Editor’s Note: The following article is the last in a seven-part series of reports based on the author’s fieldwork in Afghanistan in April 2012. In this piece, she discusses the implications of the 2014 transition. Read Felbab-Brown’s other recent reports on Afghanistan in “
Firefight in Kabul
” and “
The Road to Jalalabad
.” She also writes about the 2014 withdrawal of U.S. forces in “
The U.S.-Afghanistan Strategic Partnership
“, ISAF’s logistical challenges and the complex political realities in northern Afghanistan in “
Crossing the Salang
,” the Afghan Local Police and other self-defense forces in Afghanistan in “
The Afghan Local Police: It’s Local, So It Must Be Good…Or Is It?
“, and the counternarcotics policies in Afghanistan in “
Counternarcotics Policy in Afghanistan
The year 2014 will mark a critical juncture in Afghanistan’s future. After a decade of extensive international engagement and arduous fighting in Afghanistan, the international presence will be significantly reduced and circumscribed. Although the international community has committed itself not to abandon Afghanistan as it did in the 1990s, the onus will be on the Afghan government to provide for the security of its country and its economic development.
If security can be maintained and improved, Afghanistan’s mineral riches can start generating vast revenues in years to come. Their wise andAfghans are thirsty for sovereignty. Many, especially those living in highly-contested areas, are tired of the foreigners’ presence. At the same time, Afghans are also deeply afraid of the post-2014 future. A disintegration of the country into yet another phase of civil war is on everyone’s mind. Indeed, various preparations for a possible civil war are under the way. Ethnic tensions are running at the decade’s peak, and are reflected in the resurrection of militias, strengthening of alignments with powerful local patrons, and hardening of ethnic networks. Many Afghans are hedging their bets, often giving, for example, two sons for the Afghan National Army (ANA) and two sons to the Taliban, thereby maximizing their chances of aligning with the winning side – no matter who winds up in power when the fighting ends. In this context of great uncertainty, the dominant tendency is to operate on the basis of short-term horizons, and to maximize power and profit before it all comes down.
But a complete post-2014 crash is not inevitable. Afghans are afraid of a civil war, but they are also weary of it. The post-2001 period brought great improvements to the lives of many Afghans, expanding their social and economic opportunities. Those well-positioned were able to reap unprecedented profits. A new educated energetic generation has emerged over the decade and exhibits the capacity to rise above ethnic factionalization and narrow, self-interested profit maximization. Even those poor Afghans whose life over the past decade has involved eking out only a bare existence, while back-and-forth fighting and Taliban intimidation continued to ravage their homes, do not want to see their hardships augmented by a full-blown civil war.
Afghanistan’s future is not preordained, and the transition strategy is a plausible path to a stable Afghanistan. Many large uncertainties surround it, and major challenges persist, challenges for which the international community does not have easy responses or ready strategies. But it can still work, and there are really no alternative policies available that would preserve the security, social, and economic accomplishments in Afghanistan, and vindicate the large blood and treasure investments of the international community and the Afghan people.
The Military Transition and Its Challenges
The lynchpin of the transition strategy and its most developed element is the gradual transfer of responsibility from ISAF to Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) for Afghanistan’s security and for fighting the still-entrenched Taliban. The size of the ANSF has been expanding rapidly, and the quality of military skills of the Afghan forces has also been improving. The ANSF continue to be challenged in some critical domains, such as command and control, intelligence, air support, and specialty enablers. But there are still two years to grow the ANSF’s capacity, and the expectation is that the international community will continue providing these critical assets after 2014.
The ANSF, particularly the ANA and the Afghan National Police (ANP), are also being increasingly battle-tested. In tranches, parts of Afghanistan are being handed to the ANSF to be the dominant security provider. In those areas, the ISAF is frequently deployed only when called upon by ANSF. So far, out of the five-part transition, two tranches have been completed, and a third tranche is planned to transferred soon.
How the ANSF handles especially the third tranche will be critical, because, so far, they have taken charge of mainly stable or secured areas. Yes, there have been some tough places, such as Lashkar Gah and other parts of the Helmand province where the Taliban presence has previously been robust, but the ANSF has yet to take over areas that are still being violently contested. How they perform during the third tranche will be the most telling indicator so far of their likely performance after 2014; Especially in eastern Afghanistan, where the fighting can get very tough, since the East did not receive the same level of ISAF reinforcements as Afghanistan’s south during the surge. But even the significant security improvements in the south are fragile. The Taliban will have every incentive to bloody the nose of the ANSF there to show that the transition strategy is not working, and that ANSF cannot stand up to them once the internationals’ presence is reduced. If the ANSF can respond robustly that will be an important sign that it can hold its own after 2014.
One of the major deficiencies of the military-side of the transition strategy is its one-way direction. The transition is supposed to be conditions-based, and to an extent it is. ISAF’s recommendations of which districts are selected for handover to Afghan responsibility are based on a rather comprehensive assessment of the security situation, quality of governance, and strategic significance of the areas. But ultimately, the transfer decision lies with President Hamid Karzai and his principal advisor for transition, Ashraf Ghani. Complex political considerations, including ethnic balancing, at times influence the transfer decisions, despite ISAF’s advice. More worrisome, there is very little scope in the handover strategy for NATO forces to go robustly back into an area that was handed over to the Afghans, if the original assessment of handover readiness proves incorrect. Squeezed by the internationals’ timelines, such as the U.S. military drawdown schedule, the transition process is essentially a one-way street. Neither the foreign capitals nor the Afghan government have appetites for anything but scaling back the international military presence.
Yet what level of U.S. and ISAF military support for the ANSF will remain after 2014 is still be determined. No decision has been made about the number of U.S. and other international troops nor the character of their mission been defined. Ideally, the ISAF will embed advisors within Afghan units, which is necessary both for mentoring the units and for integrating U.S.-provided air support. Other assets that the ANSF will continue to need for some time include foreign assistance with intelligence, command and control, medical evacuation, and specialty advisors. But if the post-2014 mission of international, including U.S., troops is defined very narrowly as self-interested anti-al-Qaeda/ anti-global-jihad operations only, the mentoring capacity will collapse. Nor will Afghans overall be reassured or even welcoming of a foreign presence that exposes them to the risk of terrorist retaliation, but does little to satisfy their need of much more broadly-defined security and improved governance.
Moreover, as ISAF forces are thinning out, they will be more and more dependent on ANSF for intelligence – both for understanding the broader dynamics in Afghanistan and even for narrow counterterrorism missions. The likelihood will grow that intelligence will be manipulated to eliminate rivals by labeling them the Haqqanis, for example, or that there will be insufficient understanding of the delicate intricacies of Afghan politics, such as the Taliban reintegration process. It will be all the worse if the widely-reported fight among Afghan intelligence and security services goes beyond interagency rivalry experienced in most countries and is a symptom of broader ethnic rifts plaguing the ANFS. Similarly, if the government of Afghanistan decides to relegate the international military forces to their bases and rarely calls upon them for assistance, such as for night raids, the less effective any continuing international military training can be. The faster ISAF draws down before 2014 and the more limited in size and missions it will after 2014, the more any progress will be jeopardized and chances for stability undermined.
A disturbing big unknown is whether the ANA will be able to withstand the ethnic factionalization that is already fracturing the institution. The issue is not just that the command positions are overwhelmingly dominated by Tajiks, a fact that is resented by Pashtuns. The problem at this point goes deeper, with ethnic fissures running deep through the military. Unless such tendencies are rolled back, such as by rewarding commanders who operate even handedly across the ethnic groups within the ANA and do not seek to cultivate a circle of ethnic friends, the ANA may ethnically fracture after 2014, only intensifying the civil war tendencies.
The ANA is also increasingly weakened by corruption: In some of the best kandaks (a battalion in the ANA), excellent soldiers are not being promoted because they do not have influential friends. Conversely, many extra positions, with the rank of colonel, for example, are being created so that commanders can give payoffs to their loyal supporters. Soldiers from marginalized groups, without powerful patrons, or simply those who cannot afford to pay a bribe are repeatedly posted to tough environments, whereas their better-connected compatriots get cushier postings. Clamping down on such corruption is as important as increasing the ANA numbers.
The ANP has of course been notorious both for such corruption and for intense ethnic factionalization. It is important that the international community continue to demand credible progress against both vices and carefully assesses whether personnel shifts are indeed motivated by efforts to reduce corruption or mask further ethnic rifts and the firing of one’s ethnic rivals.
Critically, the ANP continues to lack an anti-crime capacity, and the anti-crime training it receives is minimal. Instead, the ANP is being stood up as light counterinsurgency forces. Yet crime, such as murders, robberies, and extortion, are the bane of many Afghans’ daily existence. The inability of the Afghan government to respond to crime (and often its complicity in it) allows the Taliban to bring in its own brutal form of order and justice and develop a foothold in Afghan communities. Worse yet, the ANP is notorious for being the perpetrator of many crimes, such as extortion along roads.
However, when the ANSF, including the ANP, perform well, their legitimacy with Afghans increases. The response of the Afghan commandos to the April 15 Kabul attack stimulated a spontaneous support-your-troops campaign throughout Afghanistan, for example. Public appreciation in turn motivates troops to go out and risk their lives and not engage in abusive behavior.
But a major danger regarding the legitimacy and capabilities of the ANSF is the planned reduction in ANSF size after 2014. Although hoped to be consistent with improved security in Afghanistan, the reduction is predominantly driven by an expectation that the international community will not be likely to continue paying the current tab for the ANSF, and the Afghan government will not be able to absorb the costs. Up to 130,000 military and police troops may be fired – yes, gradually, and yes, the currently high attrition rate may reduce the number of those fired considerably. But the force downsizing will still leave a lot of young men, recently trained and issued weapons, without a job. Afghanistan’s unemployment is already running high, and it is precisely the salary motivation that induced many to sign up for the ANSF. Peacefully integrating those young men into Afghanistan’s society will be no smaller challenge than effectively integrating demobilized Taliban fighters. Similarly, there is currently no plan as to how to terminate the Afghan Local Police and other militia programs being stood up in Afghanistan and arming up to ten of thousands of Afghans in their villages and along major roads.
There are no easy solutions to these serious challenges. However, one thing is clear: the faster the international community leaves Afghanistan and the more it reduces its presence, especially its military presence, the more all the negative dynamics will intensify. And at that point, the international community will the fewer means and lesser leverage to combat these challenges.
Negotiations with the Taliban: Still a Question Mark
A rush out of Afghanistan, the U.S.-Afghanistan long-term Strategic Partnership Agreement notwithstanding, will also hamper negotiations with the Taliban. Although so far, the talks have mainly amounted to talking about talking. Despite repeated feelers from various factions of the Taliban, the internationals’ leverage in the negotiations will be all the more limited as their presence thins. The Taliban’s negotiation strategy thus may be to engage in talks without giving up anything while waiting it out until after 2014. The signing of the U.S.-Afghanistan Strategic Partnership Agreement is an important signal to the Taliban that simply waiting it out will not work, since the international community and their militaries will still be present in Afghanistan after 2014. But the shape and content of any negotiations will inevitably be linked to what happens on the military battlefield, as well as 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.
Too much is unknown at this point about what the Taliban could settle for. Certainly, it will be loath to give up any influence it already has in large parts of the country. It may also be leery of simply being allowed to participate in elections, especially at the local level. Its strengths often lie far more in being a spoiler than in delivering good governance beyond order and rough justice. The Taliban faces some tough dilemmas in agreeing to a compromise with Kabul, such as accepting the Afghan constitution. Such a prospect and an overt power sharing deal with Kabul will discredit the group in the eyes of many of its fighters as well as in the eyes of the broader population to whom it appeals on the basis of its claim to be fighting against Kabul’s venal, predatory, and unjust rule. The Taliban decision to withdraw from negotiations last year, for example, can be a maneuver to pacify disquieted young radical middle-level commanders who do not support negotiations.
Similarly, whether the Taliban will be able to abide by the internationals redlines, including breaking with Al Qaeda, is still a major question mark. Elements of the Taliban, especially the Kandahari, 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 factions, such as the Haqqanis. The Taliban can agree to many things, but what will it uphold? The lesser and more narrowly-defined the presence of the international community after 2014, the lesser its capacity to roll back any violation of the peace deal. And such violations do t not have to be blatant takeovers of territory – after 2014, as now, the Taliban can exercise a lot of influence through a far more subtle intimidation.
Meanwhile, the negotiating processes have so far produced far more fear than confidence. President Karzai has felt extremely threatened by the Taliban preference to negotiate with the United States. Despite Washington’s extensive efforts to bring Kabul to the table and reassure the suspicions of the Arg Palace, President Karzai has not trusted Washington not to leave him high and dry by signing a separate deal with the Taliban.
Ironically, as much as the Arg Palace is suspicious of negotiations, so are Afghan minority groups extremely leery of any negotiations with the Taliban. 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. Many in the north are actively arming and resurrecting their patronage networks and militias. Many civil society groups, including women’s organizations, equally lament being left out of the process. Few are satisfied with the performance of the High Peace Council that President Karzai designated to integrate the various Afghan voices into the negotiations and to promote a broad-based societal reconciliation.Under the current circumstances, negotiations with the Taliban are not likely to prove a strategic game-changer.
What a Collapse Could Look Like
If the current political order and security arrangements cannot be sustained, and civil war cannot be averted, it will highly unlikely comprise well-defined fighting along clear division lines. Unlike in the mid-1990s when the Taliban was pushing its way north, there is unlikely to be one well-defined line moving north across the Shomali Plain. Rather, any fighting will be highly localized and complex. Some areas, such as the province of Balkh and most of the province Herat, for example, have a chance of remaining very stable and seeing little fighting. Key local government officials or powerbrokers have these areas firmly in their grip. Other areas, such as the southern province of Kandahar, may be as much contested between the Taliban and ANSF as among various Durrani Pashtun powerbrokers linked to the Afghan government and new “warlords” and powerbrokers who emerged in those areas in the 2000s through the support of the international community, which depended on their services. Unlike in the 1990s when it was leveled by a barrage of outside shelling, Kabul, likely the last place to succumb to any future civil war, would likely instead experience a flaring up of intense street fighting. Rightly or not, many Pashtuns feel that they were disposed from land in Kabul by the influx of Tajiks after 2002.
Increasing instability and outright civil war will also make it irresistible for outside actors, including Iran, Pakistan, Russia, China, and India, 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.
But there is also the possibility of a military coup after 2014, not a rare phenomenon in Afghanistan’s neighborhood. Even with all its deficiencies, the ANA will be one of the most well-trained institutions in Afghanistan. Its commanders, or commanders of a particular ethnic faction within it, whether at the highest levels or at the middle rank, may well consider military rule preferable to a civil war. Given how extremely dissatisfied with the current political system many Afghans are, overwhelmingly seeing it as an exclusionary mafia regime, they may even welcome a coup. Already, calls for a strongman are not infrequent in Afghanistan. But the different groups at odds with each other, Ghilzai Pashtuns, Durrani Pashtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras, and many subgroups under these broad categories, are hardly likely to agree on who the strongman should be. President Karzai is no doubt conscious of the coup specter. Already, his relationship with the ANSF, and the ANA in particular, is at arm’s length at best. Rather than trying to develop a strong control over and relationship with the ANSF, he has preferred to operate by dividing and co-opting his rivals.
Governance Reforms: Necessary, but How Likely?
It is precisely the fractured political system and poor governance that are the biggest hole in the transition strategy. Afghans are deeply dissatisfied with a government and power structures they see as rapacious, capricious, and unaccountable. Indeed, governance in Afghanistan post-2002 has been characterized by weakly functioning state institutions unable and unwilling to enforce laws and policies uniformly. Official and unofficial powerbrokers have issued exceptions from law enforcement to their networks of clients, who can thus reap high economic benefits. Political patronage networks have been shrinking and becoming more exclusionary. Ordinary Afghans have become disconnected and profoundly alienated from the national government and the society’s other power arrangements. They are deeply dissatisfied with Kabul’s inability and unwillingness to provide basic public services and with the widespread corruption of the power elites. They despise the impunity that has characterized the post-2001 era.
Local government officials have had only a limited capacity and motivation to redress the broader governance deficiencies. Many are unable and unwilling to rise above narrow exclusionary communal patronage networks. In highly militarily contested localities, poor governance easily undermines any security improvements and pulls in new instability. Corrupt and incompetent government officials are rarely fired or punished for their misbehavior – mostly they are just posted to another locality.
The presidential elections of 2014 (or 2013 should they be advanced as has been suggested) provide an opportunity for governance reforms. But they can also be a trigger for major political 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. Yet it is critical that the international community engages in advance planning and devotes maximum leverage to assure that the next presidential elections in Afghanistan are as credible and legitimate as possible.
Unfortunately, the international community’s position on governance has been ambivalent at best. Its strategy thus oscillated between tolerating corruption for the sake of other goals — with the justification that Afghans are used to corruption anyway– or confronting it head on, but with little effectiveness. Ignoring corruption is often justified as prioritizing stability, but since corruption and the lack of rule of law are key mobilizing mechanisms for the Taliban and source of Afghans’ anger with their government, it is doubtful that stability can be achieved without addressing at least the most egregious corruption.
The transition strategy is also supposed to entail a transition in the international community’s dealings with the Afghan government and responding to poor governance. The internationals’ declining willingness to simply continue committing blood and treasure for the sake of Afghanistan’s stability could lead to a welcome international scrutiny of the funds flowing into Afghanistan and insistence on better governance. In fact, many international officials are speaking about moving toward a transactional relationship with Afghanistan, in which only good governance performance will be rewarded with development (and perhaps even military) funding. But the level of scrutiny and monitoring will once again be dependent on the level of the internationals’ presence. Moreover, even transactional relationships can be subverted: Pakistan, for example, has become a master in getting maximum payoffs from Washington and the international community and delivering a minimum in return. And Kabul too can play Islamabad’s game that a collapse in its country would be so dangerous to the international community, by once again becoming a haven for terrorism, for example, that the international community cannot afford, and hence cannot push the country’s leaders too far in their demands or impose too strong punitive measures. After all, Kabul can ask, who would want to jeopardize all the massive international investments made in Afghanistan?
The political and governance system in Afghanistan is, in fact, so pervasively corrupt and so deeply and intricately linked to key structures of power and networks of influence, that some prioritization of anti-corruption focus is required. Such prioritization could include a focus on systematic tribal discrimination, corruption and ethnic discrimination in the ANSF, corruption that undermines fragile legal markets, such as illegal road tolls, and massive fraud in the Afghan banking system. Finally, efforts to undermine effective, nondiscriminatory local officials should not be tolerated.
A chance to push such governance reforms through will be augmented if the international community finds a way to work through President Karzai rather than against him. The Obama Administration’s early confrontation with Karzai over corruption left him deeply suspicious of and outright antagonistic toward Washington without making him improve governance or tackle corruption. Many aspects of the transition strategy will be hampered if the relationship between Kabul and Washington deteriorates further. However, it may not be impossible to persuade President Karzai that he is likely to lose much more from a collapse in Afghanistan than from a transition away from his system of rule and toward improved governance.
The process of negotiations with the Taliban could provide an opportunity for improving governance. But that will be the case only if negotiations are designed as an inclusive process that brings in multiple political stakeholders, including non-Pashtun ethnic groups and civil society representatives. Such groups should include not just women’s and Western-style non-governmental organizations, but also representatives of marginalized tribes and Islamist movements. To the extent that Washington seeks to strike a deal at all costs and that negotiations become close-to-the-vest bargaining among the United States, Afghan powerbrokers, Pakistan’s intelligence services and key Taliban factions, they will merely reward the Taliban’s military tenacity and produce neither improvements in governance nor national stability.
Structuring negotiations in a way that broadens political representation in Afghanistan will be very difficult. The negotiating process is easily subverted by a myriad of spoilers – from factions within the Taliban, to the country’s ethnic factions, to a mistrusting Arg Palace, to tribal factions and power cliques within the non-Taliban Pashtuns, to neighbors such as Pakistan.
Pakistan remains a deeply problematic factor in the transition process. Even as Afghans from all walks of life and all ethnic groups expect the United States to solve the Pakistan problem for Afghanistan and once and for all stop Pakistan’s meddling in Afghanistan’s affairs, the United States and the international community are unlikely to develop such a capacity between now and 2014. Uncertainties about Afghanistan’s future are likely to only further harden Pakistan’s determination to cultivate proxies in Afghanistan and subvert processes it cannot control or sees as not consistent with its interests. So far, at least, Pakistan has proven impervious and clever in resisting pressure from Washington. While engaging with Pakistan – persuading and rewarding it for good behavior as well as cajoling and pressuring it — clearly needs to be a key priority of the transition strategy, it is unlikely to suddenly start producing vastly different outcomes. But if Afghanistan can get its own house in order and significantly improve governance, it will be far less vulnerable to troubles stirred up by Pakistan.
A young educated generation is growing in Afghanistan that shows willingness to take on massive governance challenges in the country. Many young leaders, lawyers, and human rights activists eagerly speak of rising above ethnic factionalization and about improving governance, service delivery, and accountability. The ideas they put forth to improve governance include devolution of power from Kabul to provinces and districts, allowing for local taxation and elections of lower-level government officials. They call for an electoral reform to end the current distortive single-non-transferrable vote system, allow the formation of political parties, and reduce electoral corruption. With passion, they also call for ending the current rule of impunity and bringing warlords, powerbrokers, and criminals, including those at the highest levels and with the greatest power, to justice, by subjecting them to the justice systems and removing them from government positions. Many of these young Afghans are impressive and inspiring. But obviously should they ever be in a position to implement such po
In the Middle East, we have learned everything is interconnected, and if we do one thing in one area, it can come at the cost of something else.