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A Dangerous Escalation in Afghanistan
A Dangerous Escalation in Afghanistan
Report 256 / Asia

Afghanistan’s Insurgency after the Transition

To contain a growing, increasingly confident insurgency as NATO troops withdraw, Afghanistan needs continued international support, including military, and the new government in Kabul will need to reinvigorate the state’s commitment to the rule of law.
 

Executive Summary

The war in Afghanistan entered a new phase in 2013. It now is increasingly a contest between the insurgents and the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). Many within and outside the government are more optimistic about stability in the wake of a relatively successful first round of presidential elections on 5 April 2014. However, any euphoria should be tempered by a realistic assessment of the security challenges that President Karzai’s successor will face in the transitional period of 2014-2015. Kabul may find these challenges difficult to overcome without significant and sustained international security, political and economic support.

The overall trend is one of escalating violence and insurgent attacks. Ongoing withdrawals of international soldiers have generally coincided with a deterioration of Kabul’s reach in outlying districts. The insurgents have failed to capture major towns and cities, and some areas have experienced more peace and stability in the absence of international troops. Yet, the increasing confidence of the insurgents, as evidenced by their ability to assemble bigger formations for assaults, reduces the chances for meaningful national-level peace talks in 2014-2015.

A close examination of four provinces – Faryab, Kunar, Paktia and Kandahar – reveals underlying factors that may aggravate the conflict in the short term. Historical feuds and unresolved grievances are worsening after having been, in some cases, temporarily contained by the presence of international troops. In Faryab, these are largely ethnic tensions; in Kandahar they are mostly tribal; but in all transitional areas there is a variety of unfinished business that may result in further violence post-2014. Similarly, clashes among pro-government actors may become more frequent, as predicted by local interlocutors after recent skirmishing between government forces in Paktia. The situation in Kandahar also illustrates the way mistreatment of Afghans at the hands of their own security forces, operating with less supervision from foreign troops, breeds resentment that feeds the insurgency. Finally, despite its rhetoric, Pakistan has not reduced safe havens and other support for the insurgency, while Afghanistan’s hostile responses – especially in Kandahar and Kunar – risk worsening cross-border relations.

None of these trends mean that Afghanistan is doomed to repeat the post-Soviet state collapse of the early 1990s, particularly if there is continued and robust international support. In fact, Afghan forces suffered record casualties in 2013 and retreated from some locations in the face of rising insurgency but maintained the tempo of their operations in most parts of the country. Afghanistan still has no shortage of young men joining the ANSF, offsetting the rising number of those who opt to leave them or abandon their posts. The government remains capable of moving supplies along highways to urban centres. ANSF cohesiveness, or lack of it, may prove decisive in the coming years, and Paktia notwithstanding, only minor reports emerged in 2013 of Afghan units fighting each other. As long as donors remain willing to pay their salaries, the sheer numbers of Afghan security personnel – possibly in the 370,000 range today – are a formidable obstacle to large-scale strategic gains by the insurgents.

That will not stop the Taliban and other insurgent groups from pushing for such gains, however. Despite a short-lived gesture toward peace negotiations in Doha, the insurgents’ behaviour in places where the foreign troops have withdrawn shows no inclination to slow the pace of fighting. They are blocking roads, capturing rural territory and trying to overwhelm district administration centres. With less risk of attack from international forces, they are massing bigger groups of fighters and getting into an increasing number of face-to-face ground engagements with Afghan security personnel, some of which drag on for weeks. The rising attacks show that the insurgents are able to motivate their fighters in the absence of foreign troops, shifting their rhetoric from calls to resist infidel occupation to a new emphasis on confronting the “puppets” or “betrayers of Islam” in the government. The emerging prominence of splinter groups such as Mahaz-e-Fedayeen is a further indication the insurgency will not lack ferocity in the coming years.

For the first time, the insurgents inflicted almost as many casualties on Afghan security forces in 2013 as they suffered themselves, and several accounts of battles in remote districts suggested the sides were nearly matched in strength. There are concerns that the balance could tip in favour of the insurgency, particularly in some rural locations, as foreign troops continue leaving. President Karzai has refused to conclude agreements with the U.S. and NATO that would keep a relatively modest presence of international troops after December 2014. The two presidential runoff candidates have vowed to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) with the U.S., which would in turn allow for a NATO Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA). While retaining a contingent of foreign soldiers would not be sufficient on its own to keep the insurgency at bay, its absence could prove extremely problematic. The ANSF still needs support from international forces, and signing a BSA and a SOFA would likely have knock-on effects, sending an important signal of commitment at a fragile time, thus encouraging ongoing financial, developmental and diplomatic support.

With or without backup from international forces, the Afghan government will need more helicopters, armoured vehicles, and logistical support to accomplish that limited objective. Such additional military tools would also permit the government to rely increasingly on the relatively well-disciplined Afghan army rather than forcing it to turn to irregular forces that have a dismal record of harming civilians.

Certainly, the future of the Afghan government depends primarily on its own behaviour: its commitment to the rule of law, anti-corruption measures and other aspects of governance must demonstrate its concern for the well-being of all Afghans. However, responsibility also rests with the international community; its patchy efforts over a dozen years to bring peace and stability must now be followed not with apathy, but with renewed commitment.

Commentary / Asia

A Dangerous Escalation in Afghanistan

The Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan is likely to continue unabated in 2018, despite the U.S. effort to step up its military campaign. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2018, Crisis Group urges the EU and its member states to utilise its influence with Afghan political actors to help rebuild trust and increase prospects for mediation.

This commentary on the escalation of danger in Afghanistan is part of our annual early-warning report Watch List 2018.

In 2018, Afghanistan is likely to witness escalating violence and could also face political crisis. President Ashraf’s National Unity Government (NUG) should work with U.S. officials to ensure Washington’s new strategy has a political, not merely military, component. It also should reach out to opposition politicians and parties, advance preparations for credible parliamentary elections and counter the perception that power is being centralised along ethnic lines – all measures the EU and its member states, which retain influence in Kabul, should encourage. With the U.S. for now determined to escalate its military campaign against the Taliban insurgency, prospects for progress toward a political settlement in 2018 appear dim. Still, beyond their contribution to the training, advising and assisting of Afghan security forces, the EU and European leaders and member states should continue to emphasise the importance of such a settlement and help preserve channels of communication to the insurgency.

A military strategy with no political framework

Washington’s new Afghanistan strategy involves stepping up the military campaign against the Taliban through U.S. airstrikes and mostly Afghan-led, U.S.-supported ground offensives. U.S. President Donald Trump removed deadlines for the withdrawal of U.S. forces, while increasing the number of troops on the ground by 4,000, to reach a total of 15,000 (still far below the 100,000 deployed as part of the 2011 surge). European NATO allies have committed to sending more military personnel to train and advise the Afghan security forces. Although the increase is modest – less than a thousand officers – it is a symbolically significant expression of support. U.S. officials maintain that the goal is to reverse the Taliban’s momentum and leave the group no choice but to enter into talks about a political settlement, although when such talks would take place is unclear. U.S. efforts to engage the Taliban – or at least encourage them to enter talks with the Afghan government – appear to have petered out.

Over the past year, the Taliban have stepped up their offensive, launching massive high-casualty attacks, sometimes by driving military vehicles – usually stolen from the Afghan army – laden with explosives into military and police compounds. These demoralising bombings are likely to continue. The Taliban also could continue their pattern of spectacular urban attacks to shake public confidence in the government; a 27 January attack, which saw insurgents detonate explosives packed in an ambulance on a busy Kabul street, killing more than 100 and injuring at least 200, mostly civilians, is only the latest such strike. For some years already, insurgents have used increasingly sophisticated equipment and, in some places, engaged Afghan forces in direct – as opposed to asymmetric – confrontation. The Taliban also appear to enjoy stronger connections than ever before to outside powers, not only their traditional patron (Pakistan), but also Iran and Russia. Afghan civilians are likely to bear the brunt of any escalation.

The U.S. undertook only a single observable political effort in 2017, which was to pressure Pakistan to stop harbouring and supporting the Taliban and their Haqqani network allies. Even that initiative is unlikely to bear fruit.

Prospects in 2018 for serious progress toward a peace process are slim. U.S. officials say their new strategy integrates diplomatic and military efforts to achieve a political settlement with the Taliban. Yet diplomacy clearly has been downgraded. The U.S. undertook only a single observable political effort in 2017, which was to pressure Pakistan to stop harbouring and supporting the Taliban and their Haqqani network allies. Even that initiative is unlikely to bear fruit, however, as cuts to U.S. military assistance almost certainly will not alter the strategic calculus of Islamabad’s security establishment that drives Pakistani support for Afghan insurgents.

U.S. and Afghan officials pay increasing attention to what they describe as a growing threat from foreign terrorist groups, particularly the Islamic State-Khorasan Province (IS-KP). In truth, however, non-Taliban groups contributed only a small percentage of the violence in 2017. Despite dramatic and shocking attacks in urban centres, the IS-KP has, for the most part, been held in check by U.S. and Afghan forces, on the one hand, and the Taliban, on the other.

Politics in crisis

National politics are likely to suck oxygen from counter-insurgency efforts as President Ashraf Ghani’s unity government may well face a political crisis in the coming year. Parliamentary elections, already postponed in October 2016 and now scheduled for July 2018, are at risk of further delay while presidential elections are scheduled for 2019. Delayed reforms and preparations risk undermining prospects for clean polling, according to Tadamichi Yamamoto, UN Secretary-General’s special representative for Afghanistan. Insecurity across much of the country may also obstruct a credible vote.

The government faces a political opposition that is larger and more diverse than previously has been the case during the post-Taliban era. Afghan politics may be factious and fluid, but, at least for now, several groups have aligned against the Ghani government, in part because they see stalled election preparations as evidence it is looking to manipulate the vote. Many accuse the president of tightening his grip on power and deepening ethnic divisions.

Ghani’s vice president, Abdul Rashid Dostum, an Uzbek warlord who left for Turkey amid a criminal investigation into allegations (which he denies) that he abducted and raped a political rival, has formed an alliance with influential Tajik and Hazara leaders. A spat between Ghani and Atta Mohammad Noor, the powerful governor of Balkh province who is resisting the president’s efforts to remove him from his post, also threatens turmoil. Atta has the support of a major part of Jamiat-e Islami, one of the largest political parties. That he seems ready to defy the central government so brazenly, even violently, sets a dangerous precedent for regional power brokers seeking to slip Kabul’s grip.

Powerful politicians also are arrayed against the government. Ex-President Hamid Karzai has been mobilising to convene a Loya Jirga or grand council of tribal elders to debate the country’s future. While Karzai argues a council would unite the bitterly divided Afghan polity, his critics accuse him of trying to shake up politics and regain power.

President Ghani has tried to fend off his rivals and shore up his legitimacy with the backing of Western powers. But external support is an inadequate substitute for domestic approval, particularly with elections looming. Ghani needs to invest more in building national consensus, which will be critical to manage conflict and street protests should a political crisis unfold.

Making external influence more constructive

The EU and member states have difficult tasks ahead: they must simultaneously help keep the government from unravelling; support, along with the UN, election preparations; encourage President Ghani to reach out to his opponents; and assist the U.S.-led battle against the Taliban, all the while talking to the insurgents.

Although EU influence in Kabul suffered when it closed its special representative’s office and downgraded its diplomatic presence last year, there may at some point be opportunities for Europeans to help bring the Taliban to the table.

In this respect, the EU continues to enjoy clout with various Afghan political actors, even if less than some years ago. Their reduced footprint in Afghanistan notwithstanding, the EU and member states provided €30.5 million in humanitarian assistance in 2017 to help the country’s growing numbers of displaced people and other civilian victims. More broadly, over the past decade the EU has provided some €756 million in life-saving aid. It should now use the resulting influence to push for progress toward a political settlement to the conflict. Specifically, it should press and encourage the Afghan and U.S. governments to go down this path, while ensuring that lines of communication to the insurgency remain open. If signs re-emerge that the Trump administration is planning to close the Taliban’s political representation office in Doha, Qatar – which it threatened to do in 2017 but then apparently reconsidered – European leaders should actively discourage such a move. Although EU influence in Kabul suffered when it closed its special representative’s office and downgraded its diplomatic presence last year, there may at some point be opportunities for Europeans to help bring the Taliban to the table. Indeed, mistrust between the Taliban and the Ghani government means credible third parties will, at some point, need to step in.