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Afghanistan: The Long, Hard Road to the 2014 Transition
Afghanistan: The Long, Hard Road to the 2014 Transition
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
As New U.S. Envoy Appointed, Turbulent Afghanistan’s Hopes of Peace Persist
As New U.S. Envoy Appointed, Turbulent Afghanistan’s Hopes of Peace Persist
Report 236 / Asia

Afghanistan: The Long, Hard Road to the 2014 Transition

Afghanistan is hurtling toward a devastating political crisis as the government prepares to take full control of security in 2014.

Executive Summary

Plagued by factionalism and corruption, Afghanistan is far from ready to assume responsibility for security when U.S. and NATO forces withdraw in 2014. That makes the political challenge of organising a credible presidential election and transfer of power from President Karzai to a successor that year all the more daunting. A repeat of previous elections’ chaos and chicanery would trigger a constitutional crisis, lessening chances the present political dispensation can survive the transition. In the current environment, prospects for clean elections and a smooth transition are slim. The electoral process is mired in bureaucratic confusion, institutional duplication and political machinations. Electoral officials indicate that security and financial concerns will force the 2013 provincial council polls to 2014. There are alarming signs Karzai hopes to stack the deck for a favoured proxy. Demonstrating at least will to ensure clean elections could forge a degree of national consensus and boost popular confidence, but steps toward a stable transition must begin now to prevent a precipitous slide toward state collapse. Time is running out.

Institutional rivalries, conflicts over local authority and clashes over the role of Islam in governance have caused the country to lurch from one constitutional crisis to the next for nearly a decade. As foreign aid and investment decline with the approach of the 2014 drawdown, so, too, will political cohesion in the capital. To ensure political continuity and a stable security transition, action to correct flaws in the electoral framework and restore credibility to electoral and judicial institutions is needed well before the presidential and provincial council polls. Tensions have already begun to mount between the president and the Wolesi Jirga (the lower house of the National Assembly), as debate over electoral and other key legal reforms heats up. Opposition demands for changes to the structures of the Independent Elections Commission (IEC) and Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) and an overhaul of the Single Non-Transferable Vote (SNTV) election mechanism have become more vigorous by the day.

There is also, as yet, no sign of an agreement on the timing of the 2014 elections or the following year’s parliamentary elections, though President Karzai insisted on 4 October that the former would be held on time and “without interruption”. The IEC has hedged on publicly announcing the planned postponement of the provincial council polls, for fear that such an announcement could deepen the political crisis. At a minimum, the IEC must announce a timetable and a plan for the 2014 elections that adhere closely to constitutional requirements by December 2012, and a new IEC chairman must be selected to replace the outgoing chairman, whose term expires in April 2013, as well as a new chief electoral officer.

It is a near certainty that under current conditions the 2014 elections will be plagued by massive fraud. Vote rigging in the south and east, where security continues to deteriorate, is all but guaranteed. High levels of violence across the country before and on the day of the polls are likely to disenfranchise hundreds of thousands more would-be voters. The IEC will likely be forced to throw out many ballots. This would risk another showdown between the executive, legislature and judiciary. Under the current constitution and electoral laws, the government is not equipped to cope with legal challenges to polling results. Nearly a decade after the first election, parliament and the president remain deeply divided over the responsibilities of constitutionally-mandated electoral institutions. The IEC, its credibility badly damaged after the fraudulent 2009 and 2010 elections, is struggling to redefine its role as it works to reform existing laws. There is also still considerable disagreement over whether the ECC should take the lead in arbitrating election-related complaints.

It will be equally important to decide which state institution has final authority to adjudicate constitutional disputes before the elections. The uncertainty surrounding the responsibilities of the Supreme Court versus those of the constitutionally-mandated Independent Commission for the Supervision of the Implementation of the Constitution (ICSIC) proved to be a critical factor in the September 2010 parliamentary polls. The Supreme Court’s subsequent decision to establish a controversial special tribunal on elections raised serious questions about its own impartiality. Institutional rivalries between the high court and ICSIC have increased considerably since then, with the Wolesi Jirga aggressively championing the latter’s primacy in opposition to the president.

The tug of war between these two constitutionally-mandated institutions has extended to Supreme Court appointments; two of nine positions on the bench are held by judges whose terms have already expired, and the terms of three more expire in 2013. The ICSIC faces similar questions about its legitimacy, since only five of its required seven commissioners have been appointed by the president and approved by parliament. Ambiguities over the roles of the Supreme Court and the constitutional commission must be resolved well before the presidential campaign begins in earnest in early 2013. An important first step would be to appoint the required judges and commissioners.

Institutional rivalry between the high court and the constitutional commission, however, can no more be resolved by presidential decree than it can by a simple parliamentary vote. Constitutional change will ultimately be necessary to restore the Supreme Court’s independence and to establish clear lines of authority between it and the ICSIC. Even if wholesale constitutional change is not possible in the near term, legal measures must be adopted within the next year to minimise the impact of institutional rivalry over electoral disputes and to ensure continuity between the end of Karzai’s term and the start of the next president’s term.

Although Karzai has signalled his intent to exit gracefully, fears remain that he may, directly or indirectly, act to ensure his family’s continued majority ownership stake in the political status quo. This must be avoided. It is critical to keep discord over election results to a minimum; any move to declare a state of emergency in the event of a prolonged electoral dispute would be catastrophic. The political system is too fragile to withstand an extension of Karzai’s mandate or an electoral outcome that appears to expand his family’s dynastic ambitions. Either would risk harming negotiations for a political settlement with the armed and unarmed opposition. It is highly unlikely a Karzai-brokered deal would survive under the current constitutional scheme, in which conflicts persist over judicial review, distribution of local political power and the role of Islamic law in shaping state authority and citizenship. Karzai has considerable sway over the system, but his ability to leverage the process to his advantage beyond 2014 has limits. The elections must be viewed as an opportunity to break with the past and advance reconciliation.

Quiet planning should, nonetheless, begin now for the contingencies of postponed elections and/or imposition of a state of emergency in the run up to or during the presidential campaign season in 2014. The international community must work with the government to develop an action plan for the possibility that elections are significantly delayed or that polling results lead to prolonged disputes or a run-off. The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) should likewise be prepared to organise additional support to Afghan forces as needed in the event of an election postponement or state of emergency; its leadership would also do well to assess its own force protection needs in such an event well in advance of the election.

All this will require more action by parliament, less interference from the president and greater clarity from the judiciary. Failure to move on these fronts could indirectly lead to a political impasse that would provide a pretext for the declaration of a state of emergency, a situation that would likely lead to full state collapse. Afghan leaders must recognise that the best guarantee of the state’s stability is its ability to guarantee the rule of law during the political and military transition in 2013-2014. If they fail at this, that crucial period will at best result in deep divisions and conflicts within the ruling elite that the Afghan insurgency will exploit. At worst, it could trigger extensive unrest, fragmentation of the security services and perhaps even a much wider civil war. Some possibilities for genuine progress remain, but the window for action is narrowing.

Kabul/Brussels, 8 October 2012

Afghan residents walk near destroyed houses after a Taliban attack in Ghazni on 16 August 2018. AFP/Zakeria Hashimi
Commentary / Asia

As New U.S. Envoy Appointed, Turbulent Afghanistan’s Hopes of Peace Persist

The new U.S. adviser on Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, has a tough assignment: fostering peace between the Afghan government and the Taliban. Crisis Group’s Borhan Osman says that recent violence has soured the public mood, but that leaders on all sides still appear committed – at least rhetorically – to peace talks.

On 4 September 2018, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad would join the State Department as an adviser on Afghanistan. Khalilzad will, in the Secretary of State’s words, “assist in the reconciliation effort”; his appointment is a welcome signal of Washington’s renewed intent to find a negotiated settlement to the war pitting the Afghan government and its international allies against the Taliban insurgency. For now, a formal peace process still seems some way off. Indeed, Khalilzad’s appointment comes as optimism that swept the country during an unexpected ceasefire in early June has withered, as levels of bloodshed again soar. But confidence-building steps between the parties that reduce the war’s horrific civilian toll, could be within reach and are worth Ambassador Khalilzad pursuing with insurgent leaders.

I saw the shift in mood first hand during two trips to Ghazni, a city 140km southwest of the capital Kabul. Visiting on 21 August, at the beginning of the religious holiday, Eid al-Adha, I witnessed turbaned men weeping with grief after prayers in the busiest mosque in the city. The men hugged each other, sobbing as they exchanged greetings. The religious holiday is usually a time of celebration, but the mood in Ghazni was sombre. The men finished their prayers and walked home past bullet-riddled walls and burned buildings. They saw none of the usual Eid festivities: no hollering youths, no children wearing new clothes, no folk dances to the sound of drums. Hundreds of bodies had been recovered from the streets only a week earlier, after one of the largest Taliban offensives in recent years saw insurgents occupy much of the city and engage in fierce street battles with Afghan security forces. Ghazni mourned.

The Taliban mounted the attack on 10 August, taking most of the city. Fighting engulfed all neighbourhoods, as the insurgents also had dismantled the government’s remaining presence in nearby towns, allowing them to surround the city and enter from four directions at once. The Taliban’s operations also involved a five-day siege of the city, cutting off the city’s electricity and telecommunications. Most civilians were trapped amid shortages of clean water and food. Taliban fighters used homes and markets as fighting positions, presumably leading to many civilian deaths. For their part, government forces were accused by residents of indiscriminate shelling. Airstrikes by U.S. and Afghan warplanes forced the insurgents to retreat, but further contributed to the destruction of the city and loss of life. “Everybody stuck in the city during the fight experienced a death”, said one resident, recalling how his neighbour’s three children were killed in an airstrike. “They were the darkest days of my life”, said another resident. “It was like a doomsday”. A former teacher who had fought the Soviets in Ghazni in the 1980s told me that the latest fighting was more intense than the battles of any previous war.

The change of public mood over a period of two months indicates how quickly hope can thrive, then fade away.

The sadness that marked Ghazni at the start of Eid al-Adha stood in sharp contrast to the scenes I had witnessed in the city only two months earlier, when worshippers had shed tears of joy following an historic ceasefire. The previous Eid holiday – Eid al-Fitr in June – had been a moment of wild celebration. In Ghazni, as across much of the country, Taliban and Afghan government forces had laughed and joked together, performing traditional dances to the beat of patriotic songs. Afghan special forces had posed for selfies with Taliban fighters. Many believed then that peace was imminent.

These days, Afghans wonder in despair if the war will ever end. The change of public mood over a period of two months indicates how quickly hope can thrive, then fade away. A majority of people do not remember peace and easily lose sight of prospects for ending the seventeen-year war between the Afghan government and international forces, on one hand, and the Taliban insurgency, on the other.

The disappointment sharpened when the government failed to start another truce at the end of August. Building on the June ceasefire and subsequent Taliban-U.S. talks, President Ashraf Ghani sought a three-month halt to fighting that would have started on 21 August. His government reached out to the Taliban in hopes of reaching a bilateral cessation of hostilities, but the insurgent movement ramped up its attacks instead, with Crisis Group estimating (based on a tally from officials and journalists in major hotspots) the dead on all sides at more than 1,000 combatants and civilians in the second week of August.

The most brazen offensive was the Ghazni onslaught in mid-August, contributing to half of the deaths nationwide that week. For the Taliban, this escalation of violence seems to reflect the group’s intent to respond with military pressure of its own to counter the government and U.S. forces’ ramped-up military efforts. The Taliban appears bent on hitting the government hard and expanding the territory under its control, to show strength and demoralise its enemy. The insurgents are conducting a war of attrition, chipping away at government enclaves and inflicting unsustainable casualties among pro-government forces.

The escalation in violence has raised questions about whether the Taliban are genuinely interested in peace. An insurgent commander I met outside Ghazni, who led a company-size group during the attack on the city, felt differently. He framed the recent offensives as part of the Taliban’s effort to accelerate “the broader plan” for ending the war. His remarks in some ways mirrored those of the outgoing senior U.S. commander, General John Nicholson, who in his final statement to the media on 22 August said that U.S. military efforts have resulted in “progress” toward a political settlement. In other words, both sides of the war believe that pressure on the battlefield has helped make their opponents more willing to negotiate.

Yet this “fight and talk” strategy carries serious risks. The successful June ceasefire was seen by many as a potential game changer, paving the way for U.S. officials to sit down with Taliban representatives for two full days in late July. But a widening trust gap emerged in subsequent weeks, with missteps by all parties: the Taliban, the U.S. and the Afghan government. The Taliban, arguably first and foremost, spoiled the mood by escalating attacks at precisely the time when others were working toward a renewed ceasefire. This decision was the most significant contribution to the reversal of momentum toward a peace process. An increase in insurgent attacks lead to an uptick in civilian harm, particularly in densely populated urban areas. The movement’s major attacks against Afghan forces in the north, west and south of the country in August came only a month and half after it had scaled down its campaign following the June ceasefire. It would have been ideal to extend the détente into the summer fighting season to allow the diplomatic process to get started. 

The leaderships of all sides still appear committed to – or at least show rhetorical support for – peace talks

For its part, the U.S. continued its escalating campaign of airstrikes, which have more than doubled since last year. The growing air campaign contributed to a 52 per cent increase in civilian casualties from airstrikes this year, according to the UN, though the biggest cause of civilian harm remains insurgent attacks. The airstrikes could make it hard for the Taliban to justify peace talks with the U.S. when bombs are falling among its grassroots supporters. Furthermore, assertions by U.S. officials that military pressure on the Taliban made the insurgents more receptive to talks have added to the atmosphere of mistrust. Conversations I had in Ghazni and elsewhere suggested that Taliban military planners might have ordered the August offensive at least in part to push back against any impression that U.S. military action was forcing them into negotiations, and to demonstrate that they can outdo the Americans in exerting pressure on the battlefield.

There were missteps by the Afghan government, too. In early August, the Afghan intelligence service, the National Directorate of Security, rescued around 250 self-declared Islamic State fighters from imminent death or capture by the Taliban in the northern Jawzjan province. The Taliban’s elite forces were pushing to eliminate the small pocket of militants nominally fighting under the black flag of the so-called Islamic State Khorasan Province (IS-KP). Taliban leaders were angry and suspicious when the government thwarted their offensive, whisking away IS-KP cadres in helicopters and sheltering them in government guest houses. The Taliban saw this operation as evidence that the Afghan government, and by extension the U.S., were using the terrorist group to undermine the Taliban at any cost rather than making genuine peace. This misperception was strengthened by the U.S. bombing of Taliban fighters engaged in the subsequent offensives against IS-KP elsewhere in the country. In reality, the U.S. military and Afghan forces have engaged in determined efforts to decapitate IS-KP and reduce its strength. An airstrike against the IS-KP leadership on 25 August reportedly killed one of the group’s top commanders.

It now appears that the three-month ceasefire on which President Ghani was banking will not materialise. It will now be harder to hold the parliamentary elections scheduled for 20 October and – given that insecurity is often linked to disenfranchisement or fraud – raise the risk of a contested vote.

Still, it is too early to write off the peace process. The leaderships of all sides still appear committed to – or at least show rhetorical support for – peace talks. President Ghani’s ceasefire offer despite the recent carnage showed political bravery; on 21 August, he reiterated his call for peace, his speech not faltering even as mortars started falling nearby, punctuating his words with explosions. From the U.S. side, Ambassador Khalilzad’s appointment signals the U.S.’s intent regarding peace talks. As for the Taliban, it issued a statement in the name of its leader just before Eid al-Adha committing themselves to “bringing peace and security”, insisting on the importance of direct talks with the U.S. and paying more attention to peace than any similar statements from the insurgent leadership in the past. Despite the Taliban’s escalation, the belief direct talks can deliver apparently remains high within different Taliban quarters. Formal peace negotiations remain a distant prospect, but leaders on all sides of the conflict have rarely devoted so much attention to peacemaking.

That the Taliban appears intent to continue fighting even while talking with the U.S. does not necessarily mean those talks are futile

What does not appear likely, however, is a major military de-escalation between the parties. The U.S. and Afghan governments are seeking respite from a barrage of Taliban attacks this year, but that aim may be too ambitious for now.

The Taliban commander I met outside Ghazni, who was well informed about the peace talks with the Americans, told me he saw nothing wrong with escalating attacks. I asked him if the Taliban should halt or reduce violence to signal good faith in negotiations.

“No”, he answered. “A ceasefire or stopping attacks on government centres [cities] would be premature before a peace deal”.

“But what happens to peace talks then?” I asked.

“Those in charge of talks [from the Taliban] will talk while we do the fighting. As the last ceasefire showed, when our leader instructs us to halt fighting, everybody will immediately obey. We will become brothers with the government soldiers”.

“Does that mean you seek military victory?”

“No. There has not been a political solution so far because our enemies wanted to eliminate us. They wanted a military solution. I am 100 per cent sure that when there are direct talks with the Americans, we would certainly reach a political solution if they are honest”.

This and other conversations I have had in recent months with Taliban interlocutors suggest that it will be hard to reach agreement on de-escalation between military forces in the short term. Warfare has long been the Taliban’s defining characteristic and the movement is unlikely to scale back operations until a political deal is reached. The Taliban are thus likely to confound U.S. and Afghan governments expectations that peace talks will come after incremental reductions in violence. The Taliban view such proposals with suspicion, saying their enemies are not interested ending the war but in “peeling off” elements of their movement to weaken them.

That the Taliban appears intent to continue fighting even while talking with the U.S. does not necessarily mean those talks are futile, but it undoubtedly complicates efforts for peace. Negotiations under current conditions will almost certainly involve setbacks of the kind witnessed in recent weeks. They will test the patience of the Afghan public, fuelling the scepticism of some members of the political opposition about a peace process. Small demonstrations have already occurred as young protesters demand an end to what they call the government’s “appeasement policy”.

But even if a de-escalation is not possible, shifts in tactics by both sides that reduce civilian casualties might be a realistic confidence-building measure.

But even if a de-escalation is not possible, shifts in tactics by both sides that reduce civilian casualties might be a realistic confidence-building measure. Crisis Group’s interlocutors among the Taliban claim that the insurgents have adopted more cautious rules of engagement since they detonated an ambulance packed with explosives on a busy street in Kabul in January. The attack, a clear violation of the laws of war, killed more than 100 people, provoked widespread outrage and brought condemnation from the UN and other quarters. In the following months the Taliban appear to have reduced suicide attacks within cities, particularly truck bombs, making IS-KP the largest contributor to civilian casualties in suicide and complex attacks thus far in 2018.

Still, there is far more the Taliban can and should do. They continue attempting to encroach on urban areas, where the risk of civilian casualties is often highest. In the early weeks of his diplomacy, Ambassador Khalilzad could seek confidence building steps involving the Taliban avoiding such attacks, in return for the U.S. tamping down airstrikes and the Afghan forces refraining from shelling villages. Measures along these lines could significantly reduce the scale of carnage, even if only among civilians. If those steps are not feasible, at a minimum the Taliban may be willing to engage in three-way discussions with the U.S. and Afghan governments about alternatives for mitigating civilian harm and about improving access for the delivery of basic services in areas contested or controlled by the insurgency. Even those steps could help create a better atmosphere for talks.

The Ghazni bloodshed will not be the final setback, the last horrific spate of violence that Afghanistan will suffer on its long road toward a negotiated end to the conflict. But all stakeholders in Afghanistan should try to keep faith that peace remains possible. That means continuing to talk even as fighting persists.

This text was corrected on 6 September 2018. An earlier version incorrectly stated that the Taliban issued a statement at the end of August, when in fact it was issued just before Eid al-Adha in mid-August.