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Afghanistan: New U.S. Administration, 
New Directions
Afghanistan: New U.S. Administration, 
New Directions
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
Afghanistan’s Low-turnout Election, Insecurity and Unsettled Prospects for Peace
Afghanistan’s Low-turnout Election, Insecurity and Unsettled Prospects for Peace
Briefing 89 / Asia

Afghanistan: New U.S. Administration, 
New Directions

Seven years after the U.S.-led intervention in Afghanistan the country is still at war against extremists and has developed few resilient institutions.


I. Overview

Seven years after the U.S.-led intervention in Afghanistan the country is still at war against extremists and has developed few resilient institutions. A policy review by the Obama administration has reopened debate about how to defeat the forces of violent global jihadism – al-Qaeda and its Taliban protectors – in Afghanistan and in neighbouring Pakistan. In most cases, the ideas on offer – from declaring victory and pulling out, to negotiating with the insurgents, to organising regional conferences, to prioritising relationships with favoured individuals and allies over the development of strong democratic institutions – have been tried at least once in the past two decades, with no success: we know now what not to do.

Knowing what to do, and how to do it, is harder. What is needed in Afghanistan is the creation of a resilient state, which will only emerge if moderate forces and democratic norms are strengthened and robust institutions are built that can uphold and are accountable to the rule of law. Only when citizens perceive the state as legitimate and capable of delivering security, good governance and rule of law will Afghans be able to resist jihadi pressures and overtures. The Afghanistan crisis is the outcome of decades of internal conflict. No short-term solution will resolve the crisis overnight. Time and patience are needed to build the infrastructure and institutions to stabilise the Afghan state and root out the jihadi networks.

While it has made military gains, the Taliban today enjoys little support among an Afghan public tired of war. Its leadership does not command a significant standing army; indeed the Taliban is a disparate network of groups using the name as they pursue different agendas. Disillusionment with both the international community and the state has grown but the vast majority of people remain far more fearful of what would happen if foreign troops were to leave rather than stay. Strengthening popular support and goodwill should be the heart of the counter-insurgency and the creation of a resilient state.

It will be impossible to root out al-Qaeda and other extremist networks without tackling not only the local but also the regional conditions that nurture and sustain them. The Taliban and other jihadis like the Hizb-e Islami and the Haqqani network do not have deep local and popular roots. They are the outgrowth of years of civil war and the Pakistani military’s support to Islamist militant groups, dating back to the U.S.-led anti-Soviet jihad during the 1980s. Militant networks in neighbouring Pakistan today spawn new groups that are increasingly focused not only on undermining the new civilian government there, but also on carrying out attacks in neighbouring Afghanistan and India.

The narrow focus on confronting al-Qaeda through counter-terrorism measures often characterised by aggressive military action, arbitrary detentions, indiscriminate raids and house searches in the Pashtun areas of Afghanistan has not only failed to reduce religious extremism, but fuelled local discontent and violence.

What Should Be Done

In Afghanistan

  • Back representative government: Any successful and sustainable effort to stabilise Afghanistan rests on the presence of robust, representative and accountable governing institutions, with checks and balances between the executive, legislative and judicial branches. There is need for more democracy, not less. International efforts should strengthen the legitimacy and reach of constitutionally-mandated institutions, not support parallel structures, as well as placing new emphasis on strengthening local government structures for delivery of services. Such an approach is also preferable to relying on the good intentions or promises of chosen individual clients. 
  • Emphasise the rule of law: There should be an intense new focus on building the institutions to enforce the law, as well as new emphasis on holding officials accountable for any abuse of power, incompetence or illegal actions. Law and order are basic building blocks to ensure state legitimacy and integral to any successful counter-terrorism measures, as well as efforts to combat opium production and trafficking. U.S. actions must similarly conform to legal norms, including an end to arbitrary detentions. The Obama administration should also have a timeframe for closing the Bagram prison and negotiating a Status of Forces agreement.
  • Expand Afghan oversight and U.S. civilian management of development assistance: Development efforts must enhance the capacity of Afghan government structures and respect Afghan sovereignty. Additional project funding should be expanded to a range of Afghan agencies, with provisions for careful monitoring and evaluation. At the same time, the U.S. Congress should shift control over assistance funding away from the Defense Department to experienced civilian agencies. USAID’s direct-hire staff for Afghanistan should increase.
  • Improve coordination: Success in Afghanistan requires far more effective coordination by the U.S. not just with the Afghan government, but also with the UN and other nations involved. Formal and informal mechanisms should be developed to ensure a consistency of purpose and effort.
  • Build Afghan army and police: Training the Afghan army must be a core role for new U.S. troop commitments. The reform of the ministry of interior should also be a priority, with greater civilian oversight over police reform. The development of professional security services, under clear civilian command and control, would provide foreign forces their ultimate exit strategy. Emphasis must shift from using the police to fight the insurgency to using it to fight crime and reinforce law and order. Corruption and political appointments are derailing these efforts and must be addressed. Tangible steps include appointing a career police commissioner and establishing community liaison boards.
  • Identify appropriate roles for U.S. security forces: In addition to helping build the Afghan army and police, the U.S. military should focus on securing and protecting population centres and roads rather than on large-scale sweeps through areas with a limited Afghan institutional presence. The U.S. should also work with Pakistan to secure known crossing points along the border. U.S. Special Forces operations should be brought under the command of the head of ISAF and U.S. Forces in Afghanistan. 
  • Respect government advice on use of force: The Afghan government’s appraisals of the sustainability of political and development initiatives should guide the efforts of additional military forces, from training local forces to securing areas. There must be no fighting for fighting’s sake. U.S. forces should severely limit the use of air power, given its potential for significant civilian casualties.

In Pakistan

  • Strengthen civilian rule in Pakistan: By helping to consolidate civilian control over national security policy, U.S. support for Pakistan’s democratic transition will help a fragile civilian government, committed to preventing Pakistan’s borderlands from being used by al-Qaeda, Afghan insurgents and Pakistani extremists to launch attacks to its region and beyond. It will also empower the civilian leadership to implement its policy preferences. Another direct or indirect military intervention in Pakistan’s political governance will, as in the past, only serve to embolden jihadi groups and networks in Pakistan and across the border in Afghanistan.
  • Support political reform in FATA: The U.S. should support political reform in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and make further economic assistance, including for Reconstruction Opportunity Zones, contingent on such efforts. The U.S. should also respond to a humanitarian crisis by expanding assistance to the hundreds of thousands displaced by the conflict in FATA and Swat. This will help win hearts and minds and deprive the jihadis of a potential pool of recruits.
  • Condition and monitor military assistance: The U.S. should improve oversight and accountability mechanisms over the disbursement of Coalition Support Funds. It should also condition military assistance on demonstrable steps by the Pakistani military to support the civilian government’s efforts to eliminate al-Qaeda command and control and to wind up local and regional jihadi networks countrywide, imposing targeted sanctions in the event of non-compliance. 

What Should Not Be Done 

Negotiations with jihadi groups, especially from a position of weakness: While the possibility should not be excluded of identifying and negotiating with Afghan insurgent groups prepared to abandon their jihadi ambitions, lay down arms, and accept the Afghan constitution and rule of law, great caution is appropriate. Numerous peace agreements with jihadi groups and networks, in Pakistan and in Afghanistan, have broken down within months. In each case they have enhanced the power and activities of violent insurgents while doing nothing to build sustainable institutions. While agreement may be reached not to attack Afghan or Pakistani forces, violence then tends to be directed at others, mostly unarmed civilians, until agreements break down and insurgents once again target security institutions. 

Focus on generalised regional solutions at this time: Iran, Pakistan and the Central Asian states will all play a major role in Afghanistan’s future, but separate bilateral negotiations are likely to be more immediately productive than attempting a regional package deal brokered by the U.S., which would be difficult to obtain now, and probably have little impact on the ground.

Pulling out: Withdrawing international troops with the threat that any regrouping of jihadis or al-Qaeda can be countered by air power and special forces would simply return the country to the control of jihadis. Air power has not proven successful against insurgents or terrorist bases. Neglect would allow the region to descend into further chaos, as it did in the 1990s.

  • Find the right Pashtun: Putting in power a tough Pashtun leader to rule with an iron fist would inflame ethnic tensions within Afghanistan, reignite a proxy war among regional powers and return the country to an even worse cycle of violence.
  • Arm the villagers: Afghanistan is awash with weapons and armed groups. Creating unaccountable local militias – based on false analogies with Iraq – will only worsen ethnic tensions and violence. 

Kabul/Washington/Brussels, 13 March 2009

Afghan election commission workers count ballot papers of the presidential election in Kabul, Afghanistan on 28 September 2019. REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail
Q&A / Asia

Afghanistan’s Low-turnout Election, Insecurity and Unsettled Prospects for Peace

Afghanistan’s fourth presidential election since 2001 brought perhaps 26 per cent of the electorate to the polls. In this Q&A, Crisis Group consultant Graeme Smith and Senior Analyst Borhan Osman explain the weak participation rate and explore the contest’s implications for the country’s stability.

What happened in Saturday’s Afghan presidential election?

Results will emerge slowly in the 28 September Afghan presidential election – the country’s fourth in its short post-2001 democratic history. Although both leading campaigns have already claimed a first-round victory, official preliminary tallies are not expected to be released until mid-October. Even then, the vote count will be subject to certification, which will come after electoral bodies adjudicate complaints about the process. If the official count shows no candidate gaining more than 50 per cent of the vote, a second round will be required. It is unlikely that a second round could be held until the spring, because winter weather makes voters’ access to polling places too difficult.

The contest features an incumbent, President Ashraf Ghani, who enjoys a high degree of control over the state apparatus and a strong likelihood of fending off the dozen challengers seeking to replace him. Ghani’s strongest rival, Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, had become his reluctant partner in a unity government after disputed election results in 2014 led to a political crisis. That crisis ended with a U.S.-brokered power-sharing arrangement.

Election day came after an unusually muted campaign period. Campaigning ahead of previous presidential polls saw contenders charter aircraft, fill stadiums and deliver speeches across the country. In contrast, the 2019 season was relatively quiet, with few rallies, and with candidates who seemed uninterested in spending money or risking lives on large-scale campaigns.

How many people voted?

Turnout was low. Although preliminary results will not be out for weeks, election officials are already estimating that about 2 or 2.5 million voters came to the polls. Those numbers may decrease as some ballots are deemed fraudulent and other votes are thrown out for technical violations. The likely number of final valid votes is hard to forecast because this is the first time Afghanistan has used biometric systems for voter verification in a presidential election. The top end of the current estimated turnout range is 26 per cent of 9.6 million registered voters, a lower turnout than in any other election in Afghanistan – and, in fact, among the weakest turnouts for any national election around the world in recent history. (The largest database of turnouts is maintained by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, which contains only a few examples of voters staying away from the polls on such a scale.)

Afghanistan is a divided country, with all major urban zones under the central government’s control and a large portion of the countryside in the hands of the Taliban insurgency.

The turnout figures are likely to be weaker still when considered as a percentage of the eligible electorate. Registration efforts have had disappointing results, capturing only about half of the voting-age population. Approximately half of Afghanistan’s estimated population of about 35 million is eighteen or older and therefore eligible to vote. (Afghanistan has never had a complete census, so these figures are not precise and total population estimates vary by several million.)

Why was participation so low?

Afghanistan is a divided country, with all major urban zones under the central government’s control and a large portion of the countryside in the hands of the Taliban insurgency. The Taliban – who regard the Afghan government as a U.S. puppet and therefore see presidential elections as illegitimate – threatened to disrupt the polls violently and pressed their supporters to boycott. After reports of low turnout emerged, the Taliban issued a statement thanking Afghans for shunning a “staged” process. Election authorities kept almost a third of polling centres closed, attributing their decision to security concerns. Voter frustrations with politicians and apathy might have been factors as well.

The Afghan government blamed Taliban violence for keeping Afghans from reaching the polls, and to some extent this may have been the case. A New York Times tally suggested that casualties on election day so far appear to be roughly in keeping with recent daily averages for the war, which ranks as the deadliest armed conflict in the world (measured by people killed directly in fighting). Although there were no mass-casualty incidents, the Afghanistan Analysts Network has so far counted about 400 smaller attacks that appear to reflect a pattern of voter intimidation by the Taliban. A burst of gunfire or a few mortars landing near a polling station appeared to be sufficient in many places to dampen enthusiasm for the process. Although Afghan security forces were deployed in large numbers to secure the voting process, the Taliban probably could have done more both to disrupt the polls and to inflict greater casualties if the group had decided to mount full-throttled attacks on polling sites – along the lines, for example, of the 17 September Taliban suicide attack at a Ghani campaign rally that killed 26 people.

What does the election mean for stability?

The election does not have immediate consequences for the likelihood of success of the on-and-off diplomacy to end the war, although it might affect its timing.

Elections are usually a slow burn in Afghanistan, as results trickle out, how well (or not) the electoral bodies performed becomes clearer and politicians size up their opportunities. Street demonstrations or other forms of instability can occur weeks or months after voting. That said, the risk of a serious disruption to Kabul politics appears somewhat lower than in 2014, as Abdullah’s ability to challenge an unfavourable result may be weaker. As in the 2014 election, Abdullah quickly declared himself the winner, flanked by prominent supporters at a 30 September press event. This time around, however, Abdullah was missing his biggest supporter from 2014: the former governor of Balkh province, Atta Noor, a wealthy northern power-broker whose coterie has voiced support for President Ghani in recent days. Ghani himself has not declared victory in public, but one of his senior aides in Kabul told Crisis Group that the Palace is confident of a first-round win, and his running mate, Amrullah Saleh, has said so publicly.

What does the election mean for the peace process?

The election does not have immediate consequences for the likelihood of success of the on-and-off diplomacy to end the war, although it might affect its timing, especially in the case of serious contestation over the results. But the key question for now is whether and when the U.S. intends to revive its own efforts to negotiate a settlement of the conflict, and in particular its talks with the Taliban.

The U.S. suspended the peace process in early September when President Donald Trump declined to move ahead with an initial U.S.-Taliban deal aimed at opening the way to broader talks among the Taliban, Afghan government and other Afghan power-brokers. The ball remains in Trump’s court: Taliban officials have told Crisis Group they are still open to resumption of the process. Senior Afghan officials said they would be willing to explore a diplomatic short-cut after the election process is completed, skipping the U.S.-Taliban deal and moving directly to intra-Afghan negotiations – but this has been a longstanding red line for the Taliban, who refuse to negotiate an Afghan political settlement without first resolving with the U.S. the question of foreign troop withdrawal. The Afghan government will be no better able to get the Taliban to erase that red line after the election, even if the announcement of results and reactions to them cause little or no political disturbance. Still, the Afghan government has renewed its commitment, at least rhetorically, to forging ahead with the peace process. On the day after the election, Ghani’s regional peace envoy Omar Daudzai tweeted optimistically that peace would be “accomplished within 2019”.


Senior Analyst, Afghanistan
Senior Consultant, Afghanistan