Brig (Retd) Vinod Anand,
Senior Fellow, VIF
The events in Afghanistan seem to be turning a full circle. ‘Operation Enduring Freedom’ that commenced in the aftermath of September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks is drawing to a close and plans are afoot to hand over Afghanistan to the very forces that were the root cause of the problems in Afghanistan. The American strategy has been shifting and its objectives have been diluted over a period of time. Disruption and dismantling of the Taliban networks is no more their objective. While their current strategy definition aims to build capable and transparent Afghan security and governing institutions and move to a supporting role and then transfer full responsibility to the Afghans by the end of 2014, it cannot be said that they have been successful in their endeavours so far.
The neighbours of Afghanistan and Pakistan would be the worst sufferers of the adverse fallout from a Talibanised Afghanistan. Laying down of timeline for withdrawal without attaining the necessary benchmarks for ensuring a self-sustaining Afghanistan in terms of governance, security and economic parameters has created its own dynamics which does not bode well for the future of Afghanistan.
If the politics of Afghanistan holds, then the security scenario is expected to improve with concomitant positive impact on economy. However, the most dangerous trend which is apparent from a series of attempts by the American leaders is to outsource reconciliation with the Taliban to the Pakistani establishment. Afghanistan’s High Peace Council’s ‘Peace Process Roadmap to 2015’document points towards Pakistan becoming the main arbiter of Afghanistan’s destiny at the cost of Afghans and the regional stakeholders. In any case the Afghan reconciliation process remains stymied because of the competing interests of all the entities involved in the process. Further, the Afghan war is not popular domestically and there is no upside to the European and American economies for the time being.
The current situation in Afghanistan can be best described as ‘complex and uncertain’. Afghanistan is a country amid transition and 2014 is the year when many of the components of the transition are supposed to reach fruition. However, many elements of these Afghan transitions themselves remain inextricably entwined influencing each other in different and complex ways. For example, it may not be possible to usher in economic development in Afghanistan till some modicum of political stability and security has been achieved.
Afghanistan of today is much different from that of 2001; years of infusion of western aid coupled with many million Afghan children going to school and many other accomplishments and the gains of the last decade or so of western engagement would be lost if the Taliban were allowed to return to power. Despite the fact that Taliban continues to carry out targeted operations there is still a semblance of relative stability and prosperity due to presence of western troops.
However, there are many uncertainties about the future political, security and economic environment which is impacted by combination of factors by varying degrees generating several likely future scenarios. These factors include: a level of overall Western assistance, implications of inevitable foreign aid cuts, sustainability of the Afghan National Security Force (ANSF), the number of American/western troops to be left behind, the outcome of the 2014 elections, the prospect of a political settlement, future of the insurgency, Pakistan as a factor and the competing objectives of the regional players.
Political Factors Impacting Security
Afghanistan’s engagement with the West and conduct of elections and ushering in of democracy have planted the seeds of modernity in the Afghan civil society even though the elections conducted so far may not have adhered strictly to the norms of western democracies. The influence of civil society activists and independents in the National Assembly has been growing due to many factors including access to media. Yet, they have been struggling against the traditional factional leaders to have a say in the policy. It is also seen that even in security organs Pashtuns, Tajiks and others, of all factional affiliations, have worked together relatively well.
Therefore, free and fair conduct of forthcoming Presidential elections in April 2014 is being seen as an important factor in providing stability to post-2014 Afghanistan. Political trends indicate a degree of dissonance between President Karzai and the US, differences on how the reconciliation process should proceed, the role of Pakistan and an American perception that Karzai intends to hold on to power or at least would install his own candidate as President through possibly a stage managed elections (using the election machinery) in 2014.
Further, while the US and Afghanistan have concluded a Strategic Partnership Agreement in 2012, Karzai has so far been reluctant to conclude a Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) that could involve giving long term basing rights to the US forces and immunity to troops from prosecution. Afghanistan has clarified that these negotiations are premised on the understanding that the United States does not seek permanent military bases in Afghanistan, or a presence that was perceived as a threat to Afghanistan's neighbours. However, Karzai has been accused of using the BSA negotiations as a tool to sort out internal political wrangles. Even after the Loya Jirga meeting held in end November had approved the signing of the BSA, Karzai wants the same to be approved by new Assembly after the elections in April 2014.
Trends in ongoing reconciliation efforts seem to indicate that all the parties to the negotiations have different approaches to the negotiations. While Afghan regime wants the talks to be Afghan-owned, Afghan-led and Afghan controlled process as endorsed in many of the international conferences on Afghanistan, Pakistan wants to be the main driver of eventual reconciliation between the Afghans. Apparently, the US and many other western nations who were making reconciliation efforts and talking directly to the Taliban representatives seem to have outsourced their efforts to Pakistan. Pakistan’s duplicity and deceit in the West’s war on terror has now been rewarded by making Pakistan as the main arbitrator of Afghan destiny.
Prospects of success of reconciliation efforts do not look good because of a number of factors including the stance of Pakistan. The Taliban have not been militarily defeated and not very keen to come to the negotiating table. Karzai’s efforts at reconciliation with the Taliban have floundered so far including his visit to Doha in first week of April for the same purpose. However, some efforts for reconciliation are still on behind the scenes and there may be some forward movement after the elections in Afghanistan in April 2014.
Finally, there has to be a political solution and not a military one though a strong military action should have been able to bring the insurgents to the negotiating table. A negotiated outcome has the potential to usher in peace and stability in Afghanistan. However, a forced reconciliation is unlikely to lead to sustainable peace. Further, reconciliation should not become a code word for surrender or handing over power to the Taliban. A Taliban dominated government is not acceptable to most of the Afghans and even to its neighbours except Pakistan. Non-Pashtuns and anti-Taliban forces also need to be co-opted in the peace efforts.
Trends in Security
There has been a clear increase in the number of attacks launched by the Taliban in 2013, year on year as compared to 2012. Thus, there has been a general increase in insurgent activity including increased number of insider attacks on the Afghan local police. On the other hand, it can also be said that Afghan national security Forces after having taken over the lead role in operations have fared well. They have withstood the Taliban offensive even though their rate of causalities has been far more than the coalition forces.
Taliban had launched their annual spring offensive, ‘Operation Khalid bin Walid’ in March this year. According to a Taliban spokesman , the offensive was to “consist of special military tactics quantity and quality wise while successful insider attacks, to eliminate foreign invaders, will be carried out by infiltrating Mujahideen inside enemy bases in a systematic and coordinated manner." The DOD report of July 2013 states that there had been some “regression” (loss of security) in several provinces, including Wardak, Faryab, Farah, and Herat1.
Evidently, the Taliban’s focus was on weaker forces like ANP, local police to undermine their organizational cohesion, and morale. The aim was to seize initiative. According to Gen. Salim Ehsas, Chief of the Afghan Police forces, the militants have carried out 6000 attacks all across the country. 1,273 Afghan public order police service members and 779 Afghan local police (ALP) officers along with 856 civilians lost their lives. According to Gen. Dunford Afghan casualties are among my top concerns,” and stated that ANSF was suffering in some cases 100 to 120 causalities per week2.
ANSF conducted around 300 independent military operations and over 1,500 joint military operations with coalition security forces in the current campaigning season3. Though the overall causality numbers in case of ANSF are not being released as some sort of a security measure yet it has been reported that the causality rates among Afghan security forces have increased by 80 percent compared to 2012. This is further compounded by the fact that the attrition rates of ANSF have also increased to 35 percent4. Though such rates appear to be alarming yet the ANSF has somehow been able to maintain sufficient strength in their units. However, large numbers of casualties and inadequate facilities for their evacuation adversely affect morale and have negative impact on recruitment and attrition.
As part of their overall strategy, the Taliban has targeted key officials of the Afghan government and vulnerable military and civilian installations. Though, of late number of such attacks has declined. The key objective of the Taliban is to continue to expand their areas of influence and operations with a view to acquire a predominant position if and when negotiations take place.
It has been estimated that Taliban’s strength is between 25,000 to 30,000 fighters with various degrees of commitment to the cause. The Haqqani network operating in the North-East Afghanistan with launch pads in North Waziristan Tribal agency of Pakistan has a strength of about 3000 personnel while Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s group is estimated to have 1000 fighters.
One of the major tactics employed by the Taliban is the use of IEDs; US military commanders have been increasingly concerned by the number of deaths caused by the use of IEDs. Year 2010 saw a considerable jump over the number of fatalities over 2009 due to IEDs. Year 2011 saw some decline yet the number of total fatalities (492) and the portion (252) of fatalities due to IEDs was quite large. Years 2012 and 2013 have seen a decline in IED fatalities.
Another tactic used by the Taliban has been to increase the use of infiltrators into the ANSF and cause maximum causalities to both ANSF and coalition troops. This is further supplemented by Taliban’s leadership’s instructions that civilian casualties should be avoided. Evidently, the Taliban is attempting to shape the perceptions of the common populace and win them over through improved relations with local leaders and elders and use local Imams and teachers to indoctrinate students in Taliban ideology and outlook.6 Added to this is another developing trend though as yet not very pronounced wherein ANSF have been concluding local ceasefires and making many other such arrangements with the insurgents. The ISAF for the time being thinks that such pacts may prove to be beneficial to impart some flexibility and stability in post-2014 situation. However, adverse effects of such arrangements should not be underestimated as the past experience dictates that such understandings have been used by the Taliban to expand and consolidate their influence and presence7.
Further, according to the Pentagon estimates, there is a large core of the Taliban which remains loyal to the Taliban insurgency headed by Mullah Omar headquartered at Quetta.
Uncertainty over Quantum of US/ISAF Forces
There have been many statements made by the US leadership that the US and coalition troops are going to stay in Afghanistan though no quantity has been agreed upon as yet. Gen. James Mattis, Commander of US Central Command before retiring in March, stated that a total of 20,000 troops (13,600 of US and balance by other NATO partners) would stay post-2014; while Lt. Gen. Dunford, Commander of US/ISAF forces in Afghanistan had not indicated any numbers when questioned by Senate Armed Services Committee. AT a NATO meeting in February 2013, the size of force remaining behind in post-2014 was mentioned as 8,000 to 12,000 US forces and about 5,000 from other partners of the coalition. The residual force is to consist of ‘trainers and mentors’ with unspecified number of counter-terrorism forces. But the size of residual forces still remains a question mark with some analysts even assessing that the Americans might renege on their long term commitment and pull out lock stock and barrel if the situation worsens in the coming years; if not in 2014, it might fully withdraw by say 2016. The objective of such a residual force is ‘to ensure sustainable stability until Afghans can provide for their own security’.
Quantum of western troops staying back after the end of their combat mission in December 2014 has become contingent on the conclusion a BSA which would determine the status and role of U.S. forces. The main demand of the US is that the US forces should remain outside the jurisdiction of the Afghan law and be subject to the US military courts. The US is keen that ANSF handle their own security needs and is ready to leave behind some troops in advisory and training capacity but for protection of the US troops, BSA is necessary. There is also a mention of a ‘Zero Option’ i.e. no troops stay behind if BSA is not concluded but then this may be only a tactic to force the Afghans to sign the BSA. Eventually, the BSA may be signed in some form or the other as the interests of both sides are aligned. On the other hand, a demand for similar agreement by the US forces in Iraq failed to materialize and the American troops had to withdraw.
The above problems would be further compounded by an under resourced, under equipped and not fully trained security forces.
The planned strength of 352,000 (195,000 ANA and 157,000 ANP) has not been achieved due to various contextual factors. There are plans to reduce the strength to 228,500 by 2018 so that Afghanistan is able to sustain its forces (financially more viable) However, according to a US GAO report released in October 2013 the ANSF may be short by over 15,000 personnel and the efficiency or training levels have been lowered in assessment procedures. A claimed improvement in the effectiveness of Afghan security forces has been partly due to the lowering of standards by U.S.-led forces.
As mentioned earlier, the annual attrition rate for the Afghan Army is now 35 percent, according to U.S. military commanders, provoking an enormous churn in the ranks.
The Pentagon’s inspector general reported (March 2013) that the extensive U.S.-led coalition effort to develop the Afghan National Army’s command-and-control capabilities, which are crucial in executing counterinsurgency operations on its own, “had produced a marginally sufficient” system. The ANA “did not yet have the ability to plan and conduct sustained operations without U.S. and Coalition support,” the DOD IG report said.
According to a Regional Command Annual Assessment Report (RASR) of September 2013, only 20 ANA out of 65 and 8 ANP units out of 21surveyed (which were assessed during the month of September 2013) have been assessed as fully capable. Further, according to the UN Secretary-General, there remains a notable shortage of logistical, air support, medical evacuation, and counter improvised explosive device (IED) capabilities within the ANSF. Despite a clear recognition from a number of senior US/NATO officers of the need for more balance between combat and specialized combat arms like armoured corps, artillery, engineers etc., tangible action to address this issue has not been taken.
Recruitment and retention policies as well as the quality attracting the suitable, committed and educated individuals both in the ranks as well as officers would continue to pose difficulties. Given the low levels of education facilities in Afghanistan, it is not surprising to find that approximately 70% of ANA is functionally illiterate. To mould them into an effective army would be a challenging task. There is also an essential imperative of having an ethnically diverse army. A rough estimate indicates that while the presence of Pashtuns at all levels corresponds to their general proportion of the population, Tajiks continue to dominate the officer and NCO ranks. In contrast, Hazaras, Uzbek and other minorities are significantly under represented. These discrepancies promote factionalism and create negative dynamics.
Further, there is still a debate on whether US air assets in post 2014 Afghanistan would not only support ISAF but also ANSF. The deficiency of air support to ANSF would definitely affect their operational performance. There are reports the United States will transfer to the ANSF some mortars, long-range artillery, and unarmed remotely piloted vehicles8. On the other hand, there are also indications that the US and western forces are more keen to make ANA as a counter insurgency force rather than a regular standing army which can defend its borders from any type of external threats. Regular army has implications for increased financial burden which they may be unwilling to bear. Further, they also appear to be mindful of Pakistan’s sensitivities about a strong ANA.
The size of ANSF, especially ANA, is required to be determined based on internal as well as external threats to the country. One of the means to achieve the economic scale for the security forces would be to ensure that such threats, which essentially come from Pakistan based and supported insurgents, is reduced by regional and global initiatives.
In any case, there is an immediate need to create/strengthen as well as institutionalize a cohesive security structure which should evolve policies regarding important questions such as ultimate force size, equipment as well as infrastructure expenditure. At the moment, such vital decisions are being taken mostly on ad hoc basis.
The Afghan security forces are going to continue to depend upon international assistance for foreseeable future; funding requirements of ANSF have been agreed to in Chicago Summit last year but the key question is whether the fund promised (US and partners 3.6 billion dollars per year plus 500 million to be provided by Afghanistan) would be made available. These funds, if provided, may not be sufficient for development and sustainment of the ANSF. The funds are also for a four year period till 2017. Long term commitment of funds is absent and it is tied up with many conditions to be met by the Kabul government.
Pakistan as a Source of Insecurity
The double role of Pakistan in Afghanistan has been well recognized by the western nations and even some experts and authors of Pakistani origin have verified to this effect. Many recent writings point out that Pakistani’ establishment’s policy of treating Afghanistan as ‘strategic depth’ may be undergoing a change because of the existential threat from its own terrorist and extremist groups. While the newly installed government in Pakistan has made some positive noises its credentials and its capability to deliver remain suspect. In fact, the new Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has made statements to please every stakeholder. He has been attempting to juggle too many balls hoping that none falls. However, there is no tangible evidence to support the fact that Pakistan is ready to become part of the solution in Afghanistan. Though, officially Pakistan supports an Afghan-led and Afghan controlled negotiation process, it has exhibited its prowess in disrupting the reconciliation process by releasing/arresting Taliban leaders who do not toe its line. Pakistan’s need to be the driver of reconciliation process is driven by its obsession of bringing a government in Kabul which is not friendly to India in any manner whatsoever. Having provided havens and resources to the Taliban in its territory, Pakistan envisages a Taliban dominated/influenced government in Afghanistan that follows its strategic discourse. There is also widespread belief amongst the Pakistani leadership that once the western forces withdraw, the ANSF would not be able to sustain itself and would collapse in the face of onslaught by the Taliban with some help from Pakistan as was done during mid-1990s. This is a possibility if ‘Zero Option’ is exercised by the U.S. and the donor commitment to funds for Afghanistan wanes and is finally withdrawn. An apt analogy is that of Najibullah government whose armed forces continued to provide security from 1989 to 1992 when the Russian aid was finally withdrawn. That resulted in the collapse of the armed forces and the government.
There is a climate of fundamental distrust between the governments in Kabul and Pakistan. The ANA is also not keen to accept in a meaningful way the offer by Pakistan to train its armed forces. Somehow Pakistani establishment feels that President Karzai is better disposed towards India and encourages expansion of Indian influence in Afghanistan. Pakistan, on the other hand, continues to support Quetta Shura led by Mullah Omar, Haqqani group and Hekmatyar factions of Taliban which have been carrying out attacks inside Afghanistan for many years.
In any case, other than Pakistan there is no other neighbour of Afghanistan who favours installation of a Taliban government in Afghanistan. No country in the region wants Afghanistan to become a haven for terrorists who would embark on a regional and global jihad after having tasted victory against the erstwhile super power USSR and now the reigning super power US.
Implications for India
India’s efforts in Afghanistan are shaped by its commitment to build a peaceful, stable and prosperous Afghanistan that is bereft of extremist and radical ideologies. Its principal objective is to build indigenous Afghan capacity and institutions which cover almost all sectors. India’s reconstruction and developmental programmes have been devised in a manner that supports the priorities of the Afghan government and its people. Besides the aid of over 2 billion US dollars, Indian companies are also in the process of investing 10 to 11 billion US dollars in the Hagijak iron ore mines and the connected ancillaries. India is investing in mineral, agricultural and other sectors to help build a sustainable economy. As part of the Istanbul process, India has also been instrumental in encouraging other countries to invest in Afghanistan. Promoting Afghanistan as a regional hub for trade and commerce would not only help Afghanistan in integrating its economy with the region but it would also enable Kabul to earn adequate transit revenues to sustain its government’s budget including that of the ANSF over the long term.
India had signed a Strategic Partnership Agreement with Afghanistan in 2011 which catered for providing Kabul with both military and non-military aid. India has been training ANSF personnel in its academies and military institutions. While Karzai has been pressing India to provide military equipment like artillery guns and tanks, India has been keen to provide only non-lethal equipment. India’s reticence in supplying such weapon system is possibly shaped by the likelihood of the same falling into the Taliban or even Pakistani hands. India has also been telling the US and other western countries to leave such equipment that enables the ANSF to perform their tasks efficiently before they withdraw. However, there is growing opinion amongst some strategic thinkers that India can afford to give some regiments of 105mm artillery guns which are being phased out. Similarly, some older versions of tanks can also been given though there might be some issues about their origin. Afghanistan has also requested for transport aircraft like AN-12 and some MI-17 helicopters which is within the capability of India to provide. Problems of some of the equipment and weapon systems being of Russian origin can be resolved after consultations with Moscow. Such equipment would go a long way to help ANA improve its defensive capabilities.
Further, India has also agreed to provide trainers for the Afghan National Army academy that has been established by the UK and is modeled on Sandhurst. India is also likely to deploy technicians to run an old military hardware maintenance facility in Afghanistan. As part of its overall effort in strengthening the capacities of ANSF, a few light helicopters like Cheetah for reconnaissance purposes would also be delivered.
The thaw between the U.S. and Iran has opened up new opportunities for improving connectivity between India and Afghanistan and onwards to Central Asia and beyond. Development of Chabahar port in Iran and the connecting infrastructure to Afghan border can be expedited and mineral resources/finished products can be evacuated in variety of ways. Development of Afghanistan and consequential benefits to Afghan populace and government would help in stabilising Afghanistan and improving its security environment.
The unfolding scenarios in Afghanistan are largely dependent upon the US strategies, Pakistan’s stance, and the manner of reconciliation and integration of radical elements. Though other regional powers have significant stake in the outcome of what is happening in Afghanistan, they have not been much involved in the ongoing process. The US and its coalition partners’ strategies have been shifting and their resolve to invest and endure has weakened due to many contextual factors. They are now only working for a face saving withdrawal. Further, if the politics in Afghanistan holds, that is a successful holding of Afghan elections in April 2014, then the security environment is also expected to improve and consequently the economic transition would be more likely to succeed in the long term.
While the US and its allies have invested considerably in ANSF, they are as yet reluctant to make it a regular standing force suitably equipped with necessary wherewithal so that it could discharge its duties with a high degree of satisfaction. The ANSF needs to be provided with a balanced composition of arms and services in order to meet both internal and external threats likely to be posed to survival of Afghanistan. American and other western forces need to leave adequate military equipment and weapon systems behind instead of hauling them all over back to the US or somewhere else. As it is, lot of blood and treasure has been spent over the last twelve years or so and leaving the equipment back may not be of much consequence monetarily. So far as signing the BSA is concerned, it is expected that it would be signed sooner or later as its draft has been approved by the Afghan Loya Jirga.
India needs to have a de novo look at its policies in Afghanistan; if its strategic interests in Afghanistan are bolstered by providing lethal military equipment to ANSF then it must take a call. India’s core strategic interest continues to be that ‘Afghanistan should never be allowed to become a haven of terrorists who would embark on regional and global jihad’.
- Kenneth Katzman, “Afghanistan; Post Taliban Governance, Security and Policy’, Congressional Research Service Report No. RL30588, October 23, 2013, p.23
- DOD, News Transcript, “Department of Defense Press Briefing with Gen. Dunford from the Pentagon Briefing Room,” June 18, 2013
- “Taliban Attacks Kill 3000 Afghanis in Seven Months: Interior Ministry”, Press TV, October 29, 2013 available at http://www.presstv.ir/detail/2013/10/29/331970/taliban-killed-thousands-...
- “Afghan Combat Deaths Nearly Double in 2013 Fighting Season, while US Causalities Drop”, RT News, November 09, 2013 available at http://rt.com/news/afghan-combat-deaths-double-2013-462/
- See http://icasualties.org/oef/
- DOD Report “Progress Toward Stability and Security in Afghanistan”, July, 2013, pp 20 available at http://www.defense.gov/pubs/Section_1230_Report_July_2013.pdf
- Ibid. pp.20-21
- Jim Michaels, “ White House Scaling Back Military Support for Afghan Forces”, The USA Today, June 04, 2013 available at http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2013/06/03/afghanistan-pentagon...