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Good Luck Afghanistan: peace prospects in the RIV-era…

February 21, 2020

Summary: a week-long reduction in violence commitment from Taliban begins tomorrow.  It is a good opportunity for the people of Afghanistan that should be embraced.  But the process will be long, fraught and fragile, with spoilers every step of the way.  Good luck Afghanistan.



The current US administration has appeared frustrated and erratic with regard to its policy on Afghanistan.  Approval to send 4,000 more troops was made in 2017.[1]  At the end of 2018, President Trump spontaneously threatened to pull out as many as half of the total number (from approximately 14,000 down to 7,000).  This risked undermining what was a delicately balanced peace process.[2]

On 9 September 2019, US President Donald Trump declared the talks between the US and the Taliban to be “dead”.[3]  Talks have since resumed.[4]  It appears likely that some form of reduction in violence commitment may be made by the Taliban, perhaps even in the next few days or weeks.[5]  This is not a formal ceasefire.  The intention is that this could form the beginning of a process of US troop drawdown over months and years, concurrently with talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government.  But there is a lot still that has to happen.  This is a small segment of an overall peace process that will need to engage with many factions of society.  The Taliban have avoided direct and formal engagement with the Afghan government, choosing only to talk to the United States and demanding the complete withdrawal of US forces before they will talk about anything else.[6]  It is still unclear how the Taliban envisage their future role in society and government, and how they might reintegrate into politics, government and society.  Wider dialogue and reconciliation will pose a major challenge.

“A US-Taliban peace agreement seems closer than ever, but the whole thing could unravel when it comes time for intra-Afghan talks…The temporary ceasefire, if agreed upon, may provide a new lease on life to the on-again, off-again peace talks. A more permanent agreement, however, faces a number of pitfalls that could scuttle the ultimate objective of bringing lasting peace to Afghanistan…Who is going to amass what gains and on what terms and conditions in the post-withdrawal Afghanistan is so far a guessing game.  But the Taliban are probably the most influential force in deciding this question, and to some regional and international players, the militia is the crucial factor for bringing peace to Afghanistan. But will they act in the interests of peace?  Besides suffering from their own dilemmas vis-à-vis the peace process, the Taliban’s possible inclusion in power-sharing in Kabul is seen with concern for two major reasons: The militia’s desire for power and their world view.”[7]

As yet, there has been no let-up in the fighting.[8]  There is likely to be a formal agreed “reduction in violence” process starting from Saturday 22 February, as a part of the US-Taliban agreement.  In the next 6 to 12 months – expectations, tensions and manoeuvrings regarding the talks will insure the situation remains fragile.  We might well see upsurges in fighting as both sides attempt to secure a military advantage to bolster their position in the talks.[9]  “Spoilers” across the military and political spectrum, for example Islamic State, may attempt to disrupt and destabilise.

A greater concern relates to the medium and long-term. A hasty US-Taliban peace agreement followed by a precipitous US military departure, in the absence of a wider Afghan discussion and reconciliation, will increase the risk of instability and even civil war.[10]

“…that road to actual peace could turn out to be as long, steep, and winding as the Salang Pass road. Peace may only come to fruition long after U.S. troops have withdrawn and after much intra-Afghan fighting… the intra-Afghan negotiating and fighting could go on for years. It could easily feature unstable deals that easily collapse, powerful spoilers, military and political coup d’états, and the loss of interest by the United States (but active meddling by regional powers).”[11]

What prospects?

The watchwords are “volatile” and “fragile”.  This not a done deal (any more than Brexit was “done” on 31 January).  Nothing is going to happen quickly, although it might superficially seem like it at the beginning.  Judging by the Taliban’s ability to effectively reduce violence during the June 2018 ceasefire, it looks likely they will again be able to restrain their diverse fighting groups.  American and international forces are likely to be the main beneficiaries, less so the Afghan army and police.  A week-long reduction in violence will likely be an intoxicating feeling for ordinary Afghans.  Taliban and government fighters alike might get caught up in the euphoria and fraternise, as happened in 2018.  This may serve to set expectations artificially and unrealistically high for what is to come.  Intermingling of Taliban and government forces could spark accidental or intentional clashes.

Much can happen to derail any peace deal between the US and the Taliban.  The political and security situation is highly volatile – and likely to remain so for at least the next 5 – 10 years.  The Afghan Presidential election was held in September 2019.  Amid much credible allegations of corruption and fraud, Ashraf Ghani has only just been declared the victor – by the narrowest of margins – over his rival Dr Abdullah.[12]  Not only has Dr Abdullah not accepted the result, he is talking openly about himself as the winner and his intention to form a new government.[13]  Many key players are muttering darkly about resisting the “wrong” result by force.  Dr Abdullah is likely to bluster and moan but ultimately back down.  But volatility and hotheads on all sides make the situation hard to predict.[14]  Inter-factional strife would be a disaster at any time, but particularly devastating if defeat were to be snatched from the jaws of talks with the Taliban.

We should not confuse terms – a “peace deal” will be initially only mean a brief reduction in violence.  If that works, it will lead to talks between the US and the Taliban.  This is just to allow the Americans to pull out over a period of months and years.  There is no “ceasefire”, merely a less clearly defined “reduction in violence”.  It will be temporary.  The Taliban are very worried about their fighters losing their cutting edge and the Taliban leadership losing control over the fighters who might start fraternising with the locals, who are often from the same local tribes and even families.  The difficult work of talking Afghan to Afghan will not begin until later.  And it will be harder and take longer (years) and be volatile.  Outbreaks of violence are almost a certainty.

Major infrastructural problems in the country will continue to contribute to medium and long-term volatility and fragility – corruption, warlords, illegal armed groups, Islamic State, interference from Pakistan/Iran/etc.  The Afghan government still cannot function without billions of dollars of contributions from the US/international community.

There is potential for the Taliban to fragment and the violence resume.  There is potential for the government to fragment and the violence resume.  If it comes to bringing the Taliban fighters in from the cold, integrating 50-60,000 Taliban fighters into the army will be massively problematic – it could cause the army and security forces to crumble.  Deedee Dirksen’s paper examining the challenges of integrating Hezb-e Islami forces into the ANSF is a highly pertinent study.[15]  It will be very expensive.  Taliban commanders will now demand to be generals, with salaries and pensions to match.  They will want to bring their mates with them.  They will not want to train to be a professional, Western-style military, perhaps even with US military advisors.  Does the US have the willingness to pay even more for the Afghan military?  It hardly seems likely.  But the alternative is tens of thousands of redundant Taliban, army and police.  Mass unemployment of thousands of trained gunmen could be destabilising.

There is strong potential for the “Trump factor” to confuse, complicate and collapse the situation.  Last September, allegedly in response to the death of one US soldier, Trump cancelled the talks for months.  Trump’s agenda is clear and Trump-centric:  Trump is in this for his own personal domestic political benefit – expect an invoice for a Nobel prize once the first US battalion lands back in the US.  Otherwise, Trump has no knowledge, interest, understanding or patience for Afghanistan (his loose talk of dropping nuclear weapons on the country should be proof of this).  He will demand a timetable that aligns favourably (for him) with the US elections in November 2020.  This makes him a dangerous and unstable element where calmness, intellect and patience are essential.

Even if…

In short, everything is still very unstable, even if a reduction in violence is declared.  Even if the US reach a deal with the Taliban.  Even if the Taliban start talking to the Afghan government.  Even if Donald Trump can be restrained.  There is real, tangible hope for the Afghan people.  But there is still a great risk of a slide backwards – even into civil war – once the US pulls out.



[1] ‘US to send 4,000 more troops to Afghanistan’, Deutsche Welle, 16 June 2017,

[2] Jackson, A., ‘Trump Leaves Behind Mess for Afghans to Clean Up’, Foreign Policy, 21 Dec. 2018,

[3] ‘Afghan peace deal: Trump says Taliban talks are “dead”’, BBC News, 10 Sep. 2019,

[4] Gul, A., ‘Trump Suggests Peace Talks With Afghan Taliban Back on Track’, Voice of America, 23 Nov. 2019,

[5] Mashal. M., Rogers, K., Ghazi, Z., and Gibbons-Neff, T., ‘As Afghan Soldier Kills 2 Americans, Peace Talks Forge Ahead’, The New York Times, 17 Feb. 2020,

[6] ‘Afghan Taliban, US to hold peace talks on Wednesday’, The Week, 8 Jan. 2019,

[7] Khattak, D., ‘The Pitfalls in Afghanistan’s Peace Process’, The Diplomat, 24 Jan. 2020,

[8] Bolton, A., ‘U.S. combat deaths in Afghanistan highest in years’, The Hill, 1 Jan. 2020,  and ‘Afghanistan: US and Afghan soldiers killed in attack’, BBC News, 9 Feb. 2020,

[9] ‘Taliban Attack In Northern Afghanistan Kills At Least 13’, RFE/RL, 29 Jan. 2020,

[10] Dobbins, J., et al, ‘US-Taliban Negotiations: How to Avoid Rushing to Failure’, The Atlantic Council, 3 Sep. 2019,

[11] Felbab-Brown, V., ‘Order from Chaos: After the US-Taliban deal, what might negotiations between the Taliban and Afghan side look like?’, Brookings Institute, 19 Feb. 2020,





SIGAR, Sopko remarks – US lessons learned in Afghanistan, dated 15 January 2020

January 16, 2020

Summary – The lessons learned from lessons learned exercises is that lessons are rarely learned.  SIGAR’s assessment of US lessons learned in Afghanistan is, however, a brutal and necessary read.  The “annual lobotomy” relates to personnel turnover every year and highlights the failure to preserve expertise.  Other, more damning, indictments of US military, economic and reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan are also offered.  Major problems (security, human rights, corruption, terrorism, rule of law, drugs) will not magically vanish in the event of a US/Taliban peace deal…

The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction has produced an assessment of US lessons learned in Afghanistan over the last couple of decades.  It makes essential but grim reading.  I have attempted to distil the key points here.  My own experiences of Afghanistan both in and out of the country are microcosms of many of the points made here.  In late 2001, I was a Balkans/Eastern Europe analyst dragged into the post-9/11 emergency as a first step in “growing” UK MOD Afghan expertise instantly.  The points made are blunt and the lessons do not (or should not) come as a surprise.  They should also be seen as applying to the efforts of other countries in Afghanistan.  Looking at you, United Kingdom.  I have added some of my own brief comments in brackets.

SIGAR Overview:

With military and civilian staff deployed in-country rotating every year (80% of US embassy staff leave each summer, US military are there for 12 months), new people arrive with best intentions but little knowledge of what predecessors were doing.  [Comment: Absolutely correct to point this out, but how to fix?  I am guessing that most analysts, military, diplomats and civil servants do not want to spend five years of their career in Afghanistan.  There was discussion and effort to address this around ten years ago – some of the US senior military personnel stayed longer – 15, 18, 24 months.  But surely hard to enforce?].

SIGAR calls this the “annual lobotomy”.  Agencies struggle to see the wood for the trees – hard won lessons go ignored – in 2008 SIGAR found a USAID paper reviewing assistance given to Afghanistan over 1950 – 1979.  The lessons were still highly relevant but neither USAID or the State Department were aware of the study.  [Comment: conversely, when I reported for the first time as an Afghanistan analyst in London in early November 2001, I requested to start reading through the files immediately, so I could brief myself up – it was very much self-help in those days.  The response was “what files are they, then?”.  There were no significant files or database – Afghanistan was someone else’s civil war, there was no British embassy there, no UK strategic interest…]

When assessing “progress”, many claims do not stand even basic scrutiny – e.g. the 3 million girls and 5 million boys at school.  The data comes from Afghan government and is not independently verified.  Another example of child mortality rates dropping before based on a World Health Organisation estimate that had limited data – maternal mortality rates based on a survey of only 4 districts (out of approximately 400).  SIGAR was concerned that US accountability were, in some cases, actually going backwards.  Example – $1 Billion was spent on rule of law.  In 2009 there were 27 performance metrics to enable assessment.  By 2013 there were no performance measurements at all.  [Comment: Yes, but in the same way “money spent does not equal progress made”, numbers of metrics assigned does not equal effectiveness nor accuracy of measurement.]

SIGAR key lessons learned

Successful reconstruction is incompatible with continuing insecurity – fighting should be contained and agencies move quickly – there is a narrow window before insurgency emerges.  Reconstruction should be undertaken in the more secure areas first.  [Comment: Don’t know.  It seems superficially hard to disagree with.  But rushing in with Quick Impact Projects is also problematic and limited in effect when you don’t know the terrain, the society or the priorities.  Example given to me from Faryab – dig a well in one village but in doing so, inadvertently drain the wells of four neighbouring villages.  You don’t know the terrain – geographic or human – until you have been there a few years.  In the ISAF HQ in 2006 a concern was the risk of alienating the problematic parts of the country where the Taliban were operating.  By prioritising and rewarding the “good” areas with money and construction, you risk pushing people in the “bad” areas towards the Taliban when there is no reconstruction, economy or job prospects].

Unchecked corruption undermining US goals – The US is guilty of fostering corruption with a persistent belief that if you throw money at it, you automatically get better results – success as measured by money spent.  The Taliban were helped by early US “alliances of convenience” with warlords – this perpetuated human rights violations and corruption.  It drove many Afghans into the arms of the Taliban.  It is important to address corruption at the outset – “do not flood a small, weak economy with too much money”.  [Comment: Many countries were guilty of pointing to the amount of money they had donated to Afghanistan without demonstrating the money had been well spent.  One person’s “don’t flood the economy” is another person’s “failing to clothe, house and protect the population”…]

After defeat of Taliban there was no clear reconstruction strategy or single PoC – From 2001-2006 reconstruction was underfunded and understaffed.  After 2006 there was a massive over-correction.  Billions of dollars were poured in, distorting the economy and fuelling corruption.  There was a lack of skills for key tasks – the US military was given the job of training a civilian Afghan police force.  They were not trained or resourced to do this type of type and in some circumstances turned to US TV cop shows for guidance in designing the training programme.

Politically driven timelines – Unsurprisingly, the DOD was not skilled at developing a national economy – political demands divorced from reality.  [Comment: the military are often guilty of saying “yep, can do”, as a knee jerk response to a task they are given.  They are designed and trained to respond to an order in this way.  But with tasks that require social, economic and political nuance they can often find themselves out of their depth and without the skills sets to acknowledge weakness or say “well, hang on, this is not really our area”, or “no, we can’t do this unless we also have x, y and z.”  I am exaggerating to make this point.]

Mitigate “annual lobotomy” impact – 80% of US embassy staff depart each year.  This meant a permanent lack of institutional knowledge.  For assessing progress the US government defers to on the ground assessments, requiring each DOD, embassy, State Department to “mark their own work”.  This leads to reports that are much rosier than reality or simply irrelevant.

Reconstruction needs to be based on deep understanding of the historic, social, legal and political traditions of Afghanistan – Many US personnel did not know difference between Taliban and Al Qaida, they lacked knowledge of Afghan society, local dynamics and power relationships.  In the short-term, more in-depth pre-deployment training necessary.  In the longer term it is necessary to ramp up the knowledge base for future ops, identifying academic experts willing to lend knowledge at short notice in support of operations.  There is a dearth of experience in key US agencies – they need the vital combination of long-term institutional memory and recent experience.  It is important to listen to people with experience developed over time.

Recommendations to Congress

  • Need to urgently plan for post-Taliban peace deal – a number of serious threats will not miraculously disappear. If US military pull out they will likely be transferring to the State Department a budget of $4 Bn.  State is as yet unprepared to take this on.
  • Need to worry about: military and counter-terrorism capabilities of the Afghan security forces, the rights of Afghan women, rule of law, corruption, alternative livelihoods for farmers beyond poppy.
  • Crucial issue – the problem of reintegrating Taliban fighters (possibly as many as 60,000?) back into society.
  • This all at a time where there is a deteriorating security situation and decreasing staffing.
  • There will remain a need for rigorous assessment and strong oversight – identify best and worst performing projects.
  • Need a finalised anti-corruption strategy (as of December 2019 it is still “under development”).

Final comments – the biggest decisions are made when least is known

I have found that, while relatively easy in hindsight to point out when things have gone wrong, it still remains very difficult to actually fix things moving ahead.  In my part of the UK MOD it became common practice to talk about “lessons identified” rather than “lessons learned”, as a tacit admission that, as military and civilian personnel rotated through, the chances were that many lessons would fall by the wayside.  My main lesson from the early part of the campaign was that the biggest and most far-reaching strategic decisions (do we invade or not?  Where do we put our troops?  Who are good guys?  Who are bad guys?  Who do we support and give money to?) were taken when least was known about the country.  My wild assertion based on experiences of twenty years ago is that most NATO countries probably have only intelligence analyst per country – if they are lucky.  For some regions there might only be one analyst covering a half dozen countries.  There may be a couple more analysts for major subjects, e.g., Russia and China but, otherwise you only get more analysts to throw at the problem once a war has begun or immediately the crisis has arisen.  Then of course, it is often too late and the biggest decisions are made when least is known.


Foreign Office Travel Advice: Afghanistan – bleakest outlook yet

November 1, 2019
tags: ,

The British Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) issue travel advice and guidance for all countries of the world, including Afghanistan.  The advice is aimed at UK citizens.  I have been lightly monitoring their website in relation to Afghanistan since 2012.  The most assessment from October 2019, is the bleakest yet.  This is July 2012:








It stays fairly consistent for a few years.  This is 2016:










Then September 2017:









And finally, this autumn has taken a real turn for the worse, leaving the Panjshir valley, a small area around Bamian, the government quarter and the airport in Kabul as even vaguely plausible areas to visit.  Striking but perhaps not surprising, given the fragility of peace talks, high levels of fighting and casualties and uncertainty about the elections.







For reference, this is Syria in November 2019:

FCO 312 - Nigeria Travel Advice Ed2 [WEB]

And Iraq in November 2019:


FCO 303 - Bangladesh Travel Advice [WEB]













President Ghani announces 7 point peace plan

October 28, 2019


A new peace plan proposal from President Ghani appears to try to insert the Afghan government more strongly into the mix, requiring the withdrawal talks to be conducted between the US and Afghan government rather than the Taliban.  It also wants a ceasefire agreed with the Taliban before US withdrawals begin.  These are big asks.

Tolo News is carrying the full text of a 7 point peace plan reportedly launched by President Ghani as a means of bringing peace and stability to Afghanistan.  The short document (only 3 pages long) appears to be “wiping the board clean” and starting again with only fragments of the previous talks included.  Of the three pages, the first page is a pre-amble which highlights the progress made in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, in particular the recent efforts by the Ghani government (consultations, Loya Jirga and the 2018 ceasefire).  The full text of the Ghani plan is at the bottom of my article.  The seven points I summarise and briefly comment on here:

  1. A plan for US withdrawal of forces to be developed in conjunction with the Afghan government (ie and not with the Taliban). Provision for a US Counter Terrorism component to remain.  SIGNIFICANT CHANGE – SIDELINES TALIBAN
  2. Taliban get assurances about US withdrawal but no actual withdrawal until a Taliban ceasefire. Then negotiations can begin.  SIGNIFICANT CHANGE – UNDERMINES TALIBAN
  3. The root of the Taliban problem is Pakistan – need to negotiate with Pakistan to improve security and develop trade. PROVOCATIVE TO OVERTLY BLAME PAKISTAN
  4. Discussion with neighbours, the region and Islamic world – to achieve mutual assurances of non-interference. BIT BLAND – HARD TO DISAGREE WITH
  5. Discussion with the West and international organisations – design comprehensive development programmes. BIT BLAND – HARD TO DISAGREE WITH
  6. Strengthen national institutions. BIT BLAND – HARD TO DISAGREE WITH
  7. Address grievances at the local level. BIT BLAND – HARD TO DISAGREE WITH

The plan also suggest three immediate steps – a mini-jirga, international consultations and intra-Afghan dialogues – which don’t seem to add anything original or new to the process.


This is a very general document, lacking in detail.  Half of it is very bland.  Why now?  The timing and intent seems confusing and unhelpful.  The US and the Taliban were probably about to start talking again (and probably picking up more or less where they left off).  It seems as if the process is being taken backwards – almost as if Ghani wants to start all over again – but with the Afghan government much more in the lead.  Ghani might be trying to boost his profile in the context of the messy wait for the messy election result.  Perhaps it is a metaphorical stamping of the foot to gain attention.  Ghani was believed to be unhappy with the US/Taliban plan as presented to him in September.  This may have been the reason behind Donald Trump rushing to kill the talks before Ghani could.

Perhaps there is some inevitability in Ghani and the Afghan government injecting themselves into the process if they feel that they are being ignored, or that talks are dead or that the US cannot fully be trusted.  In this plan, Ghani removes the main plank of Taliban concerns – foreign troops on Afghan soil – while retaining the post-2001 Afghan government democratic institutions.

Point 1 seems to be suggesting that it should be the Afghan government and the US that develop and endorse the US withdrawal plan, rather than this being done between the US and the Taliban.  This would be a major change and absolutely contrary to what the Taliban expect and require.  They would be side-lined in this new Ghani plan.  What a “counter-terrorism framework” means is unclear, but could be a show-stopper if it meant retaining US boots on the ground.  The Taliban are expecting all US forces to have withdrawn.

Point 2, no US withdrawal until there is a ceasefire, if it came off, would be a major breakthrough and a significant win for Ghani.  This is entirely opposed to what the Taliban want and therefore a big ask.

Point 3 recognises the importance of Pakistan in terms of trade and security but describing Pakistan as “root of the problem” looks unhelpfully provocative and not something that Pakistan will accept.

Points 4 and 5 are quite bland and generic calls for dialogue with neighbours and the international community.

Points 6 and 7 – likewise bland and generic – develop Afghan national institutions and address causes of conflict at the local level.  Classic “top down” and “bottom up” stuff.

Final thoughts

Ghani and the Afghan government seem to want to push forward and assert control over the peace talks – crucially, this paper aims to remove the Taliban from discussing the terms of the US withdrawal and to restructure the flow chart: withdrawal assurances first, then ceasefire, then negotiations.

It is easy to see this plan as unhelpful and unworkable.  The US and Taliban are quite advanced in their discussion, despite the temporary pause.  Removing the Taliban from withdrawal talks and requiring them to approve ceasefire before negotiations are surely both long shots.  But perhaps it is understandable that the Afghan government feels the need to assert itself and reshape the process.  The Trump administration regularly shows that it is unreliable, knee-jerk and disinterested in medium or long term issues.  This plan looks to be trying to get neighbours and internationals to  validate, retain and reinforce the post-2001 Afghan government system, democratic process and institutions before the Taliban get inserted into the mix – the battle between Republic or Emirate.  Perhaps Ghani has watched the ongoing US/Taliban process with growing concern and feels that this is no longer going in a good direction.



Full text of the 7 point peace plan

Steps Toward Stability in Afghanistan


Confidential | October 2019




Afghanistan is at a critical time in its history. Over the past two decades, we have made tremendous gains mainly laying the foundations of the Islamic Republic to promote people- centric governance, human rights, freedom of expression, and education among other democratic ideals. The people of Afghanistan desire to build upon these gains and achieve lasting peace that will lead to stability for the benefit of Afghans and the region.

Peace for Afghans is a comprehensive term that addresses not only the issue of talks with the Taliban but also requires intensive and collective top-down and bottom-up approaches to eliminate factors that create the conditions for war.

Much has happened thus far to advance peace and stability in Afghanistan, and yet much more needs to be done to accomplish this noble objective. In February 2018, the Afghan government extended an unconditional offer of peace talks to the Taliban. In June, a nationwide three-day ceasefire over the Eid holidays was implemented. They gave Afghans tremendous belief that peace is possible.

In November, the Afghan government presented a comprehensive roadmap to peace, and announced a negotiating team.

As 2019 began, Afghanistan’s journey toward peace continued with nationwide consultations with the Afghan people.

In February, 15,000 women were consulted from all 34 provinces on what would be acceptable to them in a peace agreement, and 3,000 of them came together in Kabul to endorse that agenda.

In April, the Afghan government organized a historic and inclusive Consultative Loya Jirga for peace, which laid out the people’s demands for a peace agreement.

As we prepare to take the next step in this process, we are committed to the principles of inclusivity, sustainability and dignity. The Afghan people have demanded a ceasefire to immediately stop the bloodshed; they have demanded that talks must happen between the Afghan government and the Taliban; and they have demanded that the Islamic Republic be preserved as the foundation of our nation-state. We want not only to preserve the gains we have made but also to maintain the foundation that will allow us to advance those gains.

To build upon the past efforts and take steady steps toward stability with an aim to end the bloodshed as soon as possible, the Afghan government will undertake thorough national and international inclusive consultations to implement a 7-Point Peace Plan for Stability that is laid out in this document. These 7 points are not necessarily sequential.


The 7-Point Plan for Stability


Top-Down Negotiations


Point 1) Negotiations with USA + NATO

We propose to the US to jointly develop an implementation mechanism and plan with Afghanistan for withdrawal of US forces and a CT cooperation framework for the post withdrawal period. This could build upon the US’s discussions with the Taliban and salvage parts of the past year’s efforts that were undertaken by the Americans.


Point 2) Negotiations with the Taliban

Once the Taliban have assurances (only assurances at this stage) that foreign troops, which they claim to be the problem, will leave, the previously constructed inclusive 15-member Negotiations Team will participate in negotiations with the Taliban. These potential negotiations will be of utmost importance to Afghans and they will be carried out in an inclusive and consultative manner. This is to ensure that all Afghans feel represented and their voices shape the outcomes. Before the negotiations begin, the Afghan people and government demand the Taliban to enter into a mutual ceasefire a) to prove that they have maintained unity of their command and b) to provide space for successful talks. The Afghan government’s objective in undertaking the negotiations will be to finalize a peace agreement with the Taliban. Detailed plans for a ceasefire as a pre-condition to the talks as well as the negotiations process are developed separately.


Point 3) Negotiations with Pakistan

Points 1 and 2 have been emphasized by the US and the Taliban but we also want to address the root of the problem and that is Pakistan.

This Point will aim to provide mutual assurances between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Afghanistan needs to know that Pakistan will not continue to harbor terrorists and nurture terrorism in the region, and Pakistan needs to know that Afghanistan can be an earnest partner for trade, commerce and energy projects that can help boost Pakistan’s economy.


Consensus Building with Regional and International Partners


Point 4) Discussions with Neighbors, Region, and the Islamic World


This will provide mutual assurances of non-interference between these countries and Afghanistan, and assurances by Afghanistan that it will continue to evolve into a country that emanates economic possibility instead of regional instability. With an economic-centric and regional connectivity approach, we can work together for shared interests of the region which will reinforce peace and stability. Simultaneous to efforts undertaken in Points #1, #2, #3, Afghanistan will request some of the countries in this category to facilitate track 2 or track 1.5 peace dialogues with the Taliban. Mechanics of these dialogues will be constructed separately.

Point 5) Discussions with the West + International Organizations


We aim to engage the European Union, European countries, the United Nations, the World Bank and others throughout the peace process. Afghanistan will partner with countries and entities in this category to design and implement comprehensive development programs that can chart us on a long-term path to development in our post-peace agreement phase. These countries and entities may also have the role of guarantors in potential peace agreements.


Bottom-up Stability


Point 6) Strengthen Institutions at the National Level

To sustain and strengthen the peace which could potentially be achieved with efforts outlined above, Afghanistan will need to continue to strengthen the Islamic Republic as a system of governance, further strengthen the ANDSF, improve governance and curb corruption, and work out mechanisms for systemic political inclusion of all Afghans.


Point 7) Address Grievances at the Local Level

Each district of Afghanistan has its own unique drivers of conflict. They need to be identified and addressed. Promoting rule of law, strengthening traditional conflict resolution mechanisms, rural development programs, and mechanisms to include people in local politics will be the focus of efforts in this category.


Immediate Concrete Steps

In order to garner national and international support to this plan and further refine it, the Afghan government will undertake the following concreate steps in the short -term:


  1. Organize a Mini-Jirga: This Jirga will bring different political factions, key civil society actors, representatives of families of the victims, representatives of youth and women groups together to hold inclusive consultations about the way forward and build unity for it.


  1. Form an Alliance Consultations Group: Afghanistan will invite working level representatives (Special Representative or equivalent) from 12-15 countries and international organizations to participate in a 1-day conference in Kabul to collectively reflect over the past efforts and lessons learned and provide consultation for the way forward.


  1. Holds Intra-Afghan Dialogues: Afghanistan will request potential partners to organize a series of intra-Afghan dialogue to ensure momentum is maintained and channel of communication is open between the parties to the conflict. Unlike official negotiations, intra-Afghan dialogues will not require a precondition.


While key components of the plan will continue to be consistent, this will be a living document that will evolve as a result of consultations at national and international levels.


End of Document.


Withdrawing from Afghanistan – strategy without hope?

October 25, 2019


Carter Malkasian has written an interesting and timely article for Foreign Affairs this month.  He is a very well-known and highly experienced Afghanistan expert, with much time in the field at crucial points of the international community’s engagement, particularly in Helmand province.  He addresses the question of what a US military withdrawal from Afghanistan could look like, with the sub-heading “Learning to Live With Taliban Rule”, being a large clue.  His assessment is bleak and highly US-centric, but with an American administration in the role of passively hoping for the best.  While this is a perhaps understandable perspective for an America wearied of wars that never seem to conclude, he appears willing to risk Afghanistan being thrown to the wolves of unpredictable civil war, international terrorist groups and meddling neighbours with little or no guarantees of a peaceful outcome for the Afghan people.  Twenty years of flawed but demonstrable social, political and economic progress are to be unravelled.


Malkasian argues that a full US military withdrawal would lead inevitably to Taliban military gains, likely including Taliban attacks on provincial capitals and key cities.  He asserts, absolutely plausibly, that without US military support, the Taliban could control half of the country.  Many would argue that they are already doing this.  The survivability of Kabul is addressed – he suggests that the fall of Kabul is possible and raises the historical model of Afghans pragmatically changing sides in order to survive: “Once tribal leaders, police, soldiers, and farmers sense which way the wind is blowing, the whole edifice of the Afghan state could collapse”.  This references back to the rapid advances of the Taliban in the mid-1990s and the reversal of this process in 2001-2002 with the arrival of the US-led military coalition.  He offers it as likely that warlords would emerge to fight the Taliban – perhaps alongside the Afghan National Army, or perhaps in place of it.  Neighbouring countries would once again back their favoured ethnic/political groups with arms and money.  Al Qaeda, Islamic State and others would potentially thrive in mountains and valleys no longer monitored by US drones.  This is back to a civil war, but, if it is possible, of a kind even worse than the 1990s.

In attempting to demonstrate the positive from the US point of view, Malkasian suggests Kabul might not fall and that, after an inevitable surge of violence for a year or so, those in Taliban-dominated areas could see a reduction in fighting as the Taliban assert control.  They would learn to accept the loss of freedoms (human rights, women’s rights, education, voting, free press) they currently have: “Afghans would be oppressed and deprived but alive”.  The Taliban will not attack the Continental US.  It is hard to disagree with this latter point.  With regard to the potential threat from Al Qaeda and Islamic State, he argues that the Continental US is now much more able to resist and deter 9/11-type attacks.  This is probably accurate, but I wonder, a generation later, whether it is safe to assume 9/11 attacks are still the “go to” solution for international terrorism?

For a Trump administration, rapid withdrawal with little regard for the medium and long-term consequences for Afghanistan and the region, surely looks attractive.  But Malkasian’s case as it stands, while understandable in the “America First” era (which has about fifteen months to run, and counting), appears to readily accept a bloody civil war (with absolutely no guarantees as to the outcome) and the destruction of nearly twenty years of progress and hope.  This is a massive gamble.

The more I think about it, the more I wonder why the Americans are talking with the Taliban?  The Taliban are not popular.  No one is out on the streets demonstrating for them.  They cannot win at any ballot box.  Their intentions, post-US withdrawal, are deliberately (and worryingly) shrouded.  Many believe that the Taliban are bent on removing or collapsing the current government and administration by force as soon as the Americans have departed this newly-levelled playing field.   They represent a small minority of suspect interests who have shown little interest in addressing issues of governance, society, popular consent and economics.  Their only realistic way to remain relevant is to partition Afghanistan’s geographic, national, political and military resources with like-minded, unrepresentative grey and white beards, such as warlords and fellow travellers (think Hekmatyar), without pesky “will of the people” issues to contend with.

What would happen if the US took the time instead to arrange a managed withdrawal deal with the Afghan government rather than the Taliban, alongside multi-decade strategic financial, economic and other support commitments from the US and the international community?  That the US forces should ultimately withdraw is beyond dispute.  Such a withdrawal (numbers of troops and timings) could largely mirror – if not outright copy – the agreements drafted between the US and the Taliban.  But this plan would no longer involve the Taliban.  The Taliban should be directed to the Afghan government if they want to talk to anyone.  Some early and highly publicised initial US troop withdrawals could set the tone for intra-Afghan dialogue.  A US military withdrawal on Afghan government terms would be a much more stable affair, giving reassurance to the population and remove a key (perhaps the key) platform of Taliban grievances.  Perhaps it becomes harder for the Taliban to motivate and recruit once this bedrock issue has disappeared?

Mr Malkasian points to the 2014-2016 period as a “cautionary tale”.  But, from a peak of around 140,000 soldiers to around 12,000, this was a massive withdrawal of international military forces that actually worked, despite many predictions then of collapse and civil war.  The Afghan security forces, although heavily bloodied, are still in the field and capable of taking the fight to the enemy, even half a decade on.

I am not quite sure how well the Najibullah regime analogy works, but here goes.  That regime held together for three years, from 1989 – 1992 – even inflicting large military defeats on guerrilla fighters unskilled at larger-scale conventional operations and over-confident of victory.  It was not until the Soviet Union itself collapsed and the support it was providing to the regime dried up did the Najibullah’s government fragment.   If the ANA bills are footed from a distance, including weapons, training and equipment, perhaps this could stabilise and support them)

Ultimately I am pessimistic.  I believe a hasty US-negotiated withdrawal deal with the Taliban, in the absence of a ceasefire and a viable agreement between the Afghan government and the Taliban, is more likely to lead to civil war than anything else.  But maybe there are other options and approaches to consider?

Uppsala: graphic displaying Afghan deaths in first half of 2019

September 11, 2019

Summary: Uppsala data – deaths in Afghanistan, first half of 2019

Because I am a sucker for maps and graphics as an aid to thinking…

This graphic is from the Uppsala Conflict Data Program and gives a clear and stark indication of the violence levels in Afghanistan this year.  I have looked at many similar maps over the last 15 years.  Levels rise and fall (mainly rise), but what still comes across strongly is the consistent geographic distribution of the fighting, which follows the ring road and is still primarily occurring in the south, south-east and east, with lower but still noticeable (and rising) violence in the north and north west.  A separate thread on Twitter regarding Uppsala data has some insightful observations and thoughts from Alex Strick about the problems of compiling accurate data to an exacting rigorous standard when addressing a period of years/decades


Talks collapse – what comes next?

September 10, 2019

Summary: Although the manner of the collapse was a surprise, a failure of such a difficult series of talks was always a real possibility. What happens over the next 12 months or so?

There are multiple possibilities – a handful here…

  1. The US and the Taliban will intensify military efforts in the absence of any other ideas and to show they are unconcerned and capable.
  2. Fighting will resume at current levels (or, less likely, a pause) in the hope/expectation that talks will continue again soon (at some level) once everyone has calmed down.
  3. US and/or Afghan government reject or minimise the Taliban’s political status and legitimacy- return to categorising them purely as terrorists to be targeted. They are no longer recognised.
  4. US and/or Afghan government demand: no new talks until a ceasefire demonstrates the Taliban’s good faith.
  5. Similar to point 4 – The withdrawal of US forces timetable looks to have been broadly agreed – US commits to this timeframe but does not move at all until a ceasefire is in place.
  6. US inactivity – Trump loses interest (there is no Nobel prize in this for him, better to try with North Korea again.  US actions and policy drift. In essence, no productive move for the rest of this presidential term beyond fighting.
  7. Wild Card: Withdrawal begins – the US decide to shut out the Taliban and commence the agreed staged withdrawal as part of a new strategic agreement with the Afghan government. The Taliban are excluded. US commits to a new long-term financial, economic and political support package for the Afghan democratic process. Some US counter-terrorism capabilities remain but the US/international community’s efforts are a renewed and revitalised focus on assisting governance, democracy, rule of law, growth of a civil service and anti-corruption initiatives. The Taliban have one of their key wishes met – no US troops in Afghanistan. Thus the Taliban are undermined – they lose a key motivational/recruitment tool and are now only ever killing fellow Muslims.

I don’t think these scenarios are necessarily exclusive to each other. On reviewing them, I realise the “Wild card” suggestion is not so much a scenario but an idea I have had as a possible – but unconventional – solution.  I will try and develop that more in the future.

Welcome any comments, critique and filling in of the many gaps…

Rising casualties in Afghanistan, 1999 – 2018

August 20, 2019

Summary: All credit to the Economist for putting together this very helpful but stark graphic representation.

Explosion targets wedding in western Kabul: over 60 killed 180 injured

August 19, 2019

Summary: A suicide bomb kills and injures over 240 civilians in western Kabul.  Islamic State have claimed the attack.

On the evening of Saturday 17th August a powerful explosion detonated at a wedding ceremony of over 1000 men, women and children in western Kabul.  Thus far, reports suggests that over 60 were killed and 180 injured.  The attack has been described as conducted by a suicide bomber who entered the celebrations.  The Taliban quickly denied responsibility, issuing a statement of condemnation.  On Sunday Islamic State claimed the attack.    Most of the wedding guests were reported to be Shia Muslims.  The wedding hall after the blast


If Islamic State has claimed the attack, it seems reasonable to accept this.  But responsibility for terrorist attacks in Afghanistan is problematic.  Afghan twitter feeds have blamed the Taliban, the Haqqani Network (closely aligned to the Taliban) and Islamic State.  The Afghan government, police and security resources for investigating such attacks are limited and the sites of such major terror attacks are difficult to adequately seal off in order to gather and preserve evidence.  It is therefore difficult to be sure exactly who is responsible for the attack.  There are overlaps between the Taliban, the Haqqani Network and Islamic State.  The Islamic State presence in Afghanistan (sometimes known as ISKP – Islamic State in Khorasan Province) is an opaque quantity, emerging in late 2014 and largely appearing to comprise local insurgent groups, foreign fighters and disgruntled former members of the Taliban.  President Ghani tweeted that the Taliban should none the less bear responsibility.  The Taliban do have a chequered past where it comes to claiming or denying attacks, claiming attacks, only to deny them when the scale of the civilian death toll becomes apparent.  The Taliban do appear in recent years to be avoiding purely civilian targets, or, at least, to ensure that there is some form of military target at the centre of the attack to form a justification.  On 7 August, a Taliban-claimed suicide attack in central Kabul killed 14 and injured 150.  If the target was selected on the basis of religion – a majority of the party-goers reportedly Shia – this adds another layer of factionalism to the atrocity.  Islamic State are believed to specifically target Shia and Hazara groups in an attempt to exacerbate ethnic, religious and factional tensions across the country.




Afghanistan is now the least peaceful country in the world

June 12, 2019

Summary: The Global Peace Index 2019 sees Afghanistan replace Syria as the most violent country.

Image result for global peace index 2019The Global Peace Index 2019, from the Institute for Economics and Peace has released its 13th edition.  It ranks 163 independent states according to their level of peacefulness.  Afghanistan has now succeeded Syria as the least peaceful country on the planet.  Afghanistan reportedly incurred economic cost of violence in 2018 as a percentage of their GDP equivalent to 47 per cent of GDP.  In terms of perceptions of safety, there has been a significant drop – of over 20% – in the population who say they feel safe walking alone at night.  In Afghanistan, drought is also being reported as a key concern.


“South Asia’s score for every indicator in Ongoing Conflict is less peaceful than the global average, with four out of six deteriorating last year. Only deaths from internal conflict improved, with fewer fatalities in Pakistan, Afghanistan and India than the year prior.  However, the number and duration of internal conflicts fought worsened in Afghanistan and Bangladesh… The dramatic increase in conflict deaths to 2014 was concentrated in a handful of countries, with the bulk of this increase being attributable to the war in Syria. There were also significant increases Afghanistan, Iraq, and Yemen.”


“Afghanistan is now the least peaceful country in the world, replacing Syria, which is now the second least peaceful… the number and duration of internal conflicts fought worsened in Afghanistan… In Afghanistan, confidence in the military fell over 31 percentage points in the last five years, which corresponded with a strong deterioration in peacefulness over the same period…. In the past year, Afghanistan had the largest deterioration in confidence in the local police, falling by 32 percentage points….”


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