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Thomas Barfield – CFA talk, 22 March 2021

March 29, 2021

It is always interesting to hear the thoughts of Thomas Barfield, one of the leading Western experts on Afghanistan and author of “Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History”.  He spoke via Zoom conference organised by the UK Conservative Friends of Afghanistan group on 22 March.  These are my notes of his talk, slightly reordered into themes.

History

There have been many different regime types in Afghanistan: in the last 40 years there has been a cycle of falling governments and rising insurgencies.

Foreigners enter Afghanistan for their own reasons and Afghanistan has never successfully been colonised.  The British Raj had no interest in Afghanistan per se, but for its own defence of the British Empire, for use as a buffer state with no need to colonise it

In Afghan history the greatest period of violence was during the time of the Amir Abdur Rahman, during the late 1880s to 1890s.  During King Amanullah’s time in 1929 there was a brief period of civil war but no long term insurgency – in a fifty year period from then there were no insurgencies in Afghanistan, largely because the government was careful not to overreach

Soviet intervention in Afghanistan in the 1980s.  Having an international sponsor makes it hard for the rebels to topple the government

In 1992 there were two choices as the Najibullah regime was collapsing – Massoud, who was actually in country and fighting or the group of 7 party leaders from Pakistan.  The wrong decision was made – a group of 7 leaders came from Pakistan and seized power.

The 2001 US intervention

The US was trying to rebuild Afghanistan in its own image, with the help of some particular groups in Afghanistan.  If the international community goes, does the money go as well?  The Afghan regime cannot survive the loss of international aid

The US did not go into Afghanistan to fight the Taliban – Al Qaeda were the terrorists, the Taliban were not.  The US could have reconciled with the Taliban but the US has a “with us or against us” mentality.  The US did go into Afghanistan to build, but, over time, Afghanistan became a different project.

In 2001 the US could have created a stable Afghanistan but did not recognise that the war was over.  In 2002-03 it was very safe to travel.  An opportunity was lost – it was not inevitable that an insurgency would be created, governments and external sponsors made it happen

Iraq lost its sovereignty when the US invaded, Afghanistan did not (the Northern Alliance liberated Kabul).  At the Bonn conference the US did not claim to be the rulers of Afghanistan – Afghanistan could have told the Americans to get lost.

Political situation

The new Afghan constitution is the 1964 revamped, with the word “King” removed and “President” inserted.  It is fit for a tyrant or a monarch.  The president can appoint any provincial governor – the local people have no say.  In the 20th century, all Afghanistan’s leaders have either been overthrown or assassinated.  But, unlike the Balkans, no ethnic leader has threatened to seek independence – Afghanistan is not likely to break up.

Afghanistan has never had a census – the Pushtuns claim a majority, but who knows?  All ethnic groups claim they are twice their actual size and so everyone claims they are being “cheated” if they lose government positions in aid of balance and equality.  In the absence of facts from a census, every group makes claims.  But each ethnic group has a majority in one area.  Barfield favours the idea of an Afghan federation, with 4 or 5 regions rather than running at the provincial level – you should not run everything from Kabul

Afghanistan is rich in resources, but foreign interference needs to cease.

Afghanistan allows the recognition of political parties but follows leaders or ethnic groups.  How can parliament be reorganised?  In 2001, liberal “statebuilding” has created a highly centralised government (the Amir Abdur Rahman would have been proud!).  Ought to separate the “administration” – courts, police, bureaucracy – from policy.  Afghanistan’s leaders are never chosen by a Loya Jirga

Afghanistan is not a liberal state, it is an autocratic one.  There are no institutions that can intervene to protect – Kabul politics is national politics.  A change to the ways in which power is distributed is necessary.

The Taliban

It is not clear who the Taliban are now.  Some want the Islamic Emirate back.  Today the Taliban have a robust media structure and are more nationalist.  The violence is overwhelmingly Afghan killing Afghan – is this still a legitimate jihad?  The Taliban are also present in the north and the west.  Is the Taliban a unitary force – who are we negotiating with?  Who do the Taliban representatives in Doha actually represent?  This is a proxy war with the Taliban as a proxy of Pakistan.  While Afghans have the capacity to reconcile amongst themselves, the US is negotiating with a Pakistan proxy insurgency

The Taliban’s problem now is that they have been out of Afghanistan for many years – the Afghanistan they remember from 2001 has long gone.  The population is very young, communications networks and education are very extensive now, there are few Taliban who are prone to compromise or who even understand the current problems in Afghanistan.  If the Taliban alienate the international community, they will be back in the same desperate situation as they were in 2001

Pakistan’s role in supporting the Taliban

Pakistan’s role – 30 years of support for the Taliban (and ISI support to the Mujahideen, with the US and Saudi)

Post-2001, the US did not recognise that Pakistan was actually a belligerent.  Pakistan was a nuclear power with a population of 180 million and a long tradition as a US ally.  In dealing with Afghanistan, particularly in the 80s, the US tended to ask/defer to Pakistan.  Afghanistan as “Pakistan’s 5th province”.  In the 1990s, Kandahar even had a Pakistan area code

Prospects for talks and the future

It was a mistake at Bonn not to incorporate the Taliban

The issue of dealing with the Taliban needs to be internationalised: China and others need to be involved – the neighbours, Iran, Russia… There are many good reasons for the neighbours to seek stability in Afghanistan, even they do not like the US

Federalism – there is a need to devolve power – don’t focus on the provinces, focus on the regions: policies that may work in Kandahar may not work in Mazar… If the Taliban are popular in the south then let them run for election.  The problem at the moment is that everything is zero sum.  Are the Taliban now more willing to accept foreign aid (in the 1990s it was the UN that fed Kabul, not the Taliban).  But while the Taliban may now recognise that they need international aid, will American Congressmen sign off millions of dollars once the Taliban start closing down girl’s schools?  The Taliban’s best ally is Pakistan and Pakistan is broke (i.e. if you are going to pick patrons, pick one that isn’t broke…)

Prospects for the Turkish Summit – it won’t work.  This is not a Bonn 2001 situation, wrapping up a war.  It needs to be much more multi-lateral.  It needs an accord amongst rival states: UDS, China, Russia…  It needs the UN and also the EU (there are more EU troops in Afghanistan than American).  Europe is much better at getting disputing factions somewhere where the ground is neutral (ie maybe Norway instead of Doha or Moscow…?).  And the UK also.  Mediation should not be done by the US and Khalilzad, it needs someone from the UN to broker a deal – need to stop outside interference, the US is too bilateral. 

Tim comments:

A couple of points that occur to me from this very useful talk:

The role of hindsight: I increasingly find myself wondering about the role hindsight is playing when I hear expressions like: “it was a mistake not to bring the Taliban in at the Bonn Conference”, “the US could have reconciled with the Taliban” and “in 2001 the US could have created a stable Afghanistan but did not recognise that the war was over…An opportunity was lost”.  It seems to me to be equally plausible that if the Taliban had been brought to the table and been given government roles at Bonn in a power-sharing arrangement with the Northern Alliance and the international military presence never established itself in Afghanistan in 2002 (with the US rushing into Iraq), the civil war could have resumed again 12 months later.  That period of time – 2001-2003 was still all about warlords, foreign influence and authoritarian grabs for power in an unstable and swirling environment. Would Pakistan have learnt any lesson about not interfering in Afghanistan if there was no ISAF?

Role of Pakistan: It was noticeable that Barfield points the finger very clearly at the Taliban’s relationship with Pakistan – Pakistan using the Taliban to fight a proxy war in Afghanistan. 

The prospects for the future: Mr Barfield makes some important comments about what is needed to “solve” Afghanistan. 

  • Afghanistan is rich in resources, but foreign interference needs to cease.
  • The peace process needs to be much more multi-lateral.  It needs an accord amongst rival states: US, China, Russia… 
  • Pakistan needs to stop using the Taliban as a proxy for its own agenda in Afghanistan
  • Federalism – there is a need to devolve power from Kabul
  • Afghanistan is not a liberal state, it is an autocratic one.  There are no institutions that can intervene to protect – Kabul politics is national politics.  A change to the ways in which power is distributed is necessary.

These points are hard to disagree with.  But, in terms of successful implementation, achieving these goals seem either very unlikely, exceptionally difficult (a lot of working parts need to be working in the right directions) or still at some point 30, 40 or fifty years into the future. 

UN Security Council report – more bleak reading…

March 26, 2021

UN Security Council Report A/75/811-S/2021/252, dated 12 Mar. 2021

The United Nations Security Council published its regular update on the security situation in Afghanistan: The Situation in Afghanistan and its implications for international peace and security.  It addresses UN activities in Afghanistan, including political, humanitarian, development and human rights issues.

As ever, there some pretty stark pieces of information within the document.  Security incidents in 2020 were at an all-time high, including increased amount of targeted killings.  Humanitarian needs were also at a record high due to security situation, natural disasters and food insecurity.

Security situation

The year 2020 saw a record number of incidents – 25,180.  This is a ten per cent increase from 2019 (22,832).  This is the highest level since UN began recording in 2007.  The number of air strikes have declined by 44% but armed clashes rose by 18%.  IED detonations rose by 32% and assassinations by 27%.

The period from November 2020 to February 2021 saw a 47% increase in security-related incidents compared to the same period a year earlier.  Anti-Government Elements (AGEs – meaning primarily the Taliban but also other groups, including Islamic State, Al Qaeda, the Haqqani Network and other smaller groups) caused 86% of all incidents.  Most of the incidents in the south, followed by the east and north – Helmand and Kandahar in the south, Nangarhar in the east and Balkh in the north together account for 69% of all incidents.

In Kabul city there were 35 suicide attacks between Nov 2020 and Feb 2021 (42 at the same period a year earlier).

There have been no significant territorial advances gains by any side.  The Taliban maintains pressure on the transport routes and urban centres – particularly vulnerable provincial capitals Kunduz, Farah, Helmand and Kandahar. 

Contrary to positive statements about the demise of Islamic State from the US and Afghan governments last year, Islamic State’s presence increased: 25 attacks were recorded, compared to 11 at same time last period (9 Dec 2020).  The main areas of operation were in eastern Afghanistan, in Nangarhar, Kunar and Laghman.  Islamic State conducted two rocket attacks against Kabul city.

Human Rights

There were 8,820 civilian casualties in 2020.  This represents a 13% decrease from 2019, primarily because there were fewer casualties from suicide bomb attacks and airstrikes.  But there has bene an increase casualties from targeted killings, IEDs and airstrikes in last quarter of 2020.  The last quarter of 2020 saw a 45% increase in civilian casualties compared to last quarter of 2019.

There continue to be serious casualties inflicted against children – last quarter of 2020 saw 837 “grave violations”.  In addition, the UN verified the recruitment and use of 33 boys, 25 by the Taliban and 8 by pro-government militia, as well as the abduction of 12 children by the Taliban and 1 by government militia.

There were 17 attacks on schools (a decrease from 25 in 3rd quarter of 2020), but atacks on hospitals tripled.  There were 39 verified attacks – against 13 in 3rd quarter

86 cases of violence against women were recorded from Nov 2020 to Jan 2021

Torture and ill-treatment

A 3 Feb 6th UNAMA report based on 656 interviews with those suspected of security and terrorism-related offences concluded that torture allegations are prevalent and that there was a “widespread disregard for the procedural rights of detainees”.

There were increasing security threats against human rights activists and journalists by targeted killings.

Humanitarian assistance

Humanitarian needs continue to rise because of the three main factors: the violence levels, natural disasters and growing food insecurity.  All of these problems are exacerbated by the COVID pandemic.  Approximately 18.4 million people need humanitarian assistance in 2021 (this is an increase from 9.4 million in beginning of 2020). 

COVID pandemic – 55,000 are confirmed to have contracted, but the number is likely to be much higher.  Patients are not receiving basic health services, the system overwhelmed and many stay away from health facilities through fear of contracting the virus.  Polio cases increasing – 56 in 2020, 29 in 2019 – polio has now spread to 14 provinces, indicating a declining immunity in the population.

There are significant levels of food insecurity.  In March 2021 16.9 million – a little under half of the population of Afghanistan – are assessed to be at “crisis” or “emergency” levels – 5.5 million of whom are at emergency levels of food insecurity.  This is the second highest number in the world.  Half of the children under five years old will face malnutrition in 2021.  The already poor food situation could worsen – there is likelihood of low rainfall and high temperatures from La Nina weather conditons.

In 2020 the highest annual number of undocumented returnees arrived back in Afghanistan.  Of 870,000 in total, 860,000 came back from due to COVID, related restrictions, limited access to health care and deteriorating economic circumstances.  In 2020, 400,000 Afghans were displaced by the conflict inside the country.  The UN notes that the 2020 Humanitarian Response Plan was only 49% funded by the end of 2020, leaving a shortfall of $573 million.

UN observations

This is all pretty bleak reading.  The document records a lot of the politics – Doha, talks with the Taliban, international discussions, government reorganisations without any significant comment.  The Taliban’s failure to include any women in their negotiating team is commented upon:

“…a Taliban spokesperson justified the absence of women from the Taliban negotiating team by arguing that women did not fight in the war.”

Some selected quotes from the UN Secretary General at the end of this paper. 

“outraged” by targeted killings,

“worsening security situation is of deep concern”,

“civilians continue to bear the brunt of the conflict”,

“the peace process has not yet improved conditions for Afghan civilians”

“UNAMA documenting an increase in civilian casualties since the start of the Afghanistan peace negotiations”

“deeply disturbed by the allegations of torture and ill-treatment Afghan detention facilities”

Long way to go.

Rise of militias and warlords: northern Afghanistan

February 4, 2021

An interesting and concerning article from the New York Times today highlighting a lot of what is wrong with the security situation inside Afghanistan.  With a dominant and aggressive Taliban presence, local security forces are eroding away and being replaced with lower grade personnel with little or no direct connection to the Afghan governance. Recruits are often tricked to join, with promises of construction work.  Minimal training, minimal – if any – pay and no support if they are injured.  Local warlords – often also possessing military or political titles as well – organise these unofficial groups, often pocketing the difference in salaries between the “official” total of forces they declare as under their command and the “real” total of troops – normally fewer in number and less well paid.

NYT, 4 February 2021: A network of shadowy power brokers and warlords, bankrolled by the Afghan government and the national police force, is luring disadvantaged people into joining militias, sometimes under false pretenses, out of a growing desperation to hold territory around highways in the country’s north, according to former militia members and local officials.

These key arteries, which are the few means of road travel between the provinces, have increasingly become the front line for an emboldened Taliban insurgency. To protect them, local officials in Balkh Province are manning highway outposts with often untrained Afghans, who are given little more than a rifle and the promise of a paycheck if they survive. Others have been offered construction jobs, only to arrive and realize there is no repair work to be done.

The militia members are dropped in areas too dangerous to flee and only picked up weeks or months later, dead or alive.

The crooked recruitment practice is the latest indication that Afghanistan’s security forces have been hollowed out by degrading morale and poor recruitment as Taliban attacks continue at an unrelenting pace across the country.

It also signals a resurgence of warlordism, a distinct echo of a past civil war when the country was fractured into territories ruled over by strongmen and a disturbing warning of where the country’s future may lead as peace negotiations in Qatar stall and a possible complete American withdrawal is just months away…

…In July 2020, Sayid Jawad, a resident of Balkh, thought he had been hired to rebuild a government outpost destroyed by Taliban attacks for $150 a month, the kind of money he hadn’t earned in a long time.

At the base roughly 15 miles from his home in Mazar-i-Sharif, Mr. Jawad, 27, soon realized there was nothing in need of repair. A day later, he was handed a Kalashnikov and received a simple order over the radio from the district governor: Fight or die.

Afghanistan: Prospects for 2021

January 14, 2021

Summary: Progress with talks will be limited, the fighting will continue.

I have encountered – and, hands up, often used – more or less every analytical cliché in relation to Afghanistan over two decades of study.  Progress has been made but challenges remain.  Afghanistan is not Switzerland.  This is likely to be a critical yearThe Taliban is not a monolith.  There is a real risk of civil war.  The country is at a tipping point.  Actually, to be fair, I don’t think I have ever used the “tipping point” expression: it was well worn-out, even fifteen years ago.  Oops, apparently I have done.  I dimly recall The Economist writing some years back something along the lines of how the metaphors we choose can distort how we frame a problem, impairing analysis and solutions.  I suspect the same applies to cliche.  I am aware of the analytical risks and agonize every time I mention civil war. 

But it is necessary to return to the big box of clichés at least once a year.  It is difficult to be optimistic about the coming year.  The Taliban remain militarily strong and confidently await the total withdrawal of US armed forces from the country, currently scheduled for 1 May 2021.  As such, they are likely to draw out the Doha talks – there is little beyond discussion over protocols and format at present – until this happens.  They have not suffered any political or military consequences from their positioning.  The Afghan government is struggling to assert itself on the battlefield and, politically, remains fragmented, corrupt and dependent upon the funding and support of the international community. 

America has been an unreliable and unpredictable partner of the Afghan government since Donald Trump became president.  The US is now greatly distracted by its own domestic turmoil, created as Trump leaves office, kicking and screaming.  Some measure of post-Trump coherence in US policy towards Afghanistan is likely to return in 2021.  But the US military disengagement from Afghanistan is still likely under a Biden administration. Joe Biden has in the past been known to favour retaining a small US Counter Terrorist capability in Afghanistan.  However, to the Taliban this would constitute a breach of the February 2020 Doha agreement and would likely trigger an increase in violence.  The options facing the Biden administration seem to fall into two main categories: “plans-based” – stick to the withdrawal agreement and pull out by May, or “conditions-based” – retain/enhance a US military force in-country as leverage until the Taliban come good and reduce the levels of violence.  Barnett Rubin seems to favour a bit of both: a six month extension to compensate for the wasted six months before the Taliban and the Afghan government finally began talking last September, before the US then finally pulls out.  There is a very helpful tweet linked here from Asfandyar Mir, summarising the range of opinions, options and debate on the US way ahead in Afghanistan.

Have the Taliban changed?

“The Taliban have not changed,” said Abdul Hafiz Mansour, a member of the government negotiating team. “They are eager for power, but they have no plans or policies, no ability to run a country. They are a fighting army, not a governing group. They know how to destroy but not to build.”

I still think this is about right.  The Taliban remain deliberately hazy about how they would approach government and how/if they envisage working as a political entity inside Afghanistan.  How might their district by district “war economy” approach to rule work on the national and international stage?  Do they integrate?  Do they insist upon large shares in government, perhaps particular ministries?  Does the Afghan government bankrupt itself further by reintegrating tens of thousands of Taliban fighters into the armed forces or paying pensions to Taliban commanders?  Should there be an  “interim government”?  What would an “interim government” even mean, bearing in mind there are many opportunistic powerbrokers (Hekmatyar for one) who would be more than happy to see an overturning of the current political order if it meant their own personal advancement, even if it meant improper and cynical trade-offs with the Taliban? 

The Taliban’s confidence and victories on the battlefield is inversely proportional to their willingness to compromise on matters of the constitution, governance, society, economy and human/women’s rights.  Across large areas of Afghanistan, the Taliban are increasing their efforts to dominate and interdict major routes.  Hundreds of IEDs are planted, some roads are being torn up and checkpoints are proliferating.  Commercial traffic on the roads are being taxed by armed Taliban gunmen.  The Taliban are reportedly able to spend much more time stopping, questioning and detaining travellers now they are no longer subject to intensive air strikes and US military intervention.  It is superficially positive that the Taliban are not conducting as many mass casualty terror incidents as before (this is left to Islamic State).  But a new tactic is that of deniable targeted assassination: journalists, military and political officials, civil activists and others are being killed.  In so doing, stability is further undermined and the Taliban are slowly removing people that might pose resistance to a Taliban regime in the future.  Civil society is being corroded.

2021 will see little progress in talks and such talks as there are will reveal how differently the Taliban and the Afghan government understand and envisage “integration”.  The battlefield – rural and urban – will remain a bloody backdrop.  This still feels like a very slow slide towards civil war.  I hope to be proved wrong.

Trump tweet: more confused than ever

October 8, 2020

Summary: President Donald Trump sends out a tweet saying that US forces should all come home by Xmas, as opposed to the understood strategy of withdrawing next year. Sigh.

Just flagging this confused, confusing and highly unhelpful tweet from Donald Trump:

In theory (this week at least), the US are planning to pull out their remaining forces next year. It presents the usual dilemmas with regard to this American President (and this one alone):

Is it policy or his medication?

Does he know what he is talking about?

Will he have tweeted something that overrules or contradicts this in the coming hours/days?

Did he consult anyone with Afghanistan knowledge amongst his advisors?

Does he know how much the Taliban will love this statement?

Does he care?

Trump’s interest in Afghanistan is simple: he will use the conflict in the country to help his election prospects. If it cannot contribute to that then he does not care about the country’s fate.

Kabul security situation

September 9, 2020

Summary: A bomb attack attempted to kill Amrullah Saleh, First Vice President of Afghanistan. While the attack failed in its goal, at least ten were killed and many injured.  Saleh survived a suicide bomb blast in July 2019.   Regular terror attacks continue to strike the capital, although gathering data on numbers of attacks and casualties is not easy and it is also difficult to attribute attacks to different groups amidst a routine flow of claims, counter-claims and denials from the main terrorist groups.  The nature of attacks looks to be shifting – there are fewer large-scale indiscriminate attacks and many smaller attacks, intended to target government and military individuals.  It is likely that some attacks are intended to influence or disrupt Taliban-Government peace talks.

On Wednesday 9 September 2020, an explosion struck the convoy of vehicles belonging to Amrullah Saleh, the former Afghan government intelligence chief and now First Vice President.  The vehicles were moving inside Kabul city.  Details are still unclear, but it appears as if a dozen civilian bystanders and government officials have been killed and many more injured.  Saleh himself suffered minor injuries.  In July 2019, Saleh had also been attacked, by a suicide bomber, in his office in Kabul.Saleh: escaped with minor injuries

Regular terror attacks strike the capital, although gathering data on numbers of attacks and casualties is not easy and it is also difficult to attribute attacks to different groups amidst a routine flow of claims, counter-claims and denials from the main terrorist groups.

UNAMA noted in October 2019 that “Civilians living in the provinces of Kabul, Nangarhar, Helmand, Ghazni and Faryab were most directly impacted by the conflict (in that order)”.[1]  Kabul province continued to suffer from a high rate of civilian casualties in 2019:[2]

There are risks from indiscriminate violence in Kabul and the security situation remains poor.  The city was regularly hit by large-scale indiscriminate terrorist attacks throughout 2019 – as it was in 2018 and the years before that.

Kabul city is a favoured area of operation for the insurgents as it provides high profile media publicity and is a “target-rich” environment.[3]  Many attacks have struck the capital throughout the years, conducted primarily by three separate insurgent groups: the Taliban, Islamic State and the Haqqani Network (a smaller insurgent group loyal to the Taliban).  Each attack can cause dozens and even hundreds of dead and wounded. The city centre is generally the main location for attacks, including public areas, such as markets and mosques.[4]  In the last few months, the trend of attacks looks to be shifting: there are fewer larger scale indiscriminate attacks and more focused attacks against specific individuals.  This could well be the result of the Taliban and the Afghan government’s proximity to talks.

Here is a non-exhaustive summary of some of the main incidents from 2020 thus far.

On 11 February 2020, a suicide attack targeted a military academy in Kabul, killing at least five.[5]  On 6 March 2020, a terrorist attack targeted an open air ceremony attended by many government officials, including Afghanistan’s CEO, Dr Abdullah.  Twenty seven people were reported killed and fifty five injured.[6]  On 9 March, during the swearing-in ceremony of President Ashraf Ghani, several rockets landed in and around the area.[7]  On 25 March, suicide bombers and gunmen attack targeted a Sikh place of worship, killing around 25 after six hours of fighting.[8]  On 29 April, a suicide bomber attacked an Afghan Special Forces base in the southern part of the city, killing three civilians and wounding 15.[9]

Two explosions hit Kabul on 7 May, with no casualties.[10] Four explosions in and around the capital detonated within a space of 90 minutes on 11 May.  No casualties were reported.[11]  On 12 May a major attack on a hospital in Kabul took place.  Protracted fighting took place as government security forces attempt to deal with armed gunmen.  Much of the fighting took place in and around the maternity wing.  Women, nurses and babies died in the attack.  One hundred women and children were evacuated during the fighting.  The attackers were dressed in police uniforms.  The Taliban denied responsibility.  It is very plausible that Islamic State were behind the attack.[12]  Three magnetic bombs detonated on 18 May, injuring five.[13]  On 30 May, Islamic State claimed a bomb attack on a Kabul radio station that killed a journalist and a technician, and injured seven others.[14]  On 2 June a bomb inside a mosque in Kabul killed a senior religious figure.[15]  A further attack on another Kabul mosque on 12 June killed four and wounded eight, including the mosque’s prayer leader.[16]  On 27 June two staff of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission were killed in a car bomb attack.[17]  In a twenty-four hour period over 9 and 10 August, two explosions struck Kabul, killing or wounding at least nine people in total.[18]  On 18 August, multiple rockets landed inside Kabul, during a celebration of independence day.[19]  On 22 August, the New York Times reported:

 

“Three magnetic bombs went off within one hour on Saturday morning, and at least two more targeted attacks followed before the end of the day.”[20]

On 23 August, Afghan President Ghani sacked the Kabul police chief because of a failure to improve the security situation and the increase in attacks in and around the capital.[21]  There is a growing sense that the situation is getting worse in Kabul:

“Mornings in the city begin with ‘sticky bombs,’ explosives slapped onto vehicles that go up in flames. With night comes the dread of hit-and-run assassinations in the nearby suburbs — government employees shot dead by motorcycle-riding insurgents who roam free.

As peace talks to end Afghanistan’s long war face delays, the Taliban may be sparing Kabul, the capital, from mass-casualty attacks as part of an understanding with the United States. But the insurgents have instead shifted to a tactic that is eroding the Afghan government’s standing with each passing day: frequent targeted assaults that the country’s security forces seem unable to control.

The city has taken on an air of slow-creeping siege.

At least 17 small explosions and assassinations have been carried out in Kabul in the past week, according to a tally by The New York Times.”[22]

It remains difficult to attribute particular attacks, but it is likely that the bulk of these attacks are initiated by the Taliban and the Haqqani Network who have extensive intelligence and terror networks in the capital.  Larger, more indiscriminate attacks are plausibly being undertaken by Islamic State and other smaller spoiler groups.  The picture will remain unclear – there are network overlaps between the Taliban, the Haqqani Network and Islamic State, permitting “deniability” as necessary.  Some of these attacks will be timed to coincide with developments in the peace talks, others will be working to undermine the talks or to longer-term or separate agendas.  Others still will be uncoordinated entirely.  The trend of smaller explosions is likely to continue – they allow the Taliban to put pressure on the Afghan government without bringing down excessive popular and international condemnation.   Larger incidents are more likely to be the work of Islamic State and smaller splinter groups looking to spoil talks and contribute to their preferred goal of greater instability across the country.

[1] ‘Quarterly Report on the Protection of civilians in armed conflict: 1 January to 30 September 2019’, UNAMA, 17 Oct.  2019, https://unama.unmissions.org/protection-of-civilians-reports, pp.1-2.

[2] ‘Afghanistan: Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict’, UNAMA, Feb. 2020, p.iii, https://unama.unmissions.org/protection-of-civilians-reports

[3] ‘At Least 14 Killed, 145 Wounded In Taliban Car Bombing In Kabul’, RFE/RL, 7 Aug. 2019, https://www.rferl.org/a/afghanistan-kabul-car-bomb-oolice-station-dozens-injured/30097013.html

[4] ‘Afghanistan: Dozens killed in bomb and gun attack on Shia mosque’, Al Jazeera, 3 Aug. 2018, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2018/08/suicide-bombers-target-shia-mosque-eastern-afghanistan-180803104926634.html

[5] ‘Afghanistan: Suicide attack in Kabul kills several’, Al Jazeera, 11 Feb. 2020, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/02/kabul-hit-suicide-attack-casualties-feared-reports-200211041316764.html

[6] ‘Kabul attack: Abdullah Abdullah escapes deadly attack’, BBC News, 6 Marc. 2020, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-51766602

[7] Mashal, M., Faizi, F., and Rahim, N., ‘Ghani Takes Oath of Afghan President.  His Rival Does, Too’,  The New York Times, 9 Mar. 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/09/world/asia/afghanistan-president-inauguration-ghani-abdullah-.html

[8] Abed, F., ‘Gunmen Storm Sikh Complex in Kabul, Killing 25’, The New York Times, 25 Mar. 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/25/world/asia/afghanistan-sikh-kabul.html

[9] ‘Afghan Officials: Suicide Bomber Kills 3 Civilians in Kabul’, The New York Times, 29 Apr. 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2020/04/29/world/asia/ap-as-afghanistan.html?auth=login-email&login=email

[10] ‘Afghan Official says 2 explosions rock Kabul; no injuries’, Star Tribune, 7 May, 2020, https://www.startribune.com/afghan-official-says-2-explosions-rock-kabul-no-injuries/570279762/

[11] ‘Afghanistan: 4 explosions in Tahia Maskan area in Kabul’, India TV News, 11 May 2020, https://www.indiatvnews.com/news/world/afghanistan-explosions-tahia-maskan-area-kabul-616165

[12] ‘Afghan attack: Babies killed as gunmen storm maternity ward’, BBC News, 12 May 2020, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-52631071

[13] Twitter account of 1 TV News AF, 18 May 2020, https://twitter.com/1TVNewsAF/status/1262371316310716416

[14] ‘Islamic State Claims Blast That Killed Afghan Journalist, Technician’, RFE/RL, 31 May 2020, https://www.rferl.org/a/islamic-state-claims-blast-that-killed-afghan-journalist-technician/30644218.html

[15] ‘Afghanistan: Two killed in bomb attack inside Kabul mosque’, Al Jazeera, 2 June 2020, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/06/wounded-suicide-attack-kabul-mosque-200602160137783.html

[16] ‘Deadly blast hits Kabul mosque during Friday prayers’, Al Jazeera, 12 June 2020, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/06/deadly-blast-hits-kabul-mosque-friday-prayers-200612092826021.html

[17] ‘Afghan Human Rights Body Staff Killed In Kabul Bomb Attack’, RFE/RL, 27 June 2020, https://www.rferl.org/a/two-members-of-afghan-human-rights-body-killed-in-kabul-bomb-ttack/30693806.html

[18] ‘Second explosion reported in Kabul city in less than 24 hours’, Khaama Press, 10 Aug. 2020, https://www.khaama.com/second-explosion-reported-in-kabul-city-in-less-than-24-hours-09013/

[19] ‘Kabul under rocket attacks on its 101st Independence eve’, Khaama Press, 18 Aug. 2020, https://www.khaama.com/kabul-under-rocket-attacks-and-on-its-101st-independence-eve-0980987/

[20] Mushal, M., Faizi, F., and Rahim, N., ‘With Delay in Afghan Peace Talks, a Creeping Sense of “Siege” Around Kabul’, The New York Times, 24 Aug. 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/23/world/asia/afghanistan-taliban-attacks-kabul.html

[21] ‘Kabul police chief sacked after spike in attacks’, Pajhwok News, 23 Aug. 2020, https://www.pajhwok.com/en/governance-politics accessed 24 Aug. 2020.

[22] Mushal, M., Faizi, F., and Rahim, N., ‘With Delay in Afghan Peace Talks, a Creeping Sense of “Siege” Around Kabul’, The New York Times, 24 Aug. 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/23/world/asia/afghanistan-taliban-attacks-kabul.html

USIP paper “Bourgeois Jihad” – ISKP in Afghanistan

June 9, 2020

Summary: ISKP is not predominantly a foreign set of jihadists but contains many young recruits from Kabul and nearby provinces.  They seek a pure version of Islam that the Taliban do not offer.  ISKP is an attractive radicalisation option for Afghan youth disenchanted by a war-torn, socially fragmented country, dominated by corrupt elites and western values.

The United States Institute of Peace has published a fascinating paper by Borhan Osman looking at the phenomenon of Islamic State (ISKP – Islamic State in Khorasan Province) operating in Afghanistan.  A major problem with many areas of the conflict in Afghanistan remains the difficulty of getting access to accurate and reliable information.  This applies in particular to the insurgent groups active, including the Taliban, ISKP, Haqqani Network, Al Qaeda, TTP and a host of others.  This USIP report is based on sixty-five interviews with current and former members of ISKP.

The report provides some fascinating insights, dismantles a few myths and fills in some “question mark” gaps:

  • ISKP recruits are not generally foreign imports, rather they come from young rural and urban Afghans
  • Many of these recruits are middle-class and educated.  They are not automatically Pushtun, some are Tajiks
  • Most operations take place in Kabul, Nangarhar and Kunar – Nangarhar and Achin district/Mohmand valley have important symbolic resonance for ISKP fighters fighting jihad – further targeting of Hazara/Shia is likely
  • ISKP has aspirations to control eastern and northern Afghanistan, these have been tempered somewhat after defeats in late 2019
  • The attraction to join ISKP’s Salafi jihad for young Afghans is the attraction of a “pure Islam” that even the Taliban do not offer.
  • Key contributors to radicalisation of ISKP recruits include:
    • The fragmentation of Afghanistan’s societal, religious and cultural norms after four decades of conflict
    • the corruption of existing government elites
    • the arrival of Western values after 2001
    • the post-2001 opening up of Afghanistan to ideas from around the world, including interpretations of Islam from the Middle East

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.

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