The South Asia Channel

Afghanistan on the Brink, Part 1

If the Afghan government doesn’t learn from its military blunders in 2015, it – not the Taliban – will be its own worst enemy in 2016.

PUL-E ALAM, AFGHANISTAN - MARCH 27: An Afghan National Army (ANA) soldier stands on top of a security wall at Forward Operating Base (FOB) Maiwand, an ANA base that adjoins the U.S. Army's FOB Shank, on March 27, 2014 near Pul-e Alam, Afghanistan. Soldiers with the U.S. Army's 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division stationed at FOB Shank advise and assist Afghan National Security Forces in the region. Security is at a heightened state throughout Afghanistan as the nation prepares for the April 5th presidential election. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

The following is the first in a two-part series by Ioannis Koskinas, a Senior Fellow at New America, assessing the risks to the Afghan state. In this first part of the series, Koskinas examines the real but constrained military threat to the Afghan government. The second-half will focus on the risk of a political meltdown.

Pericles, immortalized by Thucydides, told the Athenians some 2,500 years ago, “I am more afraid of our own mistakes than of our enemies’ designs.” Some have raised concerns over the Taliban’s battlefield plans in 2016 and the rise of the Islamic State (IS) in Afghanistan. Yet the Afghan government’s own failure to learn the lessons of the 2015 fighting season is a far greater cause for concern than some brilliant Taliban strategy to topple the government and seize territory.

In December 2015, the U.S. Department of Defense released a blunt report indicating that the security situation in Afghanistan had deteriorated. On Feb. 9, the U.S. Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, testified that the “fighting in 2016 will be more intense than 2015.”

When it comes to the Taliban threat, context matters. Afghanistan experienced its most significant wave of instability when Pakistan’s 2015 military operations drove militants into Afghan territory. While the Afghan government wasted time and political capital pursuing peace talks with an enemy that was not ready to talk seriously, the Taliban were able to establish sanctuaries in Afghanistan that will enable the group to intensify its attacks in the coming fighting season.

Although difficult, curbing the Taliban’s territorial ambitions is a manageable process. The partially fractured Taliban leadership is facing its own serious challenges. For example, Mullah Akhtar Mansour, the leader of the largest Taliban faction, is battling other splinter-group challengers for overall supremacy within the insurgent movement. To weaken the insurgency as a whole, the Afghan government should court the splinter groups for possible reconciliation. The Taliban fighters who have broken ranks with Mullah Mansour are vulnerable to exploitation, and negotiations with them could, at a minimum, amplify fissures within the Taliban ranks.

Though last year’s reconciliation efforts failed, the National Unity Government (NUG), in partnership with the United States, China, and Pakistan, is trying to revive the peace talks with Mullah Mansour’s group once more. The four-nation group is pushing for direct talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban at the end of February. Unfortunately, odds are that the Afghan government will have to abandon this naïve approach to reconciliation once civilian casualties spike, as they did in 2015, when Kabul and Washington failed to learn their lesson. Offering political capital to Mansour’s Taliban, as they continue to align with the Haqqani network and other al Qaeda terrorist groups, is ill-advised. By courting fringe elements, the overall Taliban movement will weaken.

In a highly charged press conference on Aug. 10, 2015, President Ashraf Ghani held Pakistan to account for Afghanistan’s deadliest day since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001. Stopping just short of accusing Islamabad of state-sponsored terrorism — a charge that was made explicit by many senior state officials in the days that followed — Ghani said, “Pakistan remains a venue and ground for gatherings from which mercenaries send us messages of war.” It probably will not take until August for President Ghani to come to grips with the reality that Pakistan’s national interests are not congruent with Afghanistan’s, and that Mullah Mansour is not interested in peace at this point.

Somehow, however, Washington and Kabul have become convinced that winning on the battlefield is not possible and that political accommodation is the only way out of this mess. If only the political masters would listen to the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, General John F. Campbell, who reportedly told a group of senior Afghan officials recently that “the Taliban are not 10 feet tall.” Ultimately, the ANSF, augmented by NATO troops, are far better equipped and trained than the significantly lower numbers of Taliban fighters. With the tools at its disposal, the Afghan government should be able to prevent the insurgents from becoming an existential threat, at least in the near term.

Gen. Campbell has hinted that U.S. forces may seek approval to “accompany a wider range of Afghan units close to the front lines and [to expand] the use of U.S. airpower.” In keeping with this approach, General John W. Nicholson, set to replace Campbell in March, should use U.S. Special Forces and airpower to keep the Taliban from establishing total control in key areas this year.

Some pundits have gone so far as to suggest that it would perhaps be better if U.S. forces removed some of the more restrictive rules of engagement and unleashed U.S. airpower in Afghanistan. However, this logic is based on the dubious premise that an expansion of the bombing campaign would have a devastating effect on the Taliban. Unfortunately, this did not work when the Coalition troops levels peaked in 2011, and there is no evidence that it would work now. If anything, according to key police officials in remote provinces, speaking on the condition of anonymity, what is needed more than additional bombing is the capacity to reinforce and resupply beleaguered ANSF units, as well as the ability to quickly evacuate the wounded.

Furthermore, absent a sufficient network of U.S. special operators on the ground to provide accurate targeting information, expanding the bombing campaign would likely cause more civilian casualties and compound the crisis of trust in the Afghan government. As it is, according to the most recent United Nations report, civilian casualties increased significantly in 2015.

Ultimately, many Afghans believe that the country’s security woes have more to do with poor Afghan government choices than Taliban battlefield brilliance. At their core, the greatest performance failures of 2015 were political, rather than military. The fall of Kunduz City to the Taliban in late September 2015 was emblematic of such grand deficiencies. According to various news reports, the Afghan government ignored warnings of deteriorating conditions and failed to act decisively to curb insurgent threats throughout the province. Although the ANSF, augmented by a substantial U.S. Special Forces and airpower contingent, were able to retake the city in roughly two weeks, the threat from insurgents has not dissipated. Recent reports suggest that various insurgent groups remain around the city and dominate neighboring districts.

The NUG has not taken any substantive steps to correct deficiencies identified by an independent fact-finding commission created by the president in what seemed like a sincere effort to get to the bottom of what went wrong. A review of the NUG’s inaction by the Afghanistan Analyst Network highlighted that the same “mistrustful and ambiguous environment” that existed among local security services prior to the fall of Kunduz City continues to plague the provincial government today. This week, the NUG appointed Asadullah Omarkhail the new Kunduz governor.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, a former Afghan official told me, “Omarkhail is a good man, he’s 74 years old, and may be able to remove some local support from the Taliban.” Addressing the security deficiencies in Kunduz, however, goes beyond the simple replacement of the governor. A number of prominent analysts believe that the Afghan government’s anemic approach to resolving the challenges in Kunduz all but guarantees that serious security challenges will remain during the coming fighting season.

Many Afghans fear that insurgents, able to secure districts in 2015, will conquer entire provinces in 2016. Such speculation has been fueled by Kabul’s inability to protect the country from roughly 25,000 Taliban fighters, even though it has adequate funding for 352,000 ANSF personnel, has plans to increase the number of Afghan Local Police to 45,000, and is augmented by almost 13,000 NATO Coalition Forces. The U.S. maintains an additional 3,000 troops in Afghanistan to support counter-terrorism missions.

Instability in Helmand province is equally alarming. According to a report in The Guardian, the Afghan government controls “only three of Helmand’s 14 districts, including the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah.” Further demonstrating Helmand’s instability, an Afghan Army commander in Sangin district told the BBC that the Taliban control most of the area. In a rare public display of frustration, Gen. Campbell testified before the U.S. House Armed Services Committee that the Ministry of Defense has replaced 92 general officers, including a high-level commander in Helmand province, but that the Ministry of Interior is still “lagging behind” on the necessary leadership changes. Ridding Afghan security forces of incompetent and often corrupt leadership is a good start, but military adjustments must be complemented by good governance initiatives and emphasis on the rule of law.

A prominent Afghan academic, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told me that without good governance and absent the rule of law, rural areas are falling prey to insurgents at an alarming rate. Another analyst and prominent Afghan civil society activist, also wishing to remain anonymous, told me that perhaps the Afghan government is “counting on the peace talks to achieve stability” because it has failed to leverage the ANSF properly.

Complicating matters, regional strongmen, loosely aligned with the central government until now, may respond to the lack of effective leadership in Kabul and explosive Taliban expansion by carving out large swaths of the countryside as their own protectorates. The nightmare scenario, in which a combination of insurgent territorial gains and feudal warlords exercising control over entire provinces leaves the Afghan government in control of little more than Kabul and a few other urban areas, cannot be ruled out. Some contend that, in the cases of Nangarhar, Kunduz, and Balkh provinces, to name only a few, this is already happening. Now that Coalition forces are being dispatched to Helmand province, instead of supporting faltering ANSF operations in Baghlan province, just an hour from Kabul, it appears that Kabul remains intent on following the same, failed battle plan as it did last year.

Ultimately, despite rumors of a possible military collapse and the equally absurd perpetuation of the myth that talks with the Taliban are the only way to peace, the threat from the Taliban remains real but manageable. With adequate Coalition assistance, the ANSF are capable of holding their own. Beyond Afghanistan’s battlefields, however, the National Unity Government is lurching towards the even greater threat of a political meltdown.

Scott Olson/Getty Images

Ioannis Koskinas served as a special operations officer for over 20 years. Currently, he is a Senior Fellow at New America and runs a bespoke consultancy firm that focuses on political risk mitigation strategies in frontier markets.

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