SWOT analysis: Afghan regime survivability, 2014 – 2019
Summary: Although the example of the Najibullah regime is in danger of becoming the default benchmark for measuring prospects of the current government, it may not be entirely helpful. However, international military and development support will remain crucial to the survivability of the Afghan regime well beyond 2014. Neither international-backed government nor insurgent groups look likely to achieve decisive momentum. Over this five year timeframe, a messy, unresolved stalemate – government controlling cities and most communications routes with insurgents and militias dominating less accessible regions – looks to be the most likely outcome.
By Tim Foxley
Perhaps analysts (myself included) have tended to focus on the immediate security issues surrounding transition – the diminishing role of ISAF and the problems of recruiting, training and sustaining the security forces Afghanistan will need in the years to come. But, of course, a whole range of security, developmental, regional, economic and governance issues are at play. Recently we have seen two votes of no-confidence against key ministers at defence and the interior, together with the reported breakdown in tears of the finance minister Zakhilwal over allegations of corruption against him. This is cause for encouragement (investigating corruption, a parliament that can vote for action that the President has to respect) and also concern (indicative perhaps of strains, tensions and lack of direction as 2014 approaches).
I wanted to set out a few thoughts on the issues surrounding the survivability of the current Afghan regime in the form of a pretty simple SWOT analysis – Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. I originally pitched it in a time frame of 2014 – 2016 but, on reflection, this looked very short-term. The issue of regime stability will not go away in such a short period, and even half a decade is probably to understate the amount of time we should be looking at. As ever, this would be very much worthy of further study, but just to start some ideas going initially:
SWOT analysis: Afghan regime survivability, 2014 – 2019
Strengths (current factors that should be maintained)
- International support/funding
- International military backing (training, money, military capabilities)
- Stable and broadly credible ANSF
- Unpopularity of the Taliban
- Broadly credible and internationally recognised government
Weakness (current factors that should be removed)
- Specific ANSF problems – lack of capability, poor training, poor retention
- Specific governance problems – corruption, inefficiencies, lack of capacity, lack of reach, lack of credibility
- Fragmented Parliament
- Incoherent central (Kabul)/regions (provinces) relationship
- Warlords, militias, private armies
- Factions – ethnic/tribal tensions
- Outward flow of money/people
Opportunities (possible future factors that should be exploited)
- Popular rejection of the Taliban
- Counter-terrorism/Counter Insurgency results against the Taliban
- Fragmentation of the insurgency
- Mistakes made by over-confidence of the insurgency (e.g. Mujahideen conventional attack on Jalalabad in 1989)
- Proactive or constructive activity from Pakistan/neighbours
- Credible, genuine and realistic political dialogue or “reach out” from insurgent groups
- Economic investment
Threats (possible future factors that should be avoided)
- Destabilising assassination/suicide attacks (i.e. against govt, infrastructure, internationals, etc)
- Popular rejection of government/failed election process
- Corruption/poor performance of government
- Failure of economy to develop/development of narco-criminal economy
- International community funding stops
- International support/military support stops
- Pakistan/neighbours interference/meddling
- Green on Blue, misguided govt or international military strikes
Analysis and Outlook
With this fairly simplistic set of factors it is perhaps difficult to see where the critical points are, but the numerous weaknesses and threats to the Afghan regime are quite stark. Clearly the desirability of preserving a credible and capable set of Afghan security forces, along with maintenance of the various forms of international military and civilian support should come as no surprise.
We have a recent precedent of a modern military and political force withdrawing with fighting still unresolved, in the form of the 1989 Soviet extraction and the handover to the Najibullah regime. By most accounts, the perceived wisdom is that this regime, while predicted to fall apart immediately, actually did a surprising job of holding together while it was still being supplied, mentored and otherwise supported by the Soviet regime. It was only when the Soviet regime collapsed in 1991 and funding unsurprisingly ground to a halt, did Najibullah’s rule follow suit. Media and analysts might be making this a false benchmark and I am not quite sure how much mileage can be gained from the 1989 – 1992 experience as a means of extracting lessons for Karzai except to say that it can clearly be possible for international support to prop up a government in the capital and allow it to retain control of the major cities and some communications networks. I do not believe that international funding will suddenly be turned off, although it will continue to dwindle if it appears that imminent regime collapse is not on the cards – and this might be a fine judgement call to make.
I am interested in the idea of an over-confidence in the insurgency once most/all ISAF combat troops have departed and parts of the country, particularly in the south and east, are perceived as lacking in significant government control or actual power vacuums. At Jalalabad, in 1989, the Mujahideen managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory by launching a conventional ground attack against well prepared and dug-in government defending forces. Although it did not change the ultimate result, it was a very costly exercise. There are some very interesting thoughts from Mohammad Yusaf, head of the ISI’s Afghan Bureau from 1983 to 1987 in his book “The Bear Trap”:
“There are many instances in military history when the guerrilla commander has moved into the conventional phase too soon, got a bloody nose, and as a result the campaign has been set back for months, even years…[ISI] agreed that the strategy of a thousand cuts should continue, but with the emphasis on Kabul and its supply lines…The Soviets had gone by mid-February, 1989, and in March the Mujahideen took to conventional warfare with a full scale assault…on Jalalabad…Why was such an attack mounted? Why was there no strategic plan to finish the war after the Soviets had gone?…Part of the problem was the euphoria
Some analytical caveats to the above:
- I don’t think the withdrawal of ISAF will be such a decisive strategic shift in favour of the insurgents as the Soviet withdrawal was. Many ISAF “force multipliers” – advisors, trainers, logistics support, intelligence assets and airpower will remain. 2014 not so much as the edge of a cliff but perhaps a bumpy incline…?
- “Conventional” tactics in terms of the Taliban would equate to larger numbers of foot soldiers operating openly and together in bigger groups. It would also mean a return to widespread use of vehicular (4 x 4 SUV-type) transport.
- I don’t believe that the insurgency as we know it now is as coherent and robust as the Mujahideen were (for all their obvious flaws). I am massively speculating, of course, but, in other words, if the Mujahideen were able to put 5 – 7,000 fighters in the field for an attack on a major regional capital, the Taliban might manage 1 – 2,000 to attack a lesser target – a district capital, an ANSF base, into Kabul, etc.
If “success” is defined as the regime holding together and slowly (and I mean slowly) developing economic and governance capacity and “failure” is represented by collapse and either a civil war or a return of a Taliban regime, then the factors here suggest to me that we might be stuck in the middle somewhere – a stalemate with neither regime nor insurgents being able to win over the other.
This is very much a work in progress and I would welcome any thoughts.