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 4 minutes

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

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