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Dealing with disaster in Afghanistan
Dealing with disaster in Afghanistan
Afghanistan: Growing Challenges
Afghanistan: Growing Challenges
Op-Ed / Asia

Dealing with disaster in Afghanistan

Originally published in Boston Globe

The Taliban takeover of Kunduz in Northern Afghanistan this week is the visible part of an insurgency iceberg that has grown larger, more destructive, and more threatening to the Afghan coalition government and to the Obama administration’s Titanic-like exit strategy.

Kunduz is the first provincial capital to fall to the Taliban since the United States entered the country in 2001. The setback crowns a year in which the United States and NATO were down to a total of 13,000 support forces, Taliban attacks and civilian casualties reached a 14-year high, and the Islamic State reared its ugly head in the country.

The UN Mission has tracked a doubling of civilian casualties since 2014, mostly the result of insurgent attacks, to more than 50,00. The Pentagon also has reported a 50 percent hike over last year in Afghan military and police casualties, with 4,100 killed and 7,800 wounded in the first six months of the year.

The International Crisis Group has long argued that US combat support personnel should not effectively disappear from the battlefield. The draw-down means they essentially can only be called upon in emergencies, like the one that has brought in special forces after the fact in Kunduz. The Afghan military and police simply have not reached the point of combat self-sufficiency.

In Kabul, President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah’s coalition government has been in office for a year, but it has failed to unify its principal security operations. The commander of international forces, General John Campbell, has, like his predecessors, said the Afghan military and police are not yet ready to secure the country on their own.

At the same time, the government and its Western allies have opted — mistakenly — to bolster their defenses with an expanded Afghan Local Police (ALP) force that is about one-third effective — because it comes from the local community and has decent leaders — and two-thirds brutal, ineffective, and counterproductive.

The ALP’s performance began to worsen after US Special Forces monitors departed in 2013. In some of the Kunduz districts that are dominated by ethnic Uzbeks, local Pashtun elders refused to collaborate with the ALP. In February, a corruption scandal reportedly linked Kunduz police officers to Taliban and criminal gangs, and anticorruption actions have not reversed longstanding provincial and local government failures there.

The ALP thus became more of a problem than a solution, in Kunduz and elsewhere, and the Taliban spring offensive should have prompted far greater preparations by the ANSF for more Taliban attacks. Now it needs to bolster its forces in an effective way, and it needs to have Western combat support available to back it up.

The destabilizing aspects of the Kunduz disaster go beyond Afghanistan itself, with the presence of Central Asian militants in Taliban units threatening to spread the insurgency across the region. For the Afghanistan coalition government, the Obama administration, and Congress, there are critical decisions to be made now.

First, the Afghan coalition government should coordinate its security structure under an empowered minister of defense. It should build on the Afghan army and national police, incorporate the decent faction of the ALP, and dissolve the abusive bulk of this militia.

Second, the promised reforms to deal with corruption have to be far more evident than they have been to date in the country’s provinces beyond Kabul.

Third, the Obama administration has to call a halt to scheduled further withdrawals of US and NATO forces. It must restore sufficient combat support for the ANSF until there is no question about the Afghans’ capacity to fight on their own.

Finally, the only plausible way to end the conflict is through negotiations, a political resolution and reconciliation, the necessary condition for a safe and orderly US exit. But unless the steps outlined above are put in place — and the Taliban is willing to make concessions and Pakistan presses it to do so — that goal cannot be reached.

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.