Just Because We Look Away, The War in Afghanistan is Not Over

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This article was originally published by the Danish Institute for International Studies (DIIS) on 13 January 2017.

Recent developments herald a troubled year for the Afghans

During 2015 and 2016, the Taliban have been on an offensive and gained territory. Particularly they have made inroads into strategic areas where the Taliban can control the roads. At the same time, there is an active fight between the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) and Taliban over 20% of the Afghan territory. How the final battle will fall out is unknown, but if the ANSF loses, the Taliban can end up controlling up to one-third of the country.

The past couple of years have seen an increase in violent incidents, an increase in militant actors and in both the number of Internally Displaced People (IDPs) and Afghan returnees from the EU, Pakistan and Iran. The increase of violence is related both to the force used by insurgents and the Afghan government. The increase in militant actors is due to the military operation, known as the Zarb-e-Azb, launched by the Pakistani army in the tribal areas of Pakistan, which has pushed over new militants to Afghan soil, but also due to the entrance of the Islamic State into Afghanistan.

In the face of this situation, analysts and observers who monitor Afghanistan closely have identified troublesome challenges in the Afghan security sector. These are primarily issues of loyalty and high desertion rates within the ANSF, but also the high level of corruption that still haunts all sectors of government in Afghanistan. Additional challenges are the lack of full control over government militias and the human rights violations that follow the government’s use of local militias. Adding to this, there is a lack of intelligence capabilities and gathering, which is one of reasons why the Taliban have been on an offensive during the past couple of years.

Insurgency in advance

The NATO forces concluded the “International Security Assistance Force” (ISAF) mission by the end of 2014. A new NATO-led mission, “Resolute Support,” commenced on January 1, 2015 with a mandate to solely train, advice, and assist the ANSF. However, during the first part of 2015, Afghanistan also saw an increase in insurgency operations that led to the Taliban take-over of territory. The Taliban have made offensives in Kandahar, Uruzgan, in a number of strategic areas in the northern province of Baghlan over the past two years and in Helmand, where large areas are under their control. In areas like Zabul and Uruzgan, the Taliban also took control over roads. The Taliban have also made inroads to part of the Ring Road, which links Kabul to the north.

The Taliban managed to take temporarily control over the city of Kunduz in September 2015 – an event that shook the international community working towards a complete security transition, i.e. letting the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) be responsible for the security of Afghanistan. The ambition was that this should have happened by the end of 2016.

Increase in violence, militant actors and displacement

In response to the insurgency in advance, the ANSF have conducted several military operations, beginning in late 2015 and continuing throughout 2016. Among the consequences of the increased military activities are the displacement of hundreds of families and the erosion of local communities’ trust in the government. The Taliban are allegedly also undertaking relief work among the internally displaced people (IDPs), which adds to their mobilisation capacity.

The Haqqani Network, which maintains distinct command and particular lines of operations work more closely with the Taliban, and have caused some of the deadliest attacks in Afghanistan (UNAMA, February 2016). The number of civilians killed during government military operations also increased during 2015 (Human Rights Watch, Jan 2016). It is worth noting that the schools that are hijacked for military use are both hijacked by insurgents and by pro-government militias.

There has also been a spill-over of militants from the Pakistan army’s operation Zarb-e-Azb, launched in the North Waziristan tribal area of Pakistan (these include Uzbek, Arab and Pakistani militants). Adding to this, the Islamic State Khorasan (ISK) announced its presence in Afghanistan in January 2015. ISK is mainly present in southern Nangarhar. Reports indicate that they constitute between 1500-3000 fighters. Islamic State militants collaborate with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and elements of the Pakistani Taliban, but are at war with the Afghan Taliban and Al-Qaeda militants. Primarily however, they are fighting the Afghan state, attacking both civilians and the ANSF.

While Europe has been focusing on the asylum seekers to Europe (in 2015, 180,000 Afghans applied for asylum in Europe), there is almost 1 million internally displaced people in Afghanistan (Human Rights Watch 2016). Adding to this, more than 300,000 Afghan refugees have been repatriated from Pakistan since July 2016. In addition, Iran has been deporting Afghan refugees. Human Rights Watch has reported that Iran has been recruiting thousands of Afghan refugees to fight in pro-government armed groups in neighbouring Syria. Those who have been deported to Afghanistan as a punishment allegedly refused the coerced fighting. The implications of this is, that Afghanistan is probably facing a humanitarian crisis that we can’t yet imagine. In spite of the increase in violence, and violent actors during the past two years, the EU does not consider Afghanistan to be a war zone.

New advancement in peace initiatives

In spite of the obvious challenges, there are minor signs of progress when it comes to the track that is about advancing dialogue between the different stakeholders of the conflict. In September 2016, a peace deal was signed between Gulbuddin Hekmatyar from Hezb-e Islami and President Ashraf Ghani. This was portrayed as the first major peace achievement of the last fifteen years. However, Hezb-e Islami has not been actively fighting on the battlefield for years, and it can be questioned whether the Taliban will follow the example, considering the different aims of the two groups, and their history as enemies.

In July 2015, the first direct, and publicly known, meeting between the High Peace Council of Afghanistan and the Taliban was hosted by Pakistan. This meeting was a more significant development since it brought together the two conflicting parties, though with no immediate results. Peace initiatives are nothing new in the Afghan context: Afghanistan already started its reach-out activities in 2005 and launched the peace initiative, the Program Takhim-E-Sohl (PTS). PTS failed, partly due to inadequate funding and the lack of domestic Afghan political support. In 2010, Afghanistan’s High Peace Council was formed, among other things to initiate peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban. In September 2011, however, the head of the program, Burhanuddin Rabbani, an old rival of the Taliban, was assassinated and the faith in the process decreased. The 2015 meeting is an initial step towards restarting the trust-building measures.

One of the main questions in an environment where the Taliban and other militant actors in Afghanistan show no signs of weakness, and where we do not know whether Islamic State militants will gain more influence, is how peace talks can succeed. The exact composition of the peace councils, and exactly who has participated in the previous negotiations and peace talks, has proved to be vital for the way the Taliban have viewed the talks and their willingness to participate. Persons that have long relations of enmity with the Taliban, for instance, should not lead a reconciliation process. In addition, there has been confusion about who the main parts in the peace talks should be. The international community could do more to facilitate the peace and reconciliation processes. More than 15 years of fighting have not been able to eradicate the insurgent groups, and more could be done by intensifying the focus on conflict resolution.

Challenges in the Afghan security sector

Though it is not an easy task to build up an army from the ground, one of the challenges that have been pointed out by looking back at the past couple of years is that there is still a divided loyalty among the Afghan security forces. For instance, the way that the Taliban could take over Kunduz revealed that some of the units did not resist. At the same time, strong ethnic and tribal loyalties constitute a continuous challenge for the way the civil population perceive the security forces and its uneven composition of the different tribes. There are also high desertion rates and inactive soldiers in the Afghan National Army that are sometimes termed ‘ghost soldiers’ – persons on the payroll but not on the battlefield, which has been pointed out to be a challenge in e.g. Helmand.

The above problems of loyalty are linked to a high level of corruption. The ‘loyalty for sale’ issue is a challenge not only for the Afghan National Army (ANA), but also for the Afghan Local Police, (a local defence force against Taliban insurgents with no arresting or investigative functions, but part of the Ministry of Interior, established in 2010). This is supposedly also due to the lower level of salary as compared to the National Police Force. The fact that the Afghan government is increasingly using militiamen to assist the Afghan Local Police also points to the danger of not being able to control forces that are on the government payroll.

An issue that relates to the lack of control, and that the international community needs to be aware of, is that the Afghan Local Police and pro-government militias continue to recruit children (Human Rights Watch 2016). Together with corruption, the violation of human rights are some of the fundamental issues that call for the international community to do more to assure the rightful application of aid-money and to prevent it from becoming linked to both human rights violations and corruption.

One of the reasons that observers point at in order to explain the increasingly defensive role of the ANSF (and similarly the more offensive posture of the Taliban and the Haqqani network) is the poor state of intelligence gathering. The knowledge about Taliban strongholds and movements has declined due to the lack of certain capabilities and equipment. When NATO’s ISAF mission was active, the intelligence gathering was happening at another level, while the ANSF lacks both surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities (AREU, 2016).

The challenges within the Afghan security sector are linked to, and reflect, the challenges that are also inherent in other sectors of government: the tensions in the unity government between the two old rivals (President Ashraf Ghani and chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah) make decision-making challenging. At the same time, there is still significant progress to be made when it comes to electoral reforms, empowerment of women, combating corruption, countering narcotics trafficking, ensuring a stable security environment, jobs creation and improving economic opportunities. Addressing the challenges within the security sector would require addressing these enduring challenges.

The new NATO mission

The shift from nation-building to capacity-building that took place in 2009 with president Obama was presumably based on the realisation that nation-building would require means that were larger than the will of the Americans. Reflecting this change, the new NATO mission, namely the ‘Resolute Support’ mission, that replaced the ISAF mission, has capacity-building at its core. However, the Taliban take-over of Kunduz, one of the largest cities of Afghanistan, though temporarily, pointed out the fact that there is still a long way before the ANSF will be able to operate without the support of international forces. When the Taliban took over Kunduz, it put two districts under sustained attacks, and reports say that no reinforcements or logistical support arrived when the second district (the Dasht-i-Archi district) came under attack.

The weakness of the ANSF raises the question of whether the status of Afghan nationhood will continuously be challenged by the strong ethnic and tribal identities. Ultimately, this is a more fundamental question of whether the national army, and thereby the focus of the NATO mission, will always face these structural constrains.

The Resolute Support mission would need to address how to handle the challenges identified above (desertion/divided loyalties, corruption, institutional/systemic deficiencies). Particularly the high level of corruption puts the NATO mission in a Catch-22. Afghanistan’s defence and security sector is ranked in the highest risk categories for corruption according to Transparency International’s Defence and Security Program in its 2015 Government Defence Anti-Corruption Index (Transparency International 2015). Some of the causes of this are patronage and nepotism, low pay, and ethnic favouritism.

Re-activating US combat force

The US still has around 9,800 troops present in Afghanistan. In mid-2016, US president Obama announced that he hoped to reduce the number of troops to 5,500 by early 2017 and wanted to cut down the number to 8,400 in 2016 – this, however, never happened. In June 2016, President Obama instead approved a policy to give the US military greater ability to accompany and enable Afghan forces to fight the Taliban. This policy allows the US to fight the Taliban directly and more flexibility to carry out airstrikes or wage ground combat. NATO members and other partners, although with a different mandate, have contributed 6,000 troops.

The US troops could stay due to the bilateral security agreement that president Ghani signed shortly after he took office. However, it is unclear what role the increased American use of air force and counterterrorism operations will play when it comes to the recruitment abilities of insurgent groups. The danger is that it will again lead to an escalation of the conflict and create further pressure on the ANSF. US involvement is an issue that divides Afghan society, but so far, one of the main grievances of the Taliban is that they will continue fighting as long as the US forces are present in Afghanistan.

The fact is that the war is ongoing in Afghanistan, including the western involvement. The Taliban appear strong, and now Islamic State is adding to the complexity (together with Al-Qaeda, who by the way, are still there). How the war in Afghanistan will evolve depends a great deal on how the Trump administration chooses to deal with Afghanistan in 2017.

About the Author

Mona Kanwal Sheikh is a Senior Researcher at the Danish Institute for International Studies. Her main area of expertise is militant movements in Pakistan, especially the movements related to the Pakistani Taliban.

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