Ten weeks after the Taliban briefly captured Kunduz, Afghanistan’s fifth-largest city, neither the fractured government nor the country’s political class is showing signs of heeding that wake-up call—or the other flashing warnings that the 14-month-old government is close to failure. While the United States quickly announced the reversal of its planned withdrawal of forces from the country, the factions in Kabul must figure out how to cooperate in governing, and Washington must do all it can to advance that, analysts say.

Eastern Shura fighters watch as U.S. B-52’s carpet bomb an area of the Tora Bora mountains in Afghanistan
Photo Courtesy of The New York Times/Stephen Crowley

The United States and other international donors should consider withholding aid to Afghan government ministries that fail to demonstrate their commitment to reform, USIP vice president and Afghanistan specialist Andrew Wilder told a congressional hearing last week. He called for other steps “to help ensure that the Afghan state does not collapse and that there is a legitimate Afghan government that can participate” in an eventual peace process to bring long-term stability.

“The defense of Kunduz failed, and the country is failing, because success is nobody’s top priority,” according to Christopher D. Kolenda, a former U.S. Army strategist in Afghanistan now at the Center for a New American Security. “Too often the government’s top priority is kleptocratic behavior and self-enrichment,” Kolenda said at a recent USIP forum on the aftermath of Kunduz.

“Too often the government’s top priority is kleptocratic behavior and self-enrichment.”  – Christopher D. Kolenda, Afghanistan analyst

President Ashraf Ghani literally wrote the book on fixing failed states and fully recognizes that corruption is sapping his government’s legitimacy, yet his administration has been ineffective so far in fighting corruption in a way that is convincing to the Afghan public. The government was weakened from the start by its emergence in a U.S.-brokered political deal to settle last year’s disputed presidential election. Ghani and his main rival, Abdullah Abdullah each claimed victory and alleged electoral fraud by the other’s campaign, and finally agreed to share power, with Abdullah named to a newly created position as chief executive officer of the government. The deal included electoral reforms to be completed before parliamentary elections this year. Deadlines for both reforms and elections were missed and Ghani in June decreed an extension of the existing parliament’s term.

Both in the coalition between Abdullah and Ghani, and in the parliament, divisions have prevented the appointment of the most essential officials.

“A government facing a determined armed enemy has no confirmed minister of defense; a government pledged to fight corruption and implement the rule of law has no attorney general,’’ USIP’s director for Afghanistan, Scott Smith, and former Afghan Interior Minister Ali Jalali wrote last month in The Hill. “The presidential palace projects dysfunction and division,” they said.

Kunduz: Corruption Uncorrected

In Kunduz and elsewhere, appointed officials loyal to Ghani, Abdullah or other power brokers have worked against each other, many of them operating militia units that forcibly collect illegal “taxes” from local residents, Jalali said in the USIP forum. District and provincial governments are barely funded. “The most successful governor is the one who steals ... and then he uses that money to make things happen,” said Jalali, formerly a USIP analyst. “The weakest are those who play by the [rules].”

While President Ghani dismissed several intelligence officials in Kunduz following the city’s collapse, corrupt local officials have simply resumed their roles, Kolenda said. “You have an area that becomes vulnerable, due to weak and bad governance, due to predatory behavior” by corrupt officials determined to profit from their positions, he said. After the Taliban takeover, “the Afghan National Security Forces come in in a tactically impressive operation, get rid of the flashpoint problem. And then they leave, and instead of rehabilitating … the community, the city, with good governance and with economic support … we instead bring the predators back in that make the community more vulnerable. And over time, this just creates a recipe in which ultimately works in favor of the Taliban. And unfortunately, we may see more Kunduzes to come.”

Any resolution of Afghanistan’s war almost surely will take years, in part because of new struggles for leadership among the Taliban and their allies. The movement divided after July, when its senior officials revealed that its founding leader, Mullah Omar, had died two years earlier. The main claimant to leadership, Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour, strengthened his standing among Taliban factions with the group’s victory at Kunduz, analysts say. Until a new leader consolidates his authority, any contender who appears inclined to negotiation or compromise will be challenged by hardliners, both within the Taliban and in a recently declared Afghan affiliate of the Islamic State (ISIS) movement.

U.S. Action Needed

Kolenda underscored that “Afghanistan is failing” in part because regional actors such as Pakistan, and Afghanistan’s “international partners,” also have failed to make Afghanistan’s success a priority with a clear strategy.

To prevent an eventual collapse of the internationally backed Afghan government, “the U.S. and our international partners should clearly convey that our strong commitment to remain engaged militarily and economically must be matched by a much stronger commitment from Afghanistan’s political leaders to govern more effectively,” Wilder told a subcommittee hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee on December 2. That message could be given muscle by “making assistance more conditional … rewarding high-performing ministries and penalizing low-performing ones,” he said.

Wilder’s policy recommendations included these:

  • NATO allies “must renew their commitments” to fund, train and assist Afghanistan’s government army and police past next year when NATO holds its annual summit in July.
  • The U.S. government and its allies should help Afghanistan stabilize its economy via suggestions laid out in October by USIP economic specialist William Byrd. This would include funding for a few key infrastructure projects, jobs programs in cities, and the regularization of urban slums whose residents now lack any permanent claim to their homes. The United States should lead at a donor conference in October in sustaining “robust” international aid to Afghanistan.
  • Even as the war continues, the United States should continue “bottom-up peacebuilding efforts” by supporting civil society groups that promote women’s rights, human rights, the rule of law, the delivery of social services, and an independent media. When peace talks take place it should “ensure that the voices of civil society actors are heard.”

In Kunduz, residents have begun a painful, fitful recovery from the Taliban siege, even as pre-winter temperatures drop below freezing, visiting journalists have reported. Many of the city’s 300,000 residents are struggling to rebuild businesses or to find shelter, food, water or electricity for their families.

But so far, Afghanistan’s political elites have shown little response to the danger signs of Kunduz’ September collapse, analysts say. That failure, left uncorrected, risks returning Afghanistan to the anarchy and civil war it saw in the 1990s. Such chaos “will enhance the terrorist threat to our friends and allies in the region and to the United States,” Wilder said. “It will also present President Obama’s successor with a strategic failure and a serious security crisis in the opening days of the next administration.”

James Rupert is a senior editor at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

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