Afghanistan: The Need for International Resolve
Afghanistan: The Need for International Resolve
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
The U.S. and the Taliban after the Killing of al-Qaeda Leader Ayman al-Zawahiri
The U.S. and the Taliban after the Killing of al-Qaeda Leader Ayman al-Zawahiri
Report 145 / Asia

Afghanistan: The Need for International Resolve

Afghanistan is not lost but the signs are not good. Its growing insurgency reflects a collective failure to tackle the root causes of violence.

Afghanistan is not lost but the signs are not good. Its growing insurgency reflects a collective failure to tackle the root causes of violence. Six years after the Taliban’s ouster, the international community lacks a common diagnosis of what is needed to stabilise the country as well as a common set of objectives. Long-term improvement of institutions is vital for both state building and counter-insurgency, but without a more strategic approach, the increased attention and resources now directed at quelling the conflict could even prove counterproductive by furthering a tendency to seek quick fixes. Growing tensions over burden sharing risk undermining the very foundations of multilateralism, including NATO’s future. The U.S., which is demanding more commitment by allies, must realise that its unilateral actions weaken the will of others. At the same time, those sniping from the sidelines need to recognise that the Afghan intervention is ultimately about global security and do more.

The caveats and short-term mandates imposed by many Western capitals on their troops hinder real planning and raise doubts about the depth of commitment. Countries that consider themselves major players in NATO such as Germany, France and Italy need to assume a greater share of the burden, including the combat burden. While the Afghan people, the insurgents and neighbouring countries each in their own way need to know that resolve is strong, the international community is increasingly fragmented, allowing the insurgency to gain momentum and further emboldening spoilers. Despite growing calls for “coordination”, international efforts are marred by inability to agree on priorities and plans, even with regard to counter-insurgency. Some influential actors are pressing untimely and destabilising initiatives, such as the UK’s recent public talk of negotiations with the Taliban and recruitment of militias. There are major disagreements over other vital areas such as counter-narcotics, with the U.S. continuing to press for aerial eradication of opium poppies despite resistance from nearly every other actor.

The recent attempt to install a senior and dynamic former British political leader and international official, Paddy Ashdown, as a strengthened UN representative was scuttled by President Hamid Karzai, apparently out of concern for Afghan sovereignty and his own authority. A stronger hand, however, remains essential to bring coherence to international efforts, both among the multiple players and in their approach to the Afghan administration. The international community has never had executive authority in Afghanistan, but it controls most military and financial resources. This leverage should be better used to build Afghan capacity and accountability at central and, even more importantly, local levels which would be the ultimate guarantor of a stable, sustainable state.

Unfortunately international players have too often created parallel foreign structures such as Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs), even in areas where the security situation does not call for such a militarised approach, while tolerating subversion by a self-interested local elite of important procedures like the vetting of candidates at elections and the appointments board for government positions, as well as police reform. The nascent institutions of state are also being corrupted by burgeoning poppy production. If this is to change, the international community will need to stand up to those in power who are involved in the drugs business, as well as press for a comprehensive, national approach to building alternative livelihoods.

The term “international community” in this context means the U.S. and its Western allies, the dominant players in Afghanistan. The country’s powerful neighbours have mostly played negative roles during the conflict. The ability of the insurgents to enjoy sanctuary for their command and control structures in Pakistan and to recruit there are major factors in the violence. Iran has at times been constructive, notably in negotiation of the Bonn Agreement in 2001, but is likely to use Afghanistan as a theatre in which to hurt the Americans through proxies if its relations with Washington continue to deteriorate. If Afghanistan is to be stabilised, the U.S. must understand that the country’s interests with regard to the tough neighbourhood in which it lives may sometimes differ from its own.

The UN mission (UNAMA) has lost too much of its policy leadership role in recent years. This is partly the result of the way international engagement has been designed, with the lead in various sectors divided among individual nations and other institutions – most strikingly NATO – being prioritised. In addition, the UN has failed to seize the initiative and perform the function of coordinator and driver of international efforts set out in its mandate.

The world witnessed on 11 September 2001 the consequences that a failed state can have for global security. If the international community does not stay the course in Afghanistan, the price could be inordinately high, including:

  • a return to civil war, with factions divided along regional and ethnic lines;
  • a narco-state with institutions controlled by multiple organised criminal gangs;
  • a Pashtun-dominated south largely abandoned to lawlessness; and
  • increased intervention by regional powers seeking to protect their interests.

Such an unstable Afghanistan, in which extremists have a strong foothold, would again pose a serious threat to global security. Western governments need to acknowledge the importance of defeating this threat at its source and then present the case far more convincingly than they have done to publics which appear increasingly unwilling to accept casualties or long-term commitment of adequate resources.

Streamlined military-to-military, civilian-to-military and civilian-to-civilian coordination is required. Priorities and interests must be reconciled, with a view to ensuring that:

  • there is genuine commitment to coordination mechanisms;
  • troop-contributing countries are prepared to deploy their forces, with the required mandates, wherever in the country they are needed;
  • the focus of international efforts is on institution building rather than supporting individual Afghan players;
  • the culture of impunity is tackled; and
  • strategic interests in the region are reassessed, leading to efforts to address the Pakistan problem realistically and to insulate Afghanistan as much as possible from the U.S.-Iran confrontation.

This is not a time for finger pointing or scaling down commitments. Neither Western publics nor the Afghan people have boundless patience; their support will disappear if the drift is not halted quickly. Other than rhetorically, the international community has aimed too low in Afghanistan, pandering to patronage networks rather than respecting the wishes of ordinary Afghan men and women for accountability and more inclusive peacebuilding. While addressing their own shortcomings, the internationals must also hold the Kabul government accountable for its failings. The situation is not hopeless, but it is bad, and an urgent collective effort is needed to tackle it.

Kabul/Brussels, 6 February 2008

Podcast / Asia

The U.S. and the Taliban after the Killing of al-Qaeda Leader Ayman al-Zawahiri

This week on Hold Your Fire! Richard Atwood speaks with Crisis Group’s Asia Director Laurel Miller about U.S. policy in Afghanistan, the Taliban’s foreign relations and what the killing of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in the Afghan capital Kabul says about the threat from transnational militants in Afghanistan a year into Taliban rule.

On 31 July, a U.S. drone strike killed al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in the Afghan capital Kabul. Zawahiri appears to have been living in a house maintained by the family of powerful Taliban Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani. His death came almost a year after U.S. troops pulled out of Afghanistan and the Taliban routed the former Afghan security forces and seized power. The Taliban’s uncompromising rule over the past year has seen girls denied their right to education, many other rights and freedoms curtailed and power tightly guarded within the Taliban movement. The Afghan economy has collapsed, owing in large part to the U.S. and other countries’ freezing Afghan Central Bank assets, keeping sanctions against the Taliban in place and denying the country non-humanitarian aid. Levels of violence across the country are mostly down, but Afghans’ plight is desperate, with a grave humanitarian crisis set to worsen over the winter. The Taliban’s apparent harbouring of Zawahiri seems unlikely to smooth relations between the new authorities in Kabul and the outside world. 

This week on Hold your Fire! Richard Atwood speaks with Crisis Group’s Asia Program Director Laurel Miller about U.S. policy in Afghanistan and the Taliban’s broader foreign relations after Zawahiri’s killing. They discuss what his presence and death in Kabul mean for U.S. policy and what they say about the threat posed by transnational militants sheltering in Afghanistan. They look into how countries in the region are seeking to protect their interests in Afghanistan, including by engaging with the de facto Taliban authorities, and how those countries – particularly Pakistan, which has faced an uptick of violence in the past year – view the danger from foreign militants in Afghanistan. They also look in depth at Washington’s goals in Afghanistan a year after the withdrawal and what balance it should strike between engaging the Taliban or seeking to isolate them. Just over a year after the U.S. withdrawal and Taliban takeover, they reflect back on Washington’s decision to pull out troops. 

Click here to listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

For more on the situation in Afghanistan, check out Crisis Group’s recent report Afghanistan’s Security Challenges under the Taliban.

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