Afghanistan: Prospects for 2017
Summary: Whichever way you look at it, 2017 will be like any other of the last ten years for Afghanistan: bloody, volatile, costly and uncertain. The prospects for viable negotiations between insurgents and government look slim and the government will struggle to hold itself together. A significant risk to the Afghan regime’s stability would be a precipitate removal of American support by a Trump administration.
I realise that, since around 2002, I have annually been attempting to assess and summarise the prospects for Afghanistan in some way. When I first started professional analysis of Afghanistan, in November 2001, I did not have any concept whatsoever that I could still be doing this – and outside of government – a decade and a half later.
But this analytical exercise does not get any easier in the repetition. Often, the default setting has been to take refuge behind a metaphor. One of the most commonly deployed is “glass half full, glass half empty”, perhaps less a coherent analysis and more an expression of optimism or pessimism. Negatively-minded wags would add riders to compound a pessimistic vision: “… but the glass is cracked. And on a wobbly table. On the deck of the Titanic…”
When making these judgements within government analytical bodies, the order of well-worn phrasing couplets could play a part. “Challenges remain, but progress has been made” was often used to hint at optimism without overly committing. Alternatively, “progress has been made, but challenges remain”, generally meant “it has got a bit worse”…
Internally and externally, the 2001 post-Taliban optimism has been slowly eroded. The presidential and parliamentary elections, over 2004 and 2005 probably represented the high point of popular mood. After this, the Taliban began to gain in strength and confidence, ramping up a violent campaign that sucked more international troops into an extensive and complex insurgency campaign. Government corruption and international military mistakes brought many recruits for the Taliban. Neighbours interfered. Pakistan seemed unable to fully reject the Taliban, which had been its favoured proxy for some years. The casualties, cost and political discomfort increased. Many contradictory policies and practices aimed at fighting, reconstructing (or both) were debated and employed: “Another year, another Afghan strategy” indeed.
Although Afghanistan remains intact as a functioning and endorsed member of the international community, multiple and fundamental challenges do still remain. International military and financial support remains a critical life-support system to keep the country functioning and stabilised. This year looks likely to be at least as fragile, destructive and costly as any other year in the last decade.
Many analysts judged that the violence would increase as the country moved beyond 2014. Although, with the gradual reduction in Western forces, intelligence sources and information about the Taliban are starting to dwindle, terror attacks and civilian casualties are both on the rise. The withdrawal of ISAF forces and Afghan government internal tensions ensured that 2015 and 2016 were turbulent. The Afghan armed forces struggled to resist Taliban military operations, suffering reverses and many casualties. In March 2015, The Economist, while recognising the possibilities for talks with the Taliban, gave a pessimistic assessment:
“…prospects for lasting peace in Afghanistan look as bleak as at any time in the 13 years since NATO-led forces ousted the Taliban—only for them to regroup in a long, bloody insurgency. Last year a record 3,700 civilians died in the fighting. As America and other NATO countries pull out their troops, Afghanistan’s own army, less well trained and equipped, is being hammered. It has struggled to find enough recruits to replace those who die or desert. And now the Taliban and other insurgents are preparing for a spring offensive.”
Fighting in Afghanistan remains at high levels. The state is weak and struggles to achieve economic growth, government stability or deal with extensive security and corruption problems. Internal displacement and external flight of Afghan civilians remain significant. Despite 15 years of international and Afghan military effort, the Taliban have an extensive presence and capability in Afghanistan.
A United Nations report released in December 2015, made the following statements about the situation in the country which emphasise the increasing levels of violence (my emphasis in bold):
“The taking of Kunduz City by the Taliban over the period from 28 September to 13 October 2015 and the deterioration of security across the north constituted a major setback for the Government…The military setback in Kunduz City and attacks elsewhere in the country emboldened critics of the Government and saw the emergence of nascent opposition groupings…The overall level of security incidents increased and intensified during the period, as compared with the same period in 2014… From 1 August to 31 October 2015, 6,601 incidents were recorded by the United Nations in the monitoring of security-related developments related to the work, mobility and safety of civilian actors, with the potential to affect the delivery of mandated activities and programmes. The number of incidents represented a 19 per cent increase compared with the same period in 2014, when 5,516 incidents were recorded. The majority of these incidents (62 per cent) were reported in the southern, south-eastern and eastern regions… According to current assessments, control of approximately 25 per cent of districts remains contested throughout the country. The fall of Kunduz City provided the Taliban with significant material gains and had propaganda value. The development highlighted critical deficiencies in the capabilities of the Afghan security forces, including in the areas of logistics and planning, intelligence and air support, and also the need in some cases to strengthen the working relationships between security institutions and civilian authorities…The presence of Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)-affiliated groups remained a concern, particularly in Nangarhar Province, where their presence is the most significant relative to the country as a whole.” 
In the course of intensive fighting in September 2015, the Taliban managed to capture Kunduz city, the sixth largest city in the country. This was a highly public embarrassment for the Afghan government and points to serious flaws in the capabilities of the Afghan army.
“The sudden loss of Kunduz, the first major Afghan city to fall to the Taliban since 2001, says more about the weakness of the U.S.-trained government forces than the strength of the Taliban.
‘All those whispers we’ve heard in recent years about low morale and deep incapacities within the armed forces will now become very loud questions,’ said Michael Kugelman, a senior associate at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. ‘Why couldn’t, or why didn’t, Afghan troops do more earlier to forestall this offensive?’
The Taliban’s surprise, early morning offensive followed months of infiltration, leading critics to blame the government and security forces for failing to grasp the threat and respond effectively to it.
The government decision to retreat quickly to the airport, 6.5 miles south of town, rather than stand and fight was distressingly similar to the collapse of Iraq’s U.S.-backed troops in Ramadi this summer. In both countries, the U.S. spent billions of dollars to stand up military forces which are struggling against less well-equipped and trained insurgents.”
In a bleak statement to the UN Security Council in September 2015, the UN’s Special Representative, Nicholas Haysom noted (with my highlights in bold):
“Afghanistan’s path to stability and self-reliance cannot be taken for granted. The current refugee exodus reflects the despondency of many Afghans. Afghans have clear memories of their recent but violent past, face an opaque future and now keenly monitor their environment for signs of international disengagement or, hopefully, of domestic stabilisation. A clear signal of continued international support will mitigate the uncertainty fuelling this exodus…The conflict continues to take a horrid toll on Afghan civilians. In the first eight months of 2015, UNAMA documented the highest level of civilian casualties since it began records…This year’s conflict has been one of the most intense faced by the Afghan National Security Forces. However, while they are, once again, proving their mettle and resilience, as a number of analysts have observed, insurgents have demonstrated a capacity to mass large numbers of fighters in isolated areas. This has challenged the ANSF’s ability to maintain the ground that they occupy or hold on to it once they have retaken contested sites. As predicated in earlier briefings, we anticipate the intensification of the violence in the country to continue through 2015.”
The emergence of small groups of Islamic State supporters within Afghanistan. This has been noted by many, including President Ghani and the United Nations, and is a new concern, although the threat level is as yet difficult to quantify.
In 2016, the political, military and economic turbulence continued. Although President Ghani’s efforts are generating some piecemeal progressions in governance, society and the economy, there are traditional and enduring problems: insurgency, warlords, unhelpful neighbouring countries and corruption. The government remains dependent on international military and economic engagement. A UN Security Council report in February 2016 described the security situation in the country as “dire”.
In a statement delivered on 9 February 2016 to the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence “Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community”, Afghanistan received its own section. The American Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, gave a highly pessimistic (and, ultimately, highly accurate) judgement, which I record in full here (my highlights in bold):
“The Kabul Government will continue to face persistent hurdles to political stability in 2016, including eroding political cohesion, assertions of authority by local powerbrokers, recurring financial shortfalls, and countrywide, sustained attacks by the Taliban. Political cohesion will remain a challenge for Kabul as the National Unity Government will confront larger and more divisive issues later in 2016, including the implementation of election reforms, long-delayed parliamentary elections, and a potential change by a Loya Jirga that might fundamentally alter Afghanistan’s constitutional order. Kabul will be unable to effectively address its dire economic situation or begin to curb its dependence on foreign aid until it first contains the insurgency, which is steadily chipping away at Afghanistan’s security. In this environment, international financial aid will remain the most important external determinant of the Kabul government’s strength. We assess that fighting in 2016 will be more intense than 2015, continuing a decade-long trend of deteriorating security that will compound these challenges. The fighting will continue to threaten US personnel, our Allies, and international partners—including Afghans—particularly in Kabul and other urban population centers. The Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), with the help of anti-Taliban powerbrokers and international funding, will probably maintain control of most major population centers. However, the forces will very likely cede control of some rural areas. Without international funding, the ANSF will probably not remain a cohesive or viable force.
The Taliban has largely coalesced and is relatively cohesive…The Taliban will continue to test the overstretched ANSF faced with problematic logistics, low morale, and weak leadership.
The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) announced in January 2015 the formation of its Khorasan branch in South Asia, an amalgamation of primarily disaffected and rebranded former Afghan Taliban and Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) members. Despite quick early growth in 2015, ISIL’s Khorasan branch will probably remain a low-level threat to Afghan stability as well as to US and Western interests in the region in 2016.”
In April 2016, the Taliban announced the launch of their annual “spring offensive”, promising and bringing a spring and summer of suicide and guerrilla attacks. On Tuesday 19th April, perhaps the biggest Taliban terrorist explosion yet struck the capital, killing over 60 and injuring hundreds. In July, suicide bomb attacks claimed by Islamic State targeted a peaceful demonstration of the Hazara ethnic community, killing around 80. The insurgency is likely to continue to prosecute its campaign of violence. This will ensure civilian casualties and internal displacement will remain high.
In the summer of 2016, UN and US assessments concurred that the Taliban were holding more territory than at any time since 2001. Highlighting the fluidity of the security situation and the capabilities of the Taliban, in autumn 2016, the Taliban once again managed to break into Kunduz city, briefly seizing control of the city centre.
Civilian casualties continue to rise, according to UNAMA.
In July 2016, the United Nations reported that 5,166 civilians had been either killed or maimed at the halfway mark of 2016 – a record since counting began in 2009. The 2016 third quarter figures were released in October 2016, confirming that casualties were still increasing.
“…latest figures released today by UNAMA for the first three quarters of 2016 show continuing high numbers of civilian casualties from the armed conflict.
Between 1 January and 30 September, UNAMA documented 8,397 conflict-related civilian casualties (2,562 deaths and 5,835 injured) representing a one per cent decrease compared to the same period in 2015. Ground engagements remained the leading cause of civilian casualties, followed by suicide and complex attacks, and improvised explosive devices (IEDs).
‘Increased fighting in densely populated areas makes it imperative for parties to take immediate steps to ensure all feasible precautions are being taken to spare civilians from harm,’ said Tadamichi Yamamoto, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Afghanistan…”
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, commented in July 2016 on the reasons for Afghans to seek asylum and refuge in other countries:
“This report once again lays bare the suffering inflicted on civilians by parties to the conflict in Afghanistan and shows how the conflict deprives them of basic human rights protection, displacing Afghans within their own country and forcing many to seek refuge abroad. As recent events have shown, this sets in motion a cascade of potential human rights abuses and violations that stretch from Afghanistan to the Mediterranean and beyond. The violations documented by UNAMA and my staff must be used by the authorities to hold perpetrators to account if we are to see improvements in human rights protection for Afghans at home and to change the calculus that compels Afghan men, women and children to take enormous risks to flee their country.”
Furthermore, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime announced in October 2016 that opium production in Afghanistan had surged, facilitated in large part by continued security problems in the country:
“Opium production in Afghanistan rose by 43 per cent to 4,800 metric tons in 2016 compared with 2015 levels, according to the latest Afghanistan Opium Survey figures released today by the Afghan Ministry of Counter Narcotics and the UNODC. The area under opium poppy cultivation also increased to 201,000 hectares (ha) in 2016, a rise of 10 per cent compared with 183,000 ha in 2015.
In a statement timed to coincide with the survey’s launch, UNODC Executive Director, Yury Fedotov, said that the new report shows a worrying reversal in efforts to combat the persistent problem of illicit drugs and their impact on development, health and security. Consequently, he urged the international community to lend their support to achieving the sustainable development goals in Afghanistan – including vital work on a peaceful and inclusive society, health, poverty, peace, and gender, among many others.”
Some analysis suggests that the Afghan government effectively now only controls 60% of Afghan territory, with the Taliban controlling 10% and 30% is contested. This New York Times report, from December 2016, draws on senior US military sources and summarises the difficult situation at the end of 2016:
“Afghanistan’s security crisis is fueling new opportunities for Al Qaeda, the Islamic State and other extremist groups, Afghan and American officials say, voicing concerns that the original American mission in the country — removing its use as a terrorist haven — is at risk.
As intense Taliban offensives have taken large portions of territory out of the Afghan government’s hands, those spaces have become the stage for a resurgence of regional and international militant groups… Gen. Joseph L. Votel, the chief of the United States Central Command, said the Afghan government now controls only about 60 percent of the country, the Taliban hold sway over about 10 percent, and the remainder is contested. Which group or groups fill those voids of increasing ungoverned territory in Afghanistan “is something we’ll have to contend with,” he said… Over all, Western and Afghan officials estimate that 40,000 to 45,000 militants are active across Afghanistan. The Taliban are estimated at 30,000 fighters, some of them seasonal. But the rest are foreign militants of different — and often fluid — allegiances, at times competing but mostly on the same side against the Afghan government and its American allies… The immediate existential threat to the Afghan government has been a resurgent Taliban, who officials say have been killing 30 to 50 members of the security forces each day in recent months. The insurgents are directly threatening important provincial capitals and have again made important roadways hazardous or impassable to government forces.”
The Afghan army is suffering many casualties and struggles with poor morale and low capability. But it is likely to broadly remain in the field and in control of key cities and communication routes. There was increasing concern that the Afghan security forces were now contributing to a high proportion of civilian casualties: they are significantly less well-trained than the Western ISAF forces, who largely departed at the end of 2014. The emergence of IS continues to complicate matters, as disgruntled local Taliban fighters weigh old loyalties against a new and potentially better resourced form of jihad. Even by the low benchmarks of Afghanistan, genuine progress on any form of peace dialogue looks unlikely in 2017.
It is difficult to give categoric and confident assessments of the security situation – particularly whether it has decreased or improved. Data is poor and sporadic: the international community – journalists and intelligence – has reduced its focus on the country. Terminology that might help us define “improving” or “deteriorating”(for example, the distinction between “controlled” or contested” districts) and criteria pertaining to fighting levels, casualties and level of “control” one side or another has is also debatable.
Nevertheless, despite some dispute over statistics, I believe the security situation has deteriorated overall since the international forces withdrew at the end of 2014 – and the situation was not good then. I would highlight the following as key indicators:
- “A state of continual emergency”: A significant increase in the number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) as a result of conflict – three times that of 2014 and six times that of 2012. Over 600,000 Afghanistan were internally displaced in 2016 and the UN predicts another 450,000 on top of this in 2017.
- Increasing civilian casualty levels between 2009 and 2016.
- A major downturn in Afghan public optimism according to opinion polls.
- Increasing casualties amongst Afghan security forces.
- Significant increase in drug production (by 43% between 2015-2016).
- Increase in level of Taliban control across districts in Afghanistan:
“…the ANDSF [Afghan National Defence and Security Forces] has not yet been capable of securing all of Afghanistan and has lost territory to the insurgency. As of August 28, 2016, USFOR-A reported that only 63.4% of the country’s districts were under Afghan government control or influence a reduction from the 72% as of November 27, 2015.”.
Some Afghan officials have claimed that the key province of Helmand is now 85% controlled by the Taliban.
Russia, legitimately concerned about this instability on its southern flank and likely emboldened by its diplomatic and military successes at the expense of the US in Syria, appears to be attempting to re-insert itself politically into Afghan security debates. Recent tri-lateral meetings between Russia, China and Pakistan have declared concern over the deteriorating situation and an interest in assisting with the reconciliation between the Afghan government and the insurgency. All well and good, but this looks like a competition to provide an “alternative” solution: the US, India, and even the official Afghan government, appear to be sidelined by these initiatives.
But perhaps the biggest concern is the arrival in the White House of Donald Trump. Mr Trump has made it clear that he intends to re-evaluate and radically downsize costly American international commitments – may well herald a new period of declining US military support and dis-engagement in 2017. The only thing that is clear is that we have very little real sense of how this American political realignment might play out in the context of Afghanistan. Mr Trump has expressed extensive frustration at the amount of money the US is spending on military commitments across the world, including scathing attacks on NATO members who fail to pay their way. The US is still spending billions of dollars in Afghanistan. Much of this, according to very credible reporting from SIGAR, is still be wasted through inefficiency and corruption:
History often repeats. The obvious historical parallel that would be thrown up by a rapid reversal of US political, military and financial support for Afghanistan is the abrupt 1992 Soviet termination of money and equipment provided to the Najibullah regime. Najibullah’s government, propped by the Soviets from a distance, managed to survive for three years, from 1989-1992, after the withdrawal of the Soviets (despite multiple predictions to the contrary at the time). Nature hates a vacuum: Russia, Pakistan, Iran, India and multiple insurgent and warlord groups would compete to fill it. This would be highly destabilising for Afghanistan and the entire regime.
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