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Afghanistan towards 2014: DIIS Conference – key points

April 11, 2013

By Tim Foxley

Summary:  Very useful and timely conference from DIIS.  Not much optimism from the Western/international speakers, more mixed from the Afghan speakers, but still not very encouraging as we look to 2014 and beyond.  Main problems: lack of US engagement; limited prospects for real dialogue with the Taliban; flawed elections in 2014 risk triggering civil war; loyalty of the ANSF might be in question if it was pressured by fighting or politics.

DIIS LogoTo a capacity audience at the Danish Parliament building in Copenhagen, the Danish Institute of International Affairs hosted an impressive line-up of delegates to discuss “Afghanistan towards 2014: prospects for development, security and a national political settlement”.  Check their website for additional info – I understand they will have filmed most of the key speakers.

Perhaps indicative of declining international interest levels generally, at least three of the speakers commented on how they were pleasantly surprised to see the large audience turn-out.  A strong turnout of the local Copenhagen Hazara community ensured that the debate regularly addressed the poor treatment of Shia groups in Afghanistan and particularly Pakistan.

I shall have a go at summarising the key points of the key speakers and then give my overall sense of the key themes and discussion:

Candace Rondeaux (Centre of National Security at Fordham University Law School):

Afghan security after 2014

  • Flagged up the planned size of the Afghan National Security Forces to be 352,000.  She also noted that there were plans to reduce this to around 228,000 in a few years – raising the spectre of thousands of unemployed trained (and perhaps armed) fighters
  • Major security obstacles:
    • political transition simultaneously with
    • the ISAF withdrawal (the “delicate ballet”)
    • security challenges – short term this was the political transition, long-term this was the loyalty of the ANSF
    • Factionalism in the ANSF was a real problem and could be exacerbated after US withdrawal
    • Afg government needs a national security policy that goes beyond “fighting people”, but this is a hard notion for the Afg govt to grasp

Thomas Ruttig (Afghan Analysts Network)

A political solution with the Taliban – is it possible?

  • Political solutions are not just about the Taliban
  • Much time has been wasted and the atmosphere for dialogue has not improved since a year ago – there are still no substantial talks
  • Karzai confuses the issue by calling the Taliban “brothers” and then “terrorists” – there are too many communication channels – some need to be shut down?
  • The role of the UN has been really cut down
  • There are “moderate” and “hardline” Taliban – some Taliban individuals have made helpful contributions to Track II talks – the Qatar office is “kind of “ open, but talking and fighting at the same time is not helpful
  • (former) Northern Alliance/United Front last month signalling they did not want to talk to the Talban (against a Rashid paper last month stating that it was encouraging that they were starting to talk to the Taliban)
  • Be aware of other Afghan voices – an educated ex-mujahideen (against the Soviets) told him it might not be so bad if the Taliban regained power, as long as the war didn’t last long
  • It looked as if Pakistan had changed its position earlier this year to a more helpful stance, but, more recently, Af/Pak relations have taken another nose dive
  • A political solution is much broader than merely the Taliban, reconciliation involves the whole country – it’s not just about giving the Taliban a couple of government ministries…
  • Risk that we have a long drawn out insurgency like Columbia, with armed groups remaining very active and a polarised society.

Wais Ahmad Barmak (Afghan Minister for Rural Rehabilitation and Development)

How to ensure sustainable development in Afghanistan?

  • Much cause for optimism (there is too much focus on Kabul politics) – progress in 33,000 of Afghanistan’s 41,000 villages in terms of community development and projects – more rights to elect their own leaders and to implement their own development projects
  • It is important for Ministers to move out into the country and develop the link between state and population
  • Future prospects – are rocky, with possibilities of violence, but the future can definitely be built.  Did not believe that the Taliban could win the war
  • With the drawdown of the international Provincial Reconstruction Teams there was a risk of a development vacuum emerging
  • There is a need to move from short term to long term planning, and with a bit more focus on stabilisation activity

Mohammad Naim Baluch (Helmand Provincial Governor)

  • The “Helmand Model” as a plan was presented to President Karzai – capacity building, delivery of services
  • The goal is to take over security from ISAF – “we will do our best” – and the role of the ANSF is key, “a great chance for government to expand the security bubble”
  • The establishment of community councils in the Sangin and Kajaki areas has been helpful . progress is being made on the Kajaki dam
  • Will try to be a “good partner” to the UN in Helmand – supporting women’s rights, law enforcement
  • There are challenges of maintaining sustainability post-2014 – security is going well (ISAF checkpoints have been handed over to the ANSF) but we will need support

Ahmed Rashid (Writer and journalist)

Regional aspects of peace and stability – what can we expect?

  • Regarding the prospects for successful peace talks, all the four lead players (US, Karzai, Pakistan and the Taliban) have been obstructionist:
    • The US – went back on prisoner release deal in 2011 and lead to the Taliban suspending talks in 2012
    • A year wasted waiting for the US to deliver – Kerry has been in post two months and still has not appointed his Af/Pak rep
    • The US has no roadmap or game plan apart from its obsession with withdrawal dates
    • The Afghan govt – Karzai is a poor player of geo-politics – use of histrionics and emotional blackmail.  He wants exclusive access to the Taliban in Doha
    • The Taliban need to exposed to the modern Afghanistan (new, young society): “let’s open the minds of the Taliban”
    • Pakistan – a past supporter of the Taliban, well known for the “double game”.  But – a crisis in Pakistan: collapsing economy, energy supply problems, vicious, multi-dimensional sectarian violence – worse than Afghanistan… Police are demoralised, the judiciary cannot convict militant murderers for fear of being target themselves
    • Taliban – want to wait until after 2014 (see what the election result brings?).  A “mirror image” of the US – keep fighting and killing right up to 2014
    • This is a real crisis, on which important international actors (EU) are completely silent
    • There is an urgent need for ceasefire – the ANSF cannot sustain a prolonged war – the only one who can make a ceasefire happen is the US, but it will need a “grand gesture” from them
    • Also a strong need for a regional settlement and a genuine enforcement mechanism with teeth.  But the international community has reduced its activities on regional settlement – Russia is “hot and cold”, China is only interested in economic exploitation, where is NATO on this?  Has Catherine Ashton (EU) done anything?
    • The US is abdicating responsibility – some needs to get involved, because the civil war that is likely to follow 2014 will be much worse – everyone is much more heavily armed now.  Rashid: “deeply worried”

Sima Samar (Chairperson Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission)

Civil Society and Human Rights in Afghanistan

  • There are still many conservatives in the country who try to use religion to control women – still trying to pass the “elimination of violence against women” law
  • AIHRC monitors detention centres – helping to release many who have been illegally detained
  • Torturing in prisons was widespread – still goes on now, but levels are reduced
  • Transitional Justice – AIHRC took the initiative to commission a report on past war crimes – there is no government approval to release this and Samar is concerned for the safety of those who prepared the report
  • On talking with the Taliban – we should not negotiate on the principles of human rights.

Analysis and Outlook

The mood was pessimistic – more so from the Western/international speakers.  The size of audience was commented on favourably as an indicator of the interest levels, but the sub-text was a clear concern that the international community was already starting to distance itself.  I have been going to conferences on Afghanistan since 2002.  Up until around 2009/10, it seemed people would still be intently discussing ideas for Afghanistan.  These days there seem to be no new ideas, merely conferences full of people frustratedly restating plans that should have been implemented months or years ago.  The plans still needed implementing, but there always seem to be new reasons why they cannot.

The Afghan speakers, being all in official Afghan government appointments of some sort, were in the position of being asked to write their own school reports.  Perhaps understandably, they had a slightly more upbeat view when describing their own fields of endeavour.  The only really positive speaker was Minister for Rural Rehabilitation and Development Barmak, who was articulate and confident, but perhaps overly relying on statistics as progress.  Baluch was perhaps the least convincing – everything was good and going to plan in Helmand, it seemed.  He only had to convene a shura of elders for them to agree to stop planting poppy, apparently.  Rashid seemed genuinely angry when he described US failures, Ruttig seemed frustrated at the lack of progress on talks – in the Q&A on this he described the difficulty in penetrating the mind-set of the Taliban (what do they  want) from the few and generally opaque statements they make.  But Ruttig and Rashid both seemed clear that a united Taliban was better than having to deal with 20 Taliban fragments.

ANSF loyalty: The issue of the loyalty and stability of the Afghan army came up a few times: Rondeaux suggested factionalism might be sorely tested, dependent on the election results.  She noted that, although the majority of the officer corps was now Tajik, the “identity” of the officers was “fluid” – many having fought in several armies of wildly different affiliations.  This political identity important to understand.  Ruttig said loyalty to the government is the key.  Rashid  was downbeat – he had seen 6 or 7 armies break up in Afghanistan since 1979 – ethnic loyalty drives it all in the end.  On the ANSF, the most recent incarnation of an Afghan government army, he noted it was loyal neither to the state, the institutions or the President.  Who was it loyal to?  Answer – their own ethnicity.  Ruttig countered by suggesting that it went deeper and broader than ethnic loyalty and down to individual commanders.  Separately, Rondeaux noted that the Afghan Air Force has extremely high levels of corruption (in one incident, ANSF troops could not count on helicopters to help remove battlefield casualties because said helicopters were being used to move illegal drugs).  The air force could not count on being given jets any time soon…

Afghan elections: Rashid said the elections were very important – more so than a regional settlement or the US withdrawal – in 2009 there was nearly a civil war because it was rigged

Talking with the Taliban:  A problem highlighted by Ruttig was that they had no political wing – they had no “manifesto”, other than lightly sketched in statements – hard to penetrate them.  But the problems of Afghanistan were more than “Taliban” – the problems were economic and social.  Rashid felt that the former Northern Alliance could talk with the Taliban if they thought there was demonstrable progress and a willingness to compromise – not just “talks about talks”.  But the High Peace Council, charged with organising talks, was made up of “warlords and has beens”.  On whether the constitution as a sticking point, Rondeaux and Rashid both felt that it could and perhaps should be reopened to incorporate new Afghan ideas.  This might hold open the prospect of engaging with the Taliban on some issues and not demanding they accept the current constitution.  Rondeaux: how can you ask the Taliban to follow a constitution that even Karzai can’t?

Pakistan – can’t escape the issue when Rashid is in full flow…The attacks on the Hazara community in Quetta was appalling – the Pakistan state is failing them, Sunni Mullahs are saying nothing.  The Durrand Line should ideally be resolved with a third party.  Pakistan – 7th largest country in the world, with nuclear weapons, has only got a fixed border with China – its borders with India and Afghanistan are undefined (Tim comment: not sure he means Iran  as well?).  There might slowly be some realisation amongst the military and Intelligence elite in Afghanistan that they have gone too far in their support for terrorist groups, but translating this into action (“turning the ship around”) is going to be difficult.  It was a big failure by the ISI not to release Mullah Berader (2nd in commander of the Afghan Taliban), who could have been a big peace maker.

But it is good that Mullah Omar “crazy though he may be” seems to have held the Taliban together.  He probably doesn’t have a role in a post-2014 Afghanistan.  Ideally, he could be persuaded to make the deal (taking, eg, Haqqani network, etc with him) and fade off the scene (exile in the Gulf?).  But the Pakistan government/military/ISI needs a strategy that gives the Taliban a deadline 18 months, two years, before they have to leave Pakistan – pressure them to sort out a deal with the Afghan government.

Conclusion

Very useful and well-presented conference (well done DIIS), despite the tangible pessimism and frustration exuding from Rashid and Ruttig.  Difficult to fault most of the arguments about what needs to be done, but still left with the sense that these things have been said many times now and the international community/US/Afghan government etc still don’t manage to move forward.  Many of Rashid’s desires – US taking responsibility, Pakistan suddenly reinventing itself, the EU waking up, Afghanistan’s other neighbours doing something constructive beyond polite noises and the UN to grow itself some supersized assertiveness glands simply aren’t going to happen anytime time soon.  And what really struck me was how many of these factors would have to align together quite smoothly all in the same timeframe.  I had kind of assumed that the election next year would be massively flawed, but was just something to get through and ease in a new President called “anyone but a Karzai”.  I was therefore concerned to hear Rashid very strongly linking a rigged 2014 election to the return to an intensified civil war.  Much food for thought as I contemplate a paper on the direction for Afghanistan’s civil war post 2014.

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