As the United States tries to wind down its military participation in Afghanistan’s counterinsurgency after more than a decade of struggles against Al Qaeda and the Taliban, Afghanistan’s future remains precarious at best. The Taliban and its affiliated insurgent groups, such as the Haqqani Network and Hezb-e-Islami, are still deeply entrenched. New international jihadi groups, such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), may also be trying to establish themselves in Afghanistan. An atmosphere of uncertainty regarding ongoing difficult security, political, and economic transitions has pervaded Afghanistan since the beginning of 2013. This uncertainty culminated during the highly-contested presidential election of 2014, and then somewhat eased after the installation of the National Unity Government (NUG) of President Ashraf Ghani and his chief executive officer and rival Abdullah Abdullah. But fundamental structural problems of the new government soon became visible and after eight months remained unaddressed. The country’s deep and broad political divisions and wounds, exacerbated by the presidential election, have not begun to heal. And looming on the horizon are new political crises, likely to be generated by parliamentary elections and particularly a Loya Jirga that in 2016 is supposed to reform the constitution. The Jirga could alter the basic power arrangements in Afghanistan, and will codify or undo the President-CEO structure of the National Unity Government. Moreover, the economic outlook in 2015 and for several years to come remains dim.
Meanwhile, the 2015 fighting season between the Taliban and Afghan security forces is turning out to be the bloodiest on record since 2001. Insecurity has significantly increased throughout the country, civilian deaths have shot up, and the Afghan security forces are taking large, and potentially unsustainable, casualties. Other deficiencies of the Afghan security forces persist. That does not mean that the Taliban is not suffering from many challenges, including from ISIS, or that it has the capacity to hold a large amount of territory in Afghanistan. But it does retain the capacity to continue fighting for years to come.
President Ghani, facing this intense fighting, structural dependence on international financial support, and the domestic governance mire, has thus far staked his presidency on negotiations with the Taliban. In order to facilitate the negotiations, he reached out to Pakistan in a daring and politically costly gambit. Although some initial movement toward starting negotiations seems to be under way, the payoff so far has been limited and Ghani’s political space is shrinking. But even when the negotiations do get under way in earnest, they are likely to take years to produce an outcome.
This paper proceeds as follows: In the first section, it discusses the formation of the National Unity Government in Afghanistan out of the 2014 presidential crisis. It also outlines the uncertain parameters of continued U.S. military support in Afghanistan, the end of the NATO International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mission and its transformation into a new Resolute Support mission, and the planning for a post-2016 U.S. military and NATO presence in Afghanistan. The second section discusses military developments in Afghanistan since the fall of 2014 and the rise of the intense 2015 fighting season. Next, I analyze President Ghani’s Pakistan outreach, the effort to negotiate with the Taliban, and how the real or imagined ISIS presence in Afghanistan impacts the negotiations. In the final section, I return to the NUG and more broadly the state of governance and governance reforms in Afghanistan, and the way they interact with the Taliban negotiations and the state of security and economy in the country.
The Uncertain Parameters of U.S. Support in a Challenged Afghanistan
Until the summer of 2014, U.S. support for Afghanistan after 2014 remained uncertain and underspecified. When in 2009 the Barack Obama administration inherited the war from the administration of George W. Bush, the military situation in Afghanistan did not look good. The Taliban and Haqqani insurgencies had ramped up, and the quality of Afghan governance was progressively deteriorating. Afghanistan was experiencing the greatest insecurity since 2001 as well as intense corruption. During his 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama emphasized Afghanistan as the important yet unfinished “war of necessity,” unlike the “war of choice” in Iraq that he promised to terminate as quickly as possible.
But despite the election rhetoric, from the moment the Obama administration took over, it struggled with some of the very same dilemmas that perplexed the Bush administration. Since Al Qaeda was the primary source of terrorist threats against the United States, was it also necessary to continue combating the Taliban? Could an effective counterterrorism mission be prosecuted essentially just from the air and offshore? Or was it necessary to defeat the resurgent Taliban on the ground and build up a stable Afghan government? Should the U.S. military engagement be intensified – with the all blood, treasure, and domestic ramifications that would entail – or should the U.S. military engagement be significantly scaled back? By the winter of 2013, the debate in the Obama administration appeared to have been won by those who argued that what happens on the ground in Afghanistan matters only to a limited degree for the successful prosecution of the anti–Al Qaeda campaign, and that the needed counterterrorism operations against Al Qaeda and its allies could be effectively conducted from the air, reducing the need for a foreign presence in Afghanistan itself.
The increasingly difficult relations between the White House and the then Afghan President Hamid Karzai, alienated from, distrustful of, and provocative toward Washington, only strengthened the hand of those who wanted to pull the plug on the U.S. participation in the Afghanistan war. For almost two years, Karzai had been unwilling to sign a status-of-forces agreement (SOFA) between Afghanistan and the United States, an important signal to other NATO and U.S. allies in Afghanistan. Although many Afghans – including prominent elders who were hardly effusive about the United States in other circumstances – lined up behind the SOFA, Karzai was outraged by U.S./ISAF accidental killings of Afghan civilians. More importantly, he remained unpersuaded that the U.S. presence in Afghanistan would help stabilize the country instead of serving what Karzai imagined were the true U.S. interests in Afghanistan: to use the country as a platform for prosecuting a New Great Game against Russia and China in Central Asia. By the spring of 2014, the talk in Washington on Afghanistan was about winding down the war; for sure by the end of 2016 and, should the SOFA not be signed, perhaps as early as the end of 2014 with the expiration of the mandate of the United States and ISAF, which had been prosecuting the war in Afghanistan for over a decade.
Then two events shook up the White House in the late spring and summer of 2014, halting the pressure for withdrawal from Afghanistan. First, the virulent off-shoot/descendent of Al Qaeda in Iraq – the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) – swept through Syria and Iraq, taking over many Sunni areas, and in May 2014 even threatening the capital of Iraq, Baghdad. Although long determined to get out of the Iraq war and change the focus of U.S. national security policy from the Middle East to East Asia, the White House felt compelled to spring into action, bombing ISIS targets in Iraq and mobilizing an international coalition against the re-invigorated insurgency. Yet ISIS was able to rapidly entrench itself in the Middle East and was becoming an inspiration for jihadi groups in Africa and South Asia. Soon, its branches were sprouting in India and Pakistan, and several renegade Taliban commanders also declared allegiance to ISIS. Although the presence of ISIS in Afghanistan was – and continues to be – limited (as further discussed below), the White House took notice of the specter of reinvigorated jihadism there.
Second, the highly contested and fraudulent 2014 presidential election in Afghanistan ignited an intense and prolonged political crisis. By July 2014, the crisis seemed to have brought the country to the edge of political and ethnic violence and nearly provoked a military coup, potentially sparking civil war. The White House at this point instructed the U.S. Embassy to go into overdrive to avert such a disastrous outcome. As the recount of the vote confirmed massive fraud by the organizations of the two principal contenders left after the first round – Ashraf Ghani, the former Afghan minister of finance, seen as a technocratic pro-reform Pashtun candidate, and Abdullah Abdullah, the former Afghan minister of foreign affairs, seen as a Tajik status-quo candidate – and as neither of them was ready to accept losing, the U.S. Embassy ultimately persuaded both of them to form a national unity government. The September 2014 political agreement covered the bare minimum of a deal, sketching out its mere outlines, with many details, as well as deeper structural electoral and constitutional reforms, left to be worked out later — and which are still unresolved today.
Nonetheless, the SOFA signed by the newly sworn-in President Ashraf Ghani and his so-called Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah accomplished what they both highlighted as their key campaign objective: keeping the United States and other ISAF partners in Afghanistan after 2014. The NUG barely met the U.S. October 2014 deadline to sign the SOFA. The new mission – Operation Resolute Support – started in January 2015 and runs through the end of 2016.
Thus, after a decade of large-scale offensive counterinsurgency operations, under Operation Resolute Support, the U.S. and NATO missions in Afghanistan have changed to now provide a far more limited advising and training support as well as in-extremis military assistance to Afghan security forces. Since 2014, the Afghan military forces have increasingly been standing on their own. But in turning over responsibility to the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), the United States and ISAF handed over a stalemated war. The territory cleared of insurgent forces was smaller than projected. In the spring of 2014, the Afghan forces scored a very important success: during the first round of the Afghan presidential elections, they managed to prevent a major Taliban military disruption of the process. But subsequently in the summer of 2014, the long-known problems of the Afghan military forces, including poor logistics and planning, lack of specialty enablers such as medical evacuation, and deficiencies in intelligence and reconnaissance and other sustainment functions became fully manifest and remain unaddressed. The ANSF too took extensive and likely unsustainable casualties: During 2014, more than 20,000 soldiers and support personnel were lost due to deaths and injuries in combat, desertions, and discharges.
And there are other chronic problems: Financially, the ANSF are and will be fully dependent on U.S. and other foreign funding for years to come. Crucially, in perhaps the greatest achievement so far, the Afghan forces did not engage in a military coup in the summer of 2014 and stayed together, not fracturing along ethnic lines. Nonetheless, ethnic and patronage fragmentation and factionalization of the ANSF remain a real possibility, and one that may yet disastrously erupt.
Moreover, at the end of 2014 as snow and ice settled on Afghanistan, the intensity of the Taliban campaign did not lessen for the typical winter lull. Instead, the Taliban pushed an aggressive campaign throughout the winter, further escalating their attacks in the spring. 2015 has already turned out to be the most difficult fighting season the Afghan army has had to endure so far, with insecurity significantly worsening throughout the country, as detailed in the section below.
The Afghan forces also suffer from financial problems and deficiencies in logistics, intelligence resources, and special support functions, including medical evacuation. The lack of Afghan close-air-support assets is particularly problematic and a great boost to the insurgency.
Given the intensity of the fighting and the specter of ISIS in the Middle East and potentially also South Asia, the U.S. government, during an official visit to Washington by President Ghani and CEO Abdullah in March 2015, agreed not to reduce the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan during the rest of the year. Throughout 2015, U.S. military presence in Afghanistan would remain ten thousand personnel. In late spring 2015, reports also emerged that the U.S. forces in Afghanistan were engaged in direct offensive operations against the Taliban, not just Al Qaeda, that went beyond the training and advising mandate and beyond force protection. Providing air support, involving drones, is warranted; the Afghan military critically lacks close air support, and prematurely cutting down active support for ANSF would undermine the capacities and the real improvements the Afghan security forces developed and achieved since 2011. Nonetheless, such a re-expansion of the mission continues to be denied by the White House. Nor did the White House concede to the request of the Afghan government during the March 2015 Ghani-Abdullah visit to extend U.S. military presence in Afghanistan past 2016. Although President Ghani has actively drummed the threat and spread of ISIS in Afghanistan, the White House remained firm that after 2016 the U.S. forces in Afghanistan would only provide U.S. embassy protection and number no more than 1,000.
However, in May 2015, NATO announced plans to keep a small civilian-led military mission in Afghanistan after 2016. According to General John Campbell, the commander of U.S.-led coalition forces in Afghanistan, the NATO mission would be located at a base in Kabul and would be protected by a NATO military contingent, possibly including U.S. forces beyond the 1,000-personnel U.S. embassy protection force. NATO forces at the base might also be used to bolster the Afghan air force and intelligence service.
A Long Hot Summer (and Winter) of Fighting
While the U.S. government and NATO have been deciding what their role in Afghanistan after 2016 should be, 2015 appears to be exploding into the bloodiest year on record for Afghan soldiers and civilians since 2001. In April 2015 the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) reported that in the first three months of 2015, civilian casualties from ground battles were 8 percent higher than during the same period in 2014. In 2014, more than10,000 Afghan civilians died or were injured as a result of the on-going military conflict, the highest number since the United Nations started keeping record, and a 22 percent increase over 2013.
According to UNAMA, 73 percent of civilian casualties have been caused by the Taliban and other anti-government forces. The casualty rate for Afghan military and police forces appears to have grown a very large 70 percent in the first five months of 2015, compared to the same period in 2014, raising serious questions about the recruitment, retention, and sustainability capacity of the ANSF. Given that the Afghan economy has remained in poor shape since 2013 and employment opportunities for Afghans have declined substantially, joining the ANSF is still an attractive economic option for many, apart from perhaps opium poppy cultivation. However, a high casualty rate not only demoralizes the force, but also makes it economically unviable for many Afghan families to send their sons to the ANSF.
As of May 2015, a significant deterioration of security and heavy clashes were reported at least in 10 Afghan provinces across the country. The Afghan Minister of Interior Noor-ul-Haq Ulumi portrayed an even graver increase in insecurity in Afghanistan, designating 11 provinces as facing high security threats and a further nine as experiencing medium-level ones. In the way typical of Afghan politicians, Ulumi has blamed Pakistan for the insecurity, suggesting that Pakistani military operations in the border area of North Waziristan pushed foreign fighters into Afghanistan and strengthened the Taliban and Haqqani insurgencies.
Ironically, the United States tried for years to persuade, cajole, and pressure the Pakistani military and intelligence services to crack down on the safe-havens of the Afghan Taliban and anti-Pakistani militants, such as Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in North Waziristan, believing such an action would critically improve the security situation in Afghanistan. In the summer of 2014, after several dramatic terrorist attacks rocked Pakistan, the Pakistani military did so. In public announcements surrounding Operation Zarb-e-Azb (loosely meaning “strike of the prophet’s sword”), the Pakistani military promised a comprehensive operation in the region and determined “to eliminate these terrorists regardless of hue and color, along with their sanctuaries.” The recapture of North Waziristan’s capital of Miranshah from the militants, and the closing of their bases there and in surrounding areas, has indeed weakened and fractured them, but nonetheless many, particularly the Afghan Taliban networks, managed to slip into Afghanistan.
On the cusp of the long hot summer of 2015, a significant deterioration in security is palpable in some of the most crucial and long-standing battlegrounds of the past decade, including the provinces of Helmand, Ghazni, Logar, Kunar, Nangarhar, and Kunduz. But it has also affected previously safe areas of Afghanistan, such as Badakhshan province, as well as the relative backwaters of the country, such as the provinces of Faryab and Ghor. For years, the latter had little strategic significance in terms of territorial control, but it has emerged as an important Taliban staging ground for thrusting into Herat.
Not all of the insecurity is a product of Taliban military efforts or those of affiliated insurgencies. In many areas, with Herat being a prominent example, the insecurity also crucially involves score-settling among rival powerbrokers, politicians, businessmen, and tribes trying to better position themselves in the realignment of patronage networks in the post-Karzai era. Sometimes, insecurity is upped to secure government appointments. Nonetheless, such violent political and military contestation allows the Taliban to insert itself into the conflicts and gain a crucial foothold or strengthen its position.
The influx of foreign fighters from Pakistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and elsewhere, some flying the ISIS black flag, has been blamed on the escalating violence in Badakhshan and Kunduz, where the Taliban has overrun Afghan military and police outposts and taken Afghan security forces hostage or beheaded them. In the important transshipment province of Kunduz, the Taliban, numbering over 2,000, even appeared close to overrunning the provincial capital, forcing the Afghan military to send thousands of reinforcements there. Facing shortages in numbers, the Afghan military and the Kunduz provincial leadership also – disturbingly – embraced the use of local militias as a key mechanism for halting the Taliban progress in the province, recruiting about 1,000 in a span of weeks, with the premise that their local knowledge would make them more effective in fighting the Taliban. The standing up of such militias has been a tried-and-failed – and highly controversial – Band-Aid response in Afghanistan over the past decade, including in Kunduz. Frequently, such militias cannot resist the Taliban without strong backup from the United States, ISAF, or the Afghan National Army. A frequently, they remain beholden to highly divisive local powerbrokers, engage in predation on local communities, and abuse rival ethnic groups and tribes. Kunduz is one province where many of these highly problematic aspects of Afghan militias have repeatedly been manifested. Very fractious and discriminatory politics in that province, in neighboring Baghlan, and in Badakshan drew in the Taliban in the first place, and at times have created atypical support groups for the insurgents. In Badakhshan, for example, the local Taliban are mostly Tajik.
In Helmand in Afghanistan’s south, the locus of the U.S. military surge in 2010, an equally significant rise in insecurity appears to be underway. Although in the summer of 2014 the Taliban failed to conquer and hold territory there as it had hoped to do, the province continues to be intensely contested. Moreover, despite his needs and best efforts to make the Afghan security forces his own, President Ghani appears to be antagonizing segments of the Afghan military by pulling forces out of the Helmand battlefield and placing them on the eastern border with Pakistan to accommodate Pakistan’s request to squeeze the forces of Maulana Fazlullah, the leader of the reinvigorated Tehreek-e-Nafaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi, a militant group affiliated with the TTP. Such a move by Ghani is highly risky and costly, not only in terms of its effects on the battlefield strength and morale of the Afghan Taliban, but crucially in terms of the networks of support Ghani still needs to build within Afghanistan. Not only does such a prioritization fuel the resentment of the reconstituted Northern Alliance of his non-Pashtun political rivals, but it also alienates his crucial, but thin, support base among the Pashtuns. Without the Army (with which Ghani endeavored to build a much closer relationship than his predecessor Hamid Karzai achieved), Ghani has few operational and policy-execution networks and little muscle compared to his multiple rivals.
In sum, the 2015 fighting season will be very important. It will crucially shape the morale and staying capacity of the ANSF and the Taliban, the commitment of outside donors to persevere in the Afghanistan state-building project, and the perceptions of Pakistan, India, and other regional countries on the viability of the Afghan state and the existing political arrangements in the country. It will also significantly augment or sap Ghani’s political capital and his support bases and political space for maneuver.
Whether the ANSF can maintain even existing levels of (in)security in Afghanistan in 2015 and beyond remains a huge question. That does not mean the Taliban is anywhere close to holding large territories or taking over Kabul – far from it. The insurgents face their own logistical and legitimacy problems and potentially recruitment challenges. But the ANSF’s weaknesses do portend persisting, serious, and multifarious military contestation in Afghanistan for years to come, exploitable by criminal elements as well as by outside non-state and state actors.
The Negotiations Gamble: The Afghanistan-Pakistan Rapprochement and Talks with the Taliban
Understanding full well the severe and multiple costs of continued fighting in Afghanistan, President Ghani early on appeared to stake his presidency on getting a negotiated deal with the Taliban. To some extent, such a prioritization was surprising since candidate Ghani, emphasizing his technocratic skills, pitched his campaign around improving governance in Afghanistan and fighting corruption. But as detailed below, the Government of National (Dis)Unity proved a difficult beast to steer from the get-go, and Ghani devoted most of his political focus and capital on the negotiations — like Karzai, seeing Pakistan as the magic key to the negotiated deal.
Immediately upon assuming the presidency in September 2014, Ghani engaged in a full outreach to Pakistan. He included an official visit to Pakistan among his first foreign trips, along with visits to Saudi Arabia and China. In all three countries, he sought to obtain support for a new push for negotiations with the Taliban, identifying a negotiated settlement as a key priority of his government. Indeed, China subsequently offered its support for the negotiations and hosted Taliban delegations in Beijing. The Pakistan trip too was widely seen as positive and helpful for improving Afghanistan-Pakistan relations. In his outreach to Pakistan and to the Taliban, Ghani nominated the former Taliban deputy minister of justice, Qamaruddin Shinwari, as minister of borders and tribal affairs – a ministerial post of great significance to Pakistan.
Indeed, the Afghanistan-Pakistan border is porous in both directions, as the Pakistanis too have recently come to painfully realize. For example, Pakistan’s army chief, General Raheel Sharif, linked a brutal attack by the Pakistani Taliban on an army school in Peshawar in December 2014 – that left 148 dead, including 132 students – to TTP safe-havens in Afghanistan. Claiming that the attack was orchestrated by Maulana Fazlullah from Afghanistan, Sharif flew to Kabul to demand Afghan and U.S. cooperation against the TTP and other anti-Pakistan militants. The United States and Ghani responded positively to Pakistan’s anti-TTP cooperation request: The United States repeatedly bombed TTP targets in Afghanistan and, as detailed above, Ghani went so far as to divert Afghan soldiers from difficult and important fighting with the Afghan Taliban in Afghanistan’s southern Helmand province to take on the TTP at the border with Pakistan. In Peshawar, while consoling the victims of the attack, Sharif again forswore a policy of cultivating some militants while fighting others: “We announce that there will be no differentiation between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Taliban,” he said. Time will tell whether the Peshawar massacre will in fact become a watershed moment clarifying the Pakistani military-intelligence establishment’s commitment to counterterrorism and whether Islamabad can translate this new strategic clarity into systematic action throughout Pakistan. Even if such a new strategic mindset were to take root, this approach would be confronted and subverted by multiple obstacles and countervailing pressures.
Nonetheless, throughout the spring of 2015, Pakistan has repeated its pledges of not differentiating among good and bad militants, between those targeting the Pakistani state and those targeting the Afghan state, and seemed to encourage the Afghan Taliban to engage in negotiations with the Afghan government. At the end of April 2015, for example, Pakistani foreign ministry spokeswoman, Tasneem Aslam, condemned the Taliban’s “spike in violence” in its annual spring offensive in Afghanistan and added that “[Pakistan] would like to see a national reconciliation process in Afghanistan,” a public message apparently echoing what at least some Pakistani officials have also been telling the Taliban in private.
In May 2015, during a visit to Kabul by Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Army Chief Raheel Sharif, the Prime Minister seemed to promise Islamabad’s full support against the Afghan Taliban, declaring that “the enemies of Afghanistan cannot be the friends of Pakistan.” But just hours later, there was a terrorist attack on the Park Hotel in Kabul where Indian, Turkish, American, and other foreign guests were gathered for a concert. Many Afghans and Indians still blame Pakistan for all kinds of instability and terrorism in their countries and point to the Park Hotel attack as revealing, once again, Pakistan’s duplicity. At best, the attack shows the limitations of Pakistan’s ability to control and restrain the various militant groups to whom it has frequently provided assistance and support, making it very unlikely that Pakistan could deliver the kind of pressure on the Taliban required to force it to negotiate a deal or decisively impede its capacity to operate militarily.
The Park Hotel attack also intensified the controversy over a memorandum of understanding (MoU) Ghani signed with the Pakistani delegation to establish cooperation between Afghan and Pakistani intelligence agencies, often mortal enemies. His CEO Abdullah claimed he was not informed of the deal beforehand, while Rahmatullah Nabil, the head of the Afghan intelligence agency, the National Directorate of Security, said he opposed the deal. (Not surprisingly, as Nabil has previously sought to develop control over anti-Pakistani militants, such as Latif Mehsud, to feed Pakistan back some of its medicine of fostering and using militant proxies. In turn, Pakistan has privately demanded that Ghani remove him.) The backlash within Afghanistan against the MoU was widespread – and not just from the northern power groups and former president Hamid Karzai, but also from Pashtun politicians.
Moreover, President Ghani’s outreach to Pakistan also needs to be delicately calibrated vis-à-vis India. Apart from the crucial and difficult relationship between India and Pakistan, India is Afghanistan’s fourth largest donor and one of the few countries with which Afghanistan, thanks to food exports, has a positive trade balance. The Afghan economy crucially depends on the promise of Afghan extractive industry potential (perhaps worth as much as $1 trillion) starting to become a reality, and India’s investment could be large. Although the government of China has committed itself to play a far more active role in Afghanistan in the diplomatic, security, and economic sphere, promising to stimulate Chinese companies to speed up investments in the country, Afghanistan can ill afford the loss of potential Indian markets and investment.
Whether it was Ghani’s Pakistan outreach, other factors, or a mere trick, the Afghan Taliban seems, at least to some extent, to be more open to negotiations with Ghani than it was with Karzai. Although the quick breakthrough in starting negotiations that Ghani was hoping for did not take place, at least initial exchanges between Afghan government officials and the Taliban began taking place in May 2015.
The first was an unofficial and indirect Track II meeting sponsored by the international NGO Pugwash in Qatar at the beginning of the month. It was the first such meeting since the suspension of talks in Qatar almost two years before in June 2013. The Pugwash meeting appeared to produce a series of non-binding confidence-building steps and concessions to the Taliban that the group has long sought, including the group’s ability to publicly reopen its Qatar office. Apparently, the negotiators also agreed that the Afghan Constitution is up for discussion in the negotiations, a move previously opposed by the Afghan government and the United States and one that frightens Afghan women, minorities, and civil society, all of whom fear the loss of the rights that the Afghan constitution grants them. Although the Taliban has repeatedly committed itself to women’s education in Afghanistan, whether such proclamations are in fact serious and what they actually entail remains to be seen, and there are good reasons for skepticism on how much the Taliban has changed its position on many social issues. Nor was it clear at the Pugwash meeting whether the Taliban had moved substantially on its demand that all foreign troops leave Afghanistan before it would seriously negotiate peace. Nor was it clear whether the Afghan government was strongly interested in the Pugwash Qatar effort. But although the talks – once again – amounted essentially only to talking about talking, there seemed to be some hope that another round would take place soon and that some movement on substantive negotiations might get under way.
More significantly, the Afghan government held a formal meeting with the Taliban in Urumqi, China in late May 2015. Moreover, the Taliban was apparently delivered to the negotiating table by the Pakistani intelligence agency the Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI), a development at least partially validating Ghani’s outreach to Pakistan. The Taliban negotiators who attended were all believed to be closely linked to the ISI, and ISI officials were present at the meeting. Delivering the Taliban to the table was a skillful move by the ISI, which in one action could please China (whom Pakistan characterizes as the all-weather, reliable friend, unlike the perfidious United States) and show responsiveness to Ghani, while at the same time exhibit the limits of its influence and preventively deflect pressure to deliver the Taliban more extensively in the future: The Taliban leadership subsequently expressed its unhappiness about the meeting and stated that its delegation to China was not authorized by the leadership to go.
The Afghan delegation was led by a former top official of the High Peace Council, Mohammad Masoom Stanikzai, who had previously been seriously injured in a Taliban attack while serving on the Council. A few days after the meeting, Stanikzai was nominated to be Afghanistan’s Minister of Defense. Given Stanikzai’s closeness to former President Karzai, putting him in charge of the negotiations team was likely designed to mitigate some of Karzai’s opposition to the Pakistan outreach and doubts of the negotiations with the Taliban. The Afghan delegation also included associates of CEO Abdullah. Whether the Urumqi meeting will become the basis of sustained formal talks remains unclear.
Moreover, both the outreach to Pakistan and the negotiations with the Taliban have many opponents within Afghanistan, beyond civil society and among key Afghan powerbrokers. For example, the police chief of the province of Kandahar and the kingpin of the province, Gen. Abdul Raziq, quickly voiced his strong opposition to the negotiations. A highly controversial powerbroker, often embraced by the U.S. military in Kandahar for his determination to fight the Taliban, Raziq is both credited with reducing Taliban insecurity in Kandahar and widely accused of major human rights abuses. Any deal with the Taliban will lessen the constraints on its presence in Kandahar, and Raziq has many reasons to fear for his physical survival, as assassinations have befallen both his mentor Wali Karzai (Hamid Karzai’s half-brother) and his political ally Matiullah Khan of Uruzgan. Although Raziq does not yet have national-level power like some of Ghani’s other political rivals, such as Fazel Ahmed Manawi or Atta Mohammad Nur, it would be highly costly for Ghani to fully push Raziq into opposition to his government. After all, Ghani crucially depended on Raziq to help deliver the vote in Kandahar, and Ghani could not easily replace Raziq in Kandahar without risking a rise in insecurity in the city and province. At the same time, Raziq is a painful symbol for the Ghani government of its inability so far to reduce the unrestrained impunity and power abuse that characterized the Karzai era, drove many into the hands of the Taliban, and against which Ghani campaigned.
The Taliban also faces significant opposition to negotiations among its constituency. Critically, some medium-level commanders with operational control in Afghanistan and significant military responsibility have long been opposed to a negotiated deal. Many of them have been socialized into a different set of beliefs than the top Taliban leadership and are far more internationally-oriented and anchored into the global jihadi ideology and agenda than the old school Taliban. The U.S. policy of targeting middle-level commanders and thus seeking to disrupt the group’s command and control systems further radicalized the new replacement leadership.
The Usefulness and Complications of ISIS in Afghanistan
The emergence of ISIS in Afghanistan – however thin or imagined – nonetheless further alters the complexity of the Taliban calculations regarding negotiations and dragging out the talks past 2016. Although the presence of ISIS in Afghanistan has been mostly confined to foreigners and a small number of dissatisfied Taliban commanders such as Helmand’s Mullah Abdul Rauf Khadim, the fact that the ISIS flag can fly in Afghanistan reduces the cost of defection for Taliban elements. The Taliban might thus find negotiating more costly with respect to maintaining unity and might feel compelled to outcompete the ISIS specter on the battlefield. At least abroad, ISIS is already cutting into the funding and recruitment pools of many local jihadi groups. And of course, in its declaration of “Khorasan,” a territory which includes Afghanistan, as part of its caliphate, ISIS presents a major threat to the authority and symbolic power of the Quetta Shura Taliban leadership and Mullah Omar.
To some extent, the presence of ISIS, however, is also convenient for the Taliban leadership. It allows the Taliban to deflect blame for its increasingly sectarian attacks, targeting of minorities, such as the Hazaras, and for when the civilian casualties it causes politically backfire, such as in a major attack in Jalalabad in April 2015.
Indeed, not just the Afghan government, but also Afghan citizens have learned that emphasizing the ISIS presence attracts the attention of the West and possibly a greater resource flow. Nangarhar officials and civil society members interviewed by the prominent Afghan TV network TOLO in May 2015, for example, uniformly insisted that Daesh (another name for ISIS) now controls 80 percent of the province, an assessment rejected by the commander of U.S.-led coalition forces in Afghanistan, Gen. Campbell. Campbell, however, agreed that the threat posed by ISIS in Afghanistan has steadily increased in 2015. A key element of such assessments, by both the local population and military forces, is the use and appropriation of various labels. Clearly, outside fighters are present in Nangarhar, as they have been for years and years. Perhaps they now even adopt the ISIS flag. Does that make them ISIS? Do they take orders from Iraq or Syria? And if so, how sustainable is their presence? Will they provoke retaliation by local Taliban forces? Will they overreach in the level of brutality they impose on the local population and stimulate uprisings, as outside Taliban fighters previously did in Ghazni and Zabul?
Clearly, a materializing presence of ISIS in Afghanistan needs to affect targeting patterns, and not simply of U.S. and NATO forces. For regardless of how fast and robustly the Afghan government negotiations with the Taliban get under way, there is more need than ever to integrate existing military efforts and targeting patterns with the negotiation strategy. An important question is whether the targeting of Taliban networks, including middle-level commanders, should remain blanket and opportunistic, or whether targeting should increasingly be selective, such as focused on those who oppose negotiations and might embrace the ISIS flag. At minimum, the targeting of the Taliban’s leadership structures needs to become far more cognizant than it has been of its impact on the course of negotiations.
NUG: A Government of National Unity or GNU: A Stubborn, Unmovable Beast?
Whenever the negotiations with the Taliban actually get under way, they are likely to last a long time. In Colombia, under conditions much more auspicious for the Colombian government, and with the leftist guerrillas, The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia-People’s Army (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia-Ejército del Pueblo, FARC), being much weaker than the Taliban and having far less battlefield momentum, the negotiations have lasted for almost three years. In the Philippines, the negotiations between the Islamic separatists and the government, once again a much stronger one than that of Afghanistan, dragged on for 13 years, and the settlement still remains flimsy.
However, at least in the immediate term, the political space for Ghani to persevere in the negotiations is circumscribed by the upcoming parliamentary and district elections and a Loya Jirga to decode, codify, or end the President-CEO arrangement and the NUG. The district and parliamentary elections were scheduled for September 2015, but by June 2015, few security and procedural preparations were made. Many doubt that the elections will take place on time, despite the fact that both Ghani and Abdullah campaigned on devolving power to subnational areas. Parliamentary campaigning will further whip up anti-Pakistan sentiments in Afghanistan, constraining Ghani’s diplomatic space even more. And there are the crucial questions of whether and how the Taliban would be allowed to campaign for the national parliament and district councils, how such a move would be integrated into the negotiations, and just how much it would further anger the northern politicians and fracture the Ghani-Abdullah government.
Hardly expressing joint national will, the National Unity Government is deeply divided and mostly paralyzed. Although the formation of the NUG may have averted civil violence or a coup, it also ushered in another form of paralysis. Basic daily governance in Afghanistan persists in a debilitating and corrosive limbo. Ghani and Abdullah took more than three months after assuming office to agree on some ministerial appointments, even as former ministers were fired. Run by deputies and stuck in uncertainty and inertia, the line ministries thus continued to stagnate as vehicles of personal enrichment rather than being reformed into effective tools for delivering public goods and administration. Eight months into their administration and amidst a very difficult fighting season, the position of the Minister of Defense had not yet been filled. Despite Ghani’s campaigning on an anti-corruption platform, the position of Attorney General was also not filled eight months into his administration. Although all provincial governors were placed in an acting status by Ghani soon after he became president, by June 2015, only four of the 34 provinces saw the appointment of a permanent provincial governor.
The winter 2015 decisions by Ghani on provincial development councils (PDCs) and a subsequent spat with the Parliament about their role and power also left the councils in limbo, reflecting Ghani’s view that the PDCs are often corrupt and beholden to local powerbrokers. That may well be the case, but they are also one of the few layers of local government that the population sees, and they were elected in the summer of 2014, concurrently with the presidential elections. Nonetheless, since their powers are not established and their resources limited and dependent on line ministries, many have done little since the fall of 2014. In the four provinces where Ghani has appointed a permanent governor, most notably in the inflamed Kunduz Province, Ghani has allowed the governor to appoint other local officials, particularly police chiefs. Such empowerment of the governor seeks to avoid the backstabbing and infighting among provincial officials that often characterized many of the northern provinces in the era of President Hamid Karzai and his Vice-President Mohammad Fahim. However, the quality and fairness of such empowered governors, of course, matters crucially for the legitimacy of their rule since places like Kunduz and Baghlan are divided along ethnic and tribal lines, and the sense of marginalization among segments of the population runs deep.
At the national level, Ghani has sought to deal with the governance paralysis and the awkwardness of the power-sharing arrangement by not sharing power and by-passing his CEO Abdullah. Rather than running policy through line ministries and investing in institution-building, at least early on in his administration Ghani focused on building up the president’s office. Greatly expanded, the President’s Office now not only forms policy, but also seeks to direct its implementation.
The troubles stemming from the power-sharing arrangement and from Afghan governance in general are a forceful, if distressing, reminder that power in Afghanistan often comes from personal networks, and that institutions do not function or are easily subverted by behind-the-scenes powerbrokers. Thus, even reform-minded and knowledgeable technocrats without strong personal networks, such as Ghani, may have a very limited implementation and governing capacity – as well as many political debts – even while formally sitting at the center of power. Building up personal networks over the difficult, complex, and long-term process of building up institutions is readily tempting.
The distribution of power in the President-CEO arrangement, of course, continues to be intensely contested by the two men and their networks. The more Ghani manages to execute policy through different channels, such as the President’s Office, the more the network behind Abdullah (as well as Abdullah himself) feels disempowered and frustrated, not only with Ghani, but with Abdullah himself since he can deliver less and less to his backers.
Moreover, large questions over the legality of the President-CEO arrangement loom ahead, and could spell the end of the NUG. The fall 2014 political deal between Ghani and Abdullah that established the NUG specified that in 2016 a Loya Jirga (a grand constitutive assembly) is to meet to codify or redraw the deal and likely reform the constitution. Certainly Abdullah is expecting (and has staked his political legacy and future on the assumption) that the 2016 Loya Jirga will change the Afghan system into a parliamentary one, with a reformed voting system in Afghanistan that reflects it. It is not at all clear that Ghani embraces such a move away from the presidential system. Such constitutional changes, and the political firestorm they could trigger in Afghanistan, may be incorporated into the negotiations with the Taliban; conversely, they may eviscerate Afghanistan’s domestic political space for the Taliban negotiations.
The 2015 (or later) parliamentary elections have large political implications for the Loya Jirga (since they will determine and influence some Loya Jirga delegates) and cast a further shadow over the power-sharing deal. Overall, it continues to be unclear whether the President-CEO arrangement will survive and deliver the much-desired corruption-free and effective governance, remain stuck in paralysis and legal tangles, or collapse altogether.
Meanwhile, the political deadlock, subnational governance paralysis, and security uncertainties are compounding Afghanistan’s bad economic predicament and have had a pronounced and lasting effect on Afghanistan’s fragile economy. Domestic economic performance in 2013 and 2014 was even worse than expected, with massive economic shrinkage, large unemployment, capital flight, and a chronic as well as acute fiscal crisis as tax and custom collections plummeted. From 9 percent in 2012, Afghanistan’s GDP growth shrunk to 3.7 percent in 2013 and 2 percent in 2014. Afghanistan’s domestic revenues declined from a peak of 11.6 percent in 2011/12 to 9.7 percent in 2013, and continued to drop in 2014.
Uncertain whether a new government would be formed or whether the country would be plunged into civil war, many Afghans stopped passing money to Kabul, amassing as much as possible, having to pay skyrocketing bribes, and having to repay debts much faster than previously. Instead of 50 percent of such revenues being diverted to personal coffers or local patronage networks, in many cases, that portion grew to 80 percent. Indeed, revenue theft in 2014 turned out to be the worst since 2001.
Combined with the fact that much of Afghanistan’s previous legal economic growth was tied to the money brought in by the foreign security forces that were now departing, the country was experiencing an acute fiscal crisis: For months, Kabul could not pay salaries to civil service workers. In addition to the structural fiscal gap of 25-40 percent of Afghanistan’s GDP that the international community has had and will have to bridge in the coming years, the international community had to come in with an immediate stopgap funding of $190 million to allow the Afghan government to cover at least some of its most politically sensitive financial obligations, such as salaries. Yet the Afghan total budget shortfall was $537 million.
In 2015, subnational governance difficulties continue to prevent the Afghan government from recovering a higher portion of tax and custom revenue. So far the government has not managed to return to at least the 50-50 percent revenue-theft ratio that characterized the Karzai era. With Afghanistan’s projected economic growth for 2015 being only 2.5 percent – a number that may be further reduced due to the intensity of the fighting in 2015 and a resulting further decline in investment in the country – the immediate fiscal crisis is likely to persist, and the overall economic outlook remains dim. The promise of the country’s mineral wealth producing revenues to wean Afghanistan off dependence on foreign aid, opium poppy cultivation, and human development remains just a promise.
Although Afghanistan passed through a critical juncture in the fall of 2014, when after an election, power was peacefully handed over to a new government, the country continues to face a series of political tripwires. Among the most significant of those are upcoming parliamentary elections and, most importantly, the 2016 Loya Jirga that is supposed to formalize (or undo) the power-sharing deal between President Ghani and CEO Abdullah that averted major instability and violence after the elections. Meanwhile, the power-sharing arrangement has turned out to be a stubborn beast, with governance mostly paralyzed for months. Although improving governance and fighting corruption were key campaign promises of both candidates, eight months after the formation of the government, few improvements can be noticed by the Afghan people.
The potential major political crises come on top of the major structural challenges that Afghanistan has faced and will continue to face for years to come. The Afghan state continues to be dependent on increasingly fickle foreign support for funding large parts of its budget, including all of its military expenditures. Its economic prospects have significantly worsened compared to three years ago and remain dim for the foreseeable future. The promise of its mineral resources funding the Afghan state and the development of the country has been slow to materialize.
The Taliban insurgency is more than entrenched; in the spring of 2015, it initiated some of the most intense fighting since 2001. Insecurity has increased in various degrees across the country, and 2015 is well on its way to being the bloodiest year of the decade and a half. Civilian casualties have escalated, and Afghan security forces are challenged on the battlefield and suffering from sustainment problems. None of this means, however, that the Taliban is able to hold large territories: It can destabilize far more than it can control.
Amidst this difficult internal situation and as a way to address some of the country’s structural challenges, which have been severely compounded by persisting violence, President Ghani staked his early political capital on negotiations with the Taliban. In a bold move, he reached out strongly to Pakistan (often seen by Afghans as the source of all of Afghanistan’s problems), even subordinating crucial military operations, such as in Helmand, to respond to Pakistan’s requests for Afghan military action in the east. Very politically controversial in Afghanistan and costly for Ghani, this outreach produced at least one meeting between Taliban members, accompanied by Pakistani intelligence officers, and Afghan government representatives in China in late May. Whether that meeting will become the springboard for serious formal negotiations remains a question.
Whenever talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban actually get under way, they are likely to last for years, well beyond 2016 when most foreign troops are supposed to have left Afghanistan and only a small NATO and U.S. military presence is to remain. Increasingly, it is imperative to direct military operations with an eye toward their impact on negotiations, such as by determinedly targeting Taliban commanders who are opposed to the negotiations and might defect and embrace ISIS. Equally, however, governance in Afghanistan cannot persist in the condition of the paralysis of the past eight months. Starting to deliver governance improvements is crucial for the sustainability of the Afghan state and the basic political dispensation in the country. Better governance buys time, opens up political space for the negotiations, and strengthens the government’s hand in them. But even a negotiated deal will not address inadequate governance in Afghanistan.
 For the increase in international military casualties, Afghan civilian casualties, and the number of insurgent attacks from 2001 through 2008, see www.icasualties.org. See also Ian Livingston and Michael O’Hanlon, Afghanistan Index, July 31, 2012, www.brookings.edu/~/media/Programs/foreign%20policy/afghanistan%20index/index20120731.pdf.
 This section draws on Vanda Felbab-Brown, Aspiration and Ambivalence: Strategies and Realities of Counterinsurgency and State-building in Afghanistan (Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution Press, 2013): chapters 1 and 2.
 Ibid., chapter 6. For a detailed evaluation of how the rift between President Karzai and the United States emerged and whether it was avoidable, see Ronald Neumann, “Failed Relations between Hamid Karzai and the United States: What Can We Learn?,” United States Institute of Peace, May 20, 2015, http://www.usip.org/publications/2015/05/20/failed-relations-between-hamid-karzai-and-the-united-states-what-can-we.
 White House, Office of the Press Secretary, “Remarks by President Obama in Address to the Nation from Afghanistan,” May 1, 2012, www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2012/05/01/remarks-president-address-nation-afghanistan.
 ISIS is interchangeably also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham (ISIS), the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), or simply as the Islamic State (IS).
 See, for example, Tim Arango and Duraid Adnan, “Militants Pose Threat on Eve of National Elections in Iraq,” New York Times, April 29, 2014; Jim Sciutto and Greg Botelho, “Iraqis ‘Up Against the Wall’ as ISIS Threatens province near Baghdad,” CNN.com, October 10, 2014, http://www.cnn.com/2014/10/10/world/meast/isis-threat/.
 Author’s interviews with Afghan politicians and civil society representatives and U.S., ISAF, and international diplomats and military officers, September–October 2014.
 Author’s interviews with international advisor, U.S. Embassy officials, representatives of other embassies in Kabul, and Afghan politicians, Kabul, Afghanistan, September 2014.
 Matthew Rosenberg and Azam Ahmed, “Figures from U.S.-led Coalition Show Heavy 2014 Losses for Afghan Army,” New York Times, March 3, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/03/world/figures-from-us-led-coalition-show-heavy-2014-losses-for-afghan-army.html.
 Azam Ahmed and Joseph Goldstein, “Taliban Gains Pull U.S. Units Back into Fight in Afghanistan,” New York Times, April 29, 2015.
 See, for example, Vanda Felbab-Brown, Ronald Neumann, and David Sedney, “The Small Steps to Save Our Gains in Afghanistan,” Washington Post, October 10, 2014.
 Emre Peker and Margherita Stancati, “NATO Plans Civilian-Led Mission in Afghanistan After 2016,” Wall Street Journal, May 13, 2015.
 Tim Craig, “NATO Hopes to Keep a Base in Afghanistan, U.S. General Says,” Washington Post, May 23, 2015.
 The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), “Press Release: Latest UNAMA Figures Show Continuing Record High Civilian Casualties,” April 12, 2015, http://unama.unmissions.org/Default.aspx?tabid=12254&ctl=Details&mid=15756&ItemID=38675&language=en-US. See also, Sudarsan Raghavan, “Foreign Fighters Are Spilling into Afghanistan, Helping the Taliban,” Washington Post, April 15, 2015.
 UNAMA, Press Release,” April 12, 2015. See also, UNAMA, Afghanistan: Annual Report 2014 – Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict, February 2015, http://unama.unmissions.org/Portals/UNAMA/human%20rights/2015/2014-Annual-Report-on-Protection-of-Civilians-Final.pdf.
 Tim Craig, “Afghan Forces Straining to Keep the Expanding Taliban at Bay,” Washington Post, May 16, 2015.
 For details on the evolving and enduring Pakistani policy toward militancy in Afghanistan and on the U.S.-Pakistan-Afghanistan triangle, see Vanda Felbab-Brown, “Pakistan’s Relations with Afghanistan and Implications for Regional Politics,” National Bureau of Asian Research, May 2015.
 Ismail Khan and Declan Walsh, “Pakistan Military Wages Assault Against Militants,” New York Times, June 15, 2014.
 For such thinly veiled threats and manipulation by Herat’s predominant powerbroker and a key politician and warlord Ismail Khan, see, for example, “Herat Will Become Insecure within Weeks if Govt Keep Looking the Other Way: Ismail Khan,” Afghanistan Times, April 28, 2015.
 Feroz Sultani and Kay Johnson, “Stretched Afghan Army Falls Back on Militias to Help Defend Kunduz,” Reuters, May 3, 2015.
 See, for example, Vanda Felbab-Brown, “Afghanistan Field Trip Report V: The Afghan Local Police – ‘It’s Local, So It Must Be Good,’ Or Is It?” The Brookings Institution, May 9, 2012; and Felbab-Brown, Aspiration and Ambivalence, Chapter 8.
 Cited in Ismail Khan, “Pakistani Army Chief Asks Afghans to Help Find Taliban Commanders Behind Massacre,” New York Times, December 17, 2014.
 Ayaz Gul, “Pakistan Tries to Publicly Widen Gap with Taliban,” Voice of America, April 30, 2015.
 Rob Crilly, “American among Foreigners Killed in Kabul Hotel Attack,” The Telegraph, May 13, 2015.
 For details, see Vanda Felbab-Brown, “Get Over It: The Limits of Afghanistan-Pakistan Rapprochement,” The Brookings Institution, May 19, 2015; and Felbab-Brown, “Pakistan’s Relations with Afghanistan and Implications for Regional Politics.”
 For details on the June 2013 negotiations, the political fiasco surrounding them, and their suspension, see Vanda Felbab-Brown, “The Political Games in the Taliban Negotiations,” The Brookings Institution, June 19, 2013.
 For a detailed analysis, see Michael Semple, “Rhetoric, Ideology and Organizational Structure of the Taliban Movement,” United States Institute of Peace, January 5, 2015, http://www.usip.org/publications/rhetoric-ideology-and-organizational-structure-of-the-taliban-movement;
 See, for example, Rod Norland, “Some Progress Is Reported in Informal Afghan-Taliban Talks,” New York Times, May 4, 2015; and Amena Bakr and Jibran Ahmad, “Taliban, Afghan Negotiators Unable to Agree Ceasefire,” Reuters, May 4, 2015. See also, The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan [the Taliban’s formal name], “Statement Delivered by the Delegation of the Political Office of the Islamic Emirate in the International Pugwash Research Conference,” May 5, 2015, http://jihadology.net/2015/05/05/new-release-from-the-islamic-emirate-of-afghanistan-full-text-of-statement-delivered-by-the-delegation-of-the-political-office-in-the-international-pugwash-research-conference/.
 Margherita Stancati, “Afghans, Taliban Met in Secret China Talks,” Wall Street Journal, May 24, 2015.
 See, Felbab-Brown, May 2015; and Bruce Riedel, Deadly Embrace (Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution, 2012).
 Mirwaiz Addel,” Do Not Compromise with Lives of Afghans in the Name of Peace: Gen. Raziq,” Khaama Press, May 3, 2015.
 For details on Raziq and his complex role in Kandahar, see Matthieu Aikins, “Our Man in Kandahar,” The Atlantic, November 2011, http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2011/11/our-man-in-kandahar/308653/; and Felbab-Brown, Aspiration and Ambivalence, Chapter 5.
 For the evolution of the Taliban, see Antonio Guistozzi, Koran, Kalashnikov, and Laptop: The Neo-Taliban Insurgency in Afghanistan 2002-2007 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009); and Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn, “An Enemy We Created: The Myth of the Taliban-Al Qaeda Merger in Afghanistan,” (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).
 For the extent of the ISIS presence in Afghanistan, see, for example, Borhan Osman, “The Shadows of ‘Islamic State’ in Afghanistan: What threat does it hold?” Afghan Analyst Network, Febuary 12, 2015, https://www.afghanistan-analysts.org/the-shadows-of-islamic-state-in-afghanistan-what-threat-does-it-hold/; and Emma Graham-Harrison, “Taliban Fears Over Young Recruits Attracted to ISIS in Afghanistan,” The Guardian, May 7, 2015.
 Haseeb Ahmadzai, “Nangarhar Residents Voice Concern Over Security,” May 21, 2015, http://www.tolonews.com/en/afghanistan/19638-nangarhar-under-daesh-control-warns-locals; and Craig, May 23, 2015.
 Author’s interview with an international advisor to the Independent Directorate of Local Governance in Kabul and to several provincial development councils, Washington, DC, April 2015.
 For details, see, for example, Azam Ahmed, “Afghan Leader Said to Be Centralizing Power as Unity Government Plan Stalls,” New York Times, March 20, 2015.
 Afghanistan Country Economic Update, World Bank, April 2015, http://www-wds.worldbank.org/external/default/WDSContentServer/WDSP/IB/2015/05/15/090224b082e8582d/2_0/Rendered/PDF/Afghanistan0economic0update.pdf.
 William Byrd, “Afghanistan’s Continued Fiscal Crisis: No End in Sight,” United States Institute of Peace, Peace Brief No. 185, May 2015.
 Author’s interviews with World Bank and IMF officials, Afghanistan, September and October 2014, and Washington, DC, November 2014.
 Richard Hogg, Claudia Nassif, Camilo Gomez Orsorio, William Byrd, and Andrew Beath, Afghanistan in Transition: Looking Beyond 2014 (Washington, DC: World Bank, 2013).
 Afghanistan Country Economic Update. See also “Afghan Traders Protest Taxes; 10 Die as Bombs Target Police,” Associated Press, April 6, 2015.
President López Obrador's extension of the term of Supreme Court chief Arturo Zaldívar is part of his strong effort to recentralize power in the Mexican presidency and hollow out the independence and power of other Mexican institutions. His other moves to bend the justice system to his will include a reform that lowered the salary of judges but did not improve the quality of prosecutors and his unwillingness to allow an independent selection of the attorney general, with López Obrador himself retaining the power of appointment. His latest move with the two-year extension of Zaldívar’s term is especially worrisome. Zaldívar is also the president of the powerful Federal Judiciary Council. The council appoints and dismisses judges, sets career advancement rules and disciplines judges. Zaldívar will be setting the council’s and, thus, the whole judiciary’s, agenda and priorities for two years. This allows López Obrador to influence how courts will rule in cases regarding the executive branch, what cases they take up and the legality of new policies. These moves are taking place when the effectiveness of the judiciary in Mexico remains limited and deeply concerning. The attorney general’s office has proven weak, unwilling to take up key cases such as against the suspects in the brazen attack on Mexico City’s security minister, Omar García Harfuch—an event that symbolized the impunity with which Mexican criminal groups operate. Mexico’s justice system showed itself equally meek and disappointing in inadequately investigating the alleged complicity of former Mexican Defense Minister Salvador Cienfuegos and dismissing the case, potentially the most significant case of corruption and criminal collusion charges against a high-ranking Mexican official in two decades. A decade and a half after Mexico initiated its justice system reforms, 95 percent of federal cases still go unpunished. President López Obrador has scored some points, but the already precariously weak rule of law in Mexico, and thus the Mexican people, will suffer.