On the threshold of a new beginning

February 1, 2015

There are comparatively more signals of optimism than pessimism after the end of ISAF’s combat mission in Afghanistan

On the threshold of a new beginning

On January 1, 2015, NATO’s "training and support" mission replaced US-led ISAF combat mission. Marking the completion of gradual transfer of responsibility to 352,000 Afghan security forces, formal ceremony of the changeover took place in Kabul on December 28, 2014. Afghanistan is on the threshold of a new beginning.

There are comparatively more signals of optimism than pessimism. Successful state building depends upon internal security provision, local governance and denying the insurgents sanctuaries across the border.

What may unravel Afghanistan?

Entrenched corruption, poppy cultivation and the uneasy though successful political transition are obviously some of the major issues. The biggest challenge, however, is an emboldened insurgency. Taliban, Hezb-i-Islami, the Haqqani network, foreign fighters, local militias and criminal organisations are fighting to bring about a regime change: from democracy to theocracy.

How may Afghanistan survive this time?

Seth G. Jones’ "Counter insurgency in Afghanistan" assessed 90 insurgencies since 1945. It found out that the success or failure of an insurgency is contingent upon three crucial factors: the capability of the indigenous forces, especially police, local governance and external support to insurgency or government. During the era of Afghan jihad, the Afghan government’s failure owed mainly to these factors.

At the dawn of Saur revolution in April 1978, Afghan armed forces numbered 110,000. Due to desertions and mutinies, by the end of 1984, their number shrunk to some 30,000 personnel. In order to defeat the insurgents the former Soviet Union deployed 120,000 troopers at the peak of the conflict. On February 15, 1989, when the Soviets completely pulled out of Afghanistan, they had spent US $5 billion a year totaling $45 billion. By then the Afghan government was in control of only 20 per cent of the country.

In order to oust the Soviets from Afghanistan, the US along with more than a dozen countries hugely helped the Afghan fighters. Combined with US $3 billion in economic and covert military assistance, the insurgents received well over $10 billion mostly in the form of modern lethal weaponry. In addition, Pakistan’s northwest borderlands served as safe havens for the insurgents.

Where does Afghanistan stand now?

Deadliest since 2001, the year 2014 experienced the killing of at least 4600 Afghan soldiers and policemen. Institute for economics and peace’s "Global peace index 2014 measuring peace and assessing country risk" ranked Afghanistan 161 out of 162 states ahead only of Syria for the year 2013. The study noted 10 per cent more terrorist attacks and 13 per cent more fatalities in 2013 than 2012. The International Crisis Group’s May 2014 study titled "Afghanistan’s insurgency after the transition" found that there were mixed signals of the Taliban putting a challenge to the Afghan government in case studies of four Afghan provinces where NATO had completely withdrawn.

In Faryab and Kandhar provinces, the insurgent violence was escalating. In Kunar, the insurgency was intense though not escalating. In Paktia, violence was declining. In all, the insurgents failed in seizing control of major cities and towns. As far insurgent strength, estimates suggest that the number of Taliban full-time fighter ranges from 5,000 to 10,000.

In order to defeat Taliban insurgency, in 2011, the number of ISAF’s soldiers reached its peak -- 132,000. The war has cost more than a trillion dollar in military and humanitarian support. Afghan National Army has 195,000 members while Afghan National Police has 157,000 men, totaling 352,000 personnel. Besides, with a target of 8,000 members by 2016, Afghan air force has 5,725 personnel including 400 pilots. Post-2014, some 5,500 American forces will be involved in counter insurgency operations in Afghanistan outside the NATO mission. In addition, about 12,500 foreign troops will assist the ANP and ANA fighting the insurgents.

There are other several reassuring developments. The state apparatus is today more inclusive, incorporating diverse ethnic groups of Afghans than during the course of Soviet occupation and its aftermath. This seriously discredits the Taliban claim to an exclusionary government of the zealots. More, Taliban repressive policies when in power back in late 1990s and their inhuman tactics while fighting NATO and Afghan government--killing more civilians than security personnel--put a serious dent on their image. Moreover, the Taliban claim to jihad against their Afghan Muslim brethren falls into disrepute after the NATO’s withdrawal.

Where lies the problem then?

External support especially in the form of sanctuaries in FATA seriously hinders Afghan stabilisation. Seth G. Jones study also shows that insurgents won about 43 per cent of times when they enjoyed a sanctuary.

How to end the insurgency?

Reconciliation and effective policing can succeed. A study by RAND Corporation of 268 militant groups (1968-2006) shows that whereas in 10 per cent cases the militants achieved their goals, in 7 per cent cases military force defeated the insurgents. Political engagement brought to end militancy in 43 per cent cases. Effective policing was responsible for the end of militancy in 40 per cent cases.

Like it or damn it, the way to viable and enduring peace in Afghanistan goes through Islamabad. National interests, not ethics, dictate foreign policy. Islamabad’s alleged bid to install Taliban government in Afghanistan is means to ends! A return to Taliban exclusive rule is fantasy, however.

Islamabad will have to adapt its interests according to the changed circumstances. Although de facto, Taliban are one of the players--not the only--in the Afghan power game. The Afghan government should take benefit from Pakistan’s newfound resolve against Taliban. In the end, it will be a litmus test for Pak-Afghan diplomacy to seek a fruitful compromise.

The effective denial of sanctuaries across western side of Durand Line will nearly sound the death knell for insurgents. Even then, they will not sue for peace. They will test the resolve of Afghan government through armed struggle. Once the Taliban realise that a reversion to 1990s is impracticable, will they accept a negotiated solution? It is here that the international community should hugely help the Afghan administration strengthen its armed forces, especially the police and ensure good governance. Only time will answer if policy circles in Pakistan have learnt from the blow back effects of interventionist policies and if Afghan rulers have learnt the art of adjustment with a mighty neighbour? 

On the threshold of a new beginning