Painting a Mixed Picture

THEO FARRELL — After 13 years of fighting, Afghan National Security Forces have assumed responsibility for all combat operations in the country. Now the real fight begins. 

When Ashraf Ghani assumed the Afghan presidency in September 2014, he outlined a “triangle of stability” — strong economy, security, and human resources — on which Afghanistan’s future would rest. Yet 100 days into his tenure, he is mired in a major political crisis that illuminates the unity government’s fragility. Thirteen years after foreign soldiers entered Afghanistan, has Ghani been left with political or military tools to overcome the traditional challenges of corruption, foreign intervention, weak governance, and dismal economic conditions, as well as threats from a resurgent Taliban?

Does Ghani have the security structures, government structures, and economic structures to deal with the challenges ahead? The answer is clearly, no. His problem is precisely that all these structures present weaknesses in what is an incredibly challenging situation.

Of the three you outline, the best is probably the Afghan security structure; so much money has been pumped into it throughout the last decade. There has been, since 2009, very significant improvements in the Ministry of Defense and the Afghan National Army (ANA). Improvements have also been made in the Ministry of the Interior and the Afghan National Police (ANP), but they have enjoyed less investment over time and these efforts have progressed a bit slower.

Yet there are still significant weaknesses in the ANA — there is a real problem in terms of human capital, both at the leadership level and, in particular, amongst the junior officer corps. Afghan junior army officers are just not very good, and yet their position is critical for any army that must engage in ongoing operations. The ANP also face serious challenges, most central of which is their character as a locally-sourced force. The opportunities for corruption amongst the ANP is much higher than in the ANA, and it has proven extremely difficult to reform the police and address this kind of rampant corruption. The corruption is indicative of a system in which bribes are passed up the command hierarchy. For example, a checkpoint commander will likely have bought his position — he must make payments to those in charge of his assignment.

And this is the good news story. Despite these shortcomings, the ANA has managed to perform relatively effectively in recent combat operations. During last summer’s fighting season there was a very tough fight, particularly in northern Helmand Province around Sangin. The ANA managed to hold against the Taliban.

It is of course equally important to consider the government structure according to which Ghani operates. There are a couple of factors that are worth a closer examination, the most critical of which is perhaps the national unity government’s ability to perform satisfactorily. The outlook is not completely dismal. Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah — who represent the two basic political camps in Afghanistan — managed to agree on ministers for all the major portfolios. This outcome is quite remarkable. Of course, there are serious weaknesses that undermine this system, especially amongst local governments. There has been some improvement in local administration through the ISAF campaign — to produce more competent sub-national government and connect with local communities — but against that the usual corruption exerts a powerful force. Many of the district and provincial governorships are bought positions, for example.

One critical area of endemic political weakness is the Afghan parliament. The country does not really operate under a parliamentary system because it does not have parliamentary parties that operate as such. This situation makes it very difficult for parliamentarians to mobilize, to hold national government to account for its actions. This was a serious challenge for Afghan stability during the Hamid Karzai regime. It remains to be seen how serious this problem will be under Ghani. Afghanistan is a very centralized state, but simply does not have the institutions needed to hold the government accountable.

Finally, the economy presents a grave threat to Afghan stability. Kabul is unable to raise the revenue required to sustain itself, and is currently subsidized by western funds. The government especially needs money to pay for its huge number of security forces, which is illuminative of the scale of the problem.

The ANA must interact with local police and paramilitary security forces, groups that seem more susceptible to problems of corruption and poor leadership than a nationally-funded force. How was the relationship between the Afghan military and these local forces conceived and how is it manifest?

There are multiple security providers in Afghanistan, the most important of which are the Ministry of Defense (ANA), and the Ministry of the Interior (ANP).

The ANA was constructed largely on a western model, although many within its ranks were trained by the Soviet Union. It operates along a very centralized structure, taking its commands directly from the Ministry of Defense. It is a garrison-based army that tends to operate out of large military bases. Afghan army officers identify their primary mission as protecting the Afghan state in a very conventional sense. Their main concern is Pakistan, and the defense of Afghanistan against conventional Pakistani forces. Of course, the ANA has been tied up in counterinsurgency operations to support the interior government and the ANP. Yet this is not really what ANA commanders want to be doing. Given the opportunity, these commanders would return their forces to garrison in places like Helmand’s Camp Bastion. The ANA’s major investment has been in building up forces and armaments deemed necessary to fight a conventional war. Of necessity, the ANA has engaged in a counterinsurgency, but their heart is not in it at all.

Ironically, however, local populations seem to prefer the ANA over both the ANP and ISAF forces for their security. This pro-ANA sentiment is even prevalent in southern Afghanistan’s Pashtun regions, where most of the ANA soldiers will be northerners who speak Dari, an entirely different  language. Because the ANA is not connected to the local communities in which it operates, it therefore has less capacity to prey on these peoples. The ANP surely has a better understanding of where local threats originate and who the insurgents are. But because of their local roots, police have a much greater ability to take advantage of the communities whence they originate. The ANP’s problems rest on the foundation set in 2001-2002, in the months just after the Taliban government was pushed out of the country. Many of the warlords ousted by the Taliban were then able to return, assuming positions of authority across the Afghan south and east. These warlords became provincial governors and chiefs of police.

Traditional tribal- and kinship-based rivalries simply reasserted themselves. For example, up until the mid-2000s, the police in central Helmand Province were dominated by the Noorzai tribe, who had a longstanding conflict with the Barakzai and Kharoti groups. The local police thus represent in many cases only small portions of a community, and not the population as a whole. It is not clear the extent to which, over the entire ISAF campaign from 2006 until 2014, that this problem has been solved. Even as late as 2010 there was great variation in how regional commands were prioritizing this problem. It is just so difficult to get a handle on this type of corruption, even late into the ISAF mission.

Conflicts within and between ethnic factions across Afghanistan have intensified in recent years, sparking concern amongst foreign observers that the ANA could experience similarly intense factionalization. After over a decade of foreign mentorship, does the ANA — or parts of it — indeed represent a national military that can inspire confidence amongst the country’s myriad communities?

Looking at the breakdown of the major ethnic groups within the ANA it is roughly proportionate to the size of these groups within the national population. The old concern that the ANA was simply the Tajik-Uzbek-dominated Northern Alliance has long since been addressed. Considering the very high turnover of people who come into the army, this development is not surprising — the army has grown very significantly into a force of over 200,000 since 2001. The situation is less pluralistic when it comes to the officer corps. There are higher proportions of Tajik officers, in particular, but not grossly so.

It is important to remember that the ANA is not an army on campaign. Western armies go on campaign, like the Americans or British have done in Afghanistan or Iraq, rotating field units through the war. The Afghan army has not performed such rotation. When a young Afghan joins the ANA, he will be assigned to a regional garrison — he will be there for his entire military career. Soldiers without the necessary political connections tend to be posted to units in the east and south, which are the really hard places for a soldier to serve. Those who do have connections will more likely join units in the safer west or north. It is entirely possible, for example, that there may be networks within the army sending a higher proportion of Pashtun to the south and the east, not because it makes strategic sense, but because the Tajik and Uzbek networks are influencing posting locations. Yet the officers, especially the senior officers, do conceive of the ANA as a national force. The army is quite clearly designed to protect Afghanistan’s natural borders against Pakistan. There just does not seem to be a high degree of factionalism within the ANA.

Over the last 13 years, the Taliban established shadow governments across Afghanistan; yet these institutions were able to administer no other government service aside from justice due to combined ANA and ISAF operations. How has the ANA’s full assumption of security operations across the country impacted these shadow institutions — do Taliban groups have renewed opportunity for an expansion of their political infrastructure?

So far there is no evidence to indicate that the Taliban have managed to improve their shadow governments. There are other developments and debates at a senior level, in Pakistan, that are affecting the ability of the Taliban to operate in Afghanistan.

There had been a longstanding row between two senior Taliban leaders: Abdul Qayyum Zakir, who was head of a new military commission, and Mullah Mansoor, who was effectively the number-two commander under Mullah Omar in the Quetta Shura Taliban. A few months ago, Zakir was removed as head of the military commission — he clearly lost the competition. There had been suggestions that the very vigorous summer fighting this year in northern Helmand was due to Zakir trying to exert his influence, and demonstrate to the Quetta Shura that he was still a major player.

Now the Taliban face a new problem. There are fresh peace overtures from the government in Kabul. The Pakistanis, although openly supporting the peace process, remain very unhappy about the Taliban’s Doha office and move toward a Gulf-based peace. Islamabad has always maintained that it would need much more control over any peace negotiations. As a consequence, Pakistan has put a great deal of pressure on the Quetta Shura to work under its purview. The Taliban need to take an opinion on the peace process, and decide whether they want to participate in it or not. They need to revive their political campaign, as the organization has made inroads in rural areas despite ANA operations. It is not clear whether the Taliban has managed to translate these gains into improved governance, in part because the organization’s political commission is jammed by the pressure from Pakistan. Ultimately, the debates ongoing in Pakistan need to be resolved before the Taliban can gain any leverage from their successes.

In your 2013 paper, “The Taliban At War,” you note that the immense pressure under which the organization operated since 2001 created a “resilient insurgency” that is “more centralized and professional.” Although these qualities mean the group is a more effective fighting force than it was 13 years ago, it also seems that such coalescence could create a more potent political entity. Although a more central and professional Taliban has proved difficult to defeat, have these developments also created an entity with which Kabul might be able to negotiate more effectively?

The Taliban’s centralization must be considered in terms of degrees — the organization has never achieved the high level of centralization of other insurgencies like FARC or the IRA. It is still substantially decentralized. Local Taliban field commanders and units often come from rival political parties or tribal groups. There were some significant improvements in the Taliban’s tactical approach, however. The move from infantry-style attacks to more traditional guerrilla warfare — bombs, improvised explosive devices, and sniper fire — was important. This tactical shift was centrally-directed after 2010.

The more interesting question is about whether, as the Taliban tried to become more centralized, did the organization improved its ability to be a negotiating entity. The key challenge politicians face when interacting with an insurgency is that, once a peace is reached, can the group deliver it? In Ireland, the IRA fought a war of independence against the British state from 1919 to 1921. When the IRA decided to agree to peace terms with Britain, they had to fight a civil war against part of their organization to deliver that peace. Ironically, the British provided military supplies to one side of the IRA against the other. A similar situation exists in Afghanistan with the Taliban.

The Taliban are acutely sensitive to this problem. Would a negotiated peace fracture the organization? Could Taliban peacemakers bring the organization’s base with them? Individuals who are members of or associated with the Taliban political commission often claim that the organization’s political side represents a success story, that the Doha office showed the potential of negotiation — indeed, Doha has demonstrated that talks can deliver concrete results like prisoner exchanges. Taliban political officials are thus open to peace talks.

Taliban field commanders, however, present a different story. Recent interviews have indicated that they believe members of their own political commission are American puppets — they think the same of politicians in Kabul. Whereas members of the political commission might declare that negotiations could commence before all foreigners have left Afghanistan, the field commanders would refuse any such reconciliation. There seems to be a division between those who have been doing the fighting on the ground — the base — and those that are in the organization’s political leadership. Senior military commanders in the Quetta Shura are aware of this split.

Ultimately, from the Taliban’s point of view, it is not a good moment now to begin peace talks with Kabul. Political leaders are waiting to see whether Ghani’s unity government can survive — it makes no sense to begin negotiations with an entity that cannot survive. The pressure Pakistan has placed on the Quetta Shura has also meant that the political wing cannot operate effectively. Members of the political commission are being arrested, interrogated, and imprisoned by Pakistani security forces, severely handicapping the organization’s ability to meet or discuss any policy issue. Finally, and highly significantly, it is dubious whether the Taliban base would support any shift toward negotiation. Taliban military commanders see their forces achieving gains against Afghan security forces — across Helmand the Taliban has spread into rural areas. The base therefore asks: Why should their organization enter into negotiations when its operations are successful? The prospects in the short term for any peace talks thus seem slim.

As the Taliban professionalized during the ISAF occupation, two themes emerged that seem contrary to the other: The group at once operated under the narrative of jihad against foreign invaders, but also was forced to navigate local tribal and inter-communal rivalries. Is this interpretation valid, and how have Taliban leaders, as well as officials in Kabul and ISAF commanders, understood and operated within this environment?

Looking first to the western intervention forces, one of the major criticisms in the early stages was that commanders were highly ignorant of local culture. For instance, NATO leaders would back local security forces because they were representative of the legitimate government, to connect government with the local populations. In fact, these security forces turned out to be one side of what was a local civil war. Toward the back end of the campaign in 2008-2009, ISAF units developed very good intelligence-gathering techniques and cultural sensitivity. There was a renewed emphasis on understanding the local sociopolitical environments in which these units were operating, and then identifying triggers for violence within that environment.

On the Taliban’s side, there is a paradox. On the one hand, they self-identify as a pan-Afghan organization that combines all ethnic groups; they have no desire to export their jihad outside Afghanistan’s borders. Yet the Taliban’s leadership is predominantly culled from the Ghilzai tribal confederation within the Pashtun ethnic group. The Taliban have been very effective at manipulating local tribal dynamics. Some scholars describe the insurgency as a series of local civil wars — one group would, in some fashion or another, side with the government, and the other automatically would side with the Taliban in opposition. Against that there is plenty of evidence that the Taliban has been trying to centrally direct and fund its campaigns. This narrative of centralization has been overlain on the local tribal dynamics.

Both ISAF and the Taliban have manipulated this situation. Foreign forces have produced more inclusive governance to reach disenfranchised groups, thus winning “hearts and minds” — classic counterinsurgency doctrine. The Taliban has attempted to win over disenfranchised groups, like un-landed and displaced people. Many major towns in Afghanistan have large groups on their peripheries that are not connected to local government structures, and prove excellent Taliban recruiting grounds. By mustering these disenfranchised groups, they are able to exploit intertribal divisions.

As ISAF completes its transition to an advisory role, the Taliban has mounted increasingly violent attacks to erode confidence in the unity and effectiveness of Afghan security forces. These efforts, however, were anticipated before the December 2014 transition date. How did the ANA and other forces prepare for this uptick in violence — and how is the violence testing the Afghan security forces, as well as the insurgency?

It was quite obvious that the Taliban would attempt to shake public confidence in the security forces. ISAF planning for the last couple of years has recognized that public confidence in the Afghan National Security Forces’ (ANSF) ability to provide security was the “central gravity” in the campaign, and vital to a successful transition. Against this recognition, ISAF’s capacity to act on this knowledge was severely constrained: ISAF was on a timetable to leave Afghanistan. There were not enough soldiers to ensure the necessary confidence, and the forces present were busy packing their equipment to depart.    

There was a great deal of effort during the 2013 fighting season, when ISAF had some fighting forces left on the ground, to ensure the ANSF had a good fighting season — which they did. By summer 2014, ISAF did not want to be involved in combat operations at all. Western commanders wanted a summer of fighting during which their forces stood on the sidelines. If there was an emergency, they could step in, but the onus was on the ANSF to provide security across the country. During the 2014 fighting season, there was no provincial center overrun, no major district center overrun. Of course there were spectacular attacks in Kabul and the Taliban has certainly made gains in rural areas, as was expected. It thus depends on the perspective with which one sees the current situation — the picture is mixed.


THEO FARRELL is Professor of War in the Modern World at Kings College London and strategic advisor to the British government on operations in Afghanistan.


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