The U.S. and the Taliban after the Killing of al-Qaeda Leader Ayman al-Zawahiri
The U.S. and the Taliban after the Killing of al-Qaeda Leader Ayman al-Zawahiri
Op-Ed / Asia

An Uncertain Future

As Western troops withdraw from Afghanistan, Afghan security forces’ ability to contain the Taliban insurgency relies on a reasonable degree of political stability in Kabul, which next year’s presidential elections could jeopardize. In fact, Afghanistan’s political transition could prove as challenging as the military one.

Presidential contenders have been registering with the election commission for several weeks now. There was talk that Afghan elites might arrive at a consensus and back a single presidential ticket, which would sweep the elections and perhaps take some of the sting from the campaign. The sheer number of presidential candidates (27), however – and the fact that different tickets represent different factions – suggests this has not happened, though horse-trading before the vote may well reduce the field.

While the broad range of candidates gives Afghans more of a choice, it also means that the competition for power is likely to be fierce. Institutions will have to work hard to protect the integrity of the elections, especially in insecure and insurgency-affected areas in the south and east. A number of the presidential tickets include powerful warlords, who can use their heavily armed militias to mobilize votes before the election, or to protest an outcome they don’t like. Previous elections – particularly in 2009 and 2010 – saw rigging, violence, and protracted political crises over results.

There are grounds for some optimism this time around. Rumors that Afghan President Hamid Karzai would use a state of emergency or other means to extend his rule past the end of its constitutional mandate next spring have quieted significantly, and Karzai has not yet thrown his weight behind one candidate. Furthermore, excitement around presidential nominations suggests that many Afghans (though perhaps mostly in urban centers) remain invested in electoral politics, despite flaws in previous elections. And, for the first time since the ouster of the Taliban from Kabul in 2001, the country’s electoral laws were passed by both houses of parliament and signed off on by the president. Previously, laws were passed only by presidential decree.

The ever-present shadow of the Taliban, however, casts deep doubts on the viability of the vote. Little suggests that planned talks among the Taliban, the United States, and Afghanistan in Doha will reduce the threat the insurgency poses. There’s still no agreement between the United States and Afghanistan over whether the United States will keep any military presence in the country after the drawdown. The prospect of the Afghan army, police, and local militias being left completely on their own to deal with the Taliban is worrying.

The April–May election period (which could go longer if there is a runoff) will coincide with the start of the annual fighting season. By that point, the number of international forces in Afghanistan will be roughly half the current total. As the international forces pull back next year and into 2015, the Afghan government will almost certainly lose control of some districts, although probably not of provincial capitals.

Holding the cities comes at the cost of rising violence in the districts. The number of insurgent attacks has increased almost 50 percent in the first half of 2013 compared with the same period last year, and we’ve seen a 16 percent increase in the number of civilian casualties in the first eight months of 2013 compared with the same months in 2012. These increases are happening mostly in rural areas, especially in the east, and female civilian casualties are increasingly part of the toll.

The escalating war threatens women’s rights in other ways: it is putting female leaders at risk of assassination and creating a regressive political climate on gender (and other issues) in Kabul. Women’s exclusion from the opaque peace talks also augurs ill.

A post-2014 scenario for Afghanistan remains uncertain. The West is quitting the war without any idea what will result from its departure. There are many moving parts: the election’s outcome, the reactions of those who lose, the withdrawal of international troops, the state of the Afghan forces, the potency of the insurgency, and, of course, the role of Afghanistan’s neighbors, who will look to secure their perceived interests in any new political dispensation. With all these factors in play, it’s hard to predict an outcome – and, sadly, even harder to predict a positive one.

Podcast / Asia

The U.S. and the Taliban after the Killing of al-Qaeda Leader Ayman al-Zawahiri

This week on Hold Your Fire! Richard Atwood speaks with Crisis Group’s Asia Director Laurel Miller about U.S. policy in Afghanistan, the Taliban’s foreign relations and what the killing of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in the Afghan capital Kabul says about the threat from transnational militants in Afghanistan a year into Taliban rule.

On 31 July, a U.S. drone strike killed al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in the Afghan capital Kabul. Zawahiri appears to have been living in a house maintained by the family of powerful Taliban Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani. His death came almost a year after U.S. troops pulled out of Afghanistan and the Taliban routed the former Afghan security forces and seized power. The Taliban’s uncompromising rule over the past year has seen girls denied their right to education, many other rights and freedoms curtailed and power tightly guarded within the Taliban movement. The Afghan economy has collapsed, owing in large part to the U.S. and other countries’ freezing Afghan Central Bank assets, keeping sanctions against the Taliban in place and denying the country non-humanitarian aid. Levels of violence across the country are mostly down, but Afghans’ plight is desperate, with a grave humanitarian crisis set to worsen over the winter. The Taliban’s apparent harbouring of Zawahiri seems unlikely to smooth relations between the new authorities in Kabul and the outside world. 

This week on Hold your Fire! Richard Atwood speaks with Crisis Group’s Asia Program Director Laurel Miller about U.S. policy in Afghanistan and the Taliban’s broader foreign relations after Zawahiri’s killing. They discuss what his presence and death in Kabul mean for U.S. policy and what they say about the threat posed by transnational militants sheltering in Afghanistan. They look into how countries in the region are seeking to protect their interests in Afghanistan, including by engaging with the de facto Taliban authorities, and how those countries – particularly Pakistan, which has faced an uptick of violence in the past year – view the danger from foreign militants in Afghanistan. They also look in depth at Washington’s goals in Afghanistan a year after the withdrawal and what balance it should strike between engaging the Taliban or seeking to isolate them. Just over a year after the U.S. withdrawal and Taliban takeover, they reflect back on Washington’s decision to pull out troops. 

Click here to listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

For more on the situation in Afghanistan, check out Crisis Group’s recent report Afghanistan’s Security Challenges under the Taliban.

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