand, and President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi and the Saudi-led coalition on the other, AQAP seized the Gulf of Aden port Mukalla and surrounding areas. It governed Mukalla via a council of local elders, placing less emphasis on enforcing its variant of Sharia (Islamic law) and more on providing water, electricity, dispute resolution and security. Conditions in Mukalla under AQAP rule were better than in many other Yemeni towns, helped by the fact that it was among the few the Saudi-led coalition did not bomb. Throughout the south, AQAP has positioned itself as protector against the Huthis.

Together with Ansar al-Sharia, AQAP now comprises thousands of fighters, embedded in the fabric of the anti-Huthi/Saleh alliance. It has acquired heavy weapons from Yemeni military camps or indirectly from the Saudi-led coalition, whose arms, supplied to a range of anti-Huthi groups, seep into al-Qaeda’s arsenal. Control of the port and emptying banks during its tenure in Mukalla have fed its coffers. While an Emirati-led, U.S.-supported campaign forced AQAP to withdraw from Mukalla in April 2016, the group still exercises on-again, off-again control of areas in Abyan and Shebwa governorates.

The Obama administration in 2016 killed dozens of AQAP members, including its leader, Nasir al-Wuhayshi, then al-Qaeda’s global number two. The recent uptick in U.S. operations, including a special forces raid in late January involving a firefight that left women, children and one U.S. marine dead, suggests the new administration will be still more aggressive.[fn]See, for example, Basma Atassi, Laura Smith-Spark and Angela Dewan, “Yemen raid: The plan, the operation, and the aftermath”, CNN, 9 February 2017.Hide Footnote

This approach carries risks. However many al-Qaeda members are killed and whatever intelligence is captured, harming civilians and deploying U.S. forces on the ground, particularly if they engage in sustained fighting, tend to be counterproductive, alienating communities and generating further support for AQAP and Ansar al-Sharia. Counter-terrorism operations risk complicating the Yemeni war and, ironically, strengthening the Huthi/Saleh bloc in areas where AQAP or Ansar al-Sharia are part of the fighting front against them. Regional and local allies may also try to exploit U.S. support for the fight against AQAP to target local opponents and, in the south, the mainstream Islamist movement Islah.

A few steps could help. Narrowing the range of targets to known AQAP leaders (rather than local Ansar al-Sharia fighters) and training camps, ensuring that each attack complies with domestic and international law and making further efforts to avoid harm to civilians would reduce chances of local backlash. In this respect, for the U.S. to loosen policies on the use of force for such operations would be a mistake.[fn]President Trump could do so in different ways. For instance, he could designate new “areas of active hostility (AAH)” under Obama’s May 2013 Presidential Policy Guidance (PPG). While all U.S. uses of force are subject to applicable law, including applicable international humanitarian and human rights law, the PPG’s strict targeting rules – which include high-level approval procedures – do not apply to strikes in AAH. See “Presidential Policy Guidance on Procedures for Approving Direct Action Against Terrorist Targets Located Outside the United States and Areas of Active Hostilities” (PPG), 22 May 2013; “Executive Order – United States Policy on Pre- and Post-Strike Measures to Address Civilian Casualties in U.S. Operations Involving the Use of Force”, 1 July 2016.  Some reports suggest Trump has already declared parts of Yemen AAH. Missy Ryan, Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Ali al-Mujahed, “Accelerating Yemen campaign, U.S. conducts flurry of strikes targeting al-Qaeda”, The Washington Post, 2 March 2017. A second way to relax policy would be to eliminate, or very loosely interpret, all or some of the PPG’s standards for use of lethal force outside AAH, including the requirement for a determination of “near certainty” that civilians will not be injured or killed, that capture or other non-lethal options are not feasible and that the target poses “a continuing, imminent threat to U.S. persons”. A last option would be to simply scrap the PPG and the associated executive order on pre- and post-drone strike procedures, including annual Pentagon reporting of strikes and civilian casualties outside AAH, and devise new policy. It should be noted that even though Obama’s PPG is widely regarded as providing important protections for civilians, it has also met criticism, including from human rights groups. See, for example, “US: Counterterrorism Report Sets Standards”, Human Rights Watch, 6 December 2016.Hide Footnote The fight against AQAP could focus on areas freed from Huthi/Saleh control, where local forces no longer rely on AQAP/Ansar al-Sharia militias as fighting partners. Ideally, recently formed militias that operate outside the law and often abuse local populations (like Aden’s Security Belt forces or Hadramout’s Elite forces) would be integrated into police and military units.

Most important, though, is not to abandon diplomatic efforts to end the war. Prospects in Yemen are better than in Syria, given U.S. influence on Saudi Arabia and the existence of a realistic UN roadmap that offers a framework for compromise. Helping Riyadh find a way out of an unwinnable war that empowers jihadists, increases Iran’s influence across its border and provokes humanitarian disaster should be the priority.

Steps likely to prolong the war, by contrast, should be avoided. Direct U.S. strikes against the Huthi/Saleh bloc or increased U.S. military assistance for operations against them, for example, would likely push the Huthis – who benefit from Iranian arms shipments but are potent on their own, are not Iranian proxies and have largely parochial interests – further into Iran’s orbit.

That would lead both sides toward greater escalation, with Iran upping support for the Huthis, dragging Saudi Arabia into a deepening quagmire, while feeding the illusion that the Saudis and their Emirati allies could end the conflict by heightening pressure on the Huthis.

A peace settlement along the lines of the UN plan would offer the Huthis a legitimate role in the country’s future

Such an escalation, by heightening sectarian polarisation and prolonging the war, would also play to jihadists’ benefit over time. The anti-Huthi/Saleh alliance is too internally fragmented and weak, even with more U.S. support, to decisively reverse Huthi/Saleh gains in the north while holding territory recaptured from al-Qaeda in the south. A peace settlement along the lines of the UN plan would offer the Huthis a legitimate role in the country’s future; that, plus the promise of Saudi and Gulf reconstruction assistance, would do more to pull them away from Tehran than a conflict that reinforces their mutual dependence and utility.

In Libya, jihadist groups are dangerous but for now less potent than in the Iraqi, Syrian and Yemeni war zones. Ansar al-Sharia groups, with loose ties to transnational jihadists, emerged after the 2011 war and ouster of Muammar al-Qadhafi; some members later joined ISIS, others joined militias that fought ISIS. Between August and December 2016, militias from the western town of Misrata ousted ISIS from a 120km coastal stretch it controlled around Sirte, killing many foreign fighters and scattering others, while locals mostly melted back into communities. The extent to which militants have drifted south to groups in the Sahel or southern Libya is unclear.

Critical in Libya is to resist the idea, promoted in part by Egyptian President Abdelfattah al-Sisi and the Emiratis, that General Khalifa Haftar can eradicate radical groups. While Haftar enjoys considerable support in eastern Libya, he – like the various forces in Syria and Yemen – cannot conquer the whole country, even with international backing. His opponents are too powerful and his support base too narrow.

Haftar’s track record against jihadists is also mixed. ISIS, for example, was ousted from Sirte not by him but by his Misratan opponents, who were closer and provoked by ISIS first. His forces did rout Ansar al-Sharia groups from Benghazi and inflicted a blow on ISIS militants there, but he alienated many non-jihadists in the process. Like his Egyptian and Emirati backers, Haftar tends to portray all Muslim Brotherhood-linked groups as terrorists, even though he aligns in some areas with more conservative Salafi militias. Haftar and his constituencies cannot be excluded from Libya’s political order, but backing him militarily in the hope that he can dominate it by force would be a mistake. Given the strength of his rivals and the support they enjoy from their own external backers, particularly Qatar and Turkey, it would escalate conflict, further destabilise the country and potentially open new opportunities for ISIS and al-Qaeda-linked groups that for now are largely contained.

Most dangerous is the Saudi-Iran rivalry, which has fed sectarianism and extremism on both sides of the Sunni-Shiite divide.

The region’s power rivalries overshadow its wars and complicate U.S. operations against jihadists. Most dangerous is the Saudi-Iran rivalry, which has fed sectarianism and extremism on both sides of the Sunni-Shiite divide. Iranian leaders, their perspective shaped by the traumatic war with Iraq in the 1980s – in which almost all Arab states and the U.S. backed Saddam Hussein – and the U.S. invasions of and continued military presence in neighbouring Afghanistan and Iraq, believe their country is encircled. Their rivals’ conventional military capacity dwarfs their own. Backing non-state actors and proxies across the region, in Tehran’s view, is a way to keep threats from its immediate borders.

Yet, what Tehran portrays as defensive appears as anything but to rivals. Major Sunni Arab states see Iran as a revolutionary power and reject the regional role to which Iran aspires and the influence it now wields, thanks largely to the U.S. invasion of Iraq and chaos in the aftermath of the Arab uprisings. The violence Sunnis have suffered at the hands of Iranian-sponsored governments and militias in Iraq and Syria has fed a profound and dangerous sense of victimisation among the region’s Sunni Arab majority and been a recruitment boon for jihadists. It has also incurred high costs for Tehran, by deepening regionwide Sunni animosity toward Iran, its allies and its proxies.

Gulf powers and Turkey, too, bear much responsibility. Their oversight of arms poured into Libya, Syria and Yemen has been inadequate, much ending in jihadists’ hands. Sunni militants of all stripes – not just jihadists – have committed their own atrocities against Shiites. Sectarian rhetoric has been far too common. Exclusionary and repressive policies in Bahrain inevitably have also exacerbated sectarian tensions. Ultimately, all prioritise enemies other than jihadists: in Saudi Arabia’s case, Iran; in the UAE’s, Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood; in Turkey’s, the PKK/YPG. All this has opened space for ISIS and al-Qaeda.

The U.S. appears set to deal with this unfavourable regional context by bolstering ties to traditional Gulf allies – augmenting weapons sales and working in concert with Gulf states on a more muscular approach toward Iran. Providing extra hardware would carry drawbacks, given the weapons proliferation in the region, the economic challenges faced by Gulf monarchies in a time of lower oil prices and the often indiscriminate conduct of the Yemen campaign. Any more confrontational stance would also risk an asymmetrical Iranian response through non-state allies across the Middle East and Afghanistan, a dangerous dynamic that could provoke a military conflagration. It also could put Iraqi Prime Minister Abadi in a bind, as he could ill afford to side with the U.S. in a confrontation with his powerful neighbour.

Diplomacy, by helping to pacify the region’s conflicts, would do as much or more to counter jihadism as any military operation.

That the Trump administration would seek to shore up alliances with traditional Gulf partners in the wake of relative estrangement under Obama is reasonable. But backing should neither be unconditional nor enable a Saudi quagmire in Yemen or a risky escalation with Iran, both of which could further destabilise the region. An alternative would be to use the leverage of improved relations, first, to ensure the Saudi-led coalition prosecutes the war in compliance with international law and, secondly, to press for de-escalation of Iranian-Saudi hostility, in particular through a Yemeni settlement, lessening of sectarian rhetoric, a more inclusive approach in Bahrain and resumption of dialogue between Riyadh and Tehran. Diplomacy, by helping to pacify the region’s conflicts, would do as much or more to counter jihadism as any military operation.

IV. What Direction for South Asia Policy?

Outside the Middle East, South Asia is the region most critical for U.S. counter-terrorism policy, particularly as the centre of gravity of global jihadism over past decades has swung between there and the Arab world. Bar brief mentions of Afghanistan and Pakistan during Secretary Mattis’s confirmation hearing, the new administration has given little sense of its direction for the region.

In Afghanistan, the Taliban is stronger than at any point since its ouster in 2001. Internal UN estimates suggest it controls more than half the countryside.[fn]Crisis Group interview, UN official, March 2017.Hide Footnote In summer 2016, it briefly captured Kunduz, a provincial capital in the north east. As weather warms, it will again threaten that town and other provincial capitals. It mounts sophisticated offensives, deploys mobile columns across front lines in Humvees and confronts Afghan army and police units directly.

The Taliban’s ties to al-Qaeda stretch back decades. According to U.S. officials, al-Qaeda operatives use Taliban training camps to plot operations across South Asia.[fn]See, for example, Brian Dodwell and Don Rassler, “A View from the CT Foxhole: General John W. Nicholson, Commander, Resolute Support and U.S. Forces-Afghanistan”, CTC Sentinel, 22 February 2017.Hide Footnote Senior Taliban leaders, however, have distanced themselves from global jihadism in dealings with the U.S. and states in the region. Their focus is on regaining power in Afghanistan.

A local ISIS branch operates in remote eastern districts. It is deeply anti-Shiite, conducts attacks that kill many civilians and comprises mostly former Pakistani tribal militants, with some local recruits. Since its establishment in 2015, its growth has largely been checked by Taliban operations and U.S. airstrikes, though attacks, including on Shiite Hazaras in 2016, suggest growing potency. The Taliban, however, is by far Afghanistan’s largest armed opposition group.

Pakistan hosts the Taliban’s leadership. Afghan-Pakistani relations are badly strained: President Ashraf Ghani initially tried to strengthen ties to Pakistani leaders hoping they would bring the Taliban to peace talks but now accuses Islamabad of conducting war in Afghanistan.[fn]At the June 2016 NATO summit, Ghani said that Pakistan had imposed an “undeclared war” on Afghanistan. “Afghanistan’s Ghani urges Pakistan to expel insurgents from its soil”, Voice of America, 11 July 2016.Hide Footnote Closer Indian-Afghan ties appear to have deepened the Pakistani military’s long-held view that the Taliban safeguards Islamabad’s national security interests. Successive Afghan governments’ failures, indiscriminate U.S. counter-terrorism operations and local strongmen’s manipulation of those operations to defeat rivals have helped fill its ranks, but the Taliban could not maintain its potency without Pakistani sanctuaries.

The Taliban has built ties to other governments, too. Iran bitterly opposed its rule in Afghanistan in the 1990s but more recently has backed Taliban insurgents, initially to pressure U.S. forces in western Afghanistan and now to support their fight against ISIS. The Russians talk to its leaders also, to share, in Moscow’s words, intelligence against ISIS and in the hopes of laying the groundwork for future talks between the Taliban and Afghan government.[fn]See, for example, Mehmet Ozturk, “Exclusive interview with Russian diplomat Zamir Kabulov”, Anadolu Agency, 31 December 2016.Hide Footnote

Troop increases requested in February by the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, General John W. Nicholson, would help the Afghan army hold the line against insurgents but not decisively tip the balance. The Taliban has weathered far larger numbers of U.S. forces during Obama’s first-term surge. Here, too, diplomacy is as vital as military support. The Afghan power-sharing government is dysfunctional, with friction mounting between President Ghani and Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah. U.S. engagement with and support for the government would help avert a crisis ahead of parliamentary elections expected in 2018 and a 2019 presidential contest that could further fracture the country and facilitate Taliban gains.

… the new administration should prioritise reopening publicly acknowledged lines of communication to Taliban leaders and rethinking a format for regional engagement.

Nor can the U.S. exit without diplomacy. The only way of withdrawing forces without leaving a haven for al-Qaeda or other transnational groups is through a settlement with the Taliban that, first, requires it to announce it has severed links with international jihadists and respects the Afghan constitution and, secondly, meets neighbours’ core concerns. Though recent Russian-brokered talks brought together neighbours and the Afghan government, serious progress is unlikely without a U.S. lead: the new administration should prioritise reopening publicly acknowledged lines of communication to Taliban leaders and rethinking a format for regional engagement. Sending more U.S. troops only makes sense as part of a political strategy that pushes toward a settlement, however remote that currently seems.

Pakistan poses further dilemmas. Not only does peace in Afghanistan hinge on its military establishment helping bring the Taliban to the table; the country also faces its own multipronged threat from tribal, sectarian and anti-India jihadists, some with old al-Qaeda ties.[fn]Crisis Group Asia Report, N°217, Revisiting Counter-terrorism Strategies in Pakistan: Opportunities and Pitfalls, 22 July 2015.Hide Footnote Anti-Shiite groups such as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi have recently forged an alliance with ISIS (reportedly its Middle East-based leadership), with both claiming credit for sophisticated attacks.[fn]See, for example, Mubashir Zaidi, “IS recruiting thousands in Pakistan, govt warned in ‘secret’ report”, Dawn, 8 November 2014.Hide Footnote

The military has in recent years cracked down on militants that attack the Pakistani state. Operations in the tribal areas along the north-west border with Afghanistan have dispersed disparate tribal militants and foreign jihadists sheltering there since fleeing Afghanistan in 2001. Offensives have often been brutal and displaced the problem rather than resolved it; militants have already begun to regroup and resume attacks countrywide, claiming hundreds of lives in 2017. Introducing civilian governance and policing is the only way to stabilise the tribal areas. Together with years of U.S. drone strikes, however, operations have meant they no longer serve as a base for al-Qaeda’s leadership to the same degree as a decade ago.

The two main anti-India groups, Lashkar-e-Tayyaba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Mohammad, enjoy considerable operating space, with their relief wings distributing aid, madrasas functioning and leaders preaching openly. Though neither has formal links to al-Qaeda, their fighters rub shoulders with other militants and global jihadists in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The gravest danger they pose for Pakistan and the U.S. is another strike on India. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s response to attacks last year on Indian forces in Kashmir suggests his reaction would be calibrated carefully, and public opinion would weigh only so far on that calculation. But it would be difficult to show restraint in the event of an attack like that which killed large numbers of civilians in Mumbai in 2008.

Pakistan’s jihadist problem, if largely of its own making, is deeply entrenched. That Afghan Taliban leaders who talk to the U.S. or Afghan government without Pakistani blessing are promptly jailed or disappear shows how the military can clamp down. Only a strategic rethink of relations with India, however, would lead it to dismantle the LeT’s and Jaish’s Punjab-based infrastructure.

The main challenge for the U.S. is to persuade the military establishment to push the Taliban toward talks and act against anti-India groups. Inducements to military leaders, including strategic dialogue and extra aid in the early years of the Obama administration, did not shift its strategic calculation. Wielding a larger stick, for which there is some support in Congress, would be a new tactic, though U.S. military leaders would likely have little appetite to exert significant pressure on Pakistani counterparts. Blank checks in the past, however, have produced at best selective counter-terrorism cooperation. U.S. national security interests would be best served by a multipronged policy: conditionality on aid to the military; technical assistance for civilian law enforcement and intelligence agencies; and continued support for a democratic transition that is incrementally empowering a Pakistani political leadership less prone to see jihadists as strategic assets.

Pressing and persuading Pakistan to do more against its militant proxies also requires U.S. cooperation with China. Beijing fears jihadism as much as the U.S., and its proximity to and growing economic cooperation in the region give it more to lose from Afghan instability. The web of trade routes it funds across South and Central Asia could be a geopolitical game changer for the region. Without its support, the U.S. will struggle to extract more constructive policy from Islamabad. This makes the administration’s initial hostility to China all the riskier.

V. Defining the Enemy

A last question for the new administration is whom to fight. Where will it draw the line on which Islamists are the enemy? Secretary Mattis and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster in the past have been pragmatic, particularly in Iraq, where they dealt with diverse politicians, including Islamists. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, on the other hand, has argued that defeating the Muslim Brotherhood is as much a priority as defeating al-Qaeda.

Defining the enemy applies first on the battlefield, particularly where jihadists fight beside other militias, whether in Libya, Syria or Yemen. These alliances tend to be tactical: jihadists provide extra firepower against a shared enemy. They rarely signal wider support for aims to strike the West or establish a caliphate. U.S. interests would be best served by defining the enemy narrowly and aiming to change conditions on the ground to prompt other armed groups to break ties with jihadists. Ideally this would involve de-escalating the conflicts that motivate those alliances, but even without that, there may be ways to pull groups with national goals and a willingness to coexist with rivals away from transnational jihadists. Outreach to such groups by the U.S. or its allies – similar to outreach to Sunni tribal leaders ahead of the Awakening and U.S. surge in Iraq – could occur even alongside attacks on al-Qaeda leaders.

Identifying the aims of militias across the Muslim world’s war zones is, of course, hard. Fighters with links, however loose, to jihadists pervade armed groups of all stripes. Few powerful militia leaders champion liberal values or tolerance, even where they espouse national goals or accept power sharing. The perceived failure, over past decades, of secular ideologies and the flow of Gulf funding, combined with severe violence and repression, have empowered few moderates. But the Trump administration should be realistic. Many militants have now rubbed shoulders with al-Qaeda; many espouse anti-U.S. sentiment. The U.S. cannot declare them all beyond the pale if it hopes to influence decisively the wars they fight in.

A sensible position on mainstream Islamists is especially critical. Designating the Muslim Brotherhood terrorist, for example, would backfire. The movement espouses some illiberal and intolerant ideas. Since President Mohamed Morsi was deposed in Egypt, younger Brotherhood members, facing a brutal crackdown, have been implicated in attacks against the Egyptian state, even if the movement’s leaders reject their violence.

Overall, however, the Brotherhood has explicitly distanced itself over past decades from the thinkers that inspire al-Qaeda and ISIS. Its political Islam is perhaps jihadists’ main ideological competitor; ISIS and al-Qaeda propagandists reserve particular venom for its gradualism and electoral participation. They portray that strategy’s failure as vindication of their violence. Over recent years, jihadists’ fortunes have tended to wax as those of mainstream Islamists have waned.

There are other challenges, too. Members of Muslim Brotherhood offshoots sit in the cabinets and parliaments of staunch U.S. allies like Morocco, Tunisia and Jordan, whose support is critical against ISIS and al-Qaeda. Elsewhere – in Syria and Yemen, for example – militias linked to the Brotherhood fight beside U.S. allies. Other allies, like Turkey and Qatar, host exiled leaders. Designating the movement would also play dangerously into rivalries between Turkey and Qatar, which are sympathetic to it, and the UAE and Egypt, which view it as a threat. Where those rivalries play out through proxies, designation would pick a side, encouraging anti-Islamist forces, like those of Haftar in Libya, to double down.

Designation would not necessarily impel Muslim Brotherhood leaders toward violence, but it would narrow the movement’s options and potentially increase the anti-U.S. sentiment of members. It would play into jihadist narratives, already reinforced by some of President Trump’s rhetoric and his immigration policies, that peaceful resistance and accommodation with the West are futile. While little suggests the new administration has either the leverage or the inclination to shift the Egyptian or Emirati line on the movement, it should at least not buy into the same logic. Picking a fight with the Muslim Brotherhood makes no strategic sense for the U.S.

VI. Conclusion

Since the 9/11 attacks in 2001, the war against jihadists has dominated U.S. national security policy. The aggressive operations that look set to mark President Trump’s foreign policy do not in themselves signal major departures. Reversing al-Qaeda’s and ISIS’s gains and protecting U.S. citizens from their attacks should, of course, be imperative for U.S. leaders. But for the last decade and a half, too great a focus on counter-terrorism has often distorted U.S. policy and, in many cases, made the problem worse.[fn]Crisis Group Report, Exploiting Disorder, op. cit.Hide Footnote The new administration’s elevation of the threat, combined with the damaging anti-Muslim language of some in Trump’s inner circle and immigration policies that appear discriminatory, makes risks all the graver.

Some early signs are particularly troubling. Loosening procedures that protect against civilian casualties during targeted killings would be a serious mistake. Such killings in any case have a mixed record: repeated strikes against al-Qaeda commanders in Somalia, Syria and Yemen have not inhibited their movements’ growth; often harder-line leaders replace those killed.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote Invariably they are counterproductive, and potentially illegal, if they kill civilians and, with that, anger local communities as well as partners and allies. Even small numbers of civilian casualties can complicate the fight against jihadists. Overlooking allies’ harmful policies or their potential misuse of counter-terrorism operations against rivals is also a danger and could deepen chaos in the region or even provoke a wider conflagration. So, too, could an escalation against Iran.

Especially troubling is the apparent neglect of diplomacy, which is critical for navigating the rivalries among states in parts of the world most affected and forging solutions to the wars jihadists feed off. Staffing the State Department’s top levels; maintaining a deep bench of expertise at both State and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), which plays a vital role in preventing and mitigating violence and helping communities recover; and maintaining both their budgets are critical to U.S. soft power and should be priorities. Cutting support to the UN would hinder efforts against jihadists, potentially undermining its critical peace-making and peacekeeping, coordination of reconstruction funds in places like Iraq, humanitarian support to sustain communities in war zones and its forum for counter-terrorism coordination.

In the words of the U.S. Counterinsurgency Field Manual that Secretary Mattis co-authored: “The military contribution to countering insurgency, while vital, is not as important as political efforts for long term success”.[fn]“Counterinsurgency Operations”, Joint Chiefs of Staff Joint Publication 3-24, 5 October 2009, p.III.3.Hide Footnote Or in his own words as still a general, “… if you don’t fund the State Department fully then I need to buy more ammunition ultimately”.[fn]Hearing, Armed Services Committee, U.S. Senate, 5 March 2013, p. 16.Hide Footnote Fighting terrorists without diplomats, in other words, is a fool’s game.

The new administration’s focus on degrading groups that plot attacks against the U.S. and its citizens is understandable. But in doing so, it must avoid inadvertently creating further disorder that plays into jihadists’ hands.

Washington/New York/Brussels, 22 March 2017

Appendix A: Map of North Africa, the Middle East and South Asia

Map of North Africa, the Middle East and South Asia International Crisis Group, March 2017. Based on UN Map No 4170, Rev. 13, 2012.

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