icon caret Arrow Down Arrow Left Arrow Right Arrow Up Line Camera icon set icon set Ellipsis icon set Facebook Favorite Globe Hamburger List Mail Map Marker Map Microphone Minus PDF Play Print RSS Search Share Trash Crisiswatch Alerts and Trends Box - 1080/761 Copy Twitter Video Camera  copyview Whatsapp Youtube
Pushing for a U-turn in Afghanistan
Pushing for a U-turn in Afghanistan
How the U.S. Withdrawal Decision Will Affect the Afghan Conflict
How the U.S. Withdrawal Decision Will Affect the Afghan Conflict
Still taken from Crisis Group video On The FrontLines, showing former Afghanistan Senior Analyst Graeme Smith [L] CRISIS GROUP
Impact Note / Asia

Pushing for a U-turn in Afghanistan

In 2013-2014, International Crisis Group’s work in Afghanistan helped shift the consensus on the Taliban insurgency from “the war is cooling down” to “the war is growing”. This was a fundamental revision of the way in which the conflict’s progression was viewed, and resulted in a critical rise in Western powers’ support to the Afghan government. In a conflict that no side could win outright, Crisis Group believed, this aid was vital to stabilise the situation on the battlefield enough for peace talks with the Taliban to progress.

Interweaving field research, report-writing and targeted advocacy, Crisis Group challenged the assumptions behind the NATO proposal at its 2012 Chicago summit to draw down troops by the end of 2014. Donors said they would significantly reduce their annual subsidy to the Afghan security forces to $4.1 billion annually. The NATO plan was based on the belief that the insurgency was diminishing and the Afghan government could safely cut more than 100,000 personnel from its security roster.

Crisis Group began to question this position during a June 2013 visit to Kandahar by our Senior Analyst for Afghanistan, Graeme Smith. The province was being hailed as a success story, an example of how recent surges of international forces had beaten back the insurgency. But friends and contacts Smith had known since he lived in Kandahar from 2006 to 2009 told him that while the Taliban had been pushed away from the urban areas, a desperate battle was underway for control of the outlying villages. A former official from Ghorak district told Smith about his colleagues in the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) who were starving in their outposts, running out of fuel and bullets, and dying of minor wounds that festered without medical attention. As he delved deeper, Smith saw the pattern repeating across Afghanistan, with Kabul’s crumbing control of outlying districts coinciding with the withdrawal of international forces.

Obviously, the narrative about the war cooling down was wishful thinking, with dangerous implications for military and political efforts to defeat the insurgency. Indeed, if NATO were to follow through on dramatic funding cuts to the Afghan forces, the Taliban’s pressure on government forces would likely gather momentum. It undermined the whole logic of the UN team working on negotiations with the Taliban, namely that no deal was likely until the Afghan government and the West reached a “hurting stalemate” with the insurgency on the battlefield.

Crisis Group’s Senior Afghanistan Analyst Graeme Smith exchanges ideas in Kandahar in 2015 with Abdul Halim, a leading Afghan regional tribal leader. Download permissions

As he pursued interviews and briefings with contacts for a new Crisis Group report, Smith raised the alarm in an op-ed in The New York Times (“Grabbing The Wolf’s Tail”, 16 January 2014). He pointed out that the Afghan conflict was not winding down, notwithstanding assurances to the contrary from the Pentagon. This prompted an invitation a couple of weeks later to present our research and discuss recommendations at a meeting of UN field office directors in Kabul.

Smith had similar discussions in March and April with Deputy U.S. Ambassador Michael McKinley and his political staff. Informally, he got feedback from senior figures in the Afghan government during a dinner hosted by the deputy minister of interior in April; the next day he briefed (and learned from) an audience of representatives from the Afghan and donor governments and international organisations including the EU, UN and NATO.

Published in May 2014, our report, Afghanistan’s Insurgency after the Transition, attracted significant media coverage, making headlines as the first rigorous explanation of why the violence continued to grow, and calling for a reversal of funding cuts to effectively fight the insurgency. Two days after the report’s publication, Smith briefed the visiting advisor to the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. He also presented the report’s findings to European ambassadors and the EU special representative at a formal luncheon, hosted in a heavily guarded palace formerly belonging to the royal family of Afghanistan. The tide was turning: Western officials now agreed with Crisis Group that pressure on the ANSF was going to increase in the next two years. In confidence, they said the diplomatic community had begun encouraging the Afghan forces to adopt a less diffuse posture and to concentrate defences around major population centres and key roads. In the following weeks, Smith continued to push the message home in dozens of briefings to embassy staffers, military and intelligence officials, and UN staff.

“Informally the [ISAF] commander expressed interest in using our report as a way of challenging the analysis coming from his own headquarters

Informally the commander of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) Joint Command – which had issued a report in November 2013 stating that the war was winding down – expressed interest in using our report as a way of challenging the analysis coming from his own headquarters (it subsequently emerged that the NATO database of security incidents was flawed).

While some officials remained unwilling to accept Smith’s view that remote district centres risked being overrun, others were surprisingly receptive. Formal and informal briefings also continued with senior figures in the Afghan government, ranging from meetings with police chiefs in the embattled provinces of Kunduz and Kandahar to cocktail receptions in Kabul on the rooftop patio of a deputy minister’s house. While some of our Afghan interlocutors chided us for our negative outlook on the ability of Afghan forces to hold ground in the 2014 and 2015 fighting seasons, they were at the same time appreciative of our calls for greater ANSF support.

Even before our May report appeared, Crisis Group staff in Washington DC led by Senior Vice President Mark Schneider had moved into action. Schneider briefed the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, his deputies, and the National Security Council director for Afghanistan and Pakistan. The report generated a demand, he was specifically told, from the National Security Council to the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Department of Defense to explain the divergence between Defense’s initial optimism and the new Crisis Group findings. By the summer, the idea of clear gaps in the Afghan forces’ ability to engage in combat was common discussion, as was the need to increase the funds that had been promised in 2012.

Crisis Group’s President & CEO Jean-Marie Guéhenno drove home the message in a meeting with the [U.S.] Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who assured Guéhenno that the U.S. or NATO would ensure that Afghan combat readiness would be raised.

Subsequently, Schneider and Crisis Group’s South Asia Project Director Samina Ahmed briefed the U.S. Senate’s Foreign Relations and Defense Committees on the May report and a follow-up report on how the Afghan government could meet the threat (Afghanistan’s Political Transition, October 2014). That same month, Crisis Group’s President & CEO Jean-Marie Guéhenno drove home the message in a meeting with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who assured Guéhenno that the U.S. or NATO would ensure that Afghan combat readiness would be raised.

Our efforts to draw attention to the serious risks of reducing support to the ANSF already paid off at NATO’s September 2014 summit, when the Afghan delegation received assurances of at least $5.1 billion annually, avoiding serious personnel cuts. The planning process within

NATO has continued to reflect this line of argument; while NATO continues to maintain that funding will gradually fall to the levels pledged at the 2012 Chicago summit, the timeline remains unspecified. Total funding for Afghan security forces in 2015 is $5.443 billion, with planned expenditures for 2016 exceeding $5 billion.

Sadly, our prediction of higher violence in 2014 and 2015 proved correct. Casualties among Afghan security forces doubled in 2014 compared with the previous year, and in 2015 they have run 60 to 70 per cent higher than in 2014. We also predicted that “continued escalation would put district administration centres at risk of capture by insurgents”, which unfortunately has been borne out in several locations. In 2015, for the first time since the beginning of the insurgency, the Taliban were capturing and holding multiple district centres as the Afghan security forces struggled to regain lost territory.’

International Crisis Group will always be on the lookout for such ways to nudge conflicts towards a resolution, using the same unique methodology: field-based research that capitalises on our staff’s long experience and deep network of local contacts, which allows us to identify the trends that others are unable or unwilling to see; and then taking our findings to key decision-makers, both formally and behind the scenes.

A U.S. soldier of 2-12 Infantry 4BCT-4ID Task Force Mountain Warrior takes a break during a night mission near Honaker Miracle camp at the Pesh valley of Kunar Province August 12, 2009. REUTERS/Carlos Barria
Q&A / Asia

How the U.S. Withdrawal Decision Will Affect the Afghan Conflict

Washington’s decision to withdraw troops from Afghanistan by 11 September spells an end to the U.S. military deployment but not peace. Crisis Group expert Andrew Watkins anticipates that negotiations will likely stall and Afghans will fear an intensified civil war as the U.S. role evolves.

What’s new in the Biden announcement that the U.S. will withdraw all troops by 11 September? Why was the announcement made now?

President Joe Biden’s televised remarks on 14 April were the first clear statement of his decision to end U.S. military involvement in the war in Afghanistan. They also marked the first time that he has conveyed that the U.S. will – almost – stick to the withdrawal timeline the Trump administration agreed upon with the Taliban. Biden made clear that the U.S. would miss the 1 May deadline set out in the U.S.-Taliban agreement reached in February 2020, but that it would “begin” withdrawing on that date, and then complete its withdrawal by 11 September. For months, speculation had been growing that a delay was likely. The questions were whether or not such a delay would be negotiated with and accepted by the Taliban and, if so, in exchange for what concessions to the Taliban. It now appears that the U.S. decision was unilateral, though Biden in his remarks claimed it was consistent with the U.S.-Taliban deal.

Biden administration officials have characterised the deal with the Taliban as overly favourable to the insurgent group, one that put them in a bind: should the U.S. abide by the agreement’s withdrawal deadline when questions remain as to the Taliban’s commitments on counter-terrorism and their participation in peace talks? By declaring a firm exit date in a matter of months, but also delaying beyond the U.S.-Taliban agreement’s deadline, Biden said he is fulfilling the spirit of commitments made by the previous administration. The White House seems to hope that making this announcement before 1 May would satisfy the Taliban’s core demand that foreign troops exit the country, while enabling a smoother departure than the U.S. military could execute within a few weeks.

The decision reflects Biden’s recalculation of U.S. interests in Afghanistan and a determination that they are not sufficient to justify a continued troop presence on the ground.

Although this announcement’s timing is linked to the 1 May deadline, Biden and senior administration officials have stressed rationales for the military departure unrelated to the U.S.-Taliban agreement. These include sufficient satisfaction of the main U.S. reason for its 2001 military intervention – countering al-Qaeda – and a desire to focus instead on other foreign policy priorities. First and foremost, the decision reflects Biden’s recalculation of U.S. interests in Afghanistan and a determination that they are not sufficient to justify a continued troop presence on the ground.

What has been the Taliban’s response?

Taliban spokesmen have issued several tweets so far. One said the group will not attend any conference to determine Afghanistan’s future until foreign troops have departed, an apparent rejection of the Turkey-hosted peace conference planned for 24 April and organised by Ankara, the UN and Qatar at U.S. instigation. Another reiterated what the group has said publicly for months – that any delay beyond the date specified in the U.S.-Taliban agreement would violate the deal and risk a violent response.

Taliban representatives have forecast that any unilateral U.S. decision on withdrawal would be a sign of duplicity and disrespect.

U.S. officials may believe that concrete confirmation of a military withdrawal will be sufficiently good news for the Taliban to forestall a harsh response targeting U.S. personnel, but that remains to be seen. The Taliban could characterise the announcement as a declaration that the U.S. is leaving on its own terms, in a rejection of the agreement the two parties reached in 2020. The group has grown increasingly mistrustful of the U.S., in particular after the presidential transition, as it has perceived hesitation in U.S. officials’ remarks and diplomatic engagement on the terms of their agreement. Taliban representatives have forecast since January that any unilateral U.S. decision on withdrawal would be a sign of duplicity and disrespect.

At the same time, it is in the Taliban’s interests not to disrupt the U.S. departure, if the movement sees quickly that the withdrawal is really happening. For this reason, it is possible that Taliban rhetoric vis-à-vis the U.S. will be more bellicose than the group’s actions.

What does this news mean for the planned conference in Turkey?

The Taliban immediately seized on the news of the U.S. delayed withdrawal to reject out of hand the forthcoming peace conference in Turkey, planned to begin on 24 April. The U.S. had rather suddenly proposed this conference in March, in a letter from Secretary of State Antony Blinken to Afghan leaders, with the intent to convene neighbouring and regional states as well as the Afghan sides in order to jump-start lagging talks among the Afghan parties. The U.S. plan included a risky proposal to establish a “transitional” or interim power-sharing government consisting of various Afghan stakeholders including the Taliban.

Until 13 April, the Taliban had not publicly indicated whether they would attend, and at several points Taliban figures disparaged the notion of a temporary power-sharing arrangement. Taliban sources have described the conference to Crisis Group as a ploy to extract major compromises not included in the February 2020 agreement, for what they see as too little in return. But diplomats involved in the planning say the group continued to discuss the possibility of attending until news of the withdrawal broke.

It is difficult to envision the Turkey conference taking place without the Taliban’s participation and certainly the event would not notch up any significant achievements if it did occur without them. It seems unlikely the Taliban will back down from their rejection of participation, though a reversal is not impossible considering that Ankara and Doha especially (as co-conveners who would be embarrassed by the event’s failure) will probably pressure the group to show up. There could be an attempt to press on without the Taliban’s presence, if only to convene some of the foreign governments supporting the peace process.

What does the news mean for peace efforts more broadly?

Nothing good, but it is not clear that ignoring the 1 May deadline and avoiding setting a withdrawal date would have advanced peace talks either, given the anger that course of action would likely have provoked among the Taliban.

The primary motivation for the Taliban’s participation in Afghan peace talks that had been intermittently ongoing in Doha since September 2020 was the U.S. commitment in the February 2020 agreement to withdraw its troops – and all foreign troops – by 1 May. But this incentive had proven so far insufficient to elicit any real sign of willingness to compromise from the insurgent group. It is unclear what further incentives could now be offered that would prompt greater willingness. There will likely be tremendous pressure within the Taliban movement to press its military advantage in the aftermath of the U.S. withdrawal and attempt to achieve an outright military victory.

With the high potential for military conflict to re-intensify in the months to come, a resumption of peace talks between the two sides could grow increasingly unlikely.

As for the other side of the table, a number of political opposition figures will see a continuation of peace efforts as in their interest, especially after the U.S. raised the prospect of an interim government in which they might gain a greater share of power. But the Taliban’s response to the U.S. withdrawal, and their rejection of the Turkey conference, will likely shelve any such proposal. By the same token, President Ashraf Ghani and his senior officials are not likely to face the same pressure to cooperate with peace initiatives as they had during recent months, when the U.S. was pursuing last-ditch efforts to get a deal made before the withdrawal deadline. With the high potential for military conflict to re-intensify in the months to come, a resumption of peace talks between the two sides could grow increasingly unlikely.

The Taliban may still be interested in negotiating with the U.S. about smoothing the way for withdrawal, especially in order to obtain the additional release (by Kabul) of imprisoned fighters or UN sanctions relief. But it is not likely that the Afghan government would go along with such concessions in the wake of the withdrawal announcement – and its consent would be required.

President Biden has said that the U.S. will continue to support peace talks, and that it will press regional states to “do more” to support Afghanistan. But it is unclear what Washington’s diplomatic efforts will look like or what goals it will seek to achieve in the months ahead as the U.S. is withdrawing forces.

Does U.S. withdrawal spell doom for the Afghan government?

Some Afghans fear that it could. Several have told Crisis Group they worry Biden’s announcement is the beginning of the end of an already weak and factious Afghan government, and of the constitutional order that the Western intervention helped erect.

It is unclear whether the U.S. will provide remote or “over-the-horizon” military support to Afghan forces.

Nonetheless, it is impossible to make predictions about the Afghan government’s future without knowing more about plans for foreign assistance, particularly U.S. security assistance, upon which the state is dependent. If the U.S. commits to providing funding at similar levels for the coming years, many Afghan officials have suggested that the government can continue to function and defend itself indefinitely. As yet it is unclear whether the U.S. will provide remote or “over-the-horizon” military support to Afghan forces, ranging from strategic advice to intelligence sharing to training (presumably outside Afghanistan). These types of support could go a long way toward helping the Afghan government maintain some battlefield equilibrium.

Also unclear is how the withdrawal – and the battlefield developments that follow it – will shape the political landscape in Afghanistan. President Ghani’s government is on shaky ground, and a number of powerful stakeholders have openly advocated for an interim government composed of various power-brokers to take its place. Although the Biden administration has pledged to continue its support for the Afghan government, potential Taliban military advances post-withdrawal could embolden these players to try to sideline Ghani.

The British and Germans have already announced they would leave when U.S. forces do. Does that mean the end of all foreign troops in Afghanistan?

In spite of allies’ frustrations with how the U.S. has approached peace efforts and the question of withdrawal, NATO has consistently held to the position of “in together, out together”. In fact, without the security umbrella provided by the U.S. military (including but not limited to aerial support, logistics pipelines and other infrastructure), NATO cannot feasibly maintain a large-scale military expedition in a hostile environment. Troop-contributing nations will have to pull out their forces.

What does that mean for Afghans?

The country has already seen the beginnings of an exodus of its political elite and civil society activists, journalists and intellectuals over the last year due to a targeted killing campaign that swept the country, largely unclaimed but widely attributed to the Taliban. This campaign, along with the potential for the country to slide back under Taliban rule, has struck fear in the hearts of many Afghans.

In 2020, reportedly in accordance with secret annexes to the U.S.-Taliban deal, the insurgents significantly scaled back their traditional annual campaign to attack the capitals of a number of besieged provinces. If the Taliban’s initial response to the U.S. announcement remains consistent, then the movement may resume such attacks as September approaches. An intensified fighting season may well lead to Taliban advances, which could provoke mass displacement and a redrawing of political allegiances inside the country.