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Pushing for a U-turn in Afghanistan
Pushing for a U-turn in Afghanistan
Kandahar Assassinations Show Rising Taliban Strength in Afghanistan
Kandahar Assassinations Show Rising Taliban Strength in Afghanistan
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 General Abdul Raziq (C), police chief of Kandahar, poses for a picture during a graduation ceremony at a police training centre in Kandahar province on 19 February, 2017. JAWED TANVEER / AFP
Q&A / Asia

Kandahar Assassinations Show Rising Taliban Strength in Afghanistan

The Taliban have claimed the assassination of an influential Afghan police chief and another official in an attack that narrowly missed the head of U.S. forces. Senior Analyst Borhan Osman and Consultant Graeme Smith explain the repercussions for political stability in southern Afghanistan.

What happened?

At least one gunman attacked a gathering of Afghan and U.S. officials inside the Kandahar governor’s compound on the afternoon of 18 October. The shooter, believed to be one of the governor’s guards, killed the most powerful man in southern Afghanistan, Kandahar Police Chief Abdul Raziq. The provincial chief of the National Directorate of Security, the Afghan intelligence service, was also killed. Kandahar Governor Zalmai Wesa was wounded but survived. The NATO-led mission said that three of its personnel were wounded but that the top U.S. commander in the country, General Austin Miller, who was in the meeting with Raziq, escaped unharmed. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack and insurgent social media praised the perpetrator, who was also killed.

Why does this matter today?

General Miller and his team were visiting Kandahar to discuss security arrangements ahead of the 20 October parliamentary elections. Raziq was critical to the plan to secure the vote, which involved the deployment of thousands of police and soldiers to guard polling centres across southern Afghanistan. The day after the shooting, the Afghan government announced that voting in Kandahar province would be delayed for a week. Whenever the vote goes ahead, the chaotic aftermath of this incident could make it easier for the Taliban to disrupt the elections. The Taliban abstained from violence across most of the south and south east to allow voting during the 2014 elections but have threatened attacks on this year’s parliamentary elections. The Taliban statements in recent weeks and their flurry of outreach efforts with community leaders all point to a greater emphasis on disrupting this year’s election. Ten candidates have been killed so far, although not all of them by Taliban insurgents. The most prominent attack happened earlier this week when a bomb at a campaign rally killed Abdul Jabar Qahraman, a former security advisor to President Ghani (the Taliban claimed that strike). Further attacks are expected as voting goes ahead in other provinces tomorrow.

The chaotic aftermath of this incident could make it easier for the Taliban to disrupt the [upcoming parliamentary] elections.

How close was the U.S. general?

The NATO-led mission was quick to call the attack “an Afghan-on-Afghan incident” suggesting the main targets were Afghan officials. Still, reports indicate General Miller barely escaped. The Taliban statement said their targets were both the U.S general and Afghan officials, but no credible account has emerged to indicate that degree of planning by the insurgency. If this was a carefully orchestrated Taliban operation, it would be the second at the Kandahar governor’s palace in two years. Last year a bomb planted in the palace killed thirteen people, including the United Arab Emirates ambassador, just missing Raziq.

Why was Raziq important?

Kandahar’s previous strongman, Ahmed Wali Karzai, was killed in 2011 in similar fashion by his bodyguard and Raziq replaced him. Raziq’s formal title of police chief did not fully reflect the extent of his influence in the security, economy and politics of the south. His harsh tactics brought a grim measure of calm to Kandahar city. He turned the urban zone into a heavily guarded enclave and launched a savage campaign against the Taliban in the surrounding farmland. He would often lead his forces personally, flying by helicopter to the front lines so he could battle Taliban as they advanced into towns and cities. Some in the city celebrated him for it; others in the countryside were terrified. Raziq did not fight by the rules: the UN Committee Against Torture called for his prosecution last year after he was personally implicated in torture and extrajudicial killings.

What were his politics?

A former child refugee, Raziq climbed the ranks of the Afghan police thanks to his close ties to U.S. forces. The Americans found him brutally effective against the Taliban. There were widespread allegations that Raziq was involved with the narcotics industry. Over time, he emerged as a political figure. In any election, his backing was seen as critical for candidates to mobilise votes across the south. He was expected to play a major role in the upcoming presidential elections, scheduled for spring 2019. Most speculation focused on possible alliances between Raziq and the potential challengers of President Ghani, such as former Balkh Governor Atta Noor or figures close to former President Hamid Karzai.

Raziq’s death likely does the greatest damage to the morale of the Afghan security forces.

Who replaces him?

Within hours of Raziq’s death, a gathering of local elders called on the government to name his younger brother Tadin (sometimes called Tadin Khan) as his successor. His family hailed the appointment at Raziq’s funeral the following day. Still, there is widespread speculation about who will become the new Kandahar chief of police, with no formal announcement from the Presidential Palace. Tadin is understood to have working closely with Raziq, including in their home district of Spin Boldak and managing the family’s business interests overseas. Another potential successor as Chief of Police would be Rahmatullah Atrafi, the deputy police chief – but it’s unclear if either of them could fill Raziq’s shoes.

What are the implications for the coming months?

Raziq’s death likely does the greatest damage to the morale of the Afghan security forces. The Taliban now initiate roughly 90 per cent of battles in the war, meaning that security personnel find themselves routinely on the defensive. U.S. military estimates of zones controlled or contested by the insurgency grew from 29 per cent of districts in January 2016 to 44 per cent in May 2018. Recruitment of Afghan forces had already slumped amid reports of poor morale in the ranks. That made a charismatic leader such as Raziq a vital asset to the Afghan government, rallying troops and playing a swaggering role in the domestic media. His presence was credited with tipping battles in favour of pro-government forces. Without him, Taliban advances may accelerate – especially if turbulent Kandahar politics fuel a power contest in an already fragile situation.