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Pushing for a U-turn in Afghanistan
Pushing for a U-turn in Afghanistan
Afghanistan: Cause for Anxiety and Optimism
Afghanistan: Cause for Anxiety and Optimism
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.

Commentary / Asia

Afghanistan: Cause for Anxiety and Optimism

Negotiations between the U.S. and the Taliban collapsed in September, but there have been signs that they could soon resume, paving the way for crucial intra-Afghan talks. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2019 - Third Update for European policymakers, Crisis Group urges the EU to encourage the resumption of these talks and to establish a regular channel to the Taliban.

This commentary is part of our Watch List 2019 - Third Update.

The war in Afghanistan was the world’s deadliest in 2018, and it has stayed that way. Battle deaths thus far in 2019 nearly outnumber the combined toll in Syria and Yemen. The number of civilian casualties is poised to reach, or even surpass, the country’s previous records since 2001. The U.S., Afghan government and Taliban all stepped up operations on the ground in 2019, even as U.S.-Taliban talks in the Qatari capital Doha gained momentum. Those nearly year-long talks, aiming for a deal that paves the way for intra-Afghan talks and an eventual ceasefire, collapsed in early September. The presidential election in late September 2019 could further complicate peace efforts, and the run-up to the polls triggered more Taliban attacks. The risk is high that top candidates will contest the election results, leading to a period of extended political wrangling. In early October, there were glimmers of an opening for the resumption of U.S.-Taliban talks with both sides visiting Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital, simultaneously. If talks restart and produce a deal, that could mark the beginning of a serious peace process. If, on the other hand, they remain frozen, Afghanistan may descend into worsening violence.

The EU and its member states should:

  • Encourage a resumption of U.S.-Taliban negotiations, as a prelude to broader peace negotiations that include all major Afghan stakeholders. The political and military realities that prompted the U.S. to accept the Taliban’s preferred sequencing of talks – first between the U.S. and Taliban, then among the various Afghan parties – have not changed, and this approach remains the only realistic option for starting a peace process among Afghans.
  • Support and expand the EU Special Envoy’s efforts to establish a regular channel to the Taliban via the movement’s political representatives in Doha. EU humanitarian officials should also pursue high-level contacts with the Taliban, modelled upon their communications with authorities in Sanaa, Yemen, which have enabled the provision of humanitarian aid to areas held by the Huthi movement.
  • Support the EU Special Envoy’s use of his good offices to mitigate tensions among non-Taliban factions as they arise after the September 2019 election, in close cooperation with the UN, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul and other diplomatic actors. The Special Envoy could also encourage non-Taliban factions to participate in a unified negotiating team, in preparation for intra-Afghan negotiations.
  • Expand cooperation with the World Bank to prepare financial scenarios for Afghanistan during peace negotiations and after the conclusion of a political settlement, including the perspectives of all major factions: the Afghan government, political opposition groups and the Taliban. Such planning would signal to all conflict actors that only through a consensual process would Afghanistan benefit from large-scale future assistance.
  • Since the beginning of 2019, the Afghan conflict has continued to intensify. The Taliban, pushing ahead with their war of attrition, mounted major attacks against Afghan government targets and captured more territory. The Afghan government continued to hold major cities, but also to lose ground to the Taliban in rural areas, in keeping with a trend over the last decade.
Since the year began, more than 1,000 Afghan civilians, on average, are displaced by the conflict every day.

U.S. and Afghan government forces stepped up their airstrikes and night raids in Taliban strongholds. In this spiral of violence, civilians are increasingly caught in the crossfire. Since the year began, more than 1,000 Afghan civilians, on average, are displaced by the conflict every day. The vast majority of the violence relates to the struggle between the U.S.-backed Afghan government and the Taliban. A very small fraction of incidents – 2 per cent, by one estimate – concerns the so-called Islamic State Khorasan Province, which maintained a foothold in eastern Afghanistan despite battling the Taliban, Afghan forces and the U.S. military.

Political developments have offered some hope of curtailing the violence. U.S.-Taliban negotiations witnessed significant progress over the last year. The talks were poised to reach a conclusion, and to make the delicate transition to broader intra-Afghan peace negotiations, when President Donald Trump interrupted them in early September 2019. Trump’s reasons for scuttling the talks are not clear, but options for U.S. policy remain unambiguous. The U.S. could start pulling out of Afghanistan unilaterally without a Taliban deal; it could maintain a troop presence and support pro-government forces indefinitely; or it could return to the bargaining table and finalise its agreement with the Taliban. Two of the three options would have predictable results. A unilateral pullout would almost certainly precipitate an intensified civil war and possibly bring about the central state’s collapse, particularly if U.S. and other funding dried up as troops departed (the Afghan government remains dependent on foreign donors). The status quo option has no prospect of reducing violence. Current trends would likely continue: the government would lose territory, its armed forces would weaken as recruitment fails to keep pace with attrition, and the Taliban would exploit the narrative of continued foreign occupation. Negotiations with the Taliban offer a less clear outcome. But a U.S.-Taliban deal that explicitly sets the stage for talks among Afghans is the only option that presents some possibility of diminished violence and economic growth.

The presidential election of late September 2019 adds further uncertainty to peace efforts. Previous elections have all led to months of political tensions, often over allegations of rigging and contested results. Whatever happened at the ballot box is likely to consume politicians’ energy and the public’s attention into 2020. The likelihood is low that the future government will be in a better position to garner greater national consensus behind peace talks and the Taliban’s inclusion in the country’s political order, meaning that the election should not be expected to open up new vistas for the peace process.

The coming months thus present reasons for both optimism and anxiety in Afghanistan.

The coming months thus present reasons for both optimism and anxiety in Afghanistan. If a U.S.-Taliban deal is reached soon and opens the door to crucial intra-Afghan talks, those talks would be a milestone, possibly the best opportunity at achieving peace in a generation. Yet no one should underestimate the complexity and fragility of such a process. Given the diversity of interests involved, many obstacles will have to be overcome for such a process – which undoubtedly will be chaotic – to succeed.

The priorities for the EU and its member states should thus be to encourage the resumption of U.S.-Taliban talks, press Washington to ensure that any deal with the Taliban sets the stage for intra-Afghan negotiations and do everything within their power to improve prospects for successful intra-Afghan talks.

In this light, the EU and European governments should support the EU Special Envoy’s efforts to open his own regular channel to the Taliban and look to expand on them. Regular contacts could allow European donors to show the Taliban that they remain committed to the Afghan people’s humanitarian and development needs, as well as to human rights, including those of women and girls. The idea of engaging in diplomatic contacts with the Taliban still generates resistance among politicians and civil society groups in Brussels and other European capitals. This opposition is understandable, given the Taliban’s track record, but the group’s military strength means that whatever course the U.S. follows, establishing regular contacts with the Taliban will be essential to protecting as best possible the well-being of Afghans in areas controlled by the group.

The EU should increase its monitoring of factionalism in the Afghan security forces and the activities of pro-government militias.

At the same time, the EU and its member states should support efforts by the EU Special Envoy, together with the UN, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul and other diplomats, to avert or resolve tensions among non-Taliban factions after the September 2019 election. The Special Envoy has built significant goodwill with President Ashraf Ghani and his rivals for executive office and could play a useful role if disputes emerge. The EU should increase its monitoring of factionalism in the Afghan security forces and the activities of pro-government militias, as a system of early warning to minimise risks of multi-factional civil war. More broadly, the EU Special Envoy could use his good offices to encourage non-Taliban factions to form a unified negotiating team ahead of potential intra-Afghan talks.

The EU and European governments could also consider additional steps to ensure that the hundreds of millions of dollars they spend each year on aid contribute toward a political settlement – or, at minimum, do not harm prospects for one. They could, for example, introduce or expand conflict sensitivity assessments before approving projects that do not involve humanitarian aid. These would examine the potential impact of the project, its value in terms of strengthening or weakening public support for a settlement, and any risks of the assistance being repurposed in a manner that sustains the conflict. These assessments would take place before, during and after a peace process.

Lastly, the EU and European governments could deepen their planning work with the World Bank and attempt to involve the Taliban alongside other Afghan actors. Analysis of potential financial scenarios for Afghanistan during negotiations and after a political settlement would be more realistic if it canvassed all major factions. Afghans’ early cooperation on the country’s future relationships with donors could even become a confidence-building measure in the initial stages of peace talks or a prelude to intra-Afghan negotiations. Most importantly, such planning would send a message to all conflict parties that only by cooperating among themselves would they benefit from large-scale future assistance. The EU’s involvement could also help reinforce the normative standards expected by donors.