What will end the deadlock in Afghanistan?
There are three competing narratives about Afghanistan’s situation.
NATO’s narrative is that it has done enough, and is working on a gradual but flawed transition to Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). It sees the Afghan government as a viable partner, even though it is under enormous stress, constantly pushed and pulled by internal and external forces.
The Afghan government’s narrative is vague, confusing and unconvincing. The government hopes to hold elections in 2014, fill the vacuum of a reduced NATO presence, ensure a degree of good governance, fight the country’s endemic and widespread corruption, keep reaching out to the Taliban, and, above all, get ready for a political transition. But despite its rhetoric, the government is deeply involved in unhealthy politicking and managing internal chaos.
Finally, the Taliban’s narrative: By protracting the insurgency and bogging down the ANSF, it has increased the cost of war and security for NATO and the Afghan government. It has not yielded to military pressure, has rejected talks, and continues to preach victory.
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This is clearly a strategic deadlock.
The aim of NATO’s troop surge in 2010 was to either defeat the Taliban or push it into irrelevance. What seems to have happened is a half-accomplished mission leaving the ANSF in charge of the stabilisation and consolidation of the gained areas. This signifies the beginning of a defence phase for NATO/ANSF, and of an offensive by the Taliban. The continuation of night raids and special operations targeting mid-level operators and Taliban commanders will not change the strategic calculus.
The only game changer will be a U-turn in Pakistan’s policy, closure of Taliban sanctuaries and a reformed Afghan government. It doesn’t sound realistic, though, to expect Pakistan to change now, when memories of 9/11 seem so distant and NATO prepares for a massive reduction in troops. Pakistan once again portrays the Taliban as a reality on the ground, a policy line similar to that taken during the 1990s.
Most indicators show Pakistan as a declining state. Yet in one area, Afghanistan, Pakistan has outsmarted and outmanoeuvred everyone. Pakistan has kept the Taliban alive and deadly, and continues to keep the US as an ally with deep pockets under any circumstances.
A decade ago the ISAF/NATO mission was simply to decrease the size of the “black space” and increase the size of the “white space”. Thanks to their efforts, the democratic space is acknowledged by all of us. But the harsh reality is the emergence of a vast grey space and an increasing size of the black space.
This “grey area” consists of complex layers of corruption, bad governance, unemployment, political disunity, alienation and poverty. Against this backdrop, the democratic space is too fragile and vulnerable.
So who will overcome the deadlock and how?
The Taliban seems to follow a strict insurgency script by encircling big cities and dominating its base areas with intimidations and executions. They also count on NATO’s impatience, Pakistan’s resilience and the weakness of the Afghan state.
The fate of the capital city, Kabul, is an example of the Taliban’s encirclement strategy. While NATO keeps handing over security responsibilities to the ANSF, the Taliban has managed to maintain its presence in all directions surrounding Kabul. The districts of Uzbeen, Tagab and Kohe Safee in the east; the provinces of Logar and Wardak in the south; several pockets in Ghorband district; where last month a woman was shot to death for alleged adultery; and in the north – all have a significant Taliban presence. These Taliban-controlled pockets will logically try to connect to each other when the bulk of responsibilities fall on the ANSF.
The counter-measure against this is the long-term presence of the US military in Afghanistan, which has agreed to provide tactical and strategic assistance to the ANSF.
Obviously the Taliban is not capable of a military breakthrough at this point. It will continue to strengthen its presence in remote areas. It will continue to launch spectacular attacks in major cities to register its strength, infiltrate the ANSF, and create world headlines. The Taliban won’t try to consolidate its gains by administering base areas and creating hierarchical structures at the local level. This will create a financial burden and make them vulnerable to NATO/ANSF military attacks.
Instead, the Taliban seems to be flexible in planning and conducting operations, and to be hierarchical in leadership. For the Taliban, there is no “moment of ripeness” in sight at this point. It has occasionally agreed to talks merely to gain further legitimacy, boost the morale of its supporters, and gain international recognition. But it won’t conduct any meaningful negotiations until it sees itself as a dominating force.
A peripheral force
Despite their gains, the Taliban are still considered a peripheral military force. Its utopian moment may never come, but they solidly believe in it. Unfortunately, the Taliban is still able to mire the country in a stalemate, frighten investors, and reduce the confidence of the small and anxious middle class.
Can the Afghan government break the stalemate without selling out its values and reversing democratic gains? To be able to do so, the Afghan government will continue to ask for more financial support from donors as the cost of security and development rises.
“The Afghan Local Police should be strengthened… but be insulated from political influence of current government stakeholders.“
The Afghan government’s continued hat-in-hand approach will cause fatigue, depression and blame both inside and outside Afghanistan, and will be accused of irresponsible spending. While the Afghan government will be pre-occupied with meeting donors’ expectations and politicking, the democratic opposition will continue to apply pressure, demanding space for itself.
A handful of well-educated technocrats equipped with modern knowledge may be able to create a fancy façade for Afghanistan, but the task of absorbing tens of thousands of low-quality degree holders, hundreds of thousands of unskilled, unemployed youth, and an ever-increasing ethnic quota in civil service and development projects will be monumentally difficult. This internal stress can only be overcome if Afghanistan diversifies its income sources and expands its extractive industries.
This, however, may only add one more layer to the conflict’s complexity if deals benefiting the ruling clique continue.
To counter the Taliban effectively at the community level, the Afghan Local Police should be strengthened, and receive better training and equipment, but be insulated from political influence of current government stakeholders. Many consider the ALP a political cash cow if the current approach continues. Ideally, the Afghan National Army should become a strategic asset at the theatre level and be relieved from the current level of stress it is now under.
At the macro level, unifying and rallying the Afghan population in an organised way against the Taliban, whom they largely hate anyway, requires national consensus and ending the politicisation of the security forces and the judiciary. State institutions should be seen as platforms for promoting the national interest of Afghanistan, not for the protection of narrow interests.
A number of opportunities are waiting to be taken, such as the still-generous support of the international community, the thirst of the Afghan people for reform and good governance, the country’s untapped underground resources, and above all the universal rejection of extremism by Afghans of all ethnic groups. None of these opportunities exist for the Taliban. Their rejectionist and reclusiveness has reduced them to the status of a militant group at best.
But abundant resources are never a guarantee of success. Exploiting talent and intelligently applying tools and resources can change the situation. For countries like Afghanistan, management means doing more with less. That is an art the current administration lacks.
Amrullah Saleh, a former Afghan intelligence chief, is an opposition leader.