Asia Briefing N°115 28 Nov 2010
U.S. military operations in Afghanistan are now entering their tenth year and policymakers in Washington are looking for a way out. A policy review is due in December but the outline is already clear: U.S. forces will try to pummel the Taliban to bring them to the table, responsibility for security will increasingly be transferred to Afghan forces and more money will be provided for economic development. NATO partners agreed at the Lisbon summit to a gradual withdrawal of combat troops with the goal of transitioning to full Afghan control of security by the end of 2014. The aim will be a dignified drawdown of troops as public support wanes while at the same time ensuring that a post-withdrawal Afghanistan, at the very least, does not become the epicentre of transnational terrorism. While success is being measured in numbers of insurgents killed or captured, there is little proof that the operations have disrupted the insurgency’s momentum or increased stability. The storyline does not match facts on the ground.
The U.S. military is already touting successes in the area around Kandahar, the focus of the most recent fighting by the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). President Hamid Karzai has established a “high peace council” to manage negotiations with the insurgents and greater efforts are planned for training the Afghan army and police. The U.S. and ISAF are only months away from declaring scores of districts safe for transition. An alluring narrative of a successful counter-insurgency campaign has begun to take shape.
As violence has increased, the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) have proven a poor match for the Taliban. Casualties among Afghan and ISAF forces have spiked, as have civilian casualties. Afghanistan still lacks a cohesive national security strategy and the Afghan military and police remain dangerously fragmented and highly politicised. On the other side, despite heavy losses in the field, insurgent groups are finding new recruits in Pakistan’s borderlands, stretching from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) to Balochistan, and using the region to regroup, reorganise and rearm, with the support and active involvement of al-Qaeda, Pakistani jihadi groups and the Pakistan military. This strategic advantage has allowed the insurgency to proliferate in nearly every corner of the country. Contrary to U.S. rhetoric of the momentum shifting, dozens of districts are now firmly under Taliban control.
Nearly a decade after the U.S. engagement began, Afghanistan operates as a complex system of multi-layered fiefdoms in which insurgents control parallel justice and security organs in many if not most rural areas, while Kabul’s kleptocratic elites control the engines of graft and international contracts countrywide. The inflow of billions in international funds has cemented the linkages between corrupt members of the Afghan government and violent local commanders – insurgent and criminal, alike. Economic growth has been tainted by the explosion of this black market, making it nearly impossible to separate signs of success and stability from harbingers of imminent collapse. The neglect of governance, an anaemic legal system and weak rule of law lie at the root of these problems. Too little effort has been made to develop political institutions, local government and a functioning judiciary. Insurgents and criminal elements within the political elite have as a result been allowed to fill the vacuum left by the weak Afghan state.
Successive U.S. administrations deserve much of the blame for this state of affairs. From the start the policy was untenable; selecting some of the most violent and corrupt people in the country, stoking them up with suitcases of cash and promises of more to come and then putting them in charge was never a recipe for stability, never mind institution building.
The leadership in Washington has consistently failed to develop and implement a coherent policy. The shift of resources and attention from Afghanistan to Iraq almost immediately after the Taliban were first driven from Kabul also underscored a lack of strategic priority. The absence of policy coherence between Washington and its NATO allies early on was replicated by sharp divisions between civilian and military leaders – as reflected in the starkly opposed opinions of the Pentagon and the U.S. embassy in Kabul on the best way forward; most recently evidenced in the departure of General Stanley McChrystal. Measuring inputs rather than outcomes has allowed bureaucrats to trumpet illusory successes. Policymaking has been haphazard, based on the premise that if a bad idea is revived often enough, it might eventually work. Plans for reintegrating the Taliban and establishing local police militias have come and gone and come again with no positive results. Attempts at reconciliation have resulted, likewise, in little more than talk about talks.
Real work to build a capable police and military only began in 2008. Despite endless pledges to restore the rule of law, efforts to provide Afghans with rudimentary justice have barely started. The international community has repeatedly failed to acknowledge the link between stability and justice, though it has long been evident that grievances against predatory government actors are driving the insurgency.
All of these problems have led many to believe it is time for the foreign forces to leave. Unfortunately, a rush to the exit will not help Afghans nor will it address the very real regional and global security concerns posed by the breakdown of the Afghan state. Without outside support, the Karzai government would collapse, the Taliban would control much of the country and internal conflict would worsen, increasing the prospects of a return of the destructive civil war of the 1990s. Even a partial Taliban victory would provide succour and a refuge for Pakistani jihadi groups. That could intensify violence in Pakistan and increase attacks on India. Afghanistan’s neighbours would step up support for their proxies, injecting military resources, financing and new energy into the war. As conflict spreads – along with refugees, jihadis and other problems – the situation would be well beyond the control of a few drone strikes.
This paper is aimed at reminding policymakers of the deep problems that exist in Afghanistan. Any plan that fails to deal with the decay in Kabul will not succeed. President Hamid Karzai no longer enjoys the legitimacy and popularity he once had and he has subsequently lost his ability to stitch together lasting political deals. Despite the rhetoric surrounding reconciliation, Karzai is in no position to act alone as a guarantor for the interests of the Afghan state. In the current political context, negotiations with the insurgents stand a slim chance of success. Instead, the key to fighting the insurgency and bringing about the conditions for a political settlement lies in improving security, justice and governance and, as previous Crisis Group reports have shown, there are few quick fixes in these areas.
Kabul/Brussels, 28 November 2010