Arrow Down Arrow Left Arrow Right Arrow Up Camera icon set icon set Ellipsis icon set Facebook Favorite Globe Hamburger List Mail Map Marker Map Microphone Minus PDF Play Print RSS Search Share Trash Twitter Video Camera Youtube
Afghanistan: Growing Challenges
Afghanistan: Growing Challenges
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

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.