For Afghanistan, 2016 was another year coupled with both ups and downs that tested the government, people, and the international community’s resolve to assist the country. Failures of the National Unity Government of Afghanistan (NUG) included the Taliban’s temporary re-capture of the strategic provincial capital of Kunduz for a second time, the reemergence of the Islamic State in eastern Afghanistan, and the government’s inability to create employment opportunities to stop the exodus of Afghans into Europe. Meanwhile on the upside for the NUG, 2016 has seen the peace deal with Hezb-i-Islami Gulbuddin, increased connectivity with China, the opening of the first rail connection between Afghanistan and Turkmenistan, and successful efforts to isolate Pakistan at the regional and international level.
The Failures of 2016
The rise of insecurity across Afghanistan
Insecurity rose all across Afghanistan this year, in particular in the northern and southern parts of the country. Like in 2015, the Taliban recaptured the strategically vital capital of Kunduz province in the north, which government forces recaptured from the Taliban only after intense fighting. Not limited to Kunduz, the Taliban also expanded their insurgent activities across Faryab, Jawzjan, and Baghaln provinces in the north. Furthermore, Helmand province, which has so far remained one of the most contested regions between the government and Taliban, witnessed bloody battles in 2016. The Taliban additionally launched group assaults on Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province, but were successfully repelled by Afghan government forces. Furthermore the Taliban also initiated heavy battles to seize Tarin Kot, the provincial capital of Urozgan province, but were once again pushed away by Afghan government forces after fierce clashes.
These significant gains by the Taliban demonstrate that they are more organized and better equipped than before; they additionally possess the ability to challenge the writ of the government and have exposed the gaps and inefficiencies in the Afghan government’s management of security. A new report stated that the Afghan National Army has more generals than the U.S. military, for example. Existing gaps are further exacerbated by a tendency to appoint inexperienced people in the security sector.
The ISIS Threat
In 2015, Islamic State activities in the eastern part of the country were at a peak, decreasing after a collective offensive of both Afghan and coalition forces, which weakened the group without, however, completely defeating it. The Islamic State did carry out some very bloody attacks by targeting civilians in Kabul this year and is again emerging as a grave security threat. The Taliban see ISIS as a competitor and threat. in 2017, the Islamic State is thought to be likely to continue gaining ground if it is not defeated by either the Taliban or Afghan government forces, with the help of international forces.
Though most of the Afghans who are fleeing the country see the deteriorating security situations as one of the driving factors, this isn’t the only cause leading to their exodus. The crippled and aid-dependent economy and the lack of employment opportunities in Afghanistan have contributed heavily to an increasingly intense brain drain. The Afghan government needs to initiate projects that can create employment opportunities and, by the same token, fill already vacant positions in the government. The government needs to pursue a balanced strategy approach toward both security and development — a strategy of sustainable security.
The Gains of 2016
2016 wasn’t marked entirely by continuing challenges; the government succeeded on some important fronts. For instance, it succeeded in signing a peace deal with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hezb-i-Islami, one of the armed opposition groups in the country. Though relatively weak compared to the Taliban, the group nonetheless had remained on the scene in the country as a powerful and an inclusive political party for over four decades and enjoyed support across Afghanistan. Reaching a peace deal with Hezb-i-Islami was a major breakthrough for the Afghan government in the pursuit of securing stability for the troubled country. The agreement could well have a salutary impact on the Taliban insurgency too.
Moreover, in pursuit of regional connectivity, the Afghan government is trying its best to use the country’s strategic location to encourage trans-Asian connectivity. Thus the recent opening of a freight train connection with China and, by the same token, a railway line with Turkmenistan increases the chances of Afghanistan becoming a regional trading hub that could spur economic growth in the region. China has to realize that to fulfill its dreams of “One Belt, One Road,” it needs a secure and stable Afghanistan in place.
Within the country, despite failing to address unemployment, the Afghan government was successful in generating more revenue than its set target for 2016, which is deeply significant for the economic development of the country and public spending.
In terms of foreign policy, the government saw success in continuing to highlight the Afghan conflict by using different regional and international channels. Most significantly, the Afghan government successfully outplayed Pakistan and exposed it as the main backer of insurgent groups that are operating across Afghanistan, including the Taliban. The recent remarks of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani at the Heart of Asia conference in India won wide-ranging support in Afghanistan.
2017 is not going to be an easy year for the Afghan government as it will face challenges at multiple levels. The government still lacks a strategy for key reforms at the administrative level and, at the same time, it has failed to bring about good governance and decrease corruption. One recent survey suggests that Afghans pay $3 billion in bribes to get everyday tasks done. Corruption has remained a key inhibitor of growth and prosperity.
Apart from generating employment opportunities, the Afghan government needs to install experienced professionals in the security sector to overcome gaps. A lack of proper leadership combined with an increase in corruption in the security ranks has had severe repercussions. The government needs to put all internal differences aside and bring decisive reforms to the security apparatus.
On the foreign policy front, the Afghan government needs to activate its diplomatic machinery to convince regional players including Russia, India, China, Pakistan, and Iran that peace in the region is linked to peace in Afghanistan. The recent Russia-China-Pakistan tripartite conference about Afghanistan without Kabul’s participation is another signal that the country’s leadership needs to convince these players that such moves will reap no benefits and will instead complicate the Afghan quagmire, which can not only deteriorate the situation in the region, but can also have a negative impact on state-to-state relations.
If it fails to convince regional power brokers such as Russia and China, Afghanistan will be once again pushed toward rivalry and will turn into a buffer state between Russia and the United States. Afghans have already paid a heavy price for superpower rivalry during the Cold War. Consequently, the Afghan government needs to devise a balanced foreign policy that ensures that larger powers understand the stakes in the country in 2017.
Aziz Amin Ahmadzai writes on political, security and social issues in South Asia, West, and Central Asia. He is a Chevening Scholar and is currently studying Conflict, Security, and Development at Lancaster University. He tweets at @azizamin786.