Countering Afghanistan’s Insurgency: No Quick Fixes
Countering Afghanistan’s Insurgency: No Quick Fixes
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
The U.S. and the Taliban after the Killing of al-Qaeda Leader Ayman al-Zawahiri
The U.S. and the Taliban after the Killing of al-Qaeda Leader Ayman al-Zawahiri
Report 123 / Asia

Countering Afghanistan’s Insurgency: No Quick Fixes

Fierce battles rage in southern Afghanistan, insurgent attacks in the east creep towards the provinces surrounding Kabul and a new campaign of terrorist violence targets urban centres.

Fierce battles rage in southern Afghanistan, insurgent attacks in the east creep towards the provinces surrounding Kabul and a new campaign of terrorist violence targets urban centres. The country’s democratic government is not immediately threatened but action is needed now. This includes putting more international forces into the battle zones but insurgencies are never beaten by military means alone, and there are no quick fixes. Diplomatic pressure on Pakistan is needed, and the government of President Karzai must show political will to respond to internal discontent with serious efforts to attack corruption, work with the elected National Assembly and extend the rule of law by ending the culture of impunity. Afghanistan needs a renewed, long-term effort to build an effective, fair government that provides real security to its people.

The desire for a quick, cheap war followed by a quick, cheap peace is what has brought Afghanistan to the present, increasingly dangerous situation. It has to be recognised that the armed conflict will last many years but the population needs to be reassured now that there is a clear political goal of an inclusive state. Actions to fight the insurgency must be based on and enforce the rule of law with priority given to the reform of the police and judiciary. Short-term measures such as reliance on ill-trained and poorly disciplined militias, harsh, ad hoc anti-terrorism legislation and discredited power brokers from past eras will only undermine the long-term goal of building sustainable institutions. Political strategy talk seems to focus increasingly on making a deal with the Taliban. That is a bad idea. The key to restoring peace and stability to Afghanistan is not making concessions to the violent extremists but meeting the legitimate grievances of the population – who for the most part have eagerly supported democratisation.

The intervention in Afghanistan has been done on the cheap. Compared even to many recent post-conflict situations (Bosnia, Kosovo) it was given proportionately many fewer peacekeepers and less resources – and Afghanistan has never been a post-conflict situation. Even the numbers do not tell the full story since force protection, rather than the creation of durable security, remains the first priority for some NATO members. Those prepared to go south and east to confront the Taliban – mainly the U.S., UK, Canada, the Netherlands, Romania, Australia and Denmark – are to be congratulated. Others, such as Germany, Italy, Spain, France and Turkey, must be persuaded to be more flexible and remove restrictions that impede true interoperability of the international forces.

Wrong-headed choices of allies within Afghanistan and across the border have contributed greatly to the current crisis. Pakistan has been at best a most grudging ally. The Taliban and al-Qaeda found refuge there and regrouped. Actions against them by the Pakistani military government have been non-existent or ineffectual. President Musharraf has devoted more effort to consolidating alliances of convenience with Islamist parties than fighting the jihadis. International efforts to stabilise Afghanistan will be about containment at best until the international community puts real, sustained diplomatic pressure on Pakistan to tackle militant leaderships and reverse policies that feed extremism, including reform of the extremist madrasas.

Internal reform is equally essential to end nearly five years of misrule by predatory leaders and a culture of impunity. The exploding drugs trade is both a symptom and a source of instability and corruption. This state of affairs has particular implications in the south, where many of the worst provincial and district leaders have close links to the central administration. As a result, the disillusioned, the disenfranchised and the economically desperate are responding again to the call of extremists in a region radicalised through decades of conflict. Self-interested spoilers, particularly those in the narcotics trade, which has exploded in the last five years, further fuel the violence. The traffickers and facilitators – often corrupt government officials – have no desire to see their trade threatened and hence forge alliances of convenience with anti-government elements.

The police and judiciary have been woefully neglected in reconstruction efforts. The former are mostly a source of fear rather than security for citizens and are often little more than local militias. The latter is corrupt or non-existent in many parts of the country, although the new Supreme Court appointees offer a glimmer of hope. In the absence of visible justice and security, people may hark back to the Taliban’s harsh rule but they are not rejecting alternative models based on a rule of law – none have been offered to them. Democracy has not failed but representative institutions have not been given a chance to function.

Along with extending central authority, aiding economic progress and protecting women and the vulnerable, building the rule of law is central to beating the insurgents. Strict adherence to due process would emphasise that this is a conflict between a legitimate authority and rebels and show the population that no one is above the law. International forces need to recognise this too; the deaths at the U.S. base at Bagram, aggressive house searches and detentions without the benefit of law feed public disillusionment and enemy propaganda.

Fighting the insurgency and nation-building are mutually reinforcing. The Afghan government and the international community must accept that some short-term pain is inevitable and hold their nerve to pursue deep-rooted, substantive reform. The current violence is an urgent wake-up call for remedial action, not an excuse to give up at the hopelessness of it all. There is nothing inevitable about failure in Afghanistan. However, without rethinking policies, there is equally nothing inevitable about success.

Kabul/Brussels, 2 November 2006

Podcast / Asia

The U.S. and the Taliban after the Killing of al-Qaeda Leader Ayman al-Zawahiri

This week on Hold Your Fire! Richard Atwood speaks with Crisis Group’s Asia Director Laurel Miller about U.S. policy in Afghanistan, the Taliban’s foreign relations and what the killing of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in the Afghan capital Kabul says about the threat from transnational militants in Afghanistan a year into Taliban rule.

On 31 July, a U.S. drone strike killed al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in the Afghan capital Kabul. Zawahiri appears to have been living in a house maintained by the family of powerful Taliban Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani. His death came almost a year after U.S. troops pulled out of Afghanistan and the Taliban routed the former Afghan security forces and seized power. The Taliban’s uncompromising rule over the past year has seen girls denied their right to education, many other rights and freedoms curtailed and power tightly guarded within the Taliban movement. The Afghan economy has collapsed, owing in large part to the U.S. and other countries’ freezing Afghan Central Bank assets, keeping sanctions against the Taliban in place and denying the country non-humanitarian aid. Levels of violence across the country are mostly down, but Afghans’ plight is desperate, with a grave humanitarian crisis set to worsen over the winter. The Taliban’s apparent harbouring of Zawahiri seems unlikely to smooth relations between the new authorities in Kabul and the outside world. 

This week on Hold your Fire! Richard Atwood speaks with Crisis Group’s Asia Program Director Laurel Miller about U.S. policy in Afghanistan and the Taliban’s broader foreign relations after Zawahiri’s killing. They discuss what his presence and death in Kabul mean for U.S. policy and what they say about the threat posed by transnational militants sheltering in Afghanistan. They look into how countries in the region are seeking to protect their interests in Afghanistan, including by engaging with the de facto Taliban authorities, and how those countries – particularly Pakistan, which has faced an uptick of violence in the past year – view the danger from foreign militants in Afghanistan. They also look in depth at Washington’s goals in Afghanistan a year after the withdrawal and what balance it should strike between engaging the Taliban or seeking to isolate them. Just over a year after the U.S. withdrawal and Taliban takeover, they reflect back on Washington’s decision to pull out troops. 

Click here to listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

For more on the situation in Afghanistan, check out Crisis Group’s recent report Afghanistan’s Security Challenges under the Taliban.

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