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Dealing with disaster in Afghanistan
Dealing with disaster in Afghanistan
A Dangerous Escalation in Afghanistan
A Dangerous Escalation in Afghanistan
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

A Dangerous Escalation in Afghanistan

The Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan is likely to continue unabated in 2018, despite the U.S. effort to step up its military campaign. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2018, Crisis Group urges the EU and its member states to utilise its influence with Afghan political actors to help rebuild trust and increase prospects for mediation.

This commentary on the escalation of danger in Afghanistan is part of our annual early-warning report Watch List 2018.

In 2018, Afghanistan is likely to witness escalating violence and could also face political crisis. President Ashraf’s National Unity Government (NUG) should work with U.S. officials to ensure Washington’s new strategy has a political, not merely military, component. It also should reach out to opposition politicians and parties, advance preparations for credible parliamentary elections and counter the perception that power is being centralised along ethnic lines – all measures the EU and its member states, which retain influence in Kabul, should encourage. With the U.S. for now determined to escalate its military campaign against the Taliban insurgency, prospects for progress toward a political settlement in 2018 appear dim. Still, beyond their contribution to the training, advising and assisting of Afghan security forces, the EU and European leaders and member states should continue to emphasise the importance of such a settlement and help preserve channels of communication to the insurgency.

A military strategy with no political framework

Washington’s new Afghanistan strategy involves stepping up the military campaign against the Taliban through U.S. airstrikes and mostly Afghan-led, U.S.-supported ground offensives. U.S. President Donald Trump removed deadlines for the withdrawal of U.S. forces, while increasing the number of troops on the ground by 4,000, to reach a total of 15,000 (still far below the 100,000 deployed as part of the 2011 surge). European NATO allies have committed to sending more military personnel to train and advise the Afghan security forces. Although the increase is modest – less than a thousand officers – it is a symbolically significant expression of support. U.S. officials maintain that the goal is to reverse the Taliban’s momentum and leave the group no choice but to enter into talks about a political settlement, although when such talks would take place is unclear. U.S. efforts to engage the Taliban – or at least encourage them to enter talks with the Afghan government – appear to have petered out.

Over the past year, the Taliban have stepped up their offensive, launching massive high-casualty attacks, sometimes by driving military vehicles – usually stolen from the Afghan army – laden with explosives into military and police compounds. These demoralising bombings are likely to continue. The Taliban also could continue their pattern of spectacular urban attacks to shake public confidence in the government; a 27 January attack, which saw insurgents detonate explosives packed in an ambulance on a busy Kabul street, killing more than 100 and injuring at least 200, mostly civilians, is only the latest such strike. For some years already, insurgents have used increasingly sophisticated equipment and, in some places, engaged Afghan forces in direct – as opposed to asymmetric – confrontation. The Taliban also appear to enjoy stronger connections than ever before to outside powers, not only their traditional patron (Pakistan), but also Iran and Russia. Afghan civilians are likely to bear the brunt of any escalation.

The U.S. undertook only a single observable political effort in 2017, which was to pressure Pakistan to stop harbouring and supporting the Taliban and their Haqqani network allies. Even that initiative is unlikely to bear fruit.

Prospects in 2018 for serious progress toward a peace process are slim. U.S. officials say their new strategy integrates diplomatic and military efforts to achieve a political settlement with the Taliban. Yet diplomacy clearly has been downgraded. The U.S. undertook only a single observable political effort in 2017, which was to pressure Pakistan to stop harbouring and supporting the Taliban and their Haqqani network allies. Even that initiative is unlikely to bear fruit, however, as cuts to U.S. military assistance almost certainly will not alter the strategic calculus of Islamabad’s security establishment that drives Pakistani support for Afghan insurgents.

U.S. and Afghan officials pay increasing attention to what they describe as a growing threat from foreign terrorist groups, particularly the Islamic State-Khorasan Province (IS-KP). In truth, however, non-Taliban groups contributed only a small percentage of the violence in 2017. Despite dramatic and shocking attacks in urban centres, the IS-KP has, for the most part, been held in check by U.S. and Afghan forces, on the one hand, and the Taliban, on the other.

Politics in crisis

National politics are likely to suck oxygen from counter-insurgency efforts as President Ashraf Ghani’s unity government may well face a political crisis in the coming year. Parliamentary elections, already postponed in October 2016 and now scheduled for July 2018, are at risk of further delay while presidential elections are scheduled for 2019. Delayed reforms and preparations risk undermining prospects for clean polling, according to Tadamichi Yamamoto, UN Secretary-General’s special representative for Afghanistan. Insecurity across much of the country may also obstruct a credible vote.

The government faces a political opposition that is larger and more diverse than previously has been the case during the post-Taliban era. Afghan politics may be factious and fluid, but, at least for now, several groups have aligned against the Ghani government, in part because they see stalled election preparations as evidence it is looking to manipulate the vote. Many accuse the president of tightening his grip on power and deepening ethnic divisions.

Ghani’s vice president, Abdul Rashid Dostum, an Uzbek warlord who left for Turkey amid a criminal investigation into allegations (which he denies) that he abducted and raped a political rival, has formed an alliance with influential Tajik and Hazara leaders. A spat between Ghani and Atta Mohammad Noor, the powerful governor of Balkh province who is resisting the president’s efforts to remove him from his post, also threatens turmoil. Atta has the support of a major part of Jamiat-e Islami, one of the largest political parties. That he seems ready to defy the central government so brazenly, even violently, sets a dangerous precedent for regional power brokers seeking to slip Kabul’s grip.

Powerful politicians also are arrayed against the government. Ex-President Hamid Karzai has been mobilising to convene a Loya Jirga or grand council of tribal elders to debate the country’s future. While Karzai argues a council would unite the bitterly divided Afghan polity, his critics accuse him of trying to shake up politics and regain power.

President Ghani has tried to fend off his rivals and shore up his legitimacy with the backing of Western powers. But external support is an inadequate substitute for domestic approval, particularly with elections looming. Ghani needs to invest more in building national consensus, which will be critical to manage conflict and street protests should a political crisis unfold.

Making external influence more constructive

The EU and member states have difficult tasks ahead: they must simultaneously help keep the government from unravelling; support, along with the UN, election preparations; encourage President Ghani to reach out to his opponents; and assist the U.S.-led battle against the Taliban, all the while talking to the insurgents.

Although EU influence in Kabul suffered when it closed its special representative’s office and downgraded its diplomatic presence last year, there may at some point be opportunities for Europeans to help bring the Taliban to the table.

In this respect, the EU continues to enjoy clout with various Afghan political actors, even if less than some years ago. Their reduced footprint in Afghanistan notwithstanding, the EU and member states provided €30.5 million in humanitarian assistance in 2017 to help the country’s growing numbers of displaced people and other civilian victims. More broadly, over the past decade the EU has provided some €756 million in life-saving aid. It should now use the resulting influence to push for progress toward a political settlement to the conflict. Specifically, it should press and encourage the Afghan and U.S. governments to go down this path, while ensuring that lines of communication to the insurgency remain open. If signs re-emerge that the Trump administration is planning to close the Taliban’s political representation office in Doha, Qatar – which it threatened to do in 2017 but then apparently reconsidered – European leaders should actively discourage such a move. Although EU influence in Kabul suffered when it closed its special representative’s office and downgraded its diplomatic presence last year, there may at some point be opportunities for Europeans to help bring the Taliban to the table. Indeed, mistrust between the Taliban and the Ghani government means credible third parties will, at some point, need to step in.