16 January 2019


Liviu Ioniţă

Image source: Mediafax

A state facing an old and permanent confrontation

The various difficulties and conflicts that are describing the situation in Afghanistan, for more than four decades, are defining the features of a permanent hybrid war, upkept and continuously increased by interests which are not matching the will for stabilization and the interests of this state. If at the beginning of 2000, the hope to bring the Afghan nation back to civilization, or, at least, get it out of Taliban Movement and Al Qaeda’s control were the main objectives of the states who joined US in the “Enduring Freedom” Operation, now, almost 17 years later, the situation in Afghanistan is quite the same and many of the old issues are still unsolved. The Afghan nation, being too far from the civilized world, is still touched by the repercussion of an unwelcomed war, living in poorness, the lack of education being unspeakable, affected by government’s incompetence and everything that comes with it and, last but not least, it does not have any reasons to think that better days are coming.

As for the security situation, although in these 17 years of being present in Afghanistan, the international forces together with the Afghan security forces have deployed an impressive military campaign to eliminate the insurgent elements and for the reconstruction of the Afghan state (the US armed forces have lost, in this operations theatre, more than 2.500 militaries and over 20.000 were hurt), the current situation shows that the insurgents are controlling the biggest part of the Afghan territory, more than they have ever controlled after 2001.

If at the beginning of the year, the leadership of “Resolute Support” Mission[1] was optimistic regarding the progress of the military actions deployed by the security Afghan forces, supported, assisted and counselled by the international forces, at the moment, we can say that the fight against insurgence is in a new deadlock, as the last Taliban actions ended with a lot of important loses among the population, the Afghan militaries and the international forces. 

In the past few weeks, a series of kamikaze attacks, murders and ambushes over the Afghan security forces caused the death of hundreds of civils and militaries from all over the world. At the same time, tens of Taliban and ISK fighters (Islamic Stace Khorasan- an ISIS local affiliate) and tens of civilians, which are under their control, were killed in desultory confrontations.

The situation is more and more critical, but also iconic, for the entire military campaign- neither the insurgents cannot take over the control in big cities or provinces, nor the Afghan security forces, despite the support of the international forces, cannot end their actions.

Furthermore, the national union government is facing a great public impeachment, due to its incapacity to combat corruption, offer security, take down the increasing ethnical tensions and develop the economy. The Parliamentary elections, which took place in October 2018, were affected by technical, logistical and security issues, and the future presidential elections, initially scheduled on 20th of April 2019, then postponed until the midst of July or the beginning of August 2019, could increase the political tensions. Meanwhile, a series of 2018 evolutions could ask for a bigger emergency from the US to intensify the peace discussions, to bring a negotiated political solution, the last being the actual US’s unofficial purpose to solve this conflict.

2019 perspective

Given the circumstances, the chances for 2019 to bring a major good change for the situation in Afghanistan, are quite small, and the chances for this change, though, to happen, depend on the positive evolution of some events that we are trying to speculate in the following paragraphs.

This year’s presidential elections are a serious issue, whose solution will influence various future evolutions in Afghanistan, on an internal, but also international plan. The political, ethnical and sectary disputes can be controlled only if Afghan state’s leadership will be taken by someone who will approach these issues more rationally, a national leader to have citizens’ support, which could offer him the possibility to bring the majority of the ethnical groups to fight, in consensus, for the same cause.  

The lack of major incidents at the ballot, the democratic election of a new president and, implicitly, the creation of a new government, with a larger support from its people are, definitely, the premises of some positive evolutions regarding the stability and the success of the peace process.

But, considering what the political Afghan class proved until now, we have all the reasons to believe that these desiderata will be hard to be accomplished, hence, the political instability will continue.

On the other hand, we must bear in mind that the elections will take place in a critical moment for the development of the peace process, as the direct discussions between US representatives and Taliban Movement’s ones are just starting. Presidential elections’ results will strongly influence these negotiations, by changing the format of the current government, as the new ministries may not want to negotiate with the Taliban, but also by Taliban’s  possible unavailability to negotiate with the new government[2].

Even if the negotiations between the US and Taliban Movement representatives will evolve, it will be difficult to get to an agreement to stop the confrontations. If US wants to stop the conflict with the reconciliation process, through political methods, the Taliban does not seem to seriously commit to it. Although the Taliban fighters and the other insurgent groups are going through a weakness process, they have had important loses and they are willing to make some compromises. As long as they are controlling half of the Afghan territory, they will get funding and will upkeep the freedom of movement on Afghanistan’s territory, as well as on Pakistan, the Taliban Movement leaders will not concede and they will be tempted to sign peace treaties accordingly with their rules only.

Hereof, we can say that the negotiations to take place in the following year will not end the fights, because the leaders of the insurgent groups do not have a common stance regarding the peace process, or the option to get to an agreement with the US or to participate across a national union government. What is keeping them somehow united is this specific common objective to use the force to push the Kabul government away and hasten the withdrawal of the international forces from Afghanistan. Even if their representatives will be at the negotiation tables, the insurgent groups will continue to fight to gain ground and control the negotiation and, not least, to upkeep their cohesion.

As for the international military support for Afghanistan, the situation changed suddenly lately, through president Trump’s unexpected decision to withdraw 7.000 American militaries from Afghanistan. The response of the military American leadership, especially after the resignation of Defence’s Secretary, Jim Mattis, proves that the decision was taken without consulting the Pentagon, neither the allies whose troops are fighting together with the American militaries in the operation theatre. American president’s decision is drastically changing the ex-strategy for Afghanistan, also proposed by Trump’s Administration, who was committing to offer military support, until the 20 terrorist organizations (denominated by the US) active in Afghanistan and Pakistan will be defeated.  The old strategy was not foreseeing a calendar, or a deadline for it, although, given the battlefield situation, time was not on Washington’s Administration side. Maybe that was the reason for this change. If the battlefield situation did not get any better, and the evolution of the events brought US and Taliban Movement’s representatives at the negotiation table, maybe, president Trump thinks that he does not have to fight against the ones he is negotiating with. But this is not how the Taliban think, and the american president did not explain the withdrawal terms this way. And although he did not give the withdrawal order yet (alike Syria), this decision will have major consequences on the international military involvement in this operations theatre, but also regarding the peace negotiations. The withdrawal of half of the American militaries may produce a chain reaction in other states, also, from the 39 participants at the “Resolute Support” Mission, to review their participation policy at this mission and to try to consider that upkeeping a certain number of militaries in the operations theater is too big of an effort in comparison with the benefits. From this point of view, 2019 may bring major changes regarding the international military involvement in Afghanistan, which could, given the current security context and the precarious operationalization condition of the Afghan security forces, increase the extension of the terrorist threat from the region, which actually has the biggest number of terrorist organizations in the world.

2019’s linchpin in the fight agasint terrorism organizations combat in the region, especially against the Taliban Movement, will be Pakistan, the state which hosts Taliban fighters, but also other terrorist groups. Islamabad-Washington’s relations, quite tense after Trump Administration’s decision to end Pakistan’s financial support, worth of $2 billion annually (wherefrom $300 million for the military field), will continue to be in a boom-and-bust cycle, because the American leaders are trying to pressure the new Islamabad government, aware that a peace process in Afghanistan will not succeed without Pakistan’s sincere and real commitment. Even if both states relations (US and Pakistan) will not be improved, the US are pushed by the area’s geo-political reality to act rationally and limitedly. The US cannot pressure Islamabad too much, in order not to unbalance the regional power, nor the pretty weak relations balance between the two big nuclear powers, India and Pakistan.

Another challenge for Afghan state’s stability will be, in 2019, the Afghan National Security Forces capacity to fight. The armed forces, the field which received the international support, from funding to equipment, training, assistance and counselling, will continue to be the most important topic for the security situation in Afghanistan.

The armed forces, the main elements in the fight against insurgence, the progresses made last year, especially the commando forces, which are doubling units’ number, but also the air forces, which are now executing more than half of the fight missions, at a national level, are still insufficient considering the necessary operativity level to win the fight against insurgence. In 2019, the Afghan National Security Forces will be put-upon, in some of the cases by insurgent groups’ actions, and will hardly come through Taliban’s extension.

On the other hand, when the Shiite militias, composed of Afghan fighters, and the different armed groups affiliated to ISIS will leave the Syrian territory, some of the fighters will come back or they will find refuge in Afghanistan, where they will join the fight against the international forces led by US, across different groups. The ISIS “franchise” from Afghanistan, ISK, will re-emerge, and the experience they had in Middle East will help them preserve the areas they are currently controlling. ISK’s emergence in Afghanistan and Pakistan will increase the violence and brutality level of the insurgent actions and will increase also the number of victims, especially among the Afghan National Security Forces and civils, in the cities.

What should our expectations be?

After another tumultuous year has ended, 2019 could become the most important one, at least, less violent for the Afghan population, which is caught between big powers’ interests, the regional geo-political games and the internal political disagreements. Only with efforts and mutual concessions in the negotiation process can this year bring the long-awaited results of a long peace and reconciliation process, which could end the afghan confrontations. Besides the fights of the Afghan National Security Forces, with less support from the international forces, against the Taliban and other opposition’s armed groups, this year will be marked by the implementation of some political and electoral reforms, the fragmentation of the central government, the omnipresent corruption, the competition for power, foreign influence and, last but not least, the precarious economic development process.

On the other hand, the opium culture and drug traffic will influence almost all of the major challenges that Afghanistan is facing at the moment. These two activities will continue to finance the insurgence, will intensify corruption and will be a major challenge for the public health, in Afghanistan, as well as beyond its borders. In these circumstances, we should consider that insurgence’s main funding source, the opium production, reached a record level in 2017[3] and the money from the income sales will be enough to supplement the destabilization actions during this year, without considering the funds from last year’s opium production.

Hence, the main political events to take place this year, decisive for the political and security situation in Afghanistan, are the presidential elections. Until then, the actual national union government will avoid collapse as much as possible, but it will continue to be insufficient in providing public services, economy development or an agreement with the armed opposition. The political incompetence and the serious security situation, worsen by the intensity of the insurgent actions will continue to avoid the investments, the regional economic integration initiatives and the increase of the legal private sector. In these circumstances, the social consequences will, probably, face an increased popular complaint- mostly told on 2019’s elections. In the absence of some jobs on the legal employment market, the commitment of the civil society in the underground economy will continue, and the message of the violent radical Islam will remain as strong as before. Population’s migration tendencies will, still, be increasing.

As for the security field, a decisive role factor will be the way the international community will get involved in supporting the afghan security forces. If these forces will not be supported to upkeep a minimum deterrence level of the opposition militant forces, the investments made during these 18 years in their equipment, financing and training will get lost and the afghan state will come back to where it was in 2001.

But all of these forecasts, mostly negative for the evolution of Afghanistan’s situation can be changed drastically by un unseen process, difficult to speculate and explained at the moment. Even in Afghanistan, a “black swan”, in Taleb’s[4] vision, can emerge at any moment, at any place. But, unfortunately, not even the white swans go on the afghan territory…

[1] The “Resolute Support” Mission is the NATO training, counselling and assistance mission from Afghanistan, whereat are participating almost 16.200 militaries, from 39 states. It begun in January 2015 and it continued the ISAF mission (International Security Assistance Force) which ended at the end of December 2014.

[2] The Taliban are refusing to negotiate with Kabul’s government, because they do not recognize it and does not consider it legitime. The discussions between the US representatives and the Taliban Movement ones, held last year (June and October) in Doha, without major results, were possible thanks to the US strategy switch, which accepted to negotiate with the Taliban in the name of the Kabul government. Until recently, the US was insisting for the negotiation process to be developed between the representative of the opposition groups and Kabul government’s ones, and “Afghan-Afghan” peace process.

[3] In 2017, the entire area cultured with opiate was the biggest in Afghanistan’s history, 328.000 hectares, 63% more than 2016 and 45% more than the record area in 2014; also, the opium production increased with 87%.

[4] Nassim Nicholas Taleb-essayist and probability theory researcher.