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Crisis Group Welcomes the Afghanistan Ceasefire
Crisis Group Welcomes the Afghanistan Ceasefire
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.

Afghan security personnel stand guard ahead of the Eid al-Adha Muslim festival in Ghazni on 31 August, 2017. AFP/Zakeria Hashimi
Statement / Asia

Crisis Group Welcomes the Afghanistan Ceasefire

International Crisis Group welcomes pledges by the Afghan government and the Taliban insurgency that both sides will respect a ceasefire over the Eid al Fitr holiday. If implemented, such a truce would be unprecedented and could represent a concrete step toward peace talks.

The Afghan government and leaders of the Taliban insurgency have announced a temporary ceasefire during the forthcoming Eid al Fitr holiday. The government will halt offensive operations from 12 to 20 June and the Taliban will do the same from 15 to 18 June. The Afghan government’s ceasefire excludes foreign militant groups, notably the local Islamic State branch. For its part, the Taliban says its ceasefire will not extend to U.S.-led NATO forces, though the U.S. military commander in Afghanistan has said the U.S. will respect the truce.

Crisis Group welcomes, and applauds both sides for, this unprecedented step. There are sceptics both inside President Ashraf Ghani’s government and among the Taliban who question the truce. Its implementation could prove difficult. Nonetheless, the announcement of a ceasefire is a bold decision by both parties and could represent a step toward a peace process.

Since the Taliban’s ouster from Kabul in 2001 and its emergence as an insurgent force over subsequent years, neither it nor the Afghan government has declared such an extensive halt to offensive operations. Fighting has usually slowed during past Eid holidays, but has never stopped altogether. In recent years, the Taliban leadership has instructed fighters to minimise violence during Eid to allow for religious celebrations; its media arm has tended to avoid publicising attacks during the holiday given popular sentiment that it ought to be a time of peace. This week’s ceasefire could thus be viewed as an expansion of the usual Eid détente.

Still, the Afghan government’s and the Taliban leadership’s formal ceasefire declarations are without parallel. President Ghani’s overture met with widespread international support. Crisis Group’s soundings of insurgent sentiment suggest the Taliban did not take lightly the decision about how to respond. Some leaders worried that a positive response would play badly among field commanders and rank and file, many of whom feel the Taliban is on the front foot and should not offer concessions. Conversely, other leaders reportedly fretted about the implications of not offering reciprocal steps. That the Taliban had remained silent after Ghani’s offer of peace talks in February 2018 increased pressure on the movement to respond positively this time.

Much is at stake, and not only because the ceasefire comes amid a fighting season that appeared set to lead to the country’s most violent year since 2001. The coming days will be critical. Commanders on both sides profit enormously from the war economy, and many fighters hold personal grudges against their opponents. Whether – and to what extent – various factions on the ground will comply with the truce remains to be seen. A significant number will likely be tempted to break it.

This week could prove an important trust-building exercise that contributes to future peace-making.

But if the respective leaderships can enforce the ceasefire, this week could prove an important trust-building exercise that contributes to future peace-making. The Taliban has engaged in persistent combat since its formal birth in 1994; getting off that war footing, even briefly, would represent a departure. Perhaps as important, the ceasefire provides an opportunity for the Taliban leadership to prove that it can control insurgent commanders and units across the country, thus cementing its role as the main partner in future negotiations. Taliban leaders also have promised to release prisoners and allow families safe passage to visit relatives on opposite sides of the battle lines. Delivering on those pledges would be an important and welcome signal.

Afghans, thirsty for peace after generations of war, largely have cheered the ceasefire, albeit as a small first step. Indeed, the announcement of the truce prompted celebration, particularly in the capital Kabul and on social media. Over recent months, hundreds of Afghan youths have mounted street demonstrations accusing both the government and the Taliban of lacking the willpower to make peace. They deserve this moment of hope, and, more than that, they deserve to see both sides finally take on the challenge of breaking a decades-long cycle of violence.