Afghanistan: Rethinking the Transition Strategy

 
 

In every aspect, 2015 was a tough year for the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF), as they continued their fight against terrorism after the withdrawal of international troops. The attacks on the ANDSF and civilians have intensified and the number of causalities of security forces has increased.

Despite the increased attacks carried out by the Taliban and Islamic State (known also as ISIS, ISIL, or Daesh) as well as other militant groups in Afghanistan, the ANDSF managed to defend the country and provide levels of protection to its citizens. It shows that the ANDSF has the commitment and patriotic motivation to fight against terrorism. But the destiny of the war in Afghanistan will be determined by the regional and international will to carry out the war on terror. Therefore, it is time to think about the policy implications of the year 2015, the regional dimension of the threat, and joint responsibilities in the fight against terrorism.

In 2015, terrorist groups expanded their attacks from southeast Afghanistan into the country’s northern areas. The Taliban was not the only group that attacked security forces and killed civilians; ISIS, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), the Islamic Jihad Union (IJU)  and other terrorist groups also played a significant role in the deterioration of security. The worsening security situation is not surprising if we look at the preparation level for the security transition process and the regional dimensions of the security threat.

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First, the U.S.-led coalition did not implement a gradual transition policy. Instead, it secured a rapid military withdrawal, which took place simultaneously with Afghanistan’s political transition and consequent deterioration of the economy. The international community even left Afghan security forces without sufficient equipment. As a result, year 2015 was the most difficult year for Afghan security forces since 2001 as they assumed full responsibility for security of the country with high level of causalities.

Second, following the withdrawal process, the Afghan security forces were overstretched as they were deployed all over the country, from Badakhshan and Kunduz in the north to Nangarhar in the east and Helmand in the south. This overextension in such a mountainous country, without air force back-up and sufficient military equipment, has challenged security forces and their leadership.

Third, the concentration of regional terrorist groups such as ISIS, as well as South Asian and Central Asian terrorist networks, in Afghanistan has affected the war on terror. When the withdrawal process began to be implemented, there was not any clear policy in place to predict the possible influx of other terrorist groups into Afghanistan. In fact, the threats posed by other terrorist groups that have strong affiliations or ideological affinities with the Taliban and al-Qaeda were neglected. The rapid withdrawal process led terrorist groups such as the Taliban, ISIS, al-Qaeda, MIU, Jundallah, Junad al-Khalifa, Jamaat Ansarullah, and the Islamic Jihad Union all to focus together on Afghanistan in 2015.

Finally, the withdrawal process happened without first stamping out the regional sanctuaries of terrorism. There was not any solid policy to push regional countries to fight against terrorism in the region, and enhance state-to-state cooperation. As such, the threat against both the people and government of Afghanistan is still strong when viewed from a wider regional environment. Terrorist sanctuaries in Pakistan, as retired General John M. Keane has told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, contribute to the continuous deterioration of Afghanistan’s security.

All the above mentioned factors affected the security situation and increased the causalities of Afghan security forces in 2015. There are two critical policy implications to take from this. First, the rapid withdrawal of international forces affected the situation. Afghan security forces had a huge responsibility during the transitional period; they had to confront the same enemy that over 100,000 international troops from more than 50 countries had fought against for more than a decade. The policy of a rapid withdrawal has to be revised for Afghanistan to be able to meet security challenges.

Second, the implications of 2015 require rethinking the levels of the terrorist threats and their regional dimension. More often than not, it is assumed that the militant jihadist groups threaten only specific single countries and perhaps sometimes cause some trouble for international security. But the history of jihadist groups shows that they pose a much more serious and catastrophic threat to state stability at an international level. For instance, the situation in Middle East, terrorist attacks in Europe, and the expansion of militant jihadism in Southeast Asia indicates that terrorism respect no borders.

Afghanistan has been warning the world about this threat and has adopted a cooperative approach at both the international and regional levels. On September 30, 2014, the Afghan government signed both the Bilateral Defense and Security Agreement (BDSA) with the United States and the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with NATO. The United Nations Security Council adopted resolution 2189 in support of the new international mission in Afghanistan. So the framework for long term cooperation already exists.

On the other hand, there are two critical security narratives that have undermined a proper strategic understanding of the war on terror. The first strong narrative is that military operations against terrorist groups such as ISIS, the Taliban, and others are not a solution. However, contrary to this narrative, in reality, without securing a superior position on the battlefield, peace talks would not materialize. The second narrative is that Pakistan does not have “control” over the Taliban. But the Taliban headquarters of groups such as Quetta Shura and the Haqqani Network are based in Pakistan, which shows that Pakistan does have control over the Taliban. On March 1, 2016, Sartaj Aziz, the foreign affairs adviser of the Pakistani prime minister, also acknowledged that the Taliban’s leaders are in Pakistan. Therefore, the narrative that Pakistan lacks control over the Taliban cannot be valid and reliable; it is a strategic counter-narrative that misleads the international community.

Both of these narratives contribute to undermining security policy toward Afghanistan, disturbing peace talks and eroding the international community’s determination. As a result, the Taliban and other terrorist groups will continue to gain strength and peace will remain elusive for Afghanistan. Moreover, this narrative led to the failure of the international community’s fight against terrorism as well. To defeat the terrorists requires military determination and offensive positions on the ground. In addition, in order for military action to be effective, the international community has to stop external supports for terrorist groups such as the Taliban.

The ongoing peace talks organized by the Quadrilateral Coordination Group, the upcoming Warsaw Summit in July, and the Afghanistan Development Conference in Brussels in October are critical opportunities for the Afghan government and the international community to grant more support in order to stabilize the country and consolidate the nation-state building process and other achievements such as women’s rights. Afghan security forces need to receive concrete military and financial support during the “transformation decade” to provide long-term stability in Afghanistan. The years ahead will be filled with difficulties and the concentration of terrorist groups in Afghanistan requires more military and financial preparation. To achieve all goals, such as state-building, rule of law, women’s rights, good governance, and financial institution-building, the Afghan government and its allies have to have a long-term comprehensive strategy together.

Despite the fact that many efforts have been made by the Afghan government to encourage the Taliban to join the peace process, the Taliban continues to reject negotiations for peace. At the same time, regional countries such as Pakistan have not taken any action against the Taliban’s leadership and sanctuaries yet. As such, the Afghan government and its allies have to mount military pressure on the Taliban. The upcoming conferences are critical opportunities for a realistic policy assessment and long-term commitment in order to avoid unexpected consequences from the rapid transitional process in 2016 and beyond. The solution is to underwrite long-term supports for Afghan security forces and to undertake result-oriented measures against regional countries to eliminate terrorist sanctuaries.

As the German philosopher Hannah Arendt once said, “[H]umanity is exemplified not in fraternity, but in friendship; that friendship is not intimately personal but makes political demands and preserves reference to the world.” If support and cooperation in the fight against terrorism does not materialize, then it would be a dark time not only for Afghanistan, but for international security as well.

Abbas Farasoo has worked for more than six years in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Afghanistan. Since August 2015, he has been the chargé d’affaires of the embassy in Australia. The opinions expressed in this article are his alone.

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