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Pushing for a U-turn in Afghanistan
Pushing for a U-turn in Afghanistan
Keeping Intra-Afghan Talks on Track
Keeping Intra-Afghan Talks on Track
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.

During a rare ceasefire in 2018 in Andar, young Afghan men and boys fly both the flags of Afghanistan and of the Taliban. CRISISGROUP/Fazal Muzhary
Commentary / Asia

Keeping Intra-Afghan Talks on Track

The peace talks between the Afghan government and Taliban offer a genuine opportunity for peace although obstacles abound. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2020 – Autumn Update, Crisis Group urges the EU and its member states to continue pushing for a more inclusive peace process, specifically in terms of women’s representation in the negotiations, avoid singling out the Taliban as responsible for obstacles for peace, and reassure the Afghan government by continuing aid into the future.

This commentary is part of our Watch List 2020 - Autumn Update.

September saw the start – at long last – of peace talks between the Afghan government and Taliban. The U.S. had been trying to kick off such negotiations for most of 2020, since signing its own agreement with the Taliban on 29 February. Yet the onset of talks stalled for months; the Afghan government resisted the release of Taliban detainees to which the U.S. had committed, while the insurgents continued to carry out acts of violence, defying President Ashraf Ghani’s long-sought request for a ceasefire before commencing peace talks. The intra-Afghan talks offer a genuine opportunity for peace although obstacles and risks abound. The continued violence first and foremost: although the Taliban scaled back attempts to seize territory and monitors reported fewer combat deaths than in previous years, targeted killings rose, and the civilian casualty toll remained among the world’s highest. On the government side, Afghan leaders have spent the year deadlocked over political appointments, rendering governance increasingly dysfunctional. As for the U.S., its approach seems guided by the desire to disengage its troops as soon as possible. Many Afghans and international observers are concerned that a hasty settlement could result in degradation of civil liberties and human rights, especially women’s rights, as well as regression into state fracture and full-fledged civil war. 

To help avoid those outcomes, the European Union and its member states should: 

  • Continue pressing for a more inclusive peace process, particularly in terms of women’s representation in the Afghan government’s negotiating team and affiliated bodies. Europeans should also provide support to civil society initiatives that complement the formal negotiation process and promote peace at grassroots level.
     
  • Call upon all Afghan political figures to uphold the May agreement between President Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, and encourage Ghani to respect provisions specifying Abdullah’s authority.
     
  • Ensure unified messaging among member states so as to best use Europe’s principal sources of leverage – financial assistance and economic engagement with a future government – to nudge negotiations forward.
     
  • Avoid singling out the Taliban as responsible for threats or obstacles to peace; instead, make clear that any action destabilising the peace process, including by the government, deserves condemnation. Brussels should balance its support for the Afghan government with acknowledgment that the Taliban will be a major political force in any post-peace Afghan order.
     
  • Reassure the Afghan government by committing to continue aid into the future. European leaders could qualify such reassurances and align them with EU principles by allowing for re-evaluation in the event of changes to the government in a peace settlement, as the EU did in its May Council conclusions.

The Hard Road to Talks

An atmosphere of nervous anticipation prevailed in Afghanistan when the U.S. and Taliban signed an agreement in Qatar’s capital Doha on 29 February, laying out a timetable for the withdrawal of foreign troops in exchange for anti-terrorism guarantees and a promise to commence intra-Afghan negotiations. A historic week of reduced violence across the country preceded the accord. Though not technically a ceasefire, this period saw a significant drop in fighting between Taliban and Afghan security forces. It was the insurgent movement’s first major gesture of good-will toward Kabul since its ceasefire declaration during Eid al-Fitr in 2018. 

Any positive feeling quickly dissipated, however, as the Afghan government publicly rejected the terms of the prisoner exchange to which the U.S. had committed in Doha and the Taliban responded by announcing a resumption of hostilities. Fighting picked up across the country, albeit at a lowered intensity that seemed tied to the Doha agreement (although it was not spelled out in the public text). The Taliban carried out fewer high-profile attacks in cities than in previous years and limited their large-scale assaults on government forces. The insurgent group made none of its traditional annual attempts to overrun provincial capitals and did not announce its usual spring offensive. Afghan security forces maintained a largely defensive posture, which officials claimed was a demonstration of the government’s commitment to peace, but almost certainly also owed to the near cessation of U.S. airstrikes after 29 February. Those strikes contributed to record levels of civilian casualties in 2019, and observers hoped that casualty figures would plummet in 2020. The war continued to take a high toll, however, as the rates of targeted killings and small bombings climbed in many parts of the country. These included two attacks on prominent women’s rights activists in Kabul.

The U.S. waded into Kabul politics when contestation of the 2019 presidential election results escalated into full-scale dysfunction.

Meanwhile, the U.S. applied pressure on both sides, dragging the prisoner exchange forward, as the government and Taliban let prisoners go in small batches. The releases stretched into September before reaching the 29 February agreement’s promised totals. The U.S. also waded into Kabul politics when contestation of the 2019 presidential election results escalated into full-scale dysfunction. Just days before 29 February, President Ghani was declared winner by the narrowest of margins, without official clarity on multiple vote recounts and audits. His chief challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, and allied politicians threatened to not only protest the results but also establish a “parallel government”. Abdullah’s staff refused to vacate Presidential Palace grounds (where they had been working as part of a power-sharing deal struck between Abdullah and Ghani after the previous election in 2014). The standoff prevented politicians from agreeing on the composition of a negotiating team to represent the government in intra-Afghan talks – which donors, including the EU and member states, had repeatedly urged Ghani to do – until late March. Perhaps in part due to acrimony over appointing the negotiators and powerbrokers’ jockeying to place loyal representatives on the team, only four women ultimately were included in a team of 21. Abdullah and Ghani did not reach a governing compromise until late May. Since then, the two leaders and their allies have repeatedly disagreed on appointments of officials and delineation of authority, reminding Afghans of the disputes that plagued the power-sharing government of 2014-2019. 

This deadlock coincided with the spread of COVID-19 across Afghanistan. The virus appears initially to have been transmitted primarily by migrant workers returning from the global hot-spot of Iran. The Afghan government struggled to check what became an unfettered spread. In August, health officials announced that random sampling – actual testing was minimal – suggested that the virus had infected more than 50 per cent of Kabul residents and over 30 per cent of the national population. Lack of reporting made it impossible to measure the death toll with any accuracy. The severe economic impact of lockdowns, however, was evident within weeks, leading many Afghans – including many officials – to ignore restrictions in most of the country outside Kabul. The Taliban publicised a number of COVID-19 initiatives in areas under their control, but many of these reportedly lacked enforcement or follow-up. The group continued to reject international calls for a ceasefire, even in the name of a “humanitarian pause” to enhance the public health response.

By the start of intra-Afghan talks in September, high-level sources told Crisis Group that the Afghan government was considering arming and funding new networks of militias across the country, outside the security forces’ hierarchy and only loosely controlled by the Afghan intelligence agency. Such reports, which have circulated widely among Afghans, amplify fears many already have about the potential impact of peace talks on human rights: not only could talks herald a return to political power of the Taliban, whose abuses many Afghans recall all too well, but they might also lead to the proliferation of government-affiliated militias, who have their own terrible track record. Fears of predation by armed groups of all stripes are hardly new – the EU Council addressed them in its May conclusions. But they have grown amid increasing unclaimed attacks on activists, the U.S.’s announcement of further troop drawdowns and political infighting in Kabul that some worry could create space for extrajudicial action by the security forces. 

Amid these many concerns, the first days of talks between the Taliban and the government-appointed negotiating team already give a taste of the hurdles that lie ahead. While negotiating the rules and procedures to govern the talks, the two sides tangled over what Islamic legal interpretation should be used to mediate future dis­agreements (the government team insisted on acknowledging Shia Islam and non-Muslim minorities’ existence in the framework of the talks, which the Taliban have rejected). The Taliban have yet to fully articulate what they believe a future Afghan state should look like, as Crisis Group has noted. It is far from clear that the Taliban’s vision will be acceptable to other parties and the many Afghans who fear the Taliban may wish to curtail rights and freedoms. What the insurgents have made clear is their stance on a ceasefire. They reject any discussion of a lasting and comprehensive one until, as their spokesperson said, “the root causes of the war” – ambiguous language that could mean anything from the West’s influence, to the exclusion of parts of population from power, to the abuses of government-allied strongmen – are addressed. With current levels of violence having climbed throughout 2020, this may be the most immediate potentially destabilising factor as talks progress.

A Role for the EU and Its Member States

As the intra-Afghan talks proceed, the EU can exert a positive influence. First, it should expand its support for civil society. Given Afghanistan’s contentious politics and its weak formal institutions, civil society's participation in the peace process will be vital to ensure the representation of popular interests and preferences. The EU has already affirmed its commitment to the protection of human and women’s rights and encouraged strong representation of women in intra-Afghan talks, but it should promote efforts that go beyond the structure of formal negotiations to lay grassroots groundwork for lasting peace. Afghanistan’s National Action Plan for implementing UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security is regarded by experts as a “top-down” approach, which should be balanced by EU support to local initiatives such as local councils that advocate for peace. This approach could involve greater cooperation with the UN mission in Afghanistan, with its infrastructure and networks of field offices capable of extending peacebuilding’s reach. The EU should review and report on earlier civil society and development efforts in Afghanistan to support peacebuilding, some of them initiated more than a decade ago, to identify effective initiatives.

Secondly, the EU can help steady the Afghan government’s negotiation approach by offering its good offices to ensure a smoother, more streamlined dialogue to implement the political compromise between President Ghani and Abdullah. Disputes between Ghani and opposition leaders have already hampered governance and they will almost certainly bleed over into the negotiating team’s internal deliberations during talks. The peace process cannot succeed without genuine inclusion of a broad range of political elites in both the talks and the tasks of governance while negotiations are ongoing. Moreover, the political wrangling among elites has reportedly hamstrung civil society efforts to engage with the peace talks: different political factions are now competing for authority over every aspect of the process, which could have the effect of impeding civil society participation. By ensuring that Ghani and Abdullah continue to communicate on and implement their power-sharing commitments, the EU can help mend relations that in turn will improve the negotiators’ effectiveness.

The EU should seek to ensure that member states deliver a unified message.

The EU should seek to ensure that member states deliver a unified message. As the EU stated in its May conclusions, it can use the prospect of financial assistance to and economic engagement with a future government to nudge negotiations forward. But that leverage is only as strong as member states’ unity. Since issuing those May conclusions, European governments have diverged in their reactions to prisoner exchanges, and uncertainty lingers about their views on a major planned donor conference in Geneva. Several European diplomats told Crisis Group that although public unity on Afghanistan policy has been maintained, member states’ own diplomatic engagements have softened or strayed from the common line.

The EU’s influence over the Afghan peace process, and any outcome that may result, depends in large part on whether Afghan parties – including the Taliban – perceive it as a fair interlocutor. Almost any successful settlement will include the Taliban’s re-entry into Afghanistan’s political system. The EU’s current conditions, in particular its explicit rejection of the Taliban’s concept of an Islamic Emirate and its several public disapprovals of Taliban actions, without similar recognition of the Afghan government’s stalling ahead of talks, have been characterised by the Taliban as interference in Afghanistan’s sovereignty. As talks proceed, the EU and European leaders should make extra effort to appear to be more open to a greater Taliban role.

Most importantly, the EU and member states should commit to continue aid and development support to the Afghan government. They should do so before the end of 2020, in spite of the uncertainties surrounding the peace process and U.S. Afghanistan policy. They could qualify such reassurances and align them with EU principles by making clear that aid would be subject to re-evaluation in the event of changes to the government as part of a settlement, as the EU did in its May Council conclusions. This pledge would be the greatest possible show of support for the Afghan government as it negotiates an end to the war, and it would demonstrate to the Taliban that Afghanistan’s international partners remain invested in the post-2004 constitutional order and the gains it has won. It would be another incentive for both sides to reach an agreement.