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Foreign Office Travel Advice: Afghanistan – bleakest outlook yet

November 1, 2019
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The British Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) issue travel advice and guidance for all countries of the world, including Afghanistan.  The advice is aimed at UK citizens.  I have been lightly monitoring their website in relation to Afghanistan since 2012.  The most assessment from October 2019, is the bleakest yet.  This is July 2012:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Then September 2017:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

For reference, this is Syria in November 2019:

FCO 312 - Nigeria Travel Advice Ed2 [WEB]

And Iraq in November 2019:

 

FCO 303 - Bangladesh Travel Advice [WEB]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

President Ghani announces 7 point peace plan

October 28, 2019

Summary

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

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

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

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

Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final thoughts

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

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

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Full text of the 7 point peace plan

Steps Toward Stability in Afghanistan

 

Confidential | October 2019

 

Background

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The 7-Point Plan for Stability

 

Top-Down Negotiations

 

Point 1) Negotiations with USA + NATO

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

 

Point 2) Negotiations with the Taliban

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

 

Point 3) Negotiations with Pakistan

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

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

 

Consensus Building with Regional and International Partners

 

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

 

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

Point 5) Discussions with the West + International Organizations

 

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

 

Bottom-up Stability

 

Point 6) Strengthen Institutions at the National Level

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

 

Point 7) Address Grievances at the Local Level

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

 

Immediate Concrete Steps

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

End of Document.

 

Withdrawing from Afghanistan – strategy without hope?

October 25, 2019

Summary:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Uppsala: graphic displaying Afghan deaths in first half of 2019

September 11, 2019

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

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

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

 

Talks collapse – what comes next?

September 10, 2019

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

There are multiple possibilities – a handful here…

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

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

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

Rising casualties in Afghanistan, 1999 – 2018

August 20, 2019

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

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

August 19, 2019

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

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

Thoughts

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

 

 

 

Afghanistan is now the least peaceful country in the world

June 12, 2019

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

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

Overview

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

Afghanistan

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

 

Berlin conference: Bleak views on Afghanistan’s prospects…

June 10, 2019

Summary: Bleak views on Afghanistan’s prospects from two of the best experts you are going to get.  Thomas Ruttig from AAN is deeply negative about the progress of democracy in the country, talking about a deep institutional crisis and an erosion of democratic institutions…no rosy picture and a risk of civil war.  The failure to fully implement the Bonn Agreement and the international community’s tendency to interfere in the electoral process for expediency are key causes.  Michael Semple thinks that claims that a peace agreement can be delivered in this current process are “shallow” and “implausible”.  Both believe that, in as much as the Taliban do think at all about a “post-US Afghanistan”, it is based on the flawed assumption that the Taliban will return to monopolise power and that the Western-based government structure will simply collapse once the US pulls out.

I was lucky enough to be invited to attend the Academy for Cultural Diplomacy’s symposium on Afghanistan: “Understanding Afghanistan”.  The highlight for me was getting to hear Thomas Ruttig from the Afghanistan Analysts Network and Michael Semple from Queens University Belfast on the same bill.  The messages from both seemed bleaker than I can recall from their previous talks and writings.  My comments are inserted as square brackets.  I have highlighted key points that leap out in bold.

Dr. Lutz Rzehak “Observations on Cultural behaviour in Afghanistan”

  • Dr Rzehak has been studying Afghan language and culture for decades. He has travelled extensively (and independently) across the country.  “If you don’t want to embarrass yourself, be like society” – attention to clothing, headgear and general appearance (beard).  But it is almost impossible to fake an identity’
  • Age is advantageous – much respect is accorded to older people – gray hair an advantage!
  • Some Afghans use western clothing and appearance to show status (eg working at a university). Western clothing can be seen as denoting an official.
  • Legendary Afghan hospitality (“A guest is a friend of God”) but when travelling it is important to have a local Afghan as a guide/interlocutor to smooth the trip in advance and make preparations and also en route.
  • One Baluchi group in Zaranj (Nimruz) actually built a small house specifically for the Dr to use then and for his anticipated future visits!
  • Avoid travelling at night.
  • Importance of greeting rituals.

Thomas Ruttig spoke about “The State of Afghanistan Democracy in the light of the upcoming (and previous elections)”

  • Ruttig has lived and worked in Afghanistan for around 13 years – he is still a little dismissive of the “Kabul bubble” of international and diplomatic communities
  • In regard to Dr Rzehak’s presentation and subsequent discussion about breaking of cultural and religious norms he noted that Afghans do break the norms and this generally happens in connections with issues of power – those that have the Kalashnikovs…
  • He gave an interesting anecdote about the Afghan’s perspective on foreigners. He said that, whichever international job he had held in the country (diplomat, journalist, UN), once Afghans knew of his nationality, it was presented as “ah, the Germans are back”, with an expectation that his main agenda would be to continue whatever historic political, aid or development project had been undertaken by Germans previously in that area.  [comment: makes me think about how easy it must have been for the Taliban to construct anti-British propaganda messages when British forces arrived in Helmand and southern Afghanistan “British Empire back to try and conquer us…”]’
  • There is a slightly racist overtone to some Western views on the people of Afghanistan in relation to elections and popular will: “Afghans can’t do democracy”, “Afghanistan cannot be Switzerland”. But the Afghan constitutions have strong and clear statements – 2004 constitution “Peoples will and democracy”.  Social justice, human dignity, rights and democracy have all featured strongly.
  • But the democratic process seems to have been in reverse gear for some time now – this is not only because of the Taliban and conflict. There is a deep institutional crisis and an erosion of democratic institutions.  This is tilting towards increased use of executive power and a crisis of legitimacy.  On 22 May , President Ghani’s official tenure as president came to an end and has been extended to September because of the failure to prepare for the election in good time.  The system is full of holes – the Parliamentary system has many irregularities.  Ghazni province in particular struggled with a protracted dispute about how best to divide up the Pushtun and Hazara constituencies – as a result no elections were held.
  • There is a growing risk that an authoritarian system is being strengthened – President Ghani is the only authority officially elected.
  • The situation is not looking good – and the elections are now being prioritised over the peace talks with the Taliban.
  • Historical recap – Bonn Conference 2001 re-established provision for Afghan democratic institutions (Ruttig emphasised “re-“ established, rather than simply “established”, noting that the Afghanistan 1964 Constitution was probably Afghanistan’s most democratic document). But the post of Prime Minister was cancelled, creating its own institutional problems.
  • The Bonn process made provision for a lot of things – a census, voter registration, disbandment of militias, justice, addressing war crimes. This was all positive and embraced by Afghans.  At the 2002 Emergency Loya Jirga (which Ruttig and Semple have both worked on) no one was saying “democracy is a bad idea”…).
  • But progress faltered: women lost out and the warlords still held a lot of sway. In the end, the Bonn Agreement was only partially implemented – the census did not take place, militias were not properly disarmed (a warlord was made head of the Disarmament of Illegal Armed Groups – DIAG – operation).  Furthermore, the US began re-arming militias from around 2006 (eg “Afghan Local Police”, or ALP).
  • There were protests over the 2014 presidential election which brought Ghani to power – no one could say how many people voted, how many votes were counted, what the extent of fraud had been – multiple reports of the stuffing of ballot boxes and being able to buy voting forms in the markets. Furthermore, the result was never announced – a deal was struck (brokered by Secretary of State John Kerry) that Ghani would be announced as the winner.
  • Many social problems – unemployment, poverty. 54% of the population are under the poverty line: after $100 Billion USD of effort, the number of people in poverty is still more or less the same as it was in 2003.
  • If the Bonn Agreement had been fully implemented things could have been quite different but unfortunately even the UN was “part of the game” of bending democracy. Warlords have captured democracy and there are still no effective political parties operating in Afghanistan.  Electoral reform is being blocked and President Ghani is circumventing most of the checks and balances.  The people making the decisions are not democratically legitimate.
  • There is no rosy picture and there is a danger of civil war.  There is a widespread tiredness with “this kind of” democracy in Afghanistan – the post-2001 kind that is continually manipulated by the international community.  Many in Afghanistan now do not want democracy – this is not just older people, but also some youth groups who reject democracy as “against Islam”

Michael Semple spoke on “Taliban, Culture and Peace – how understanding Taliban political culture helps us assess progress towards an Afghan peace”

  • It is very important to be sensitive to the importance of understanding culture. On a 2019 visit to Kabul, Semple was invited to a meeting between [I think] the Afghan Ministry of defence and the US military.    Semple brought an Afghan researcher with him.  After a short period they both realised that the translations being given between the US and the Afghan government teams were appallingly garbled and greatly hampering the ability of both sides to understand the other [I think the implication was that the translators were not bad at their job, but that the Western military terminology and acronyms was hard to convey].  Semple observed how little important lessons are learnt – translation problems might have been understandable in 2001/2002 but surely not in 2019…
  • Without recognising and understanding the filter of culture, understanding becomes difficult. And culture is also evolving, disputed and manipulated – Hamid Karzai was good at this – making a show of traditions – Loya Jirgas and suchlike – to appeal to cultural traditions but ultimately intended to close off discussion.  Semple suggested that where he and Thomas Ruttig wear Afghan clothes as Westerners, by taking on the culture it undermines the potential to monopolise culture manipulation.
  • In terms of the Taliban and peace talks there have been “bouts of extreme hope”. In February 2018, Ghani made a prepared speech to the Taliban inviting them to come and join the political process.  This made diplomats very hopeful, but nothing came of it.   In the summer there was another flurry of hope with Ashraf Ghani’s unilateral ceasefire that the Taliban joined in for three days.
  • This was more significant, but from the Taliban leadership perspective it got out of control.
  • The Taliban leadership had told its fighters to “stop fighting” but the Taliban fighters then went into the towns and villages and fraternised with the police and the population (one local warlord said that he was hosting 150 Taliban fighters to a lunch). The Taliban leadership were worried that this undermined the war effort.  [In May 2019, the Taliban have ruled out a similar ceasefire for this year].
  • In September 2018, Zalmai Khalilzad began talks with the Taliban. The have been six sets of talks in Doha, with another set coming.  Messages have been projected that “peace is nigh” and that “good progess has been made but more dialogue is needed”.  Everyone (including the Afghan population and the Taliban fighters on the ground) is reading intensively what the media has to say about the talks and trying to understand what is really going on.
  • Semple is “broadly optimistic” – it is possible for the war to end very quickly. But it is perhaps “more likely” that the war will continue for the moment.
  • But Semple is “deeply sceptical” of the current peace process. There are some cultural clues – the shifting of timetables [presumably the pushing back of timetables?].  Semple was aware that at one point the US negotiating team had been telling the US military to start preparing in the event of a ceasefire.  The annual fighting season begins after the opium harvest is in [approx April/May] – there was therefore a hope that peace might come in the Spring of 2019 – or, if not a formal peace, but at least the suspension of the Taliban’s annual announcement of their Spring Offensive.  This did not happen.
  • Culture of the Taliban In the 1970s the Taliban were the poorest of the poor but felt superior because they had extensive religious knowledge. This created tension with sections of the Afghan population, in particular the rural vs urban divide.
  • Claims that a peace agreement can be delivered seem very “shallow” – “implausible”.
  • The Taliban are still a centralised, organisation and their mission is to take over the country. A top down peace solution may not be possible between the Islamic State of Afghanistan [i.e. the Taliban central command body] and fellow Afghans but a reconciliation between individual local Taliban groups and local Afghans may be achievable.  At the leadership-level, peace negotiations have stalled.  The Taliban are refusing to embrace a ceasefire or seriously pursue a political settlement.
  • Semple showed a photograph of a local, village-level, Taliban commander sitting alongside a local, village, level police chief. They are attending a wrestling completion together and were respectfully and pragmatically discussing local security issues and concerns.  Semple suggested that if there was more local-level dialogue of this sort, then the fighting might just simply die away.

Q&A

  • Qatar is not a bad location for talks – it at least partially removes the Taliban from Pakistani influence.
  • The Taliban are not the only bad actors in the peace talks – the warlords as well. Many groups have an interest in conflict remaining.
  • Thomas Ruttig pushed back slightly on Semple’s suggestion that local dialogues might cause peace to break out spontaneously. He saw the Taliban as being a centralised command that was hard to challenge.  It was difficult to see local sets of dialogues having much impact.
  • I asked to what extent the Taliban think of a “post-US Afghanistan” and what their intentions might be after the US military pull out. Ruttig felt that the Taliban’s prime desire is to monopolise power – they will not turn into a political movement.  When Semple talks to the Taliban, he starts with a simple proposition for discussion that “there is no justification for the further killing of Afghans”.  Semple felt the Taliban have not had a change of heart.  The Taliban do think about a “post-US” Afghanistan, but their thinking is poorly informed and not well-developed – they see the US withdrawal as the prelude to the Taliban’s return to control of Afghanistan.  This is “wrong thinking” but this is what they believe – once the US departs the existing government and institutions will collapse and the Taliban will be back in power.  All those Western-educated Afghans in the government will simply disappear – returning to Europe, etc.

Comments and Outlook

Is it just me or is this some of the bleakest assessment from two of the best analysts of Afghanistan that I have heard in years?  Thomas Ruttig has not given up on the democratic process, but he is deeply pessimistic about how it has been perverted by outside influence and internal, non-democratic elties. “most of the checks and balances have gone”.  He blames the UN and other international bodies for bending democracy in aid of expedient election results.  Michael Semple sees claims of a peace settlement being delivered as “shallow” and implausible.  Both judged Taliban ultimate intentions were still best characterised as a monopolistic return to power.  Michael Semple said that the Taliban believe that once the US had left the Afghan democracy experiment will simply collapse and the Taliban will be back in power.  I have read carefully though my notes.  With the possible exception of Michael Semple holding out that a peace deal could theoretically come quickly (and perhaps through grass roots dialogue), neither were able to offer any optimistic route forward.  This doesn’t look good.

What do the Taliban want? What do they do? Snapshots from Helmand, Logar and Wardak

June 5, 2019

Summary: AAN and USIP both looking at local Taliban actions and expectations.  The Taliban do not seem to have changed the attitudes much.  Neither do they appear to have thought deeply about what might come after peace talks and a US withdrawal

Two very good pieces of analysis from two different sources but overlapping on many key themes regarding how the Taliban think, plan and operate in localities that they control.  Goes without saying that both reports should be read in full.  The Afghanistan Analysts Network have a series of pieces out under the title “One Land, Two Rules”.  They look at how the Taliban and the Afghan government are operating concurrently (and competitively) to deliver public services.  Part Six focuses on how the Helmand district of Nad Ali copes with the challenge of having both government and the Taliban attempting to control and influence the area.

  • The district remains unstable from a security perspective – it is an “active stalemate”
  • The government and NGOs fund public services but the Taliban have a strong say in how resources are allocated
  • A “dual rule” sees the civilian population pragmatically tolerant of government and Taliban, while learning to navigate this “dual rule”
  • The Taliban control much of the educational curriculum – girls do not have schooling beyond 6th grade
  • Health services are sub-standard and inadequate – the Taliban prioritise their injured fighters for health resources
  • Locals do not care who is in charge as long as it is one of the the other, but not both competing
  • The Taliban collect taxes
  • In Taliban controlled areas the TV, radio, music and smartphones are banned.  Mobile phone networks are shut down between 4pm and 7am.
  • In Taliban controlled areas, some NGO activity is permitted (water, wells, pumps).  Not clear is this is because the Taliban are keen to avoid alienating the population or because they benefit from taxing them.  Perhaps both.
  • Population do not enjoy this complex dual governance but have adapted.  They are used to having some levels of basic public services (however low grade) – this will need to be  taken into account in the future.

The USIP piece from Ashley Jackson parses a series of interviews with Afghans – non-combatants and Taliban – in areas controlled by the Taliban.  Questions focus on peace talks – how the Taliban perceive the talks, what the goals are and how might the Taliban move into a post-US future.

  • Most non-combatants just want the fighting to end.
  • Taliban local fighters do not plan to disarm until their two core demands are met: US withdrawal and an appropriately Islamic government.
  • Few Taliban have concrete ideas on what an appropriate Islamic government would mean and how it might differ from the current Islamic government
  • Few Taliban want to talk with the current Afghan government
  • Local Taliban and non-combatants alike assumed that the Taliban would retain control over their strongholds
  • Most women strongly object to Taliban restrictions over their lives
  • Strong belief that a process of justice, punishment and, as necessary, forgiveness was necessary, once peace was achieved

From these, my brief thoughts are that the Taliban do not seem to have changed that much, particularly in attitudes to women and education.  They do not appear to have much strategic debate about the future, beyond generalities – an idea of “first the fighting must stop, then we will decide”.    They appear emboldened.  Finally, they do not appear able to run and administer services effectively – only able to provide basic public systems if someone else is paying for it – the Afghan government, the international community, NGOs.  The sense is also that much of this funding is siphoned off into supporting the Taliban’s war effort.  Where they do run a service, their strict interpretations of Islam seem uniformly to hamper the quality of service provision.  Without education for women beyond the 6th grade, is it any wonder that there are only a handful of nurses and mid-wives in the district?

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