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Violence levels dip, then rise again

May 25, 2020

Summary: peace efforts increasingly resemble a series of lurches, both forwards and back.

On 22 February 2020, a week-long commitment to reduce violence levels was made by the US, Afghan government and the Taliban, in order to build confidence for US-Taliban talks.[1] This was not a formal ceasefire.  On 29 February, representatives of the US government and the Taliban signed an agreement.  It is not a peace deal between the Afghan government and the Taliban.  It is intended to form the beginning of a process of US troop withdrawal over months and years, concurrently with talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government.  There is a lot of uncertainty.[2]  This is a small segment of an overall peace process that will need to engage with many factions of society.  The Taliban have so far avoided significant direct 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.[3]  It is unclear how the Taliban envisage their future role in society and government, and how (and if) they might reintegrate.  Wider dialogue and reconciliation will pose a major challenge.

“…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.”[4]

 

 

“Spoilers” across the military and political spectrum, for example Islamic State, will attempt to disrupt and destabilise. This may particularly focus on the targeting of religious and ethnic minorities.[9]  But 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]

Since the late February 2020 week-long “Reduction in Violence” agreement by the government and the Taliban to reduce military activities, fighting, which never entirely ceased, has started to increase.[7]  On 7 April 2020, the Taliban walked out of talks with the Afghan government, calling them “fruitless”.[8]The United Nations has warned that civilian deaths are on the rise again.[12] There has been an upsurge in violence, including a terrorist attack on a maternity hospital in Kabul that killed medical personnel, women and babies.  Elsewhere, suicide bombs caused large loss of life in Nangarhar and Ghazni provinces.[13]  Several other smaller explosions and attacks have struck the capital.[14]

“In a news conference in Kabul Monday afternoon, Afghan military and security officials said it looked as if the Taliban had started their spring offensive without the usual formal announcement of an end to the winter lull.

In the joint news conference, Masood Andarabi, acting minister of interior, Ahmad Zia Seraj, NDS chief, and Bismillah Waziri, army chief, said the Taliban have launched more than 3,800 attacks since the signing of U.S- Taliban peace deal in Doha.  The NDS chief said Taliban have recruited many students from Pakistani seminaries after their closure due to COVID-19.

He said their intelligence information shows a closed cooperation between the Taliban, al-Qaeda, Tehreek e Islami Uzbekistan, Tehreek e Turkmenistan Sharqi, and Lashkar-e-Tayba, and fighters from these groups are fighting alongside Taliban.”

Most recently, the United Nations have highlighted the upward creeping of casualties amongst civilians:

UNAMA statement, 19 May 2020: Rising numbers of civilian casualties in Afghanistan, with a disregard for international law aimed at protecting civilians from harm, underscore the urgent need for parties to halt the fighting and to re-focus on starting intra-Afghan peace negotiations.

UNAMA’s latest preliminary figures indicate a trend of escalating civilian casualties in April from operations conducted by both the Taliban and the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). There is also grave concern about levels of violence in the first half of May, including recent attacks claimed by Islamic State-Khorasan Province (ISKP).

The Taliban were responsible for 208 civilian casualties in April, an increase of 25 per cent in comparison to April 2019 and at similar levels as March 2020. Civilian casualties attributed to the ANSF for April 2020 numbered 172 civilians, an increase of 38 per cent compared to April 2019 and 37 per cent higher than March 2020.”

Analysis and Outlook

Continued prisoner exchanges and a three day Eid ceasefire might temporarily cool things and give a chance for peace feelers to reach out again.  But the next 6 to 12 months will be tense.  Expectations, tensions and manoeuvrings regarding the talks will ensure the situation remains fragile.  On top of this – and often lost in the noise of the US/Taliban deal – there is a serious dispute between President Ghani and Dr Abdullah over the results of the Presidential election and the distribution of power within government.[5]  The cracks of this argument over power have been papered over, but could re-emerge at unhelpful moments.  It is very possible – indeed highly likely – that upsurges in fighting will occur as both sides attempt to secure a military advantage to bolster their position in the talks.[6] 

 

[1] ‘Week-long “reduction in violence” starts in Afghanistan, boosting peace hopes’, France 24, 21 Feb. 2020,  https://www.france24.com/en/20200221-week-long-reduction-in-violence-to-start-at-midnight-say-taliban-afghan-officials

[2] Joscelyn, T., ‘No Deal Is Better Than a Bad Deal’, The Dispatch, 4 Mar. 2020, https://vitalinterests.thedispatch.com/p/no-deal-is-better-than-a-bad-deal

[3] ‘Afghan Taliban, US to hold peace talks on Wednesday’, The Week, 8 Jan. 2019, https://www.theweek.in/news/world/2019/01/08/afghan-taliban-us-to-sit-down-to-peace-talks-on-wednesday.html

[4] Khattak, D., ‘The Pitfalls in Afghanistan’s Peace Process’, The Diplomat, 24 Jan. 2020, https://thediplomat.com/2020/01/the-pitfalls-in-afghanistans-peace-process/

[5] Bezhan, F., ‘Kabul Chaos: Afghan Election Dispute Could Spill Over Into Peace Process’, RFE/RL, 26 Feb. 2020, https://www.rferl.org/a/afghan-election-dispute-ghani-abdullah-peace-process/30456566.html

[6] Tanzeem, A., ‘Taliban Spring Offensive Launched, Claim Afghan Officials’, Voice of America, 18 May 2020, https://www.voanews.com/south-central-asia/taliban-spring-offensive-launched-claim-afghan-officials

[7] ‘Voices from the Districts, the Violence Mapped: What has happened since the reduction in violence ended?’, AAN Report, 21 Mar. 2020, https://www.afghanistan-analysts.org/en/reports/war-and-peace/voices-from-the-districts-the-violence-mapped-what-has-happened-since-the-reduction-in-violence-ended/

[8] ‘Afghanistan peace deal: Taliban walk out of “fruitless talks”’, BBC News, 7 Apr. 2020, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-52199398

[9] Foxley, T., ‘ISKP attacking minorities in Afghanistan’, Afghanhindsight report, 25 Mar. 2020, https://afghanhindsight.wordpress.com/2020/03/25/iskp-attacking-minorities-in-afghanistan/

[10] Dobbins, J., et al, ‘US-Taliban Negotiations: How to Avoid Rushing to Failure’, The Atlantic Council, 3 Sep. 2019,  https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/new-atlanticist/us-taliban-negotiations-how-to-avoid-rushing-to-failure

[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,  https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2020/02/19/after-the-us-taliban-deal-what-might-negotiations-between-the-taliban-and-afghan-side-look-like/?utm_campaign=Brookings%20Brief&utm_source=hs_email&utm_medium=email&utm_content=83635291

[12] Gannon, K., and Faiez, R., ‘UN: Civilian deaths by Taliban and Afghan forces on the rise’, Associated Press, 19 May 2020, https://apnews.com/72f2f076abd017c1b58050535d5cedbd

[13] ‘Taliban Suicide Bomber Kills 9 Troops in Eastern Afghanistan’, The New York Times, 18 May 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2020/05/18/world/asia/ap-as-afghanistan.html?auth=login-email&login=email and ’24 killed, 68 wounded as suicide attack targets funeral in Nangarhar province of Afghanistan’, Khaama Press, 12 May 2020, https://www.khaama.com/40-killed-wounded-as-suicide-attack-targets-funeral-in-nangarhar-province-of-afghanistan-07808/

[14] ‘Bomb explosions rock Kabul, 4 injured’, MENAFN – Afghanistan Times, 12 May 2020, https://menafn.com/1100150786/Bomb-explosions-rock-Kabul-4-injured

Will the Taliban announce a Spring Offensive this year?

April 10, 2020

Summary: An annual occurrence, the Taliban’s announcement and naming of their Spring Offensive was an important propaganda event and coincides with an uptick in violence.  Given the peace talk potential this year and the likely departure of American troops, this may not be a good time to announce significant renewed fighting of any sort.  But if they ignore it, could this undermine leadership command and control and the military pressure they need?  What might they do?

Every year since at least 2008, the Taliban commencement of their new Spring Offensive has become a symbolic part of the psychological – and actual – battlefield.  Although in recent years the Taliban never really stop fighting in winter, it roughly delineates the beginning of the fighting “season” when the winter has gone and the weather has improved enough to allow mobility in and through the mountains.  Most years there are a few “spectacular” terrorist attacks immediately after the announcement.

This year, theoretically at least, is very different.  After a week long (and mainly successful) “Reduction in Violence”, a peace deal was signed (29 February) between the Taliban and the US, with the intention of facilitating a phased US military withdrawal.  However inevitably flawed they are turning out to be, Afghans are now in the early stages of negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government.  The situation is changing.

So I am posing the question – will the Taliban announce their Spring Offensive?  They normally announce it in April, although they have announced it once in late March and three times in early May.  It seems like a “no-brainer” that they will not, given the new peace talk developments and the likely withdrawal of the US military presence.  But it was an important symbol – a rallying call that gave encouragement, incentives and guidance.  What would mean if they did?  What would it mean if they did not?  The Taliban need, above all, to keep their fighters together and coherent.  It is important to keep the fighting capability potent, morale high and for them to obey the commands of the leadership.  The Spring Offensive announcement was an annual “pep talk”.  Can they get away with simply saying nothing and not acknowledging the issue?  Some possible options:

The Taliban announce a Spring Offensive

If they announce it, it implies very strongly that the war goes on, and even that they consider the talks to be dead.  Perhaps this might be tied to their recent walk out from negotiations about prisoner release.  This is perhaps unlikely: the talks are at a really early stage, both sides are going to strut and posture, staking out their perceived territory and testing the other side.  Walk outs will be a natural feature of this process.  The talks have not yet really begun, let alone have collapsed.

But there might be a more nuanced declaration – “the Afghan government remains illegitimate and the war continues in the rural areas against the ANA and ANP”.  Which is pretty much what the Taliban are doing.  They want the US to have no reason to stay and to depart as soon as possible.  The battle for physical, territorial control, district by district, of the country is still important.  This could make mass casualty terrorist attacks in Kabul and the provoking and targeting of the international forces a bad idea.

The Taliban do not announce a Spring Offensive

This could suggest that the Taliban have bought into the peace process.

The Taliban “say and do nothing”

This suggests that the Taliban have not thought about it, or do not know what to do.  Or are trying to avoid the issue.  The Taliban are quite media-savvy these days.  It would be a surprise if they did not recognise or acknowledge the issue in some way – if only to explain to their fighters.

The Taliban continue with last year’s “Victory” Spring Offensive or put it on pause for a year

The Taliban have used “Al Faath” (“Victory”) twice now (last year and in 2010) as the title for an annual Spring Offensive.  This could be a “default” option – put it on hold or to leave it as it is, without necessarily drawing strong attention to it.

This post is merely to pose the question.  I do not know what the answer is but will look on with interest.

 

What will America’s legacy be in Afghanistan?

April 7, 2020

Summary: How do you define or judge “legacy” in the context of the Western military intervention in Afghanistan?  Was it invasion or liberation?  Does it simply depend upon who “wins”?  Does it depend upon the actions of the last American president to touch Afghanistan?

Note: This article first appeared on the 9 Dash Line blog on 3 April 2020.

By early 2002, I had been an intelligence analyst in the United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defence for almost ten years.  However, I could muster a mere five months as an Afghanistan analyst when I first set foot in Kabul.  I had scrounged a fleeting familiarisation trip on the back of a British General’s own visit to the British contingent if I promised to act as his “bag carrier”.  The minimalist ISAF international headquarters that, over the years, was to blossom into a huge target-rich environment in the centre of the city, was then run by the Brits, under General John McColl.  As a result we were hosted by him for dinner in one of the dark green military tents (no Wi-Fi-equipped ISO container accommodation, coffee shops or ice-cream machines in those days) spread around the small compound.  Dilapidated former armoured personnel carriers of the former Soviet Union, long since stripped of anything useful, had been pushed against the walls to make space for a new wave of foreign forces.  But was it invasion or liberation?  Perhaps “legacy” is determined by the victors?

General McColl was a charming host.  He told us about a recent social occasion he had presided over, inviting Afghan military commanders to dinner.  If memory serves, with British military humour, it was to commemorate the battle of Gandamak, the last stand of the British Army in Afghanistan during the retreat from Kabul in January 1842.  McColl greeted General Fahim Khan, a notorious Tajik warlord, with an apology.  McColl confessed he felt slightly embarrassed for being in Afghanistan, given that the British Army had invaded Afghanistan on three separate occasions.  Without batting an eyelid, General Fahim put McColl at his ease:

“But that is ok”, he said, “because we beat you every time”.

I wonder whether an ex-Taliban army officer or politician might say something similar to an American ambassador during future anniversary commemorations (battle of Tora Bora? signing of the US/Taliban peace deal?) in the decades to come.   Could legacy be as simple as that?

For the moment, however, we are a long way from such idle speculation.  Afghanistan remains a complex and multi-layered conflict.  The political and security situation is highly volatile and likely to remain so for the next five to ten years.  No one knows how this will end.  Analysis from all directions concurs: the agreement between the Americans and the Taliban is a significant opportunity but large doses of realism are essential.  Not far from anyone’s thinking is the risk of collapse into a multi-factional civil war, such as was seen in the 1990s.  Spoilers, such as Islamic State, and even neighbouring countries, such as Pakistan, may cloud and complicate further.

Asking about America’s legacy fifteen years ago was relatively simple, given the sudden collapse of the Taliban in late 2001.  The goals, albeit mutating through “mission creep”, became the elimination of corruption, reconstruction of the government and military, education, justice, human rights and eradication of poppy.  In a video conference between Kabul and the UK around that time I recall a Foreign Office official bristling and defensive when asked directly by a British general:

“What are we actually trying to do in Afghanistan?”.  The Foreign Office representative was indignant:

“Well, I hardly know where to begin, develop governance, counter-narcotics, security sector reform, democratic elections, a justice system…”.

This list, which we had all learned to recite, was meant to be the legacy.

Assessing the performance of the ISAF mission in assisting with the delivery of this shopping list through the decade and a half of its existence is tricky.  ISAF’s role expanded greatly.  This was sometimes planned, sometimes in response to events and sometimes because particular parts of the coalition wanted to do certain things in certain ways at certain times for their own reasons.  Afghanistan’s leadership, people and outlook also mutated due to the massive (and often poorly thought through) and blunt application of international military, political and financial power.  Theo Farrell’s excellent, forensic, look at Britain’s war in Afghanistan, describes the challenge ultimately as “unwinnable”.  As I reflect back on my nearly twenty years (and counting) of studying Afghanistan, I wonder whether “undefinable” is perhaps a better term.  The ISAF force did, I believe, keep factions from each other’s throats for a useful period of time.  It created a breathing space in which many encouraging foundations were laid – governance, education, elections and so forth.  But these roots were not strong enough to resist the corruption of warlords concurrent with the violence of the Taliban.  Many mistakes were repeated, exacerbated by the continual coming and going of new generations of western personnel.

Was it obvious that the Taliban would resurge in the way they did?  In hindsight, everyone seems to say yes.  I don’t have many telling anecdotes of my time in Afghanistan but I do vividly remember meeting a very senior Afghan politician in around 2003.  Suffice to say he is even more senior now.  He had expounded at length on all the challenges facing the Afghan government – reconstruction, elections, security sector reform.  I pointed out that he had not mentioned the Taliban once in his considerations and asked him why.  He curtly and dismissively waved his hand.

“The Taliban are gone”.

So, this was not just a case of Westerners who misunderstood the complex situation.

The “legacy” now depends very much upon which way a precarious and explosive mix of governments, militaries, insurgents and finances will be blended and poured.  Perversely, some ingredients will in fact be removed.  The Taliban are still in the field and confident.  The American army looks to be retreating, perhaps even taking its money with it.  After the February deal signed between the Taliban and the US government preparing for US military withdrawal, the difficult work of talking (Taliban) Afghan to (Government) Afghan must begin.  It will be harder and take longer (years) and be fraught.  There is little evidence the Taliban are interested in sharing power in a democratic and accountable government process once the Americans depart.  Outbreaks of violence are almost guaranteed and a civil war is a realistic, if horrific, possibility.  At the moment there are still two claimants to the position of Afghan president.  My concern is not so much that the Taliban can militarily seize the country, but that the unstable, corrupt and argumentative factions currently calling itself the Afghan government could spin out of control, transforming back to regional warlords sponsored by outside backers.  Most recently, Barnett Rubin pragmatically and bleakly believes that the long-term economic damage done to the US from the COVID-19 pandemic will cause American funding for Afghanistan to dramatically dry up, reprising the way the Soviet Union’s collapse abruptly curtailed Russian assistance to Najibullah’s regime.  Billions of US dollars are propping up the Afghan army.  The last thing Afghanistan needs is thousands of newly unemployed ex-soldiers roaming the land.

And I fear that the American legacy is going to be shaped by the last American president who touches it.  There is strong potential for the “Trump factor” to confuse, complicate and collapse the situation.  President Trump’s agenda is Trump-centric:  he is in this for personal and domestic political benefit.  Expect an invoice for a Nobel prize once the first US troops start withdrawing in the summer or he achieves a superficial photoshoot with the Taliban.  Trump has no knowledge, interest or patience for Afghanistan.  His loose talk of dropping nuclear weapons on the country was a worrying demonstration of this.  He will demand or engineer a timetable that aligns favourably (for him) with the US elections in November 2020.  This makes him a dangerous and unstable element where calmness, understanding and patience are essential.

If Afghanistan lapses into a multi-factional and multi-sponsored civil war, most of the flawed but real international progress made – women’s rights, human rights, children in schools, election processes, army, police and government reform – could unravel in a handful of years.  This would leave next to no western “legacy” of any sort beyond another few thousand unexploded munitions scattered around the irrigation canals of Helmand.

Islamic State in Afghanistan: future spoiler?

April 2, 2020

Summary: An Islamic State presence – Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP) – developed in Afghanistan from late 2014, based largely on existing Pakistani militant groups, foreign fighters and disenchanted Afghan Taliban.  It has aggressively attacked the international forces, the Afghan government and the Taliban, attempting to gain ground and trigger factional fighting.  Its main area of operations has been eastern Afghanistan, particularly Nangarhar province, but it has launched multiple mass casualty attacks into Kabul and other cities.  It struggled to expand its presence and suffered significant reverses at the hands of the Afghan Taliban and the Afghan government in 2019.  But they have not been defeated and look to be regrouping in eastern Afghanistan and western Pakistan.  ISKP has the potential to be a significant “spoiler” and destabiliser during the coming highly fragile period of US withdrawal and Taliban/Afghan government negotiations.

Background

Major peace developments in Afghanistan over the last few months have been cause for cautious optimism.  On 29 February 2020, a deal – The Agreement For Bringing Peace To Afghanistan – was signed in Doha, Qatar, between the representative for the United States, Zalmai Khalilzad and the representative of the Taliban, Mullah Abdul Ghani Beradar.[1]  The signing followed a one week “reduction in violence”, in which the Taliban, the US military and the Afghan government’s own forces had undertaken to reduce violence levels significantly as a demonstration of good intentions.[2]   Aside from some sporadic outbreaks of violence, this “non-ceasefire” largely held and was the cause of great hope amongst the civil populace and the international community.[3]

The deal signed in Doha paves the way for several progressive steps towards peace – in theory at least.  The United States will start withdrawing its forces over a period of fourteen months.[4]  The Taliban will limit their use of force and agreement to prevent terrorist attacks being launched from Afghanistan.  A prisoner exchange will aim build confidence by releasing 5,000 Taliban prisoners traded for around 1,000 captive Afghan government forces.[5]  Most importantly (and most challenging of all), the intent is that the Taliban and the Afghan government will now start serious face to face negotiations.[6]

Many IS fighters were from Orakzai Agency and had been forced out of Pakistan due to Operation Zarb-e-Azb PHOTO: REUTERSChallenges

Although there is, justifiably, great optimism about the potential for progress, balancing against this, it has been striking to see strong and consistent calls for caution, pragmatism and even pessimism from almost every analytical direction.  Many things can go wrong.[7]  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.[8]

“…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).”[9]

The peace deal has been couched in loose wording to allow flexibility in the negotiations.  Now, this looseness may itself be a cause of disagreements.  At time of writing, there are disputes about the details of the prisoner exchange.  Taliban and Afghan government teams have yet to meet or even agree on a format for meeting.  The Taliban have not renounced Al Qaeda, as was (perhaps naively) hoped.  There have been significant outbursts of violence since the signing.[10]  On top of this, it looks as if two parallel Afghan governments might be forming.[11]

There are many factors that could cause the peace process to derail.  Terror attacks and violence could come from a number of directions.  It is tempting, in terms of the insurgency in Afghanistan, to think purely of Taliban.  But there are many militant terrorist groups operating in and around the country.  Some collaborate, some work independently and others fight against other groups.  One of the most high profile and still potent groups is the Islamic State (IS).  In Afghanistan, the local group of fighters operating in Afghanistan and declaring loyalty to IS is known as the Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP).   Khorasan is the name given to the province of the Islamic State’s intended Caliphate that covers Central Asia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.  The ISKP, although under pressure and suffering reverses in Afghanistan, still have the potential to destabilise the situation in the country.

ISKP origins

A local splinter faction of Al Qaeda, Islamic State emerged from the chaos of the conflict in Iraq from 2003, in the aftermath of the US-led Coalition’s invasion.  The vision was – and still is – to establish an Islamic “Caliphate” covering North Africa, the Mediterranean, Southern Europe, the Middle East and parts of Asia.

The Coming Caliphate: ISIS Maps its Five-to-Ten Year Master Plan ...

In 2014, the then leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced the creation of the Caliphate while it held large areas of Iraq and Syria.  By 2019 this territorial ambition had suffered a serious set of reverses.  But franchise groups were emerging elsewhere.

There were reports of an IS presence in Afghanistan from mid/late 2014.[12]  The then leader, Hafiz Saeed Khan, emerged in video in January 2015.[13]  The main areas of operation were – and largely still are – in the east of the country, in Nangarhar and Kunar.  Bases, weapons and ammunition dumps, training camps and pro-ISKP mosques and madrassas have been established in districts dominated by ISKP.  In 2015, the numbers of fighters under ISKP was assessed by the US military as being in the low thousands, perhaps one to three thousand.  By comparison, and with caveats about the difficulty in getting accurate figures for Afghan insurgent groups, the Taliban judged to have in the region of 40 – 80, 000.  The Afghanistan Analysts Network has cautioned that many reports of ISKP fighters are inaccurate and warned against assuming that the existence of foreign fighters was automatic proof of an ISKP presence.[14]

But there is a mix of nationalities fighting in ISKP.  Many come originally from the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) – the Pakistani Taliban.  Some of these fighters had been in Nangarhar province from 2010, where they were sheltering from Pakistani military pressure on their sanctuaries in western Pakistan.[15]  According to some US military sources, as many as 70% of ISKP fighters are Pakistani in origin, including all the leaders.  There are reportedly many other foreign fighters, including: Chinese, Chechens, Iranians, French, Algerians, Sudanese, and Bangladeshis.[16]   ISKP has been effective at identifying discontent amongst other militant groups and convincing them to change sides.  Many include Afghan Taliban who had, by 2015 and 2016, become disenchanted by the slow military progress of the Afghan Taliban and looked to join an insurgency with a high profile and impressive financial resources.[17]

Taliban seize district in eastern Afghan province - BBC NewsNangarhar as a base

ISKP reject the Taliban and the peace talks.  They have the potential to be a major destabilising force.  Eastern Afghanistan allows them the potential to do this, offering valuable resources and opportunities for insurgent groups.  It borders safe havens in Pakistan.  The Spin Ghar mountain range that forms the southern boundary between Nangarhar province and Pakistan is a tough geographical barrier, difficult for US, Afghan or Pakistani militaries to penetrate.  The Khyber Pass area offers a good smuggling hub for arms, fighters and narcotics.  There are also safe havens in and around the rugged and mountainous Nangarhar itself.  Other militant groups have long-standing transport, communications and infrastructure networks in place, allowing good opportunities for cooperation.[18]

ISKP launched itself into the districts of Nangarhar, subduing large areas, including whole districts.[19]  The force also attempted to project itself further, attempting to establish a presence in Helmand, Ghazni and the north.[20]  ISKP also targeted Shia Muslims and the city of Kabul.  Mass casualty attacks are a major feature of ISKP’s military operations.  ISKP wants to trigger sectarian violence.[21]  Although there are major concerns amongst the Hazara community, sectarian violence of the sort encountered during the civil war of the 1990s has largely been avoided – thus far.  In some parts of eastern Afghanistan there is a complex, three-way conflict involving the Taliban, ISKP and the Afghan government. In Afghanistan, the Taliban Advance

Reverses

Afghan government and American fighting power against ISKP intensified, with US air power a prominent, through sometimes inaccurate, feature.  In 2017 Donald Trump proudly declared that the largest US non-nuclear bomb was dropped against ISKP insurgents in Nangarhar.[22]  By August 2018, four ISKP leaders had been killed.[23]  This had some impact of ISKP fighting power.  However, although the number of attacks that ISKP was able to generate was going down, the lethality – the number of people killed in each attack – was increasing.[24]

ISIS loses more than half its fighters from US airstrikes and ...But ISKP were clearly encountering difficulties.  Their interpretation of Islam was harsh – even by Taliban standards.  ISKP experience local uprisings and resistance in areas that they dominated.[25]  They were very obviously struggling to expand across Afghanistan and develop support and recruitment.

In 2019, a series of military operations against ISKP in Nangarhar saw a collapse in their capabilities.[26]  The scale of the defeat was significant.  The Taliban and the Afghan government both suggested around 600 fighters had surrendered.[27]  Half of these fighters were foreign.  Many surrendered with their families.  The United States and President Ashraf Ghani both declared victory against ISKP.  But this is risky and likely premature.

Prospects

Looking ahead in context of peace talks, ISKP is a rogue and dangerous group that is not part of any process.  They are keen to spoil and disrupt anything that brings stability to the region.[28]  They have suffered major reverses but they still have a presence.  The factors that enabled them to operate in eastern Afghanistan – mountainous terrain, existence of other insurgent groups, closeness to Pakistan, access to smuggling and trafficking routes – are still there.  A suicide bomb or two in Kabul during the peace talks would be easy for IS to achieve and could be very destabilising.[29]

There is much uncertainty about the direction the peace talks might take or whether the discussions will collapse or stagnate.  It is certainly plausible that hard-line elements of the Taliban might reject negotiations and splinter away, looking for more extreme options, such as a collaboration with ISKP.

Arguably, ISKP are in same position as the recently defeated Taliban were in early 2002 – broken and dispirited, but not irretrievably dispersed.  In 2002, the Taliban laid low for months, regrouping, rearming and retraining.  They took advantage of the many safe haven opportunities in western Pakistan.  Then they were ready to return to the fray.[30]

There are reports of ISKP regrouping in Kunar, a rugged Afghan province just to the north of Nangarhar, including with Gulf states funding for madrassas and mosques. [31] It is likely that the ISKP will do what their now deceased leader Baghdadi was advocating in 2019: widen their reach, connect with other insurgent groups and prepare to exhaust the enemy by attrition.  Kabul will remain a high value target for ISKP and its affiliates.  Since the signing of the peace deal between the United States and the Taliban, ISKP have launched attacks, including a handful of rockets launched during the signing in ceremony of President Ashraf Ghani, one of which landed inside the presidential compound.

Out of proportion to their size, ISKP could yet have a negative impact on the peace efforts ongoing.  It is too early to declare ISKP defeated in Afghanistan.

 

[1] ’Afghan conflict: US and Taliban sign deal to end 18-year war’, BBC News, 29 Feb. 2020, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-51689443

[2] Neuman, S., and Hadid, D., ’U.S., Afghanistan And Taliban Announce 7-Day “Reduction In Violence”’, NPR, 21 Feb. 2020, https://www.npr.org/2020/02/21/808029567/u-s-afghanistan-and-taliban-announce-7-day-reduction-in-violence?t=1584359276969

[3] ’United Nations Urges Continuation of Reduced Violence And Welcomes Commitment To Intra-Afghan Negotiations’, UNAMA Press Release, 29 Feb. 2020, https://unama.unmissions.org/united-nations-urges-continuation-reduced-violence-and-welcomes-commitment-intra-afghan-negotiations

[4] Seligman, S., ‘All U.S. troops to withdraw from Afghanistan under peace deal’, Politico, 29 Feb. 2020, https://www.politico.com/news/2020/02/29/taliban-peace-deal-afghanistan-118300

[5] Wolfgang, B., ’U.S. to free 5,000 Taliban fighters, lift sanctions on leaders’, The Washington Times, 1 Mar. 2020, https://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2020/mar/1/us-free-5000-taliban-fighters-lift-sanctions-leade/

[6] Smith, S., ’The U.S.-Taliban Accord: Can the Afghan Government Rise to the Occasion?’, Just Security, 2 Mar. 2020, https://www.justsecurity.org/68937/the-u-s-taliban-accord-can-the-afghan-government-rise-to-the-occasion/

[7] Ruttig, T., ’From Doha to Peace?  Obstacles rising in the way of intra-Afghan talks’, AAN Report, 3 Mar. 2020, https://www.afghanistan-analysts.org/en/reports/war-and-peace/from-doha-to-peace-obstacles-rising-in-the-way-of-intra-afghan-talks/

[8] Dobbins, J., et al, ‘US-Taliban Negotiations: How to Avoid Rushing to Failure’, The Atlantic Council, 3 Sep. 2019,  https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/new-atlanticist/us-taliban-negotiations-how-to-avoid-rushing-to-failure

[9] 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,  https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2020/02/19/after-the-us-taliban-deal-what-might-negotiations-between-the-taliban-and-afghan-side-look-like/?utm_campaign=Brookings%20Brief&utm_source=hs_email&utm_medium=email&utm_content=83635291

[10] ’A peace deal signed.  Then America and the Taliban resume fighting’, The Economist, 5 Mar. 2020, https://www.economist.com/asia/2020/03/05/a-peace-deal-signed-then-america-and-the-taliban-resume-fighting

[11] Qazi, S., ‘Will the Ghani-Abdullah rivalry undermine Afghan peace process?’, Al Jazeera, 9 Mar. 2020, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/02/ghani-abdullah-rivalry-undermine-afghan-peace-process-200221052054522.html

[12] ‘Suspected ISIS (Daesh) commander arrested in Afghanistan’, The Khaama Press, 15 Dec. 2014, https://www.khaama.com/suspected-isis-daesh-commander-arrested-in-afghanistan-9130/

[13] Stancati, M., and Totakhil, H., ’Islamic State Adds to Terror In Afghanistan’, The Wall Street Journal, 11 Jan. 2015, https://www.wsj.com/articles/islamic-state-adds-to-terror-in-afghanistan-1421008584

[14] Osman, B., ‘The Shadows of “Islamic State” in Afghanistan: What threat does it hold?’, AAN Report, 12 Feb. 2015, https://www.afghanistan-analysts.org/en/reports/war-and-peace/the-shadows-of-islamic-state-in-afghanistan-what-threat-does-it-hold/

[15] Osman, B., ‘The Islamic State in “Khorasan”: how it began and where it now stands in Nangarhar’, AAN report, 27 July 2016, https://www.afghanistan-analysts.org/the-islamic-state-in-khorasan-how-it-began-and-where-it-stands-now-in-nangarhar/

[16] Jadoon, A., and Mines, A., ‘Taking Aim: Islamic State Khorasan’s Leadership Losses’, CTC Sentinel, Sep. 2019, https://ctc.usma.edu/taking-aim-islamic-state-khorasans-leadership-losses/

[17] ’Taliban fighters divert to ISIS: NBC News‘, The Khaama Press, 1 Feb. 2015, https://www.khaama.com/taliban-fighters-divert-to-isis-nbc-news-28099/

[18] Osman, B., ‘Descent into chaos: Why did Nangarhar turn into an IS hub?’, AAN Report, 27 Sep. 2016, https://www.afghanistan-analysts.org/en/reports/war-and-peace/descent-into-chaos-why-did-nangarhar-turn-into-an-is-hub/

[19] Mashal, M., ’Afghan ISIS Branch Makes Inroads in Battle Against Taliban’, The New York Times, 13 Oct. 2015, https://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/14/world/asia/afghan-isis-branch-makes-inroads-in-battle-against-taliban.html

[20] ‘Why is northern Afghanistan increasingly unstable?’, Deutsche Welle, 1 Mar. 2017, https://www.dw.com/en/why-is-northern-afghanistan-increasingly-unstable/a-37768779

[21] Dwyer, C., ’At Least 32 Dead After Shooting In Kabul; ISIS Group Claims Responsibility’, NPR, 6 Mar. 2020, https://www.npr.org/2020/03/06/812820310/at-least-27-dead-after-shooting-in-kabul-taliban-denies-responsibility

[22] Cooper, H., and Mashal, M., ‘U.S. Drops “Mother of All Bombs” on ISIS Caves in Afghanistan’, The New York Times, 13 Apr. 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/13/world/asia/moab-mother-of-all-bombs-afghanistan.html

[23] Jadoon, A., and Mines, A., ‘Taking Aim: Islamic State Khorasan’s Leadership Losses’, CTC Sentinel, Sep. 2019, https://ctc.usma.edu/taking-aim-islamic-state-khorasans-leadership-losses/

[24] Jadoon, A., and Mines, A., ‘Taking Aim: Islamic State Khorasan’s Leadership Losses’, CTC Sentinel, Sep. 2019, https://ctc.usma.edu/taking-aim-islamic-state-khorasans-leadership-losses/

[25] Battiston, G., ‘Islamic State’s Lingering Legacy in Afghanistan’, The Diplomat, https://thediplomat.com/2020/02/islamic-states-lingering-legacy-in-afghanistan/

[26] Lawrence, J., ‘Islamic State’s “backbone was broken” in Afghanistan as hundreds surrender, Stars and Stripes, 19 Nov. 2019, https://www.stripes.com/news/middle-east/islamic-state-s-backbone-was-broken-in-afghanistan-as-hundreds-surrender-1.607841

[27] Seldin, J., ‘Islamic State Staggers in Afghanistan, but Survives’, Voice of America, 21 Nov. 2019, https://www.voanews.com/south-central-asia/islamic-state-staggers-afghanistan-survives

[28] Mashal, M., ’As Taliban Talk Peace, ISIS Is Ready to Play the Spoiler in Afghanistan’, The New York Times, 20 Aug. 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/20/world/asia/isis-afghanistan-peace.html

[29] O’Connor, T., ’Afghan President Ghani’s Inauguration Ceremony Rocked By Explosions’, Newsweek, 9 Mar. 2020, https://www.newsweek.com/afghan-president-rocket-fire-interrupt-1491217

[30] Chaman, Z., ‘Taliban forces regrouping for assaults on US troops’, Independent, 26 May 2003, https://www.independent.ie/world-news/asia-pacific/taliban-forces-regrouping-for-assaults-on-us-troops-25948734.html

[31] Seldin, J., ‘Islamic State Staggers in Afghanistan, but Survives’, Voice of America, 21 Nov. 2019, https://www.voanews.com/south-central-asia/islamic-state-staggers-afghanistan-survives and also Glinski, S., ‘In Afghanistan, Religious Schools Are a Breeding Ground for Islamic State Influence’, Foreign Policy, 24 Jan. 2020, https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/01/24/afghanistan-schools-breeding-ground-islamic-state-influence/

ISKP attacking minorities in Afghanistan

March 25, 2020

Summary: Islamic State in Afghanistan has conducted three attacks in Kabul within three weeks.  It is trying to act as “spoiler” to the Afghan govt/Taliban/US government peace efforts.  ISKP is not popular in Afghanistan and its military weakness will see it rely on terrorist attacks.  Ethnic and religious minorities will likely be singled out as Islamic State tries to trigger sectarian violence and instability across the country.  For the moment, the Taliban look to be avoiding mas casualty attacks and targeting international forces.  But the violence continues.

Security personnel arrive at the site of an attack in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Wednesday.It looks as if Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP), the Islamic State group operating inside Afghanistan, is attempting to push itself forward as the “spoiler” during the extremely delicate stage that the Afghan government, the Taliban and the United States have reached.

ISKP has claimed three significant attacks in Kabul after the US/Taliban peace deal was signed on 29 February:

5 March: attack on a Shia Hazara ceremony commemorating the death of Abdul Ali Mazari, killing around 32

9 March: rockets launched during the inauguration ceremony of President Ghani, one landing inside the Presidential compound

25 March: suicide bombers and gunmen attack Sikh place of worship, killing at least 25

ISKP is not party to any peace deal in Afghanistan.  It seems to be trying to disrupt the peace process and inject violent instability.  Of note is that two of these three attacks have specifically targeted minority groups, Sikhs and Hazaras. A collapse into sectarian violence at this time would suit ISKP’s goals.  After significant military reversals at the end of last year, ISKP needs to undermine the Taliban and the Afghan government.

It seems as if the Taliban are now refraining from launching indiscriminate mass casualty attacks and from targeting the US.  But the fighting has not stopped.  Provincial levels operations are still ongoing.  Although statistics of violence levels in a few months time are likely to show violence significantly dropping, the violence has not ended and will remain a tool for the Taliban to signal its intent and resolve.  These trends are likely to continue.   Similarly, expect ISKP to attempt more provocative and destabilising attacks, singling out minorities, such as Hazaras, Sikhs and Hindus.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Summary: Corona = “…impossible to implement peace process”? Bleak assessment from Barnett Rubin on Afghanistan’s prospects

March 23, 2020

Summary:  Barnett Rubin’s assessment that the Corona virus’ is a massive and negative game-changer on the prospects for Afghanistan.  The economic impact of the pandemic on the US risks cancelling all the crucial financial support for Afghanistan at it’s most fragile period.  He believes: “COVID19 in US may have impact on Afghanistan comparable to the collapse of the USSR…It looks increasingly difficult/impossible to implement peace process”…

Image result for afghanistan corona

I came across a Twitter thread from Barnett Rubin last week which really stood out for its grave concern over where Afghanistan might be headed.  It is a short piece, that should be read in full.  Every single sentence is a hammer blow to Afghanistan’s prospects:

Twitter thread, 21st March 2020: “Like most of the world’s political discourse, debate about Afghanistan is stuck in a fast-disappearing past. The COVID pandemic is shifting the context rapidly and disastrously. A few points that I will try to develop further in the coming days.  About 40% of US population (including me) in lockdown (White City as we said in Kabul).  That will increase.  Unemployment may reach 20%. The economy may contract by 25%.  Government will spend a trillion $ or more on domestic relief.  Repercussions will last years, decades.  Under such conditions there would be no continued US commitment to Afgh of bns of $ per year. COVID19 in US may have impact on Afghanistan comparable to the collapse of the USSR. USSR did not abandon Afghanistan. It lost the capacity to make such choices.  In a year cd happen.  It looks increasingly difficult/impossible to implement peace process.  Quick start of intra-Afghan negotiations on ceasefire and transition was key to avoiding breakdown and escalation as are now happening.  Travel restrictions force delays. Every day increases mistrust.  Response to pandemic in Afgh may require US-NATO military logistics not withdrawal.  Withdrawal, war, humanitarian relief are all incompatible with social distancing.  Will COVID spread in military forces?  No social distancing when deployed.  What happens to prison populations?  Pressure cookers for pandemic. All prisoners over 50 should be released immediately.  Need for health considerations to take priority over politics of detention or release.  Loss of aid, military paralysis in pandemic, all risk loss of control over forces on all sides.  Once control disintegrates, agreements are worthless.  US govt, Afgh govt, Taliban are trying to pursue political/military advantages that are becoming increasingly meaningless.  I know it is probably pointless to say this but everyone must declare an unconditional ceasefire and discard all political conditions for cooperation”

The first spoiler attack…

March 6, 2020

Summary: The first spoiler attack in the post-peace deal era…?

In the immediate aftermath of the peace deal signed between the Americans and the Taliban, comes what looks to be the first spoiler attack.  On 6th March, 2020 a terrorist attack was been launched today against civilians and government representatives attending the ceremony commemorating the death of the Shia Hazara leader, Abdul Ali Mazari at the hands of the Taliban in 1995.  This ceremony has been attacked in previous years.

Shooting erupted during the ceremony and went on for several hours.  One report says 27 have been killed and many wounded.

New York Times, 6 March 2020: Mr. Abdullah escaped injury in the attack in Kabul, his aides confirmed. A senior security official said 27 people had been killed. Dawod Danish, head of the main hospital nearby, said 26 bodies and 20 wounded people had been brought to his facility alone.

Shooting was still being heard in the area nearly two hours after the attack began, as security officials said they had cornered the assailants in a nearby building.

Government officials attending included Dr Abdullah Abdullah, who is believed to have survived.

The perpetrators are unknown at present and may remain so.  Many groups (Islamic State, Al Qaeda, hardline Taliban, warlords, TTP, neighbouring countries, etc) might have an interest in disrupting or collapsing what little fragile progress has been made thus far.  The Taliban have denied any involvement.  The government itself is in a bitter internal dispute over who has won the presidential election.

We’ll see – but expect recrimination, rumour, accusation and mis/dis-information in the aftermath.

Peace stumbles, violence resumes…

March 4, 2020

Summary: The reduction in violence week was successful and caused much optimism.  As did the US-Taliban deal, signed on 29 February.  Since then, ambiguity and dispute have clouded this picture.  The Taliban have resumed fighting in some areas, although they appear careful to avoid target Americans

As expected, the US and the Taliban signed the long-awaited peace deal on Saturday 29th February.  Ambiguity and flexibility have likely been key in moving dialogue forward, creating historic levels of optimism and lessening the fighting.  The reduction in violence (RiV) week before that was broadly successful, heightening expectations.  Although there was fighting and casualties,  most accounts suggest a drop in violence of between 80 – 90%.  

Now it seems that the lack of clarity could present stumbling blocks.  In principle, the US is now committed to start withdrawing its soldiers, perhaps 4,000 of its 12,000 troops by around June 2020.  The issue of prisoner exchange is supposed to see 5,000 Taliban fighters swapped for 1,000 Afghan military prisoners.  But it is not entirely clear who decides about the prisoners.  President Ghani has declared that the Afghan government decides.  The Americans seemed to be of the impression that they are the ones to decide this.  The Taliban have resumed fighting – although they currently appear keen to avoid targeting American soldiers.  Ashraf Ghani has pointedly asked the Taliban to set up an office in Afghanistan and quit Pakistan if they really are Afghans.  The Taliban and the Afghan government have yet to start talking.  Even resolving logistics, agenda and participants for these talks looks likely to take a long time.  It will doubtless generate posturing and argument.

Commander of international military forces in Afghanistan, US General Austin Miller, said on 4th March that the peace agreement is fragile.  He also noted that US airpower was operational and ready to support Afghan ground forces as necessary.  The US military has said it has carried out its first airstrike for 11 days, dropping bombs on Taliban forces in Helmand.

Tolo News, 3 March 2020: A fresh spate of violence kicked off in at least seventeen Afghan provinces on Tuesday, a day after the Taliban announced they would resume military operations against the Afghan security forces. The Afghan Ministry of Interior said there were 33 attacks by the Taliban and at least six civilians were killed in the past 24 hours.

Analysis from all directions says essentially the same thing – the agreement between the Americans and the Taliban is a very optimistic and historically significant moment but large doses of caution and pragmatism are essential.  Not far from anyone’s thinking is the risk of a collapse into a multi-faction civil war, such as was seen in the 1990s.  Spoilers, such as Islamic State, and even neighbouring countries, such as Pakistan, may cloud and complicate further.

The new violence does not mean a total collapse in negotiations.  All sides are feeling each other out.  These are the first bumps in a very bumpy long road ahead.   One aspect of the US/Taliban deal that does seem most likely to progress is the American troop withdrawal, largely for US domestic political reasons.  Unless the security situation significantly crumbles by summer, the first stage of the US pull-out should take place.  We should watch to see if the Taliban announce a Spring offensive this year – they usually do this in May.  But the peace process overall depends on Afghans: Taliban, Government, power-brokers and population working things out.  This will take years, with absolutely no guarantee of success.  Violence looks likely to form a regular part of this process.

 

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.

Background

 

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.

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[1] ‘US to send 4,000 more troops to Afghanistan’, Deutsche Welle, 16 June 2017, https://www.dw.com/en/us-to-send-4000-more-troops-to-afghanistan/a-39271721

[2] Jackson, A., ‘Trump Leaves Behind Mess for Afghans to Clean Up’, Foreign Policy, 21 Dec. 2018, https://foreignpolicy.com/2018/12/21/afghanistan-trump-united-states-taliban-conflict/

[3] ‘Afghan peace deal: Trump says Taliban talks are “dead”’, BBC News, 10 Sep. 2019, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-49642655

[4] Gul, A., ‘Trump Suggests Peace Talks With Afghan Taliban Back on Track’, Voice of America, 23 Nov. 2019, https://www.voanews.com/south-central-asia/trump-suggests-peace-talks-afghan-taliban-back-track

[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, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/17/world/asia/afghanistan-peace-american-deaths.html

[6] ‘Afghan Taliban, US to hold peace talks on Wednesday’, The Week, 8 Jan. 2019, https://www.theweek.in/news/world/2019/01/08/afghan-taliban-us-to-sit-down-to-peace-talks-on-wednesday.html

[7] Khattak, D., ‘The Pitfalls in Afghanistan’s Peace Process’, The Diplomat, 24 Jan. 2020, https://thediplomat.com/2020/01/the-pitfalls-in-afghanistans-peace-process/

[8] Bolton, A., ‘U.S. combat deaths in Afghanistan highest in years’, The Hill, 1 Jan. 2020, https://thehill.com/policy/defense/476461-us-combat-deaths-in-afghanistan-highest-in-years  and ‘Afghanistan: US and Afghan soldiers killed in attack’, BBC News, 9 Feb. 2020, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-51430867

[9] ‘Taliban Attack In Northern Afghanistan Kills At Least 13’, RFE/RL, 29 Jan. 2020, https://www.rferl.org/a/taliban-attack-in-northern-afghanistan-kills-at-least-13/30403883.html

[10] Dobbins, J., et al, ‘US-Taliban Negotiations: How to Avoid Rushing to Failure’, The Atlantic Council, 3 Sep. 2019,  https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/new-atlanticist/us-taliban-negotiations-how-to-avoid-rushing-to-failure

[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,  https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2020/02/19/after-the-us-taliban-deal-what-might-negotiations-between-the-taliban-and-afghan-side-look-like/?utm_campaign=Brookings%20Brief&utm_source=hs_email&utm_medium=email&utm_content=83635291

[12] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/18/world/asia/afghanistan-election-ashraf-ghani.html

[13] https://www.france24.com/en/20200218-afghan-election-challenger-abdullah-declares-himself-president-announces-parallel-government

[14] https://www.khaama.com/dostum-endorses-abdullahs-stance-regarding-elections-urges-supporters-not-remain-silent-04466/

[15] https://www.usip.org/publications/2018/07/hezb-e-islami-peace-and-integration-afghan-security-forces

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.

 

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