Afghanistan Ten Years after 9/11: Counterterrorism Accomplishments while a Civil War Is Lurking?

Ten years after 9/11 U.S. narrow counterterrorism 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 toward 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 counterterrorism 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 U.S. national security and foreign policy objectives will be dire, and even the narrow counterterrorism objectives will be undermined.

Better Life for Afghans

In many ways, the conditions of millions of Afghans are considerably better ten years after the overthrow of the Taliban government. Economic opportunities have expanded for many. (In fact, well-positioned Afghans have taken advantage of the U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. troops leave Afghanistan looms large.

The Complex Military Battlefield and the Diminishing U.S. Leverage

The surge of U.S. 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 U.S. fighting, such as Lashkar Gah and Arghandab, are wary of the handover of those areas to the Afghan national security forces (ANSF) and do not necessarily welcome the pull back of U.S. 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 subdistrict 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 U.S. forces also defined the mission in increasingly narrow counterterrorism terms and indicated that the United States 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 United States 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 U.S. president is to balance domestic and foreign imperatives, assess objectives against their costs, and be responsive to the evaluations that the U.S. polity is making about such tradeoffs. But the outcome of his June and previous decisions regarding the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan is that with every passing day, the U.S. military and political influence in Afghanistan will be declining and the U.S. ability to shape developments on the ground and in the broader region will be shrinking rapidly. An agreement on a long-term U.S.-Afghanistan partnership may resurrect some of the U.S. influence and to some extent assure Afghans of a U.S. long-term commitment to their country (if it is specific and credible), but it is unlikely to bring the leverage the United States 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 sides and seeking to maximize 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 mobilization platform for the Taliban. The Afghan National Army (ANA) 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-factionalized, 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 hardcore 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 U.S. 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 jeopardize the gains there, but it may be necessary to degrade the potency of the eastern insurgency that is far more dangerous to the U.S. from a counterterrorism standpoint. Moreover, Pakistani anti-government groups, such as Tehrik-i-Taliban-Pakistan, are now using eastern Afghanistan as a safehaven, giving the impression to some in the Pakistani military and intelligence services that the United States is using their tool of tolerating militant safehavens as a way to teach them a lesson. Pakistan wants the eastern Afghanistan safehavens 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 U.S. brigade to the north earlier this year. The Taliban has been rather effectively mobilizing 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 and 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 powerbrokers, including by their resurrecting semi-clandestine or officially-sanctioned militia forces. Undertones of preparations for a civil war are sounding more strongly.

The Coming 2014 Political Earthquake

2014 will bring about a triple shock to Afghanistan and its current political dispensation: Not only will ISAF forces be substantially reduced, but U.S. funding will also inevitably decline with the drawdown of U.S. military as well as due to U.S. domestic economic conditions. For a country that it still overwhelmingly dependent on foreign aid and illegal economies for its revenues, the outcome will be a massive economic shrinkage. Although various efforts are now under way to cushion the shock, there are no easy ways to generate revenues and employment in Afghanistan over the next three years, despite Afghanistan’s mineral riches.

Moreover, 2014 is also the year of another presidential election and hence of major power infighting, whether or not President Karzai will seek to remain in power. The fight over the remaining rents of the ending political dispensation and the need to consolidate one’s support camps in anticipation of the shaky future, and hence to deliver spoils to them in order to assure their allegiance, will not be conducive to consensus decision making and broad-based good governance.

If the current political order in Afghanistan indeed collapses, what are the likely outcomes? One likely scenario is a civil war that will resemble less the 1990s when the Taliban line of control progressively moved north past the Shomali plain, and more a highly fractured, highly localized fighting among a variety of groupings and powerbrokers, only one of which will be the Taliban insurgencies. Outside actors, including Iran, Pakistan, Russia, China, and India, will find it irresistible to once again cultivate their favored proxies to prosecute at least their minimal objectives in Afghanistan and the region. Their rivalries in Afghanistan will spill beyond that country and intensify their competition in other domains as well.

An alternative post-2014 political outcome is a military coup. The ANA has two more years of very intensive work to approach becoming a more professional force, and the Afghan Ministry of Defense is likely to be one of the best functioning ministries given the intensive mentoring being provided. A professional army, especially one whose leadership is heavily skewed to northern Tajiks, could well see taking power as the only alternative to civil war as the ISAF forces pull out. The pattern would be familiar to both Afghanistan and the region, including Pakistan and Turkey. Many ordinary Afghans may well prefer a military strongman or junta to a civil war. However, whether such a move could avert civil war would depend on many factors, including the relative strength of the ANA at that time and the willingness of Kandahari Durranis who have ruled the country for centuries to put up with a diminished power in Kabul.

The Pakistan Travails

Pakistan in particular will be ensnared in Afghanistan’s troubles. Ten years after 9/11 Pakistan continues to be preoccupied with India’s ascendance and its perceived ambitions in Afghanistan and deeply distrustful of U.S. objectives there. This distrust has preceded the U.S. raid into Pakistan to kill bin Laden: at a fundamental level, Pakistan still sees its national security objectives as at odds with those of the United States, while its polity is more anti-American than ever. It is suspect of U.S. ultimate goals in Afghanistan and fearful of a U.S. plot to snatch its nuclear weapons, which it sees as the crux of its security with respect to the conventionally-superior India. Moreover, Pakistan also doubts the ability of the United States to establish a secure government in Afghanistan, especially one that will not be hostile to Pakistan. So it pursues cultivating allies in Afghanistan, mainly among the Taliban factions, as a protection policy.

At the same time, the fissiparous and fraying tendencies within Pakistan are intensifying along a multitude of dimensions: Its institutions are hollowed out. Its military is struggling to beat back its internal insurgencies, including worryingly in southern Punjab. Karachi has been a civil-war-like battleground for months. Pakistan’s civil government has been unable to govern even in the economic sphere and abdicated the responsibility for decision making in many other domains. And the country faces many deep long-term challenges of energy and water deficiencies, large population growth, and limited employment opportunities.

In its foreign policy, Pakistan continues to see a pro-Pakistan or at least a not-pro-India government in Kabul as critical for its security. Consequently, it persists in its links and manipulation of the Taliban insurgencies for its purposes, whether on the battlefield or in the developing negotiations among Kabul, the United States, and the Taliban.

Negotiations with the Taliban

Can such negotiations provide a mechanism to avoid the collapse of the existing order in Afghanistan post-2014 and can the U.S. redline of no-support for al Qaeda be assured? It is unlikely that the Taliban would be willing to settle for anything less than a de facto, if not de jure power in Kabul while retaining the power it already has in much of the south. Elements of especially the Kandahari Taliban may well have learned that its association with al Qaeda ultimately cost them their power, but the group also owes many debts to the global jihadist movement. The death of bin Laden may have weakened some of the networks, but reneging on these debts to their global jihadi brothers will be costly for the Taliban, no matter how locally oriented its southern and northern elements are. The Taliban’s decision making on severing its links with other jihadists will be deeply influenced by the relative power between the southern Taliban and the eastern Taliban groupings.

Similarly, the Taliban faces some tough dilemmas in agreeing to a compromise with Kabul, such as accepting the Afghan constitution. Such a promise and an overt power sharing deal with Kabul will discredit the group with respect to many of its fighters as well as with respect to the broader population to whom it appeals on the basis of Kabul’s venal, predatory, and unjust behavior.

Its best negotiation strategy is thus akin to its best fighting strategy: Engage in talks without giving up anything while waiting it out to after 2014. The shape and content of negotiations is inevitably linked to what happens on the military battlefield and each side’s assessments of its military strength and prospects for achieving a better deal through military means. The Taliban thus does not need to rush to conclude negotiations or commit to substantially giving up its power, such as by disarming, before 2014.

Meanwhile, of course, any negotiations with the Taliban are extremely worrisome to the northerners in Afghanistan. Memories of the Taliban’s brutal rule of the 1990s and the Northern Alliance’s fight against the Taliban loom large in their minds, and they also fear the loss of military and economic power they accumulated during the 2000s. Key northern leaders may prefer a war to a deal that they would see as compromising their security and power.

The Continuing U.S. Interests in Afghanistan

Even in an absence of an outright civil war, the U.S. minimal counterterrorism objectives will be compromised if a stable national government is not capable of effectively ruling from Kabul. Air strikes to decapitate terrorist groups and decimate its fighters depend to some degree on human intelligence. Once the U.S. presence shrinks, local proxies in Afghanistan are likely to provide only self-servicing intelligence, such as that which hurts their political rivals, no matter how large payoffs the United States will offer them.

A very unstable Afghanistan or one in an outright civil war will allow the global salafi movement to once again claim victory there over a superpower and provide an important psychological fillip to it at a time when its appeal in the Muslim world is waning.

Moreover, an unstable Afghanistan will be like an ulcer bleeding into Pakistan, further destabilizing that country and discouraging its elites to find a modus vivendi with India and focus on its internal challenges.

What Can Still Be Done?

With the shrinking U.S. influence and determination to significantly scale down its involvement in Afghanistan, what can be done to avert this disastrous outcome, beyond more intense training of and partnering with the Afghan National Army?

  • Developing mechanisms to reduce ethnic fractionalization in the ANA will be critical.

  • Working on removing Taliban commanders and groups from the battlefield – whether through fighting, reintegration, or strategic-level negotiations – has some potential of reducing the overall level of instability come 2014.

  • It is important to try to encourage the widening of political patronage networks to give a greater number of Afghans a stake in the preservation of the current political order. Persuading President Karzai to adopt such a view however requires a radical improvement in the U.S. relationship with the Afghan president.

  • Focusing on the most destabilizing corruption, such as in the Afghan security forces and that which is very ethnically and tribally discriminatory, should be a key priority as well as mitigating at least the most outrageous abuses of Afghan powerbrokers, including those through which ISAF prosecutes its military objectives.

  • To improve governance and reduce rent incentives for perpetuating instability, the United States should significantly curtail aid flows to unstable areas and instead allocate resources to projects where existing security and governance arrangements permit vigilant monitoring and which are sustainable in the long term.  

  • Efforts to reduce political tensions also must include an early focus on providing for an acceptable power transition in Afghanistan in 2014 that can enjoy at least some elite consensus and some popular support. Reasonably clean elections would be an optimal mechanism, but that may be elusive at this point, given the shrinking leverage the international community has.

  • Finally, reinforcing existing institutions that are performing reasonably well, such as particular ministries, may boost the administrative capacity of the state to wither the political earthquake of 2014.

Even a successful implementation of these steps does not guarantee that political stability in Afghanistan can be preserved beyond 2014 and that a civil war can be avoided. However, in the absence of a renewed determination to stay longer in Afghanistan with a robust military deployment, the U.S. influence and options for policy intervention have shrunk.