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Afghanistan: New U.S. Administration, 
New Directions
Afghanistan: New U.S. Administration, 
New Directions
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
The Cost of Escalating Violence in Afghanistan
The Cost of Escalating Violence in Afghanistan
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

Survivors walk after a blast in Kabul, Afghanistan 13 March 2017. REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail
Commentary / Asia

The Cost of Escalating Violence in Afghanistan

Taliban attacks in Kabul in late January 2018 are part of an escalation in violence in Afghanistan, where the civilian population is bearing the brunt of a particularly intense winter of fighting.

Over one week, as many as 130 people, the overwhelming majority civilians, were killed in twin attacks claimed by the Taliban in Kabul. On 20 January, five Taliban suicide bombers attacked the Intercontinental Hotel, killing at least 22 people, mostly foreigners, after breaching the security of the heavily guarded building. Almost half the dead were employees of Afghan airline carrier, Kam Air. Families and friends of civilians trapped in the fourteen-hour siege spent the night in the sub-zero temperature outside the hotel waiting for news of their loved ones.

A week later the Taliban launched a deadlier attack, killing over 100 people, again mostly civilians. This attack, near an old interior ministry building, was carried out using an ambulance. Despite their reluctance to accept responsibility for such attacks in the past, the Taliban this time were quick to claim the attack, but denied civilians were killed. An International Committee of the Red Cross statement condemned the attack as “senseless”, noting that ambulances should be used “for saving lives, not destroying them”.

A third suicide attack, this one claimed by the Islamic State’s local branch, Islamic State – Khorasan Province (IS-KP) hit a military academy of the Afghan army on 29 January.

The attacks have provoked widespread fury at the Taliban, prompting some Afghan political leaders and activists to press the government to crush the insurgency instead of pursuing peace talks. Some have even called for the execution of Taliban prisoners; government officials said they were considering the option. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani described the 27 January attack as “our 9/11” and vowed to order massive operations against the Taliban. Similar anger was directed by Ghani, other politicians and the public at Pakistan, which hosts Taliban leaders and is widely perceived as a key external enabler of the insurgency.

The attacks have provoked widespread fury at the Taliban [and] have added to Afghans’ mounting frustration with their government.

The attacks have added to Afghans’ mounting frustration with their government. Many view the government as bogged down in micromanagement and too distracted by a power struggle against potential rivals ahead of the 2019 presidential elections to adequately protect against insurgent attacks.

The attacks not only provoked rage among Afghans, but attracted sharp condemnation from abroad. On 29 January, U.S. President Donald Trump said: “They’re killing people left and right”. He appeared to rule out engaging insurgent leaders: “We don’t want to talk to the Taliban. We’re going to finish what we have to finish, what nobody else has been able to finish, we’re going to be able to do it”.

The day after President Trump’s statement, Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan, visiting Kabul, appeared to walk it back, saying it was meant to highlight the depravity of the Taliban’s recent attacks and did not reflect a policy shift. Talking to reporters, Sullivan argued that the U.S. overall still hopes to move toward peace talks.

Despite Sullivan’s recalibration, Trump’s words matter in Afghanistan and the region. His rhetoric should be seen in the light of a new U.S. strategy in Afghanistan that thus far has mostly involved committing further U.S. forces and an escalating military operation against the Taliban. U.S. signals on engaging the Taliban – or at least on encouraging the movement’s leaders to enter talks with the Afghan government – have been mixed. In principle, and notwithstanding President Trump’s 29 January remarks, top U.S. officials say the new approach includes both military and diplomatic efforts to achieve a political settlement with the Taliban. Yet U.S. diplomacy has clearly taken a back seat to military operations. U.S. contacts with insurgent leaders, which were ongoing, albeit limited, in the latter years of the Obama administration, appear to have petered out.

A Wider Escalation

The recent Taliban strikes take place amid a wider escalation of the war. The uptick in attacks is not the first such increase over the past few years. Nonetheless, Afghanistan is suffering more intense violence now than during any other winter – winters usually see a lull in fighting – since 2001.

This comes alongside U.S. public messaging that its military posture against the Taliban will be increasingly aggressive, winter will offer no respite and spring will bring ever fiercer operations. Indeed, the Afghan security forces and U.S. military are already conducting record numbers of airstrikes and raids against the Taliban. Their stated intention is to gain the upper hand before the fighting season starts, undermine the insurgency and convince its leaders they cannot win militarily.

The U.S. military has stepped up airstrikes, raids and operations by U.S. Special Forces.

Throughout December and January, airstrikes and ground raids appear to have affected the Taliban’s battlefield mobility across the country and have inflicted losses on the insurgency at a level unprecedented for a winter season. Facing increasing battlefield pressure, the Taliban seem to be shifting toward tactics that pressure the Afghan government, its security forces and the U.S. while reducing insurgents’ exposure. Recent Taliban statements warn of an increase in suicide strikes and attacks by insurgents that have infiltrated security forces or related security partners. Taliban sources also threaten further massive attacks against Afghan and U.S. troops. The lethality of the attacks has increased, in part thanks to sophisticated modern equipment such as sniper rifles, laser sights and night-vision goggles.

Suicide attacks have long been part of the movement’s urban warfare. As military operations against the Taliban escalated over 2017 – even before the new U.S. strategy was formally announced – so too did suicide attacks. Last year saw a 50 per cent increase in the number of such attacks compared to 2016: 48 versus 32, according to the Taliban’s own records (this may exclude attacks it did not claim). As the movement faces further pressure this year, the pace of spectacular attacks and urban warfare may well continue as pressure on the battlefield is unlikely to radically undermine insurgents’ ability to stage them. The same week Kabul suffered the two Taliban attacks described above, the provincial capitals of Helmand and Kandahar provinces in the south were also struck by suicide bombers.

The Kabul attacks suggest the Taliban is sending signals of its own: that the U.S. cannot fight its way to peace. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said in a statement that the movement “has a clear message for Trump and his hand kissers that if you go ahead with a policy of aggression and speak from the barrel of a gun, don’t expect Afghans to grow flowers in response”. By turning Kabul into a battlefield, insurgents gain wider attention, shake public confidence in the government, while showing their continued ability to strike hard.

The U.S. military has stepped up airstrikes, raids and operations by U.S. Special Forces. In December 2017, U.S. and Afghan forces conducted 455 airstrikes, compared with just 65 in December 2016. Even in the same month in 2012, when nearly 100,000 U.S. troops were present in Afghanistan, barely 200 strikes took place. All told, 2,000 airstrikes were carried out between August and December of last year, nearly as many as in all of 2015 and 2016 combined.

The increased battlefield tempo might have hurt the Taliban. But it does not yet appear to have translated into increased territorial control for Afghan forces, which the U.S. military has defined as a key metric for measuring progress (U.S. Defense Department officials reported in late January, with data from October 2017, that more territory had slipped from government to Taliban control).

Increasing Civilian Suffering

The escalation clearly has not improved security for the population – another critical metric for any campaign’s success, though not one referred to by the U.S. administration. The U.S. Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR) reported in its quarterly report in late January that the number of civilian casualties (4,474) from 1 June to 27 November 2017 increased by 13 per cent compared to the same period during the previous year. Civilian casualties due to airstrikes have increased too. According to UNAMA, civilian casualties by airstrikes increased 52 per cent in first nine months of 2017, compared to the same period in 2016. The toll from airstrikes is mostly borne by rural populations, whose suffering receives considerably less attention than that of those affected by the Taliban’s strikes in Kabul. Indeed, a striking feature of the Taliban’s own propaganda is what they charge as the double standard in reporting by Western and Afghan media.

Nor is it clear that a military build-up, despite its tragic costs, will necessarily make insurgent leaders more willing to talk. In fact, the opposite may be true: it risks empowering elements within the movement more resistant to reconciliation.

The [Taliban] leaders [who have signalled interest in peace talks] may not always be in sync with the mood on the battlefield.

The Taliban faces its own internal struggle. Those on the political-civil front, including parts of the leadership and representatives in the Doha political office, appear to have already accepted in recent years that they are unlikely to win the war militarily and have quietly signalled interest in peace talks. These leaders may not always be in sync with the mood on the battlefield. Although command and control within the movement is still fairly coherent, leaders outside the country find it increasingly hard to shape the daily decisions of their on-the-ground commanders, who in any case enjoy considerable autonomy and whose units are suffering high casualties. This could mean a gradual erosion of influence among insurgents who are more inclined toward talking and more power for harder line fighters on the ground.

NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg reacted to the Taliban’s Kabul attacks by vowing that the alliance will continue and increase support to the Afghan forces. But he highlighted too the need to ramp up diplomatic efforts: “It is essential to redouble efforts to achieve peace and reconciliation”, he said. Notwithstanding the many difficulties peace talks would pose, he and the U.S.’s other allies should press Washington to do exactly that: keep channels of communication to insurgent leaders open and at least lay the ground for peace talks by continuing to test with Afghanistan’s neighbours and other regional powers what a settlement might look like.

Absent that, U.S. strategy risks further increasing the intensity of violence across the country, with no foreseeable end in sight. Civilians on rural front lines will bear the brunt of much of the fighting, but those in the capital and other towns will suffer too if the Taliban continues to perpetrate horrific attacks like those last week.