September 13, 2011

Ten years later, dissatisfaction runs deep in Afghanistan

Tuesday, 13 September 2011 23:33
Vanda Felbab Brown

If the US fails to provide Afghans with a stable and effective Government, the consequences will be dire and pose fresh security challenges. Even the narrow counter-terrorism objectives will be undermined

Ten years after 9/11 US narrow counter-terrorism objectives in Afghanistan seem to be satisfied. The success of the larger project — establishing a stable national Government in Afghanistan capable of delivering essential public goods, including security, and having enough legitimacy to survive and anchoring it in a solid regional arrangement — however remains a huge question mark. The Afghan National Army is improving as a force capable of providing security to the Afghan population and assuring Kabul’s writ; though whether the improvements are sufficient remains yet to be seen. But political trends and the quality of governance in Afghanistan continue to be deteriorating and are increasingly generating pressures towards civil war. Thus even increases in security may not lead to greater stability if Afghans’ confidence in the future does not increase.
Some argue that the accomplishment of the minimal counter-terrorism objectives of killing Al Qaeda’s unifying and symbolic leader Osama bin Laden and disrupting Al Qaeda’s safe havens in Afghanistan are sufficient to declare the effort accomplished and rapidly pull out of Afghanistan. But if the large project of a stable and effective Government in Kabul fails, of a great likelihood at this point, the consequences for US national security and foreign policy objectives will be dire, and even the narrow counter-terrorism objectives will be undermined.
Better Life for Afghans
In many ways, the conditions of millions of Afghans are considerably better 10 years after the overthrow of the Taliban Government. Economic opportunities have expanded for many. (In fact, well-positioned Afghans have taken advantage of the US presence to reap unprecedented rents). Millions of children are back to school and have better access to health care. In many parts of Afghanistan, especially cities like Kabul, Afghan women enjoy considerably greater social opportunities. The human capital of Afghanistan, especially among its large young population, has significantly increased. And at least some Ministries are developing an increasing capacity to provide administration and governance.
Yet insecurity and violence persist and undermine the fragile socio-economic accomplishments. Moreover, the scaling down of US and international involvement will likely shrink much of the political and social space necessary for the expansion and consolidation of these accomplishments. The possibility of yet another civil war after the majority of US troops leave Afghanistan looms large.
The Complex Military Battlefield and the Diminishing US Leverage
The surge of US military forces did reverse the Taliban military momentum in Afghanistan’s south. Many middle-level Taliban commanders have been removed from the battlefield, disrupting the Taliban’s operational capacity and logistical networks. Rank-and-file Taliban soldiers in the south are feeling the heat and many are exhausted by the fighting. Some important and some symbolic Taliban strongholds have been retaken from the Taliban. Ordinary Afghans even in areas that bore the brunt of US fighting, such as Lashkar Gah and Arghandab, are wary of the handover of those areas to the Afghan national security forces and do not necessarily welcome the pull back of US forces from their areas, fearing the return of the Taliban.
Yet it would be a mistake to interpret these accomplishments as a clear Taliban defeat in the south. Yes, the Taliban there is no longer capable of mounting major military operations. But it has learned that targeted assassinations of key political and tribal figures and Government officials and persistent insidious intimidation accomplish many of its objectives. Some supposedly-cleared areas, such as Mallajat, an important sub-district of Kandahar City, have seen a substantial deterioration of security already.
Moreover, the Taliban understands that time is on its side. The June announcement by President Barack Obama of the drawback of US forces also defined the mission in increasingly narrow counter-terrorism terms and indicated that the US is leaving Afghanistan irrespective of the conditions on the ground. From the Taliban perspective, there is no need now to mount extensive military operations: All it needs to do is to maintain a persistent level of insecurity sufficient to prevent the Government from delivering public goods and to discredit in the eyes of the local population the capacity of ANSF to provide adequate security. Its spate of bombing attacks in areas handed over to ANSF in June indicates these tactics are indeed two key elements of its strategy. From now through 2014 when the US greatly reduces its troop deployments, it is thus not necessary for the Taliban to visibly control territory in order to maintain enough social control. In fact, the logical strategy for the Taliban now is to hold back.
A key responsibility of the US President is to balance domestic and foreign imperatives, assess objectives against their costs, and be responsive to the evaluations that the US polity is making about such trade-offs. But the outcome of his June and previous decisions regarding the US strategy in Afghanistan is that with every passing day, the US military and political influence in Afghanistan will be declining and the US ability to shape developments on the ground and in the broader region will be shrinking rapidly. An agreement on a long-term US-Afghanistan partnership may resurrect some of the US influence and to some extent assure Afghans of a US long-term commitment to their country (if it is specific and credible), but it is unlikely to bring the leverage the US enjoyed before the drawdown decision. Nor is it likely to sufficiently reduce the Afghans’ profound insecurity over the anticipated collapse of the existing political order and hence sway them away from hedging on all side and seeking to maximise power and profit before it all comes down. Such perfectly rational individual decisions however fundamentally undermine the prospect of avoiding a major political meltdown in 2014 and the possibility of a civil war.
The quality of the Afghan national security forces, on which preserving stability hinges to a great extent, also still remains questionable. The Afghan National Police in particular continue to suffer from many vices and deficiencies, not the least of which is an absolute lack of capacity to suppress crime — the scourge of the lives of Afghans that eviscerates their security and provides a perfect mobilisation platform for the Taliban. The Afghan National Army has made large progress: Not only has it grown in size, but also its quality has improved. The coming two years will show how much capacity to tackle the Taliban and other forms of insecurity it has. But even the ANA represents hardly a clear-cut success. Worrisomely, it appears that it is deeply ethnically-factionalised, not to mention the fact that most of its high-level commanders continue to be northerners and that southern Pashtuns exhibit little interest in signing up for even rank-and-file positions. Thus, there is a real danger that the ANA may fracture along ethnic lines and around particular commanders when the foreigners leave.
The militias mushrooming around Afghanistan with or without the encouragement of ISAF often prove unreliable and incapable of standing up to the Taliban, yet they frequently bring other forms of insecurity to an area and undermine good governance and peaceable relations within and among Afghan communities. The Afghan Local Police, one of such militia forces, has the most stringent oversight mechanisms compared to the other militias, but even in its case, the oversight exists mainly during the vetting phase of standing it up. Even in the ALP’s case, established mechanisms are lacking for rolling it back should some of its units go rogue. Moreover, precisely because the absolutely necessary vetting takes time, the ALP currently numbers in the low thousands, with a growth of about 1,000 ALP fighters per half-a-year; thus the ALP can hardly be counted upon as a game-changer. However, sacrificing the vetting procedures and rushing to stand up the ALP faster will likely plunge it into the same abuse and unreliability problems that other militia forces have exhibited, only intensifying conflict dynamics in Afghanistan.
In the eastern Afghanistan, the military situation so far has been one of a stalemate but at increasing levels of violence. The Taliban has managed to reverse some of ISAF’s gains there in 2006, and the level of insecurity has increased considerably. The insurgency there — a mixture of the Haqqani network and hard-core salafi fighters from around the world — is vicious and a highly potent military force; willing to prosecute Pakistan’s anti-India objectives, yet at the same time deeply sympathetic to the Pakistani Taliban’s objective of bringing down the Pakistani Government; and highly motivated to strike the US and Western targets abroad. ISAF is now grappling with an acute dilemma of how many of its forces to pull back from Afghanistan’s south and deploy them to the east. A significant troop reduction in the south can jeopardise the gains there, but it may be necessary to degrade the potency of the eastern insurgency that is far more dangerous to the US from a counter-terrorism standpoint. Moreover, Pakistani anti-Government groups, such as Tehrik-i-Taliban-Pakistan, are now using eastern Afghanistan as a safe haven, giving the impression to some in the Pakistani military and intelligence services that the US is using their tool of tolerating militant safe havens as a way to teach them a lesson. Pakistan wants the eastern Afghanistan safe havens the anti-Pakistan militants are using closed.
The north of Afghanistan experienced a steady decline in security even as the military surge was taking place in the south, precipitating the deployment of a US brigade to the north earlier this year. The Taliban has been rather effectively mobilising among the northern Pashtuns who feel discriminated by Tajiks. It has also been exploiting other ethnic tensions, such as between Tajiks and Uzbeks, as well as the popular disenchantment with some of the north’s notorious commanders cum governors. Its assassination campaign against key leaders in the north has left Kunduz, Baghlan, and even other northern provinces deeply destabilized.
Shrinking Patronage Networks, Exclusionary Rent-seeking and Massive Political Tensions
The political situation overall in the country is at its worse since 2002. Political patronage networks have been shrinking and becoming more exclusionary, including those surrounding President Hamid Karzai nd the Arg Palace. Afghans are profoundly alienated from the national Government and other power arrangements they face and deeply dissatisfied with the inability and unwillingness of Kabul to provide elemental public goods and with the pervasive corruption of the country’s power elites. Local Government officials had only had a limited capacity and motivation to redress the broader governance deficiencies.
The level of inter-elite infighting, much of it along ethnic and regional lines, is also at the decade’s peak. The result is pervasive hedging on the part of key power-brokers, including by their resurrecting semi-clandestine or officially-sanctioned militia forces. Undertones of preparations for a civil war are sounding more strongly.
(The writer is fellow, Foreign Policy, 21st Century Defense Initiative. The Brookings Institution.)
To be concluded

No comments: