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As New U.S. Envoy Appointed, Turbulent Afghanistan’s Hopes of Peace Persist
As New U.S. Envoy Appointed, Turbulent Afghanistan’s Hopes of Peace Persist
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 residents walk near destroyed houses after a Taliban attack in Ghazni on 16 August 2018. AFP/Zakeria Hashimi
Commentary / Asia

As New U.S. Envoy Appointed, Turbulent Afghanistan’s Hopes of Peace Persist

The new U.S. adviser on Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, has a tough assignment: fostering peace between the Afghan government and the Taliban. Crisis Group’s Borhan Osman says that recent violence has soured the public mood, but that leaders on all sides still appear committed – at least rhetorically – to peace talks.

On 4 September 2018, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad would join the State Department as an adviser on Afghanistan. Khalilzad will, in the Secretary of State’s words, “assist in the reconciliation effort”; his appointment is a welcome signal of Washington’s renewed intent to find a negotiated settlement to the war pitting the Afghan government and its international allies against the Taliban insurgency. For now, a formal peace process still seems some way off. Indeed, Khalilzad’s appointment comes as optimism that swept the country during an unexpected ceasefire in early June has withered, as levels of bloodshed again soar. But confidence-building steps between the parties that reduce the war’s horrific civilian toll, could be within reach and are worth Ambassador Khalilzad pursuing with insurgent leaders.

I saw the shift in mood first hand during two trips to Ghazni, a city 140km southwest of the capital Kabul. Visiting on 21 August, at the beginning of the religious holiday, Eid al-Adha, I witnessed turbaned men weeping with grief after prayers in the busiest mosque in the city. The men hugged each other, sobbing as they exchanged greetings. The religious holiday is usually a time of celebration, but the mood in Ghazni was sombre. The men finished their prayers and walked home past bullet-riddled walls and burned buildings. They saw none of the usual Eid festivities: no hollering youths, no children wearing new clothes, no folk dances to the sound of drums. Hundreds of bodies had been recovered from the streets only a week earlier, after one of the largest Taliban offensives in recent years saw insurgents occupy much of the city and engage in fierce street battles with Afghan security forces. Ghazni mourned.

The Taliban mounted the attack on 10 August, taking most of the city. Fighting engulfed all neighbourhoods, as the insurgents also had dismantled the government’s remaining presence in nearby towns, allowing them to surround the city and enter from four directions at once. The Taliban’s operations also involved a five-day siege of the city, cutting off the city’s electricity and telecommunications. Most civilians were trapped amid shortages of clean water and food. Taliban fighters used homes and markets as fighting positions, presumably leading to many civilian deaths. For their part, government forces were accused by residents of indiscriminate shelling. Airstrikes by U.S. and Afghan warplanes forced the insurgents to retreat, but further contributed to the destruction of the city and loss of life. “Everybody stuck in the city during the fight experienced a death”, said one resident, recalling how his neighbour’s three children were killed in an airstrike. “They were the darkest days of my life”, said another resident. “It was like a doomsday”. A former teacher who had fought the Soviets in Ghazni in the 1980s told me that the latest fighting was more intense than the battles of any previous war.

The change of public mood over a period of two months indicates how quickly hope can thrive, then fade away.

The sadness that marked Ghazni at the start of Eid al-Adha stood in sharp contrast to the scenes I had witnessed in the city only two months earlier, when worshippers had shed tears of joy following an historic ceasefire. The previous Eid holiday – Eid al-Fitr in June – had been a moment of wild celebration. In Ghazni, as across much of the country, Taliban and Afghan government forces had laughed and joked together, performing traditional dances to the beat of patriotic songs. Afghan special forces had posed for selfies with Taliban fighters. Many believed then that peace was imminent.

These days, Afghans wonder in despair if the war will ever end. The change of public mood over a period of two months indicates how quickly hope can thrive, then fade away. A majority of people do not remember peace and easily lose sight of prospects for ending the seventeen-year war between the Afghan government and international forces, on one hand, and the Taliban insurgency, on the other.

The disappointment sharpened when the government failed to start another truce at the end of August. Building on the June ceasefire and subsequent Taliban-U.S. talks, President Ashraf Ghani sought a three-month halt to fighting that would have started on 21 August. His government reached out to the Taliban in hopes of reaching a bilateral cessation of hostilities, but the insurgent movement ramped up its attacks instead, with Crisis Group estimating (based on a tally from officials and journalists in major hotspots) the dead on all sides at more than 1,000 combatants and civilians in the second week of August.

The most brazen offensive was the Ghazni onslaught in mid-August, contributing to half of the deaths nationwide that week. For the Taliban, this escalation of violence seems to reflect the group’s intent to respond with military pressure of its own to counter the government and U.S. forces’ ramped-up military efforts. The Taliban appears bent on hitting the government hard and expanding the territory under its control, to show strength and demoralise its enemy. The insurgents are conducting a war of attrition, chipping away at government enclaves and inflicting unsustainable casualties among pro-government forces.

The escalation in violence has raised questions about whether the Taliban are genuinely interested in peace. An insurgent commander I met outside Ghazni, who led a company-size group during the attack on the city, felt differently. He framed the recent offensives as part of the Taliban’s effort to accelerate “the broader plan” for ending the war. His remarks in some ways mirrored those of the outgoing senior U.S. commander, General John Nicholson, who in his final statement to the media on 22 August said that U.S. military efforts have resulted in “progress” toward a political settlement. In other words, both sides of the war believe that pressure on the battlefield has helped make their opponents more willing to negotiate.

Yet this “fight and talk” strategy carries serious risks. The successful June ceasefire was seen by many as a potential game changer, paving the way for U.S. officials to sit down with Taliban representatives for two full days in late July. But a widening trust gap emerged in subsequent weeks, with missteps by all parties: the Taliban, the U.S. and the Afghan government. The Taliban, arguably first and foremost, spoiled the mood by escalating attacks at precisely the time when others were working toward a renewed ceasefire. This decision was the most significant contribution to the reversal of momentum toward a peace process. An increase in insurgent attacks lead to an uptick in civilian harm, particularly in densely populated urban areas. The movement’s major attacks against Afghan forces in the north, west and south of the country in August came only a month and half after it had scaled down its campaign following the June ceasefire. It would have been ideal to extend the détente into the summer fighting season to allow the diplomatic process to get started. 

The leaderships of all sides still appear committed to – or at least show rhetorical support for – peace talks

For its part, the U.S. continued its escalating campaign of airstrikes, which have more than doubled since last year. The growing air campaign contributed to a 52 per cent increase in civilian casualties from airstrikes this year, according to the UN, though the biggest cause of civilian harm remains insurgent attacks. The airstrikes could make it hard for the Taliban to justify peace talks with the U.S. when bombs are falling among its grassroots supporters. Furthermore, assertions by U.S. officials that military pressure on the Taliban made the insurgents more receptive to talks have added to the atmosphere of mistrust. Conversations I had in Ghazni and elsewhere suggested that Taliban military planners might have ordered the August offensive at least in part to push back against any impression that U.S. military action was forcing them into negotiations, and to demonstrate that they can outdo the Americans in exerting pressure on the battlefield.

There were missteps by the Afghan government, too. In early August, the Afghan intelligence service, the National Directorate of Security, rescued around 250 self-declared Islamic State fighters from imminent death or capture by the Taliban in the northern Jawzjan province. The Taliban’s elite forces were pushing to eliminate the small pocket of militants nominally fighting under the black flag of the so-called Islamic State Khorasan Province (IS-KP). Taliban leaders were angry and suspicious when the government thwarted their offensive, whisking away IS-KP cadres in helicopters and sheltering them in government guest houses. The Taliban saw this operation as evidence that the Afghan government, and by extension the U.S., were using the terrorist group to undermine the Taliban at any cost rather than making genuine peace. This misperception was strengthened by the U.S. bombing of Taliban fighters engaged in the subsequent offensives against IS-KP elsewhere in the country. In reality, the U.S. military and Afghan forces have engaged in determined efforts to decapitate IS-KP and reduce its strength. An airstrike against the IS-KP leadership on 25 August reportedly killed one of the group’s top commanders.

It now appears that the three-month ceasefire on which President Ghani was banking will not materialise. It will now be harder to hold the parliamentary elections scheduled for 20 October and – given that insecurity is often linked to disenfranchisement or fraud – raise the risk of a contested vote.

Still, it is too early to write off the peace process. The leaderships of all sides still appear committed to – or at least show rhetorical support for – peace talks. President Ghani’s ceasefire offer despite the recent carnage showed political bravery; on 21 August, he reiterated his call for peace, his speech not faltering even as mortars started falling nearby, punctuating his words with explosions. From the U.S. side, Ambassador Khalilzad’s appointment signals the U.S.’s intent regarding peace talks. As for the Taliban, it issued a statement in the name of its leader just before Eid al-Adha committing themselves to “bringing peace and security”, insisting on the importance of direct talks with the U.S. and paying more attention to peace than any similar statements from the insurgent leadership in the past. Despite the Taliban’s escalation, the belief direct talks can deliver apparently remains high within different Taliban quarters. Formal peace negotiations remain a distant prospect, but leaders on all sides of the conflict have rarely devoted so much attention to peacemaking.

That the Taliban appears intent to continue fighting even while talking with the U.S. does not necessarily mean those talks are futile

What does not appear likely, however, is a major military de-escalation between the parties. The U.S. and Afghan governments are seeking respite from a barrage of Taliban attacks this year, but that aim may be too ambitious for now.

The Taliban commander I met outside Ghazni, who was well informed about the peace talks with the Americans, told me he saw nothing wrong with escalating attacks. I asked him if the Taliban should halt or reduce violence to signal good faith in negotiations.

“No”, he answered. “A ceasefire or stopping attacks on government centres [cities] would be premature before a peace deal”.

“But what happens to peace talks then?” I asked.

“Those in charge of talks [from the Taliban] will talk while we do the fighting. As the last ceasefire showed, when our leader instructs us to halt fighting, everybody will immediately obey. We will become brothers with the government soldiers”.

“Does that mean you seek military victory?”

“No. There has not been a political solution so far because our enemies wanted to eliminate us. They wanted a military solution. I am 100 per cent sure that when there are direct talks with the Americans, we would certainly reach a political solution if they are honest”.

This and other conversations I have had in recent months with Taliban interlocutors suggest that it will be hard to reach agreement on de-escalation between military forces in the short term. Warfare has long been the Taliban’s defining characteristic and the movement is unlikely to scale back operations until a political deal is reached. The Taliban are thus likely to confound U.S. and Afghan governments expectations that peace talks will come after incremental reductions in violence. The Taliban view such proposals with suspicion, saying their enemies are not interested ending the war but in “peeling off” elements of their movement to weaken them.

That the Taliban appears intent to continue fighting even while talking with the U.S. does not necessarily mean those talks are futile, but it undoubtedly complicates efforts for peace. Negotiations under current conditions will almost certainly involve setbacks of the kind witnessed in recent weeks. They will test the patience of the Afghan public, fuelling the scepticism of some members of the political opposition about a peace process. Small demonstrations have already occurred as young protesters demand an end to what they call the government’s “appeasement policy”.

But even if a de-escalation is not possible, shifts in tactics by both sides that reduce civilian casualties might be a realistic confidence-building measure.

But even if a de-escalation is not possible, shifts in tactics by both sides that reduce civilian casualties might be a realistic confidence-building measure. Crisis Group’s interlocutors among the Taliban claim that the insurgents have adopted more cautious rules of engagement since they detonated an ambulance packed with explosives on a busy street in Kabul in January. The attack, a clear violation of the laws of war, killed more than 100 people, provoked widespread outrage and brought condemnation from the UN and other quarters. In the following months the Taliban appear to have reduced suicide attacks within cities, particularly truck bombs, making IS-KP the largest contributor to civilian casualties in suicide and complex attacks thus far in 2018.

Still, there is far more the Taliban can and should do. They continue attempting to encroach on urban areas, where the risk of civilian casualties is often highest. In the early weeks of his diplomacy, Ambassador Khalilzad could seek confidence building steps involving the Taliban avoiding such attacks, in return for the U.S. tamping down airstrikes and the Afghan forces refraining from shelling villages. Measures along these lines could significantly reduce the scale of carnage, even if only among civilians. If those steps are not feasible, at a minimum the Taliban may be willing to engage in three-way discussions with the U.S. and Afghan governments about alternatives for mitigating civilian harm and about improving access for the delivery of basic services in areas contested or controlled by the insurgency. Even those steps could help create a better atmosphere for talks.

The Ghazni bloodshed will not be the final setback, the last horrific spate of violence that Afghanistan will suffer on its long road toward a negotiated end to the conflict. But all stakeholders in Afghanistan should try to keep faith that peace remains possible. That means continuing to talk even as fighting persists.

This text was corrected on 6 September 2018. An earlier version incorrectly stated that the Taliban issued a statement at the end of August, when in fact it was issued just before Eid al-Adha in mid-August.