Afghanistan: From Bad to Worse

Upbeat western assessments of the situation in Afghanistan are unrealistic at best and duplicitous at worst. At least 19 people, including two NATO soldiers, have died in the past week in attacks carried out by the emboldened Afghan Taliban. A number of people were injured, leaving a big question mark on the ability of the US or Afghan National Forces to contain or reverse the Taliban’s reach.

Another Taliban attack in Kabul killed at least seven policemen, leaving several injured. It is quite evident that as the date of withdrawal approaches, the war is intensifying, threatening to destroy everything the US and its allies have accomplished in 13 years of war. Over the past several months, as attacks have steadily escalated, international aid groups are pulling out their staff in huge numbers after a wave of bombings and assaults on foreigners’ compounds.

Educated and affluent Afghans who had returned from exile to invest in the country are leaving again. Their hopes, they say, have been dashed because the situation has not changed on the ground.

Apart from the Taliban’s resurgence, political lethargy is adding fuel to the fire. Despite the fact that the two main contending parties did compromise to form the government, President Ashraf Ghani is still struggling to form a cabinet that can sustain the agreement.

That the Taliban are getting stronger than ever is evident from Dec. 13 attacks in which killed 19 people and more on Dec. 19 that killed two NATO soldiers. The Afghan national army is sinking badly. More than 5,000 army and police have been killed in this year alone--more than the total US and NATO soldiers killed in Afghanistan since 2001.

The deteriorating situation is indicative of the flawed counter-strategy, COIN, that the US and NATO countries adopted in the hope of erasing the popular sanctuaries by co-opting the Afghans into the army and police.

Given the number of casualties the ANF is suffering, it is not surprising to find that nearly 20 percent of army positions were unfilled as of October, 2014. The condition of the Afghan National Force, which has cost the US more than US$60 billion to train, equip and sustain, diverges from optimistic assessments in the West and by the Afghan government itself.

Afghanistan’s Interior Ministry spokesman Sediq Siddiqi defended government operations, saying the Taliban's casualties have risen threefold in 2014 “and this shows how effective and well-coordinated Afghan National Security Force operations were conducted in different parts of the country.”

But notwithstanding the government rhetoric, it is evident that the Taliban are strong enough to attack whenever and wherever they want, and that they do it with precision and without the fear of counterattack. The extent of their strength and capability, despite Sediq’s comment, can be gauged from the fact that now even Kabul is very much under Taliban attack. Given such a situation, it would not be surprising if the president makes a formal request during his upcoming tour to the US, to retain a much larger force than stipulated in the Bilateral Security Agreement with NATO forces.

In fact, former Defense Secretary, Chuck Hagel, announced on his final visit to Afghanistan that the US will be stationing at least 1,000 more soldiers than originally stipulated. The decision to station more soldiers was actually preceded by US President Barack Obama’s authorizing US military leaders to organize combat operations, use ground forces and operate aircraft and drones, under three sets of circumstances.

It is quite evident that the US will remain in an armed conflict in Afghanistan — essentially at war — after the end of this year, as will the Taliban.

These developments suggest two different yet related things. First is that the need for stationing more troops is an acknowledgement of the incapacity of the Afghan forces to take over combat operations. Second, it is an indication that talks are highly unlikely with the Taliban, who smell blood. These developments have sealed talks. The agreements signed by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to allow US and NATO troops to remain in the country are seen as a red line by the Taliban.

Additionally, the decision by Ghani to lift the ban on night raids imposed by his predecessor, Hamid Karzai, could also push American troops into direct fighting. Afghan special operations forces, which are to resume night raids in 2015, could bring along American advisers, backed by American air support. While military officials say night raids are an effective tactic, enabling the Taliban to be seized in their homes, such intrusions are offensive to many Afghans and likely to provoke a new wave of anti-American sentiment.

Afghanistan has not ‘progressed’ either politically, militarily or economically. Although different states such as China, India and Russia are investing, Afghanistan has not shown any progress in generating indigenous means of economic production, forcing increasing migration to Pakistan and look for employment in other countries.

As an example of the dire straits of the government, it doesn’t have enough money to pay salaries this month and has asked aid donors for a bailout before the end of the year. In September, Afghanistan asked for a US$537 million bailout but donors had only responded with US$170 million, said Afghanistan’s treasury chief, adding that the remainder was needed because the budget for state salaries had run out. Despite more than a decade spent on projects to boost the economy, the drawdown of foreign troops and aid donations has crippled Afghanistan's finances. The combination of fighting and the drawdown has caused economic growth to slump to a projected 1.5 percent this year, down from 3.7 percent last year and an average 9.4 percent during 2003-2012. This is perhaps the most serious post-war dilemma: the aid money will stop or slow after the end of the war, creating manifold difficulties for the government to create incentives for the unemployed youth in order to prevent them from further falling into the hands of the Taliban. Hence the question: how far is the current Afghan government interested in ending the war?

Not only is Afghanistan economically impoverished, the need for jobs is alarming. Over the past decade, Kabul has become one of the world’s fastest-growing cities, with a population that has ballooned from 1.5 million in 2001 to around 6 million today. Its population is, however, not increasing naturally. The toppling of the Taliban in 2001 and the hope of increased security and economic possibilities enticed many Afghans to move here -- people displaced by fighting in the countryside, refugees returning from Pakistan and Iran, and hordes of laborers simply looking for a better life. But Kabul, once considered secure, is too now under Taliban attack, dashing hopes of a better life.

“This situation is putting a strain on the existing infrastructure and resources, and makes it difficult to ensure security across Kabul,” said Prasant Naik, country director of the Norwegian Refugee Council, which provides legal counselling and shelter to displaced Afghans and is one of the largest humanitarian organizations in Afghanistan.

With a functional cabinet still out of the picture, with the Taliban mounting new attacks, with more than 10,000 US and NATO soldiers in Afghanistan, there seems no meaningful hope for the people, who are as debilitated as they were 10 years ago. Afghanistan cannot hope to see peace unless the Taliban are brought into mainstream politics; and this can be done only when the US and its allies are prepared to engage in a meaningful dialogue.

However, this does not seem to be what the US and its allies are doing. Given the contours of the bilateral agreement and the BSA, and the deteriorating security situation, it is evident that the US and its allies want to extend their mission. Besides, the nature of the trouble the Afghans are facing is not one-dimensional. That is to say, it is not only the Taliban who have to be disarmed. There are scores of militias, both private and US-sponsored, that have to be dissolved to solve the complex riddle of the conflict. Even within Kabul, these militias operate as an army onto themselves and are better organized and armed than the Afghan police. These ‘mini power centers’ in the heart of political power is indicative of the fragility of the system the US and its allies have so proudly installed in Afghanistan.

Salman Rafi Sheikh is a Pakistani academic and regular contributor to Asia Sentinel.