Afghanistan: Beyond reactive tactics and quick fixes

How Afghan leaders deal with the security crisis, amid their own internal disputes, will determine Afghanistan’s future.

An Afghan National Army soldier sits in front of a closed shop in the downtown of Kunduz city, Afghanistan [REUTERS]
An Afghan National Army soldier sits in front of a closed shop in Kunduz, Afghanistan [REUTERS]

Afghanistan’s two key political leaders – President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah – today meet European Union representatives, 70 donor nations and 20 international organisations in Brussels, to review progress and agree on future assistance.

As the Brussels conference gets under way, Afghanistan is increasingly fragile. Ghani and Abdullah jointly head the National Unity Government (NUG), which is now reaching the end of its second year. But in a recent interview, former president Hamid Karzai directly questioned the NUG’s legitimacy.

The political agreement that created the NUG requires a constitutional Loya Jirga (grand assembly) to decide on a change of political system, from a presidential to a parliamentary model, by the end of its second year.

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Likewise, the NUG was supposed to undertake electoral reform and hold parliamentary elections. But as the two-year deadline passes, none of these conditions has been met. Political opposition groups are relishing these failures, trying to further weaken the government.

Early elections

Anwar ul-Haq Ahadi, a prominent opposition politician, has suggested early elections as the only solution. NUG leaders have instead pushed a new reform agenda, promising to fulfil 30 commitments by the end of 2016.

Beyond the political sphere, Afghanistan remains vulnerable in security terms. A renewed Taliban offensive threatens city centres in the northeast and south, while Islamic State has emerged in the country’s east.

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The provincial capital of Kunduz, in the northeast, has been under near-continuous siege for more than a year, briefly falling to the Taliban last October, while Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand, is almost encircled and Tarin Kot, the capital of Uruzgan, came dangerously close to falling to the insurgents last month.

Ordinary Afghans, the ones legitimising the government through high turnout in elections, accept the current system and support the state.


How NUG leaders deal with the security crisis, amid their own internal disagreements and weakening legitimacy, will determine Afghanistan’s future.

Most Afghans still prefer the post-Bonn order that has governed Afghanistan since the Taliban. People prefer a democratic state, despite its inadequacies.

Ordinary Afghans, the ones legitimising the government through high turnout in elections, accept the current system and support the state. That’s why the NUG, as a symbol of the first peaceful transition of political power in Afghan history, should continue for its constitutionally defined term.

Even its strongest political opponents – groups such as the Enlightenment Movement – agree that the NUG must serve its full five years. A government collapse would set Afghanistan back, running the risk of a return to its brutal past. To address these challenges, the NUG needs to focus on bolstering its legitimacy.

In the past 15 years, reactive tactics and short-term solutions dominated Afghan government thinking. Both Afghan leaders and the international community invested primarily in insurgent-dominated population groups and violence-affected provinces through developmental projects and security programmes.

Ashraf Ghani with Abdullah Abdullah [Reuters]
Ashraf Ghani with Abdullah Abdullah [Reuters]

Pakistani-centric foreign policy

The idea was not to focus on the majority of citizens who support the government, but to win over the minority who don’t. This “red-centric” approach was partly to blame for the rifts that have appeared between the government and the people over the past decade.

Ghani and Abdullah continued the same approach, adding a Pakistani-centric foreign policy in their first year in office. But this futile methodology must change.

The Afghan government’s key source of political legitimacy is the majority of the Afghan population who continue to support the state despite all its challenges.

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Through a people-centric – or, we might say, a “green-centric” strategy, the NUG would focus on delivering nationwide services comprehensively, seeking to reward and integrate the majority of Afghan citizens who support the state, rather than trying to win over the minority who support an expanding insurgency.

In foreign policy, just as in its internal security, Kabul has traditionally invested much political capital on winning over Pakistan ...


In foreign policy, just as in its internal security, Kabul has traditionally invested much political capital on winning over Pakistan, gaining support from China and reinvigorating a failed peace process, with consequences that can be described as mixed, at best.

Ghani trusted Pakistan’s political goodwill gestures, failing to understand, or preferring to ignore, the real Afghan affairs doctrine of Pakistan.

The Pakistani military “Green Book”, which underpins Pakistan’s foreign policy towards Afghanistan, was updated in 2013, and indirectly treated Afghanistan as its primary enemy. With this doctrine in place, it is hard to see a strategic change in Pakistan’s vision towards Afghanistan.

Moreover, Afghanistan faces the challenge of managing conflict security interests of regional and international players. Until 2014, NATO member states, along with key non-NATO coalition members such as Australia, were the key players engaged in security affairs of Afghanistan.

But since then, major economic players such as China and Russia have become increasingly involved in the security arena. Managing these conflicting states’ interests in Afghanistan is challenging and the country needs a more focused foreign policy. That’s why the NUG should not put Kabul in the circle of conflicting security interests of major players.


Despite the daunting list of challenges, Afghanistan is changing for the good and there is every chance of a positive future.

But multilateral domestic development is time-consuming, and with an increasingly active insurgency actively threatening cities across more than two-thirds of the country, there is no doubt that Afghanistan remains in dire need of international support.

This support should be conditional, requiring ongoing reform and development efforts, but despite all the difficulties, a strong international commitment is a must for the future of the country.

Forgetting Kabul, or treating Afghanistan as a burden on the international community increases the risk of a catastrophic collapse, as we saw in Iraq in 2014, or at the very least a backsliding that would wipe out current achievements and might lead Afghanistan back to the chaos of the pre-9/11 era.

Neither the world as a whole, nor Afghans – the overwhelming majority of whom reject a return to that disastrous past – can afford that outcome.

Waliullah Rahmani is director of the Kabul Centre for Strategic Studies. A former senior adviser to the Afghan government, he has worked on terrorism, insurgency and Islamic movements in South Asia since 2006. 

David Kilcullen is a senior fellow in the Future of War Program at New America. A former Australian infantry officer, he served in Afghanistan in 2006-2008 as a US State Department adviser in support of counterinsurgency and counterterrorism efforts, and from 2009 to 2012 worked as a consultant on stabilisation and reconciliation programmes.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.