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Pushing for a U-turn in Afghanistan
Pushing for a U-turn in Afghanistan
Crisis Group Welcomes the Afghanistan Ceasefire
Crisis Group Welcomes the Afghanistan Ceasefire
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.

Afghan security personnel stand guard ahead of the Eid al-Adha Muslim festival in Ghazni on 31 August, 2017. AFP/Zakeria Hashimi
Statement / Asia

Crisis Group Welcomes the Afghanistan Ceasefire

International Crisis Group welcomes pledges by the Afghan government and the Taliban insurgency that both sides will respect a ceasefire over the Eid al Fitr holiday. If implemented, such a truce would be unprecedented and could represent a concrete step toward peace talks.

The Afghan government and leaders of the Taliban insurgency have announced a temporary ceasefire during the forthcoming Eid al Fitr holiday. The government will halt offensive operations from 12 to 20 June and the Taliban will do the same from 15 to 18 June. The Afghan government’s ceasefire excludes foreign militant groups, notably the local Islamic State branch. For its part, the Taliban says its ceasefire will not extend to U.S.-led NATO forces, though the U.S. military commander in Afghanistan has said the U.S. will respect the truce.

Crisis Group welcomes, and applauds both sides for, this unprecedented step. There are sceptics both inside President Ashraf Ghani’s government and among the Taliban who question the truce. Its implementation could prove difficult. Nonetheless, the announcement of a ceasefire is a bold decision by both parties and could represent a step toward a peace process.

Since the Taliban’s ouster from Kabul in 2001 and its emergence as an insurgent force over subsequent years, neither it nor the Afghan government has declared such an extensive halt to offensive operations. Fighting has usually slowed during past Eid holidays, but has never stopped altogether. In recent years, the Taliban leadership has instructed fighters to minimise violence during Eid to allow for religious celebrations; its media arm has tended to avoid publicising attacks during the holiday given popular sentiment that it ought to be a time of peace. This week’s ceasefire could thus be viewed as an expansion of the usual Eid détente.

Still, the Afghan government’s and the Taliban leadership’s formal ceasefire declarations are without parallel. President Ghani’s overture met with widespread international support. Crisis Group’s soundings of insurgent sentiment suggest the Taliban did not take lightly the decision about how to respond. Some leaders worried that a positive response would play badly among field commanders and rank and file, many of whom feel the Taliban is on the front foot and should not offer concessions. Conversely, other leaders reportedly fretted about the implications of not offering reciprocal steps. That the Taliban had remained silent after Ghani’s offer of peace talks in February 2018 increased pressure on the movement to respond positively this time.

Much is at stake, and not only because the ceasefire comes amid a fighting season that appeared set to lead to the country’s most violent year since 2001. The coming days will be critical. Commanders on both sides profit enormously from the war economy, and many fighters hold personal grudges against their opponents. Whether – and to what extent – various factions on the ground will comply with the truce remains to be seen. A significant number will likely be tempted to break it.

This week could prove an important trust-building exercise that contributes to future peace-making.

But if the respective leaderships can enforce the ceasefire, this week could prove an important trust-building exercise that contributes to future peace-making. The Taliban has engaged in persistent combat since its formal birth in 1994; getting off that war footing, even briefly, would represent a departure. Perhaps as important, the ceasefire provides an opportunity for the Taliban leadership to prove that it can control insurgent commanders and units across the country, thus cementing its role as the main partner in future negotiations. Taliban leaders also have promised to release prisoners and allow families safe passage to visit relatives on opposite sides of the battle lines. Delivering on those pledges would be an important and welcome signal.

Afghans, thirsty for peace after generations of war, largely have cheered the ceasefire, albeit as a small first step. Indeed, the announcement of the truce prompted celebration, particularly in the capital Kabul and on social media. Over recent months, hundreds of Afghan youths have mounted street demonstrations accusing both the government and the Taliban of lacking the willpower to make peace. They deserve this moment of hope, and, more than that, they deserve to see both sides finally take on the challenge of breaking a decades-long cycle of violence.