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December 28, 2015

Between hope and despair


December 28, 2015

While 2014 was a year of transition in Afghanistan, 2015 underscored the beginning of what was termed as the ‘transformation decade’ in the 2012 Tokyo Conference. The political transition was completed in Afghanistan in 2014 with the transfer of power from the Karzai government to the Ashraf Ghani-led National Unity Government.

The security transition was marked by shift of security responsibilities from US troops to the Afghan security forces. The mandate of US troops in Afghanistan changed from combat operations to a train, assist and advisory role under the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA).

The year 2015 was both a challenge and opportunity for Afghanistan. The year began with extreme uncertainty and doubts about the future. The year’s developments were important for three reasons. First, they shaped the perceptions of key regional actors about the prospects of peace in the war-torn country. Second, these developments influenced the international donor community’s financial commitment towards Afghanistan by monitoring the performance of the Afghan government. Third, since 9/11 it was for the first time that security responsibilities fully shifted to the Afghan security forces without active help of foreign troops.

The overall security situation deteriorated during the year as the Taliban carried out attacks with increased frequency compared to previous years. The casualties of the Afghan security forces rose by 27 percent this year. The Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan remained undefeated, resilient and adaptive to the changing circumstances with tremendous regenerative capacity. One of the prominent features this year’s of security trends in Afghanistan was a sustained level of fighting throughout the year, which blurred the lines between the fighting (‘spring offensive’) and non-fighting seasons (winters).

Apparently, the announcement of former Taliban chief Mullah Omar’s death did not affect the Taliban’s operational capabilities in a major way. It seems that the new Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansoor has consolidated his position despite initial internal dissent and disagreements. Under Mansoor, the Taliban increased their attacks against high-profile targets in Kabul in August to make a statement. Moreover, the brief fall of Kunduz in northern Afghanistan was significant in reasserting their strength. Though the Afghan forces retook control of Kunduz from the Taliban, the brief capture of the city united most of the Taliban factions under Mansoor’s leadership.

During 2015, the Taliban also shifted their strategy from classical guerrilla warfare to semi-conventional military warfare. They demonstrated improved military capabilities from ‘hit and run’ to ‘capture and hold’ operations. Though the Taliban did not succeed in holding the territory for extended period of time, they established their position as a force to reckon with – beyond Mullah Omar.

In early 2015 the advent of the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (Isis) in Afghanistan turned the Afghan security-landscape into a highly competitive and contested domain. Pro-Isis allegiances by disaffected Taliban factions and other regional militant groups were at the heart of this competition. The Taliban operationally dominated the Afghan jihadist landscape but Isis inspired it ideologically through its narrative of a caliphate.

Isis’ influence steadily grew in Afghanistan throughout the year. The group now has a sizeable presence in the Achin, Nazyan and Bati Kot districts of the eastern Nagarhar province and pockets of influence in southern Afghanistan’s Helmand, Zabul and Ghazni provinces. The recent flow of funds from Syria and Iraq has enabled Isis supporters in Afghanistan to gain ground and recruits.

The Afghan Taliban, despite their dominant operational position, felt the pinch of the growing popularity of Isis. In June, Mullah Mansoor wrote a warning letter to Isis leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, warning him to stay out of Afghanistan and not to recruit disaffected Taliban commanders and soldiers. Moreover in October, the Taliban formulated a special force called ‘Defence Units’ to counter Isis influence in Afghanistan.

Governance breakdown, corruption and economic mismanagement – these were other key areas where Afghanistan lagged behind in 2015. The government’s policy inertia and political squabbling left Afghanistan in a virtual state of paralysis with daily governance coming to a standstill. The expectation-performance mismatch dramatically brought down the public approval ratings of both Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah in less than a year. Both leaders dragged their feet on structural reforms and delayed merit-based appointments in key ministerial and bureaucratic slots. Rather than strengthening the state institutions, both leaders operated through powerful political and social networks of patronage.

However, the thaw in Afghanistan-Pakistan relations and resumption of India-Pakistan rapprochement during the fifth Heart of Asia Conference in Islamabad are a good omen for Afghanistan. India’s participation in the meeting indicated acceptance of our central role in the Afghan peace process. Meanwhile, Pakistan’s consent to accommodate India in the Afghan peace process underscored our willingness to work with India for regional peace.

Additionally, mega development and energy projects like the Tapi gas pipeline, CASA-1000 and the CPEC have incentivised cooperation for peace in Afghanistan with economic dividends. In a way, the zero-sum geo-political framework where competition and confrontation thrived seems to have been replaced with a geo-economic paradigm where cooperative mechanisms have created a flexible win-win situation for the stakeholders.

So, despite worsening security in Afghanistan during 2015, a window of opportunity is still open for improvement and peace-making. But for that to happen, a major course of correction is needed urgently. A stable and peaceful Afghanistan holds the key to regional peace and stability.

The writer is an associate research fellow at the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR) of the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore. Email: [email protected]

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