What Next for Afghanistan?
What Next for Afghanistan?
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

What Next for Afghanistan?

“To contain a growing, increasingly confident insurgency as NATO troops withdraw, Afghanistan needs continued international support, including military, and the new government in Kabul will need to reinvigorate the state’s commitment to the rule of law,” the International Crisis Group noted in a report last month.

But how likely is it that Afghanistan will receive the support it needs? And what can we expect next? Graeme Smith, the author of the report and a senior analyst with ICG,  answers readers’ questions.

How much success did NATO forces actually have? Was it more a case of displacing insurgents from one area to another, or was there genuine progress?

NATO can take credit for many successes in Afghanistan. Unfortunately there was also a clear failure to bring security, which threatens every other aspect of the mission. NATO assumed leadership of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in 2003, and by every measure the country is now more dangerous as we approach the expiry of the ISAF mandate on December 31, 2014. That’s not just my personal view after years of living in Afghanistan. It’s a conclusion that cannot be avoided when looking at the number of insurgent attacks, the access of government officials to rural districts, and other security data. Now, security is only a single aspect of a complicated international effort in this country. But the fact remains that security was an eponymous part of the ISAF mission, which remains unfinished. The redeeming factor might be that NATO has helped with the formation of large Afghan security forces, and these local forces still have a fighting chance if they get enough support from donors.

How much of a presence can and should the West leave behind in Afghanistan?

Some analysts argued that the West should pull out all of the international forces because then the Taliban and other insurgent groups would lose their rallying cry of expelling foreign troops. I was skeptical about that so-called “zero option,” however, and I’m glad to see Barack Obama's announcement of 9,800 U.S. soldiers staying in Afghanistan after 2014.

Our latest study examined places such as Faryab Province, where foreign troops pulled back a long time ago, but the insurgency became more ferocious – in other words, the absence of international troops did not calm the situation. Crisis Group recommends that the new president of Afghanistan should quickly sign a Bilateral Security Agreement with the United States, and a Status of Forces Agreement with NATO so that the post-2014 deployments can go ahead. That might also give some confidence to foreign civilians who want to remain here and keep working – myself included, honestly. I’ll feel much safer living in Kabul with some foreign troops stationed nearby.

Will a “post-NATO” Afghanistan look much like the post-Soviet Afghanistan did?

Nobody knows. This is a moment of terrible uncertainty for Afghanistan. The Soviet withdrawal can be a useful source of lessons for the next Afghan president as he manages the aftermath of a major foreign intervention, but there are important differences. For example, this excellent new paper from the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit shows how the communist system gave the Afghan security forces reasonably good logistical supply chains, but today the logistics are more fragile. So the concerns we’re seeing now about front-line units running out of bullets, diesel, food, and other essentials probably weren't as much of a problem in the 1980s.

How loyal do you expect the country’s security forces to be to the central government?

Loyalty is hard to measure. Attrition rates are still very high, with the Afghan army losing about a third of the entire force each year. That problem isn’t likely to get solved in the coming years, although the economic hardship that will come with the dwindling of the war economy might push young men to stay employed with the Afghan forces. We haven’t seen big problems so far with Afghan units fighting each other, but there are many reports of local Afghan commanders cutting their own deals with insurgents. Those deals sometimes help to reduce the violence, but in some locations they amount to a betrayal of the central government because they allow greater freedom to the Taliban and other insurgent factions. Those localized acts of disloyalty may increase as the insurgency gets bigger.

Abdullah Abdullah looks to be the favorite to succeed Hamid Karzai. How different would you expect an Abdullah presidency to look?

It's too early to say who will win the election. Abdullah emerged as the front-runner after the first round on April 5, and he has picked up some major endorsements that give him momentum heading into the second round in June. All the same, he's strongly identified with the Tajik ethnic group and he faces a tough job persuading the large ethnic Pashtun voting bloc to support him.

I'm not sure that an Abdullah presidency would bring radical change to the leadership of Afghanistan, but he would probably want a better relationship with the United States. He has promised to sign the BSA to keep American troops in the country. An Afghan official also suggested to me that Abdullah would have a less ambiguous view about negotiating peace with the Taliban and other insurgents: “He won't be calling them ‘brothers,’” he told me. That's a reference to the fact that Karzai often referred to his “Taliban brothers” while trying to open the door to negotiations. Abdullah may prefer a harder stance, but that could also depend on the options available to him.

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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