Afghanistan’s Taliban are trying to defeat the government in this first year following the U.S. military’s withdrawal from combat operations, and their surge in attacks has driven the rate of army and police casualties at least 65 percent higher than last year. Still, a focused strategy can help the government survive, USIP experts say.
To push the Taliban into negotiations on Afghanistan’s future, the government must demonstrate that it is here to stay and that the Afghan security forces can defend the country despite the withdrawal of most international forces. To achieve this, according to five USIP experts in a forum June 16, the government and its international allies should concentrate on supporting Afghan forces, stabilizing the economy and improving governance through the roughly five remaining months of Afghanistan’s “fighting season,” before winter sets in. In the same period, getting to negotiations will require Pakistan to pressure or arrest those Afghan Taliban leaders in their country who prefer to continue the fight, said Moeed Yusuf, USIP’s director of South Asia programs.
“Every conversation that we have with the Taliban, whoever is having it, should be on a one-point agenda, which is ‘What is it going to take to bring a cease-fire?’” – USIP Pakistan analyst Moeed Yusuf
USIP’s Andrew Wilder and Scott Smith, who returned from a visit to the Afghan capital last week, said local officials, civil society leaders and others reflected worries at the country’s overlapping crises. The issues include a sense of political paralysis in the coalition government, plus “extensive” economic collapse, a deteriorating security situation and a perception that international attention is fading rapidly, said Wilder, USIP’s vice president for South and Central Asia programs. These form “quite a toxic and debilitating mix.”
The administration headed by President Ashraf Ghani and his electoral rival, Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah, has become “a government of institutionalized crisis,” Smith said, although some Afghan power brokers work to exaggerate the crisis “for their own political interests.”
The government’s political legitimacy is weaker than its predecessor’s, said Smith, the director of Afghanistan and Central Asia programs at USIP. Last year’s muddled election result, in which the U.S. government brokered a September deal between the candidates following a disputed vote count, continues to dilute the Ghani administration’s electoral legitimacy. The government is weakened as well by broad perceptions that it is spending more energy on internal bickering than on governing, and that international support for Afghanistan is waning, Smith said.
Ghani and Abdullah have been “losing support from their [respective political] allies,” who are disappointed by a lack of patronage, Smith said, and “are drifting to other centers of power,” including former President Hamid Karzai. Ghani is seen by many in Kabul as disinclined to consult widely, he said.
“Everybody … has a story about the 500-page report that the president stayed up the night before reading” and of the leader who “eats lunch alone,” Smith said. “You have this image of a lonely micro-manager who lectures to people and has taken all this burden upon himself.”
The political deal between Ghani and Abdullah strengthens hardliners in both camps because it set expectations on each side that it could wield power, yet “is not clear enough” to resolve disagreements, Smith said. The government took six months to name a cabinet and after nine months has appointed governors for just over half of Afghanistan’s provinces. In the standoff, “there’s a sense that President Ghani might be trying to wait out Abdullah,” Smith said.
Overdue Parliamentary Elections
The September agreement offered a way out of political deadlock by requiring Ghani to establish a commission to reform the electoral system before the parliamentary and local district elections planned for this year, Smith noted. But the factions have been unable to agree on the appointment of that commission, too, and the constitutionally mandated date for the parliament vote already has passed. Afghans will “have to extend the term of the parliament extra-constitutionally,” Smith said.
Afghanistan’s partners should discourage any new “interim arrangement” for the government beyond the national unity government, and should keep pressing for Ghani and Abdullah to complete government appointments. “There may be a chance that actual governance will start happening” at that point, he said. In the immediate term, the international community must maintain critical support—political, financial and military—to the Afghan government. And it should press Afghan authorities to “salvage as much as possible of this electoral reform agenda.”
The Fighting Season
Former Afghan Interior Minister Ali Jalali, now a senior expert at USIP, said Afghan troops and police have been spread too thinly across often-isolated posts. He urged that those forces focus their strength in strategically important areas, a shift that would help them improve logistical support to their personnel. Jalali noted that the military had been unable to supply gasoline and ammunition to its forces in the northeastern province of Badakhshan, where Taliban fighters this month scored a victory far outside their usual strongholds by seizing the main town of Yamgan district.
Afghan government forces should end their attempts to conduct sweeping offensives and instead use intelligence units and special forces for smaller operations against the most important Taliban targets, Jalali said. He noted the performance of government forces in Wardak province, where he said a battalion commander “has created a safe area” by removing government security posts and instead spreading intelligence cells to monitor Taliban activities, which the army and police are controlling with targeted raids. Jalali voiced caution on the government’s recent moves to arm local militias.
Perhaps the greatest threat to the government and its legitimacy is the collapsing economy, according to Wilder. But any return to real economic growth in Afghanistan depends on improving security, said William Byrd, a USIP senior expert and former World Bank official on Afghanistan. After 2006, growth rates of 9 percent each year were fueled by the unsustainable international spending before and during the U.S.-led military “surge” that ended in 2011, he said. Since then, good harvests have helped to sustain economic growth at about 2 percent, but that is less than estimated population growth rates, so Afghans’ incomes are not growing. The government has taken some steps to improve its revenue collection, making small gains in recent months.
Still, the key to helping Afghanistan’s economy recover is to improve security and induce Afghans themselves to reinvest the “tons of money” they have parked outside the country, Byrd said. That is difficult amid “declining confidence and compounding uncertainty” in the months following a disputed election that has not really been resolved by the national unity government, he said.
“This is not an environment in which a sensible investor would want to invest,” Byrd said.
After more than 12 years in which former President Karzai and the United States pushed Pakistani military leaders to shut down Afghan Taliban networks and bases in Pakistan, President Ghani has tried conciliation, Yusuf noted. He stepped back from Karzai’s close embrace of Pakistan’s rival, India, and repeatedly has visited Pakistan to assure its leaders that he is their partner. Rather than press the Pakistanis for an offensive against Afghan Taliban bases, Ghani essentially told them that “`you need to deliver the Taliban on the negotiating table; choose a strategy that works,’” Yusuf said. Following its own perceived interests, Pakistan has responded by urging Taliban cooperation but without applying any real pressure.
With the Taliban instead pressing their attacks, “the next three to four months will tell us whether Pakistan is willing to change its paradigm” and use force, Yusuf said.
“The strategy that’s going to work is exactly the strategy that has worked for Pakistan” against its own, domestic Taliban movement, he said. That would be to weaken the Afghan Taliban factions that prefer to continue the fight with a campaign of intelligence operations and arrests of their leaders and activists in Pakistani cities such as Quetta and Peshawar.
“Every conversation that we have with the Taliban, whoever is having it, should be on a one-point agenda, which is ‘What is it going to take to bring a cease-fire?’” Yusuf said.