A View from Afghanistan
Interview with Kate Clark of the Afghanistan Analysts Network
The Afghanistan Analysts Network (AAN) is an independent research center based in Kabul and Berlin. This interview was first published in French on the Diploweb.com website.
More than a year after Ashraf Ghani was elected President of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan[i], the country is governed by an unstable staff while its popularity deeply declines. On the safety issue, the situation has harshly degraded[ii]. How do you explain this?
The change of presidents was one issue; much more important, though, was the withdrawal of international troops, and the fact that there is far less money from the international military coming into the economy[iii]. There are two issues, first, the fact that the Taliban were much more frightened by the foreign troops, and particularly of foreign air power. This year, the Taliban have been able to mass and launch attacks in ways that they couldn’t when they could be bombed from the air. That changes the dynamics of the war. Second, you have much less money coming into the economy from outside, so the economy is much weaker. Added to that, and even before the election, there was political uncertainty over whether or not Hamid Karzaï would stand down, whether or not the military agreement, the BSA [“Bilateral Strategic Agreement”[iv]], would be signed with the United States. You then ahd eight months of conflict and turmoil over the elections, including threats of a coup d’état.
Now, after a quasi-democratic transition, there is a double-headed government with Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, and that is not an easy or comfortable leadership, as the government had enjoyed no honeymoon period – the electorate was out of patience by the time the two men were inaugurated president and CEO[v]. Just appointing ministers, governors and other officials, has required negotiations between Ghani and Abdullah every time. It was six months before a Cabinet was created[vi]. We have a very weak government, but the problem is not just of having that weak “national unity” government. Hamid Karzaï left a very weak and corrupt state behind. Afghanistan desperately needs reform, a functioning government, a better economy, and it needs peace. The state that Ghani and Abdullah have inherited was weak and corrupt. The problem of the country does not then just depend upon the change of President; Ghani faces a whole chain of problems, economy, war, a corrupt state, and having to rule with someone else as every decision has to be made jointly… It’s a very inefficient form of government. Then, there are issues which are very much to do with Ghani - he has still not formed a strong team around him, and has problems with micro-managing and prioritizing.
Given the problems that Afghanistan faces, clearly you would have wanted a new President to come to power with a honeymoon, enjoying the sort of optimism you should get from an election, and that did not happen here. Rather, the Afghans were totally bored and annoyed by the political classes. It didn’t feel like a victory, rather like a bad compromised choice when the national unity government came in.
The local security forces (army, police) are supposed to assume their duty after the foreign troops’ withdrawal, but they are in a very difficult situation (poor salaries, corruption, desertions[vii]…); about daily violence, they seem unable to regulate it. How does one remedy that?
It’s a big and important question. There are tens of thousands of Afghan troops (local police and soldiers…), but few are fighting as much as the Special Forces; they the force involved in the bulk of the war against the Taliban: when districts fall, the Special Forces are always sent in. The Special Forces, who do a very good job, have been specially trained by the Americans, British, Germans, and Norwegians. There are problems, however, with the bulk of the armed forces, as we saw in Kunduz: most of the forces ran away rather than fight the Taliban, even though there were far more soldiers and police on the government’s side than on the Taliban side. Therefore, there is a problem with the command-and-control chain, with coordination between the different forces, with logistics… It is not clear if that is just inefficiency, or if supplies of ammunition, fuel and food are being creamed off. There’s also a problem with morale.
The army was set up and funded with foreign help; that help is still there, but this is largely an Afghan war now. The Americans are still active in combat operations here, but they tend to intervene when either when they have people on the ground, the US Special Forces who advise the Afghan Special Forces (which was the case in Kunduz), or when they are targeting Al Qaida.
Besides the regular forces, private security forces are settled in. What can you say about their role and their importance?
There are lot more contractors working with the US Department of Defense, in proportion to the number of soldiers. However, on the Afghan side, contractors are not important. If you are looking for informal militias, there are pro-government militias involved in the fighting; there are informal forces that always worked with the CIA or the US Special Forces, and supposedly are now under the command of the Afghan intelligence agency [NDS, or National Department for Security]. There is also the Afghan local police, set up by the American Special Forces, and under the Ministry of Interior chain of command. There are quite a lot of informal armed groups in the country, along with the Taliban. Their role depends on the region you are in the country. In the North, there have always been factional militias, and that is not going to disappear. There are both unofficial pro-government militias, but some of those have never been incorporated into the Afghan Local Police, so they would be now seen as registered forces. They often behave like militias, though. In the North and many other places, there are many complaints by civilians about looting, extortion, and sexual violence.
It is impossible to talk about Afghanistan and not to mention Pakistan. Both countries are tied by a tumultuous history and a porous border, contested for a long time. What can you say about their actual relationships?
From the Afghan side, most Afghans see Pakistan as having a malign hand in their affairs; they clearly back the Taliban and provide them safe havens[viii]. They did host this a peace meeting between Taliban and representatives of the Afghan government, but that amounted to little because 1) the death of Mullah Omar was announced and that hindered future talks, and 2) there were some terrible attacks by the Taliban, particularly in Kabul, and Ghani’s reaching out to the Pakistanis and Taliban – given the lack of reduction in violence – became politically untenable. On the Afghan Government side, they feel Pakistan has offered very little. One of the things that Ashraf Ghani asked the Pakistanis to do was to make some arrests of senior Taliban accused of authorizing atrocities on Afghan soil. The fact that Pakistan is the safe haven for the Taliban is the main problem for the Afghan government. In the summer of 2014, the Pakistani military went into the tribal areas, and they deliberately did not target the Afghan Taliban. Probably this military operation, according to former General Pervez Musharraf or Asad Durrani, the former head of the ISI [Inter Services Intelligence, one of the branches of Pakistani military intelligence] was tipped off by the Haqqani network, and very much targeted the Pakistani Taliban, in order to let the Afghan Taliban leave in peace[ix].
The tone of the Pakistani discourse has changed, but there’s not much evidence of a change of policy on the ground. They definitively have cracked down on the Pakistani jihadist groups, but up to now the Afghan Taliban are still seen as a friendly and proxy force. Furthermore, Pakistan has got nuclear weapons, and that makes the country a much stronger player than it ought to be. Also, Pakistan’s geopolitical situation leads them to prefer to have a friendly government in Afghanistan, the reason why we speak of the “strategic depth” of Pakistan towards India[x].
There are strange parallels between the present situation and that of December 1989 when the Soviet Union withdrew its military from Afghanistan. This led to a progressive lack of interest towards the country… Now, although American president Barack Obama has announced the U.S. would maintain a few soldiers in the field, most of the foreign troops left after almost 15 years of occupation. Are we not heading towards, as in 1989, to a kind of indifference about Afghanistan?
The key strength for Mohamed Najibullah was the Soviet money and backing; he basically lost power when he lost the strong backing of the Soviet Union; if Afghanistan had not signed the BSA with the United States, and did not have funds to pay its army and soldiers, we could speak of a parallel situation. Another issue for Dr Najibullah was when people in his own ranks, particularly General Rashid Dostum, joined the mujahedin[xi] opposition. However, I would say that the Najibullah government was stronger than this one, in terms of having unity in purpose; today, it still looks like the political elite is more interested in how they can get positions, contracts, etc. There are still people at the elite level who don’t seem to realize the urgency of the situation, and given the strength of the Taliban, the weakness of the economy and the corruption of the state, unity of purpose and unity in politics are actually essential to survival.
[i] Mr. Ashraf Ghani was declared President on September 21st, 2014.
[ii] For a quite recent and in-depth view about the “atmosphere” in the country, see notably “The Dogs Are Eating Them Now. Our War In Afghanistan”, a thrilling narrative by Canadian journalist Graeme Smith about his work in Helmand province (the household of the Afghan Taliban, in the south of the country), where he spent several years before joining International Crisis Group as the head of the Afghanistan program from 2012 to 2015. Also, in the fictive genre, the excellent novel “Wynne’s War” by Aaron Gwyn.
[iii] The presidential election coming soon as well as the violence increase led international humanitarian organizations to leave the country, http://www.stripes.com/news/fear-of-violence-sends-foreigners-packing-ahead-of-afghanistan-s-presidential-election-1.274226.
[iv] The Bilateral Strategic Agreement sums up the objectives claimed by Afghanistan and the United States since 2001, and recalled then at international meetings (Kabul, London, Bonn…): protecting and promoting shared democratic values, advancing long-term security, reinforcing regional security and cooperation, social and economic development, strengthening Afghan institutions and governance… These principles are available on the official document published by the White House: https://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/2012.06.01u.s.-afghanistanspasignedtext.pdf.
[v] The position of C.E.O. or Chief Executive Officer did not exist before in the Afghan government, it was created for Abdullah…
[vi] In March 2015, Afghanistan Analysts Network published a list of 16 potential candidates: https://www.afghanistan-analysts.org/finally-a-complete-afghan-cabinet-the-next-16-minister-nominees-and-their-biographies/
[vii] See The Future of the Afghan Local Police, a report by International Crisis Group (Asia Report n°268), June 2015.
[viii] The fact that Pakistan is involved in the conflict joins the analyses of other long-time experts of the region, such as the famous Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid (“Taliban”, “Descent into Chaos”), American scholar Carol C. Fair, French historian Michael Barry, or researchers Olivier Roy and Mariam Abou-Zahab (“Islamist Networks. The Afghan-Pakistan Connection”).
[ix] In an interview for the BBC World News last January, retired General Asad Durrani, a former head of the ISI, confirmed the “double-game” played by Pakistan, explaining that this strategy is “the norm in international policy”, adding that the “question of good or bad” is useless. The interview is available here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02jrl5v
[x] Founded in 1947 after the (bloody) splitting of India in order to host the Muslim populations, Pakistan has been in a constant tension with the country since then on the Kashmir issue, a territory that both countries claim to own. The “strategic depth” can be explained first, as mentioned by former French intelligence officer Alain Chouet in his book “Au Coeur des services spéciaux”, by the name of the country: “P.A.K” which letters stand for Pakistan, Afghanistan and Kashmir; second, by the following strategy: Pakistan supports a friendly government in Kabul, which gives him a means of pressure on India (and the Kashmir issue), the latter being therefore blocked between Afghanistan in a permanent state of war, and Pakistan where emerge and act some of the most violent extremists movements.
[xi] During the Cold War, the mujahedin (“freedom fighters”) were fighting against the Soviet Union with the support of the CIA, whereas the Soviet Union –especially the KGB- supported the Afghan Communist Party (“Khalq”) in order to defeat the United States.