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ICG Report “Afghanistan’s Insurgency after the Transition”

May 23, 2014

Summary: The ICG’s helpful and timely report highlights the likelihood of escalating violence and insurgent attacks into 2015 and draws convincingly on four provincial case studies that emphasise the diversity of factors inpacting on different parts of the country.  While slightly ducking in-depth analysis of the Taliban, the paper notes Taliban strengths and weaknesses, the difficulties of analysis and the importance of other factors likely contributing to conflict after 2014: ethnic, tribal, warlord, local grievances and flaws within the Afghan security forces themselves.

icg logoI have lost a certain amount of self-discipline when it comes to reviewing the larger reports that still come out of Afghanistan. This International Crisis Group report has been burning in a hole in my hard drive since early May. But I have finally sat down and gone through in something broadly approximating “detail”. It is an important and, more crucially, a useful bit of work and you should try and get round to at least reading the executive summary.

For those of you who cannot manage that, I shall try to summarise the executive summary here in one paragraph:

The conflict in Afghanistan is increasingly about Afghan government forces against insurgents. The trend is most likely to be of escalating violence into 2015. The prospect for government/insurgent peace talks to move forward seem poor until both parties realise they cannot fully “win”. Case studies of four provinces show a range of factors beyond the Taliban that will further aggravate the conflict – historic, tribal, ethnic and personal feuds. Fighting, friction and flaws within pro-government forces will serve to destabilise and Pakistan will remain a safe haven for insurgents. We will likely see a confident (perhaps overly so) Taliban field larger numbers of fighters onto the battlefield in the absence of dominant US airpower. International support – funds, training and hardware – will be crucial to hold up the Afghan army. The years to come will not just be about fighting the Taliban; the conflict challenges go much deeper than this.

I found the report really helpful and thorough – the case studies of four key provinces give a convincing flavour of the diversity of security issues across the country – Afghanistan truly “not a monolith”:

Faryab: “a stark warning about how the situation may deteriorate in outlying provinces after the departure of foreign troops”.

Kunar: “…most locals agreed that the war continue and likely escalate”.

Paktia: “government forces seem capable of standing on their own, provided they stop fighting each other”.

Kandahar: “Violence increased across the province…the increasing presence of Afghan forces and their brutal tactics are breeding resentment.”

We see how the departure of US troops in one province leads to a reduction in fighting, whereas in another province, the withdrawal of ISAF sees an increase in violent incidents.
In the end, the paper is misnamed and confused me slightly. It isn’t so much about the “Insurgency after the Transition” as much as it is about wider conflict challenges – ethnic, tribal, warlords, local grievances, ANSF problems, facing Afghanistan. The introduction more or less confirms this: (“this paper focuses primarily on the challenges faced by the Afghan security forces). And it is a better paper for it, in directing our attention towards this line of thinking, but it could have spelt this out more prominently, in particular the risks to the country from inherent flaws of capability and political control within the ANSF.

Further to this, then, the paper’s analysis on the Taliban – capabilities, options, strategy, plans etc was weak. It notes at the beginning that it does not interview any Taliban members. I am still waiting with interest to hear ICGs detailed thoughts on the insurgency – where are the Taliban going? Why? How?

But the paper also very helpfully emphasises the sheer difficulty of reporting these days – many factors conspire to make information trickier to come by and analysis much harder (“Districts that seem peaceful may be controlled by insurgents”). Often, Afghan security troops simply stop patrolling in the dangerous areas so information and reports dry up and the area looks more peaceful. Statistical analysis remains a bugbear. Some definitions of “violent incidents” can equate a single gunshot with a four hour stand-up firefight. I remember a senior US commander in Kabul in 2011 picking this point apart intensely during a video conference, primarily, as I recall, because he was concerned the stats were not looking so good. Use of positive or negative spin complicates and the issue of just who is fighting who is thrown into stark relief: “We blame the Taliban for the violence but in many cases we’re fighting each other”.

It struck me that the Taliban don’t have a coherent strategy or plan.  Whether they are victims of their own hype or not, they seem to naively assume that they can take over the country. This to me points to the realistic possibility of a military stalemate for several years and is roughly what I concluded when I studied the post-2014 conflict options last year. Internal government tensions, inter-faction fighting over power and resources in the provinces and the political pressures on the ANSF should be significant issues for study: “Taliban leaders do not have a monopoly on rebellion in Afghanistan” is a very important point. Are Afghan army and police forces going to be able to embrace a population-centric approach or will people weary of their clumsy tactics? Will the police revert to roadblocks as a means of ensuring regular salaries as a replacement for those that don’t arrive from Kabul?  The ICG report suggests that this already seems to be standard in some areas.

The years to come will not just be about fighting the Taliban; the conflict challenges go much deeper than this.

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