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Afghanistan: New U.S. Administration, 
New Directions
Afghanistan: New U.S. Administration, 
New Directions
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
Afghanistan: Growing Challenges
Afghanistan: Growing Challenges
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

Commentary / Asia

Afghanistan: Growing Challenges

Political fractures continue to weaken the Afghan National Unity Government as the Taliban insurgency expands and an Islamic State affiliate strengthens its foothold. In this excerpt from the Watch List 2017 – First Update early-warning report for European policy makers, Crisis Group urges the European Union and its member states to continue to provide technical support to the negotiating process and take measures to alleviate the humanitarian crisis.

This commentary is part of our Watch List 2017 – First Update.

Rising insurgency and a fraught political transition are exacerbating an already pervasive sense of insecurity about Afghanistan’s future. Since the 2014 international military drawdown, the resurgent Taliban has fast expanded its presence countrywide. The Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K), an affiliate of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), also has a foothold, albeit limited and mainly in some eastern districts. Two-and-a-half years after it was created to prevent the bitterly contested 2014 presidential election from plunging the country into turmoil, the National Unity Government (NUG) is beset with internal disagreements and dysfunction that undermine the capacity of the Afghan National Defence and Security Forces (ANDSF) to counter the insurgency. The government’s ability to confront significant governance, economic and humanitarian challenges also is weak. Civilian and military casualties as well as the numbers of conflict-displaced and those in need of urgent humanitarian assistance continue to grow.

Rising Insurgency

After the transition to Afghan security forces in 2014, the thinly stretched ANDSF has been battling a growing insurgency on several fronts. According to the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) only 57.2 per cent of 375 districts were under government control or influence by 1 February 2017, an almost 15 per cent decline since end-2015. According to the Special Inspector General, 6,785 Afghan forces were killed and another 11,777 wounded from January to November 2016, significant losses at a time when security forces are struggling with personnel retention. The UN Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) also reported a 3 per cent increase in civilian casualties (3,498 killed 7,920 wounded) in 2016 over the previous year. The number of high profile attacks in Kabul also was higher during the first three months of 2017 as compared to equivalent periods in previous years. On 21 April, Taliban gunmen and suicide bombers attacked an Afghan army base in the northern Balkh province, killing over 100 military and other personnel and injuring scores more. The army chief and defence minister both resigned the following day. Two attacks in March targeted police stations and a military hospital, killing 73 and wounding over 240 people.

Preventing the loss of more territory to insurgents, particularly during the anticipated spring offensive, is an urgent priority, notably in order to limit the scope of ungoverned spaces that could be exploited by regional extremists and transnational terror groups. With 8,400 troops already based in Afghanistan, the U.S. military leadership has requested a few thousand additional troops, a step that – if approved – would boost ANDSF morale and potentially could help blunt the insurgents’ offensive. But countering the growing insurgency also will depend on continued robust international financial and technical support, including honouring commitments made at NATO’s July 2016 Warsaw summit to advise, assist and train Afghan forces and provide them with annual funding of up to $4.5 billion until 2020.

Tackling the security situation also will require addressing widening internal disagreements and political partisanship that permeate all levels of the security apparatus and have undermined ANDSF command and control structures. Intra-governmental divisions likewise have impeded implementation of reforms necessary to mitigate the effects of corruption, nepotism and factionalism in the Afghan National Army (ANA) and particularly the Afghan National Police (ANP). Such weaknesses and overall government dysfunction played a major part in the 2016 Taliban advances in Kunduz city in the north, the siege of Lashkargah and Tirin Kot cities in the south, and, in March 2017, the Taliban capture of Helmand’s Sangin district.

Regional Neighbours

Amid ambiguity about the Western will to remain engaged, Afghanistan’s neighbours are more aggressively promoting what they perceive to be their own national security interests. This most notably is the case of Pakistan, whose relations with Afghanistan continue to be strained. Islamabad remains unwilling to facilitate talks between the Taliban and Kabul, and continues supporting its Afghan proxies, allowing them to recruit, fundraise, as well as plan and conduct operations from safe havens inside Pakistan. Pakistan in turn accuses Kabul of at best turning a blind eye, if not actively supporting, Pakistani tribal militants conducting cross-border attacks from Afghan territory.

No internationally-led negotiations will work unless there is a consensus among Afghans, both those backing and opposing the government, to pursue a negotiated peace rather than continued conflict.

Deteriorating bilateral relations have had other consequences. In 2016, Islamabad forcibly repatriated more than 550,000 Afghans (including 380,000 registered refugees) as relations with Kabul deteriorated because of heightened Taliban attacks in Afghanistan and cross-border attacks by Afghanistan-based Pakistani tribal militants. In February 2017, after a major terror attack on a Sufi shrine in southern Pakistan which was claimed by a Pakistani Taliban faction reportedly based in eastern Afghanistan, Pakistan closed its two main border crossings with Afghanistan – Torkham and Chaman – for over a month. It also conducted mortar and other military strikes on the bordering provinces of Kunar and Nangarhar. Though it has since reopened the crossings, Pakistan has begun to fence the border, a move certain to aggravate tensions insofar as Kabul does not recognise the Durand Line as the international boundary.

There are further complicating regional factors. Closer ties between Kabul and New Delhi, which has offered a $1 billion aid package and MI-25 combat helicopters to Afghanistan, are viewed as provocative by Islamabad. Iran long has been suspected of providing military hardware to some Taliban factions, a stance motivated partly by animosity toward the U.S. and more recently by the desire to counter IS-K. Russia also recently has upped its involvement, reaching out to the Taliban and, according to senior U.S military officials providing them with some military support, and proposing to lead a new negotiation process which could further complicate Afghanistan’s security dynamics.

Peace Negotiations

No internationally-led negotiations will work unless there is a consensus among Afghans, both those backing and opposing the government, to pursue a negotiated peace rather than continued conflict. External actors can lend a hand, through facilitation and other support, but the impetus has to come from within. In this context, the European Union (EU) and its member states should continue their technical and financial support to an Afghan-led peace and reconciliation process in its upcoming 2017-2020 EU Strategy for Afghanistan.

A second precondition for successful negotiations is for the U.S., still the most powerful and influential foreign actor in Afghanistan, to settle on a comprehensive political strategy. While the Trump administration’s Afghan policy remains a work in progress, there are clear indications it will maintain its presence in Afghanistan and likely enhance its military support. But it still must address the question of the optimal format and composition of the talks. The Quadrilateral Consultation Group comprising Afghanistan, China, Pakistan and the U.S. has been dormant since the May 2016 U.S. drone attack that killed Taliban leader Mullah Mansoor. Russia’s efforts to bring together Pakistan, China, Iran, India, and most recently Afghanistan, are more promising insofar as they include all regional stakeholders. But Washington declined Moscow’s invitation to participate in the process, concerned that Russia’s outreach to the Taliban, including some military support, could endanger U.S. stabilisation efforts and endanger the lives of U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Given the U.S.’s key role, its absence clearly would be to the detriment of the process. The EU should continue providing technical support to a negotiating process that has broad Afghan support, which the Moscow-led process currently lacks even with one of the principal stakeholders, the Taliban.

A third essential element is for Pakistan to become convinced that its interests would be better served by a political settlement in Afghanistan than by continued Taliban insurgency. This will require international efforts both to pressure Pakistan to shift course and to facilitate constructive dialogue between Islamabad and Kabul. The U.S. role will be central, including by conditioning continued military support to Islamabad on Pakistan working with Kabul to bring the insurgents to the negotiating table and rethinking its support to the Taliban’s Quetta Shura and the Haqqani Network, now fully integrated into the insurgency’s command structure. While the U.S. is best placed to pressure Pakistan to reverse its support for Afghan proxies, the EU and member states should use trade and diplomatic ties with Pakistan and financial assistance to Afghanistan as leverage to persuade them to peacefully resolve their differences.

The Humanitarian Situation

Afghanistan suffers from one of the most protracted humanitarian crises in the world. In 2016, which witnessed some of the worst fighting since the U.S.-led intervention in October 2001, 646,698 persons were internally displaced due to conflict, compared to 70,000 in 2010; this added to the roughly one million conflict-displaced in previous years. 2016 also saw one million Afghan refugees and migrants forced to return home from Pakistan and Iran. The EU’s plan to deport back home some 80,000 Afghans whose request for asylum was rejected will further strain Afghanistan’s capacity. More broadly, both Kabul and the humanitarian community, including UN agencies, estimate that 9.3 million people, or almost one-third of Afghanistan’s population, will be in need of humanitarian assistance this year. As security continues to deteriorate and both Pakistan and Iran force more refugees and migrants to return, the humanitarian crisis likely will worsen.

The overall humanitarian crisis is putting enormous pressure on Afghanistan’s already stretched public services and infrastructure, especially in urban centres, where 70-80 per cent of internally displaced and returning refugees tend to settle; most are jobless or under-employed, with little or no access to health care or education. Countrywide, as many as 1.57 million face severe food insecurity. Women and girls are often the worst off given the country’s socially conservative nature. Addressing the humanitarian emergency will require continued, robust and long-term international, including EU, economic assistance. While the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) should persuade Pakistan and Iran to end the forcible deportation of Afghan refugees and migrants, the EU and member states also should at the very least slow down deportations as security continues to deteriorate in Afghanistan.