The Insurgency in Afghanistan’s Heartland
The Insurgency in Afghanistan’s Heartland
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Afghanistan: The Spreading Insurgency
Afghanistan: The Spreading Insurgency
Report 207 / Asia

The Insurgency in Afghanistan’s Heartland

Collusion between insurgent elements and corrupt government officials in Kabul and the nearby provinces has increased, leading to a profusion of criminal networks in the Afghan heartland.

Executive Summary

The insurgency in Afghanistan has expanded far beyond its stronghold in the south east. Transcending its traditional Pashtun base, the Taliban is bolstering its influence in the central-eastern provinces by installing shadow governments and tapping into the vulnerabilities of a central government crippled by corruption and deeply dependent on a corrosive war economy. Collusion between insurgents and corrupt government officials in Kabul and the nearby provinces has increased, leading to a profusion of criminal networks in the Afghan heartland. Despite efforts to combat the insurgency in the south, stability in the centre has steadily eroded. Yet, with nearly one fifth of the population residing in Kabul and its surrounding provinces, the Afghan heartland is pivotal to the planned transition from international troops to Afghan forces at the end of 2014. Given the insurgency’s entrenchment so close to the capital, however, it appears doubtful that President Hamid Karzai’s government will be able to contain the threat and stabilise the country by then. Countering the insurgency in these crucial areas requires the implementation of long-overdue reforms, including more robust anti-corruption efforts, stricter oversight over international aid and greater support for capacity building in the judicial and financial sectors.

Although the number of major attacks on Kabul has recently declined, insurgent networks have been able to reinforce their gains in provinces and districts close to the city, launching smaller attacks on soft targets. Outmanned and outgunned by the thousands of foreign and Afghan security forces in and around Kabul, Taliban attacks inside the capital are not aimed at controlling it physically but to capture it psychologically. Once that objective is achieved, the political and financial cost of doing business for foreign forces and diplomatic missions located in Kabul will be too high to sustain for the long haul.

An aggressive campaign of assassinations of government officials and infiltration of Afghan security forces in neighbouring provinces has, meanwhile, gutted the government’s ability to expand its reach to the periphery. In the rural areas of Ghazni, Wardak, Logar and other nearby provinces, where unemployment runs high and government presence is low, the insurgency has found safe havens far from the borders of Pakistan. A little more than a year after the transfer of additional U.S. troops was completed, violence increased across the country, hitting new peaks in May 2011 as the Taliban launched their spring offensive, which resulted in the highest recorded number of civilian casualties incurred in a single month since the U.S. engagement in Afghanistan began in 2001. It is unlikely that this trend will be reversed anytime soon. Following the announcement by President Barack Obama on 22 June 2011 of U.S. plans to withdraw 33,000 troops by September 2012, it appears likely that the insurgency will push forcefully to gain more ground before the military drawdown reaches its final phase by December 2014.

Nearly a decade after the U.S.-led military intervention began, little has been done to challenge the perverse incentives of continued conflict in Afghanistan. Insecurity and the inflow of billions of dollars in international assistance has failed to significantly strengthen the state’s capacity to provide security or basic services and has instead, by progressively fusing the interests of political gatekeepers and insurgent commanders, provided new opportunities for criminals and insurgents to expand their influence inside the government. The economy as a result is increasingly dominated by a criminal oligarchy of politically connected businessmen. On the surface, security conditions in the capital city appear relatively stable. The nexus between criminal enterprises, insurgent networks and corrupt political elites, however, is undermining Kabul’s security and that of the central-eastern corridor. Afghan citizens, meanwhile, are squeezed on all sides – by the government, the insurgency and international forces.

The insurgency’s penetration of the greater Kabul area has also intensified competition between Taliban fighters associated with Mullah Omar’s Quetta Shura (leadership council), the North Waziristan-based Haqqani network and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hizb-e Islami. Violent rivalries between commanders of these insurgent groups in places such as Kapisa, Logar and Wardak have resulted in the loss of hundreds of lives. Caught in the middle are ordinary Afghans who remain fearful of a Taliban return to power. Tasked with quelling the violence, NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) is perceived as unable or unwilling to distinguish between civilians and insurgents and to reduce dependence on corrupt government officials in its counter-insurgency strategy.

Stabilisation and improving security beyond Kabul will depend on confronting corruption in the capital and outlying areas. This will require a comprehensive reassessment of current anti-corruption efforts, which so far have proven ineffective. Building capacity in the judicial sector while weeding out corruption is crucial for lasting reform. Afghan agencies with the combined mandate of countering corruption, organised crime and terrorism financing such as the Special Investigations Unit, the Major Crimes Task Force and the Financial Transactions Reports Analysis Centre of Afghanistan need more support. A broad review of the policies and operational practices of the country’s national intelligence agency, the National Directorate of Security (NDS), will also be important to ensure against abuses of power that may further fuel the insurgency.

Fighting the insurgency is synonymous with providing citizens security and basic services and tackling corruption. The Afghan government and the international community must accept and prepare for the risks that come with targeting powerful political and business elites in and around Kabul for prosecution and sanctions. The potential short-term pain of political tensions that may arise over such prosecutions is worth the long-term gains associated with striking at the primary causes of the insurgency – poor governance, corruption and misuse of force by Afghan or foreign forces. With just three years left before the bulk of international forces withdraw, the window of opportunity to expand security outside Kabul is fast closing. It is unlikely that this can be achieved unless a better balance can be struck between taking the fight to the field and countering the causes of the insurgency. Failure in Afghanistan is not inevitable, but without a recalibration of the current counter-insurgency strategy, success is far from guaranteed.

Kabul/Brussels, 27 June 2011

Podcast / Asia

Afghanistan: The Spreading Insurgency

Insurgent activity in Afghanistan has now spread beyond traditional strongholds in the south to districts surrounding the capital, exposing the slow erosion of security in the Afghan heartland. Candace Rondeaux, Crisis Group’s Senior Analyst for Afghanistan, discusses the implications of U.S. withdrawal for the evolving Afghan insurgency.

In this podcast, Candace Rondeaux discusses the implications of U.S. withdrawal for the evolving Afghan insurgency. CRISIS GROUP

You can find below a transcript of this podcast.

Welcome to this podcast from the International Crisis Group. I'm a Kimberly Abbott. In a major speech to the American public on June 22, President Obama announced the beginning of the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan, but if anything the insurgency has only grown stronger in recent months. Insurgent activity has now spread beyond traditional strongholds in the south to districts surrounding the capital, exposing the slow erosion of security in the Afghan heartland. To discuss the implications of US withdrawal for the evolving Afghan insurgency, I am joined by Candace Rondeaux, Crisis Group’s Senior Analyst for Afghanistan. Candace is on the line from Kabul.

Candace, what is the feeling on the ground in Afghanistan about Obama’s speech?

This is obviously a pivotal moment for both Afghans and Americans and for the world at large. Afghans are extremely nervous. There is a lot of anxiety about what the withdrawal will mean in terms of stability in the country.  The number of assassinations in the country has gone up in the last couple of months, and in the last week we have seen a number of prominent non-Pashtun politicians targeted by the Taliban. We see this as a direct reaction to the growing anxiety inside Kabul, inside political circles, over the withdrawal.     

You mentioned a recent increase in attacks. Can you give us a broader look at how the insurgency has changed over the past few months and how withdrawal will affect the insurgency?

The surge has brought with it a number of changes. There has been some progress on the ground, but it has been very fragile. Across the country, the insurgency has gained a lot of territory and has been able to strike at targets on a regular basis with impunity. What this shows is that the Taliban, the Haqqani Network and Hizb-e-Islami are growing not only in strength but also that the support for the insurgency is growing, in large part because the government is so weak

So are you really saying that the surge has backfired outside of the capital? 
There are clear signs that the surge has backfired outside the capitol. In areas close to Kabul such as Wardak, Logar—these are big provinces with large populations—you see the insurgency growing. You see them connecting with government officials.
There is a great deal of collusion between the government and the insurgency. What you have today is a situation where an organized crime network has essentially taken over the state. You have state capture in the largest possible sense — and the insurgency has taken advantage of this. They have gained so much ground, and they plan to extract so much more over the next two years as withdrawal takes place, that we can expect a lot more violence and bloodshed at a much more rapid tempo.
Let's go back to this idea of government collusion. How has it happened? How have government officials worked so closely with these insurgent networks and gotten away with it?

In this kind of climate, in an atmosphere were insecurity runs so high, those who stand to gain the most from the conflict are those in positions of power and those who have hold over territory. So you see officials in the national directorate of security, which is the Afghan Intelligence Agency, officials in the Ministry of Interior, officials in the Ministry of Defense oftentimes collaborating with local insurgents to create diversionary attacks in order to facilitate drug smuggling, as well as other kind of smuggling.

What we’re talking about here is the growth of organized crime at a massive scale, at a pace not seen before in this country, and the influx of billions of dollars in cash from the U.S. and other donor countries has resulted in a massive amount of corruption. From this the insurgents have benefited. Politically they have benefited in so much as the government is unable to present and deliver services, and so they are able to play up on that on the local level. Financial they have also benefited because, increasingly, you see groups like the Haqqani network colluding with government officials and co-opting licit businesses.

What we also know about the organized crime rates here is that it is very difficult in a country like Afghanistan to move the amount of product, whether it’s drugs, whether its minerals or otherwise, without the collusion of government officials. Oftentimes you see—particularly in the northern areas near the boarder and in the east—a great deal of collusion between insurgents and government security officials.         

Can you explain some of the structural and ideological differences between the Taliban, the Haqqani Network and Hizb-e-Islami? How do they interact with each other?

Over the last 10 years there has been a lot of cooperation between the three major insurgent groups—between Hizb-e-Islami, which is the group run by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, between the Haqqani network, run by Sirajuddin Haqqani, and then the Taliban, which of course is run out of Quetta in Pakistan. All three of these groups, on various occasions, in all parts of the country, have collaborated together on attacks. We have seen this in places like Kabul, especially running up until 2008-2009.

More recently, as the U.S. Special Forces campaign to target and assassinate and capture Taliban and other insurgents has increased its tempo, we have also seen a great deal more competition on the local level between all three of these groups. For instance, in Wardak in the last month we have seen a number of scrimmages between the Taliban and the Hizb-e-Islami group, in large part because they are seeking control over areas near the roadways. Smuggling is the name of the game in Afghanistan. For insurgents and for organized crime networks, having access to the roads is everything.

What has all this meant for the ordinary Afghani?  Describe their lives now compared to 10 years ago when this war started.

Many Afghans feel pressed on all sides. They don’t trust the government. They don’t trust U.S. troops. They don’t trust the insurgency. And yet, when it comes down to it, the insurgency often has the greatest influence in many of these local, rural areas, particularly in the areas around Kabul, and so they end up capitulating, essentially, to rule by terror. I think that what we have seen from the counterinsurgency strategy is that a lot of Afghans are unclear about U.S. intentions in Afghanistan. They often say we don’t know which messages to believe. You hear Robert Gates say one thing, and you hear President Obama say another, and this confuses the population a great deal. That has given a lot of leverage to insurgent groups and criminal networks to operate very freely. Without having the support of the people, U.S. and NATO troops and Afghan government troops simply cannot make the kind of headway they need to in the counterinsurgency campaign.

Let’s get back to the report for just a second. What are some of the things that Crisis Group believes should be done to fix the mess you have described in terms of the counterinsurgency strategy and in terms of quelling this insurgent violence?

For U.S. and international partners in Afghanistan, the key action that needs to be taken is to recognize that the counterinsurgency campaign is deeply flawed and that the number of civilian casualties caused by US troops NATO troops, while although small, is significant and has created the impression that Afghanistan is an occupied country.

Also, I think that it is very important to press the Afghan government for greater accountability. It is no longer acceptable to spend billions of dollars in Kabul on a government that refuses to be accountable to its people and that refuses to be accountable for corruption. At this time, I think the most important challenge that this country faces is corruption and organized crime. More than anything else, if this is not brought under control, then this country is on a fast track for failure.  

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