Afghanistan: Destination Uncertain

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Afghanistan: Destination Uncertain

The transition is complete, but Afghanistan’s future looks uncertain to say the least.

Afghanistan: Destination Uncertain
Credit: POOL New, Reuters

On December 28, 2014, at a small, secret, and heavily secured ceremony in Kabul, American General John Campbell declared the end of the U.S.-led combat mission in Afghanistan. Campbell, the last commander of the International Security Assistance Force, rolled up the ISAF flag and, with that, a 13-year mission.

“Today marks an end of an era, and the beginning of a new one,” said Campbell.

ISAF, a force comprised of troops from NATO as well as non-NATO countries, had been leading the fight against the Taliban since 2001. In recent years, it had gradually transitioned from primarily fighting the Taliban to primarily advising and mentoring Afghan forces now doing the fighting. ISAF oversaw the creation of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) – police and army units totaling some 350,000 personnel.

But the war is far from over, and unlike in Iraq in 2011, foreign forces haven’t left Afghanistan. With the end of ISAF’s mission came the beginning of “Resolute Support.” That’s the U.S.-NATO follow-on mission scheduled to run through the end of 2016. Some 13,000 foreign troops will continue training and advising Afghan forces who desperately want and need the help.

You wouldn’t have gathered that from Campbell’s speech, which read like a greatest hits of U.S. and NATO talking points on Afghanistan.

“There is no turning back to the dark days of the past,” he said. “The insurgents are losing, and they’re desperate.”

Campbell claimed that Afghan forces “overmatch the enemy” wherever and whenever challenged. This was his primary message – that NATO’s blood and billions of dollars created an Afghan security force that can lead the fight from here.

“Today, the [Afghan National Security Forces] have rightfully earned their position as the most respected institution in the country,” said Campbell.

That’s not exactly high praise in a country with rampant corruption and fledgling, often flailing, institutions. But the statement from Campbell’s speech that demands the greatest scrutiny is this:

By almost every metric, Afghanistan is prospering because of our efforts. Roads, internet users, cell phones, radio & TV stations, females in schools, women in the workforce.

Campbell’s assertion that Afghanistan is better off today than when the Taliban ruled is generally true. But how could hundreds of billions of dollars in development and security investments by the international community not at least marginally improve conditions in a country that had been devastated by decades of war and ruled by a brutal, ideological regime?

Putting aside the fact that many of the improvements in Afghanistan aren’t as dramatic as people like Campbell imply, comparing Afghanistan today to 2001 isn’t the right measurement. Comparing Afghanistan today to where it was in 2011-2012 when the ongoing political and security transition began is the more relevant baseline. 

When viewed on that scale, from the start of transition to its formal closure, many important metrics are moving in the wrong direction. The fact is, the new government of President Ashraf Ghani faces a panoply of political, economic and security challenges in the coming years, and many of the touted gains in the country are at risk. 

A War That’s Far from Over

Despite the ceremonial change of mission, the fighting in Afghanistan shows no signs of abating. Contrary to U.S. claims that the Taliban are losing, the 2014 battlefield scorecard looks to be at best a draw. On the whole, security in much of Afghanistan is not appreciably better today than it was in 2012.

One metric that’s become more difficult to measure in recent years is the number of Taliban-initiated attacks in Afghanistan. ISAF used to track and release this data, but stopped making that information publicly available as it transitioned security responsibility to the Afghans. 

In the last two years, Afghan officials have often contradicted each other about whether the number of Taliban attacks has increased or decreased. And whether the actual number of attacks has risen or fallen doesn’t change the reality that the Taliban have continued to fight aggressively across the country, and with devastating consequences. 

Afghan forces suffered record casualties in 2014. More than 5,000 Afghan army and police officers died in combat last year with thousands more wounded. In just one year of fighting, more Afghan forces died than U.S. and coalition troops did during the entire war. U.S. commanders have stated that the level of Afghan casualties is unsustainable. As things stand now, there have been no dramatic change in the combat dynamics that would lead to a substantial reduction in Afghan casualties in 2015.

Since the transition period began, Afghan civilians have been suffering more as well. According to the United Nations, which has tracked civilian casualties in Afghanistan since 2009, civilian casualties hit a new record in 2014. Through November 30 of last year, the war had claimed the lives of 3,188 Afghan civilians. Without adding the still unreleased December data, the 2014 death toll already eclipsed the record set in 2011, which had been the peak of the war.

The UN claims there has been a surge in ground engagements between the Taliban and ANSF in and around populated areas, and civilians are getting caught in the crossfire. 

A grave example came on New Year’s Day in the restive Helmand Province. More than two-dozen Afghan civilians died when a mortar struck a wedding party. The mortar was fired by Afghan forces who were battling nearby Taliban. Although the UN says the Taliban are responsible for 75 percent of civilian casualties, the percentage caused by Afghan forces is on the rise now that they are leading the fight.

Last year was also more deadly for foreign civilians in Afghanistan. In January 2014, the Taliban attacked a popular Lebanese restaurant in Kabul. Militants gunned down 13 foreign civilians and eight Afghan civilians inside the restaurant. Over the course of 2014, the Taliban attacked numerous foreign guesthouses and compounds, targeted diplomatic convoys, and killed nine Afghan and foreign civilians inside the heavily secured Serena Hotel in Kabul. 

As a result, many foreign organizations increased security restrictions on their employees. Some closed offices and reduced staff. Certainly in Kabul, if not other Afghan cities, conditions for foreign civilians have deteriorated measurably during the transition process.

While it was expected that more Afghan troops would be injured or killed as they took over the fighting, the growth of civilian casualties and the targeting of foreign civilians are ominous trends.

A Tactical Stalemate

Afghan forces failed to deal the Taliban a crippling blow in their first year leading security operations. In parts of the country, such as Helmand’s Sangin district, and northern Kunduz Province, the Taliban kept the ANSF on their heels and even gained some territory. The militants staged large and prolonged offensives. Taliban massed in numbers not seen since the early days of the war.

Historically, the Taliban carried out smaller, guerilla-style operations, in part because of the fear that large movements would be detected by aerial surveillance and bombs would follow. As the transition progressed, ISAF air support lessened and the Taliban ventured out in greater numbers. With a fraction of previous airpower available, what remains will be used more selectively going forward. 

As a result, the expectation is that in 2015 the Taliban will enjoy more freedom of movement in some parts of the country and will likely continue to carry out more large-scale attacks. 

“I think in the years 2015 and 2016, Afghan forces will face some challenges,” says political analyst Sayed Masoud. “They may lose some areas as well as gain some areas, but Afghan forces will be tested on the battlefield.”

At police checkpoints in 2014, Afghan police forces were tested. The Taliban frequently overran police posts and, at least temporarily, held ground. Then the Afghan Army would come in and essentially bail out the police and retake the checkpoints. 

This highlights a serious structural problem that will not be resolved any time soon: the Afghan police are still an immature and inconsistent force. This is especially true of the Afghan Local Police, which in some parts of the country are little more than armed gangs who sometimes protect local communities, and sometimes prey on them.

“They’re not as well trained; they’re not equipped the same as the [national] police or the army,” says U.S. Lieutenant General Joseph Anderson. He was head of the International Joint Command, the operational wing of ISAF that shut down in early December. After that ceremony, he delivered some rather sober comments to the media about the capabilities of Afghan forces.

Anderson said the Afghan forces often carry out politically motivated, rather than intelligence-driven, operations – meaning, they waste time and resources on lower-value targets and don’t focus on areas of greater strategic importance.

And the police, Anderson said, often ignore their training and procedures. They don’t maintain proper formations during operations, they don’t wear their body armor, and they fire their weapons haphazardly, putting themselves and civilians at risk. 

“That will continue to be a challenge here, and so that is a liability,” said Anderson.

As a result, the Army is limited in what it can do. They often have to reinforce police positions, serving as a backstop, rather than chasing down the Taliban. 

“The good news is that the Taliban is just as challenged with strategy, leadership and resources, which causes them to be less effective as well,” Anderson told the New York Times. “The challenge will be now who best prepares this winter season, who best sets themselves up for success,” he continued.

More Than the Tip of the Spear

Anderson and other U.S. commanders do say that Afghan forces are still a better-trained and equipped force than the Taliban, and they have the advantage in head-to-head combat. But, combat is only one part of what a military does. Behind the front lines is an even larger operation involving logistics, maintenance, intelligence, planning, and other support functions. 

This is where Afghan forces need the most help. They lack the ability to consistently get food, fuel, working equipment, and ammunition where it needs to go in a timely manner. 

Many bases have equipment yards full of broken down vehicles. Troops often complain that they don’t have enough food, and that they aren’t getting paid on time. The U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) recently warned that systems for paying Afghan police in particular are inadequate, and it’s likely that funds are being siphoned off through corruption. 

Attrition rates are already a problem for the Afghan police and army, and there is a fear that if forces aren’t being paid properly, desertion could reach critical levels. The Taliban would be more than happy to pay former soldiers to join their ranks. 

U.S. military personnel will tell you the “tail” or support functions of a military are hardest to build, and most important to the long-term success of a fighting force. This deficiency is not something the Afghans can solve quickly. 

For years, foreign forces have been making sure these support functions got done, but with only 13,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan now, their ability to fill logistics gaps is greatly diminished. And Western commanders will be the first to say they aren’t in the business of performing such functions anymore. The mission now is to advise the Afghans on what needs to be done and how to do it, but they don’t want to be handing out generator fuel anymore when Afghan units can’t get it from Kabul for one reason or another.

As already noted, one of the biggest impacts of the drawdown and transition is the reduction in coalition air support. For years, foreign planes and helicopters have moved Afghan troops around, flown wounded from the battlefield, and bombed the Taliban.

While the U.S. has said it will make some of that capability available to the Afghans this year, there will be far less air support, and a much higher bar to clear before it’s deployed. 

Air power has been the one thing the Taliban could never duplicate on any level. With fewer NATO planes in the sky, and a fledgling Afghan Air Force years away from full capacity, the balance of power on the battlefield levels out.

Overall, the security trajectory in the country over the past few years has not been overwhelmingly positive. Improvements in security have been uneven: As the situation improves in some areas it deteriorates in others.

For example, Kandahar’s Panjwai District, for years one of the deadliest places in the country, was secured last year. But many of the militants merely moved to softer areas of neighboring Helmand Province where fighting raged in 2014.

A month after U.S. and British forces handed over their largest base in Helmand, militants stormed the base and battled with Afghan forces there for days before being repelled. 

This year, Afghan forces will be operating with a backstop of only 13,000 foreign troops on the ground and in theory half will leave over the course of 2015.

Islamic State in Afghanistan?

Another emerging concern in Afghanistan is whether the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and  Syria (ISIS) is establishing a presence. Last year, there were a number of reports of Pakistani and Afghan Taliban members declaring their allegiance to ISIS. 

Earlier this month, Afghan officials in southern Helmand Province told various media outlets that militants wearing ISIS uniforms have been clashing with security forces and other Taliban. Allegedly several Taliban commanders have defected and are now fighting on behalf of ISIS.

It’s difficult to determine the impact of these developments so far. First, there is always the question of the credibility of reports. Last year a number of local government officials claimed that hundreds of Taliban were storming their districts, yet ISAF and Afghan officials said there was no evidence to support all the claims. Officials in Kabul said it was an attempt by local leaders to convince Kabul to send them additional security resources.

It’s possible that some reports of ISIS activity in Afghanistan stem from similar tactics designed by district leaders to scare officials in Kabul into sending more money and resources. However, with the recent release of a new video showing former Taliban commanders pledging allegiance to ISIS, it does appear the movement is gathering a following in Afghanistan. Put that in the negative column. 

Politically Uncharted Waters

In 2014, the rule of President Hamid Karzai came to an end – not without plenty of controversy. On September 29, 2014, Afghanistan swore in Ashraf Ghani as its new president.

Technically, the inauguration of Ghani was the first peaceful and democratic transition of power in the country’s history. However, there is a commonly understood asterisk after the word “democratic,” and there were moments during the extended period between the election and the results when “peaceful” was in doubt as well.

Candidate Abdullah Abdullah won the first round of voting in April, but failed to reach the 50 percent needed to avoid a runoff. The second round vote, in June, was marred by widespread fraud on behalf of both candidates. When initial results indicated a Ghani victory, Abdullah threatened to boycott the results and declare his own government. Some of his supporters threatened to take to the streets and occupy government buildings.

The crisis prompted U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to fly to Kabul to broker a deal between the candidates. They agreed to audit 100 percent of the votes cast and to form a national unity government once the winner was declared. That deal created a new position: government CEO – essentially a less powerful version of a prime minister.

After another couple of months of auditing, disputes, more threats of boycotts, and possible violence, Afghanistan declared Ashraf Ghani the winner and Abdullah the runner-up. Ghani and Abdullah were sworn in as president and CEO, respectively, in September and they have since struggled to make sense of their new two-headed government.

It took the pair more than 100 days to agree on a list of cabinet ministers. Both candidates had powerful backers to appease after the election, and that accounts for much of the delay in announcing a cabinet. While the two did deliver on their promise to appoint people who had not previously served as ministers, it’s not yet clear whether these new ministers represent a wholesale leap forward in competence and cleanliness from the Karzai government.

“This is a young and fairly inexperienced cabinet – not many have a history in government or of running big organizations,” reported the Kabul-based research organization Afghanistan Analysts Network after the announcement of the nominees. “Whether that will be a weakness or a breath of fresh air remains to be seen. It may be, though, that the need to compromise led to some weaker candidates slipping in.”

Now, the nominees must be confirmed by parliament, and it’s possible that allies of Abdullah and Ghani will raise objections to some of them along the way.

The long delay in announcing the cabinet has contributed to waning confidence in the new government. Political analysts and Western officials in Kabul are expressing fears that the difficulty in forming the cabinet is a sign the new national unity government will often face bouts of paralysis and will be slow to act. 

Combatting Corruption

One area where there’s guarded optimism is Afghanistan’s struggle against corruption. President Ghani, a former World Bank official and former finance minister, made this a central tenet of his presidential campaign. Since being inaugurated he has taken steps, symbolic as some may be, to clean up the government.

Shortly after inauguration, Ghani directed the government to reopen the investigation and prosecution of those involved in the 2010 collapse of Kabul Bank. An appellate court quickly increased the sentences handed down for the two main culprits convicted of  siphoning nearly $1 billion from the bank. 

Ghani has also been making surprise visits to police and other government offices to check on attendance and competence. He has fired a number of officials on the spot, another signal that he’s serious about reform.

But Ghani also raised eyebrows by appointing former Finance Minister Omar Zakhilwal as his chief economic advisor on the same day he called for the reopening of Kabul Bank investigation. Zakhilwal has been implicated in the bank scandal. Additionally, there are criticisms that many other high-ranking officials, who have yet to be charged, were involved in embezzling funds from Kabul Bank. 

An Economy in the Red

There are estimates that the protracted election and the uncertainty it caused cost Afghanistan $5-6 billion in economic activity last year – that’s about a quarter of the nation’s GDP. People from all across the country say that their businesses suffered huge losses because no one wanted to spend money until a new government was in place and the security agreements with the U.S. and NATO were signed.

Government revenue collection missed its targets, causing a financial crisis late in the year. This will be an ongoing challenge as SIGAR has reported that Afghanistan’s revenue collection systems are rife with corruption. On top of that, the UN has predicted further economic contraction in 2015.

Afghanistan still relies on the international community to fund about 70 percent of its federal budget. With foreign funding decreasing, Afghanistan will struggle to close this growing budget gap.

GDP growth has been slowing in recent years, and the value of the national currency, the Afghani, has dropped more than 15 percent since 2012. The country’s budget deficit is on the rise. Unemployment is difficult to measure due to the high level of informal jobs in Afghanistan, but most analysts say unemployment has grown in recent years. 

To this day, Afghanistan has been unable to develop a sustainable economy. Potentially trillions of dollars in mineral wealth lies underground, unobtainable due to an inadequate minerals law, lack of infrastructure, and weak security near potential mining sites.

Afghanistan still has little in the way of a commercial agricultural sector, and many foreign markets remain closed to Afghan exports. The hundreds of billions in development funds spent by the international community have created some localized successes – agricultural coops and construction jobs, but as donors dial back their contributions to Afghanistan, many of the programs are shrinking due to a lack of domestic Afghan government support.

On the whole, economic trend lines are moving in the wrong direction. If the country can’t jump start the economy one way or another, security will continue to be a challenge. Lack of economic opportunity and persistent insecurity are two sides of the same coin.

The Growing Underground Economy

In the meantime, Afghanistan’s illicit economy is thriving. Opium production continues to rise: 2014’s harvest exceeded that of 2013’s then record setting haul – despite global demand remaining flat. Many farmers continue to say growing opium is the only way they can earn enough money to support their families. In 2014, Afghan farmers earned an estimated $850 million growing opium poppy.

The Taliban continues to profit from the drug trade. It intimidates farmers into growing the crop and then taxes them. It’s estimated that the opium trade in Afghanistan generates as much as $4 billion, which is equivalent to 20 percent of the country’s licit GDP.  

This incessant underground economy is one of the biggest challenges Afghanistan faces. Even if the government can end the Taliban insurgency, Afghanistan has been evolving into a narco state over the course of the war. UNODC and others say that the drug trade and related criminal activity have been on the rise and touch every segment of Afghan society. Should the Taliban disappear tomorrow, fields of poppy will remain. 

SIGAR said last year that the $7.6 billion in U.S. counternarcotics programs since the fall of the Taliban essentially failed to make a dent in overall opium cultivation. The UNODC says it’s in a “soul searching” mode, trying to determine a new approach that tackles the broader illicit economy of Afghanistan, rather than continuing a patchwork of  eradication and alternative crop programs that have done next to nothing to stem the drug trade.

Additionally, domestic drug addiction rates are soaring. UNODC estimates as much as 5 percent of the Afghan population is addicted to drugs and the country is ill-equipped to tackle the addiction epidemic. 

Women in the Balance

One of the often cited “success stories” of the war is that millions of Afghan girls are now in school, and more women are working and serving in the government. However, women’s rights activists say these gains are fragile and could easily slip away..  

In 2013, when passing a new election law necessary for the 2014 presidential and provincial council elections, hardliners in parliament were able to reduce the 25 percent quota of female provincial council seats to 20 percent. 

On top of that, efforts to pass the Elimination of Violence Against Women Law went down in flames when a number of female parliamentarians voted against it. That law came into effect only due to a decree by former President Karzai. 

Ghani is a firm supporter of women’s rights and would be more likely to strengthen the law rather than consider repealing it, but the fact that a majority of parliamentarians oppose the law shows that women’s rights are still not enshrined in Afghan society. 

“The past 10-12 years is not a lot of time for social change,” says prominent activist Wazhma Frogh. She argues that the international community has spent billions on programs and workshops to train leaders and empower women, but the pressing need is to make sure women are secure. 

“If I don’t have the safety to even get out of [my] home, how can I become a leader?” she asks. 

Frogh says that money should be spent on protecting women from domestic violence and ensuring the Afghan government buys into the notion that women are equal members of society. Until that’s done, she and others argue programs like the new $216 million U.S.-funded initiative designed to give leadership training to 75,000 Afghan women is not going to improve the plight of Afghan women, especially in rural areas.

Another persistent concern voiced by women’s rights advocates is that should peace talks begin with the Taliban (to date there is no sign that’s likely to happen soon), women’s rights will be watered down to entice the Taliban to lay down their arms. The fear is that women’s rights will be bartered away.

Other Metrics to Watch in 2015

Afghanistan is scheduled to hold parliamentary elections this year. Last year’s presidential election exposed deep flaws in the country’s electoral procedures. Both the Independent Electoral Commission and the Electoral Complaints Commission are in need of significant reforms to improve their independence and legitimacy. So far, those reforms have not happened.

There’s a growing consensus that the parliamentary elections will not take place as scheduled. A reasonable delay to improve the process would be acceptable to stakeholders, but if the election is excessively delayed or seen as marred by fraud, it could further undermine confidence in the government.

Another dynamic to watch for this year is possible consolidation of the Afghan media. The explosion of independent media is one of the greatest success stories in post-Taliban Afghanistan. But, roughly two thirds of the funding for Afghan media outlets comes from international donors. Like funding for many other programs, that money will decrease in the coming years. 

Afghan media organizations are struggling to natively generate revenue through advertising and other means. Outlets owned by warlords or other wealthy power brokers are more likely to survive, but others without such backing may contract or disappear altogether.

Lastly, gains made in reducing child and maternal mortality could be at risk. The international community made great strides in expanding basic health and maternal services across Afghanistan. As a result, child and maternal mortality dropped and life expectancy increased by two decades. But the health clinics in local communities are run by NGOs, and some have ended their programs. In some communities this has already resulted in a decline in social and health services. The Afghan government simply hasn’t been able to maintain what the NGOs have left behind. 

On the plus side for Afghanistan, there are many in the international community who remain committed to supporting the country and making sure that gains made to date will be preserved and expanded. Asian countries like China and India have been stepped up their support to Afghanistan as Western nations have reduced theirs. There are many Afghans still willing to risk their lives for a better future. They are working across the country to improve education, health, and economic opportunity. 

Afghans have a tough road ahead. The new government is still struggling with its organizational chart, the economy is contracting, the drug trade is flourishing, and the Taliban vow to continue their fight. ISAF may have moved on, but Afghanistan is decidedly still in transition. Destination uncertain.

Sean Carberry was NPR’s correspondent in Kabul from June 2012 until December 2014.