Facing up to an Afghan Debacle

The United States-backed Karzai government in Afghanistan has miserably failed in delivering, with serious implications for future security and the political situation because it is basically a failure of the US Counter Insurgency Strategy (COIN).

So far, the 12-year war has taken the lives of nearly 3,300 coalition troops and wounded 23,500. Another 1,114 "contractors" have been killed, along with nearly, 10,100 Afghan security forces and between 16,000 and 19,000 civilians. Untold billions of dollars have been spent although the figure is open to question since it is budgeted in with Iraq war figures.

The consequent spread of the insurgency, especially in those areas which were previously unaffected, has generated debate over the future levels of the US military manpower presence, which ignores the need for a combined civil-military effort to rebuild the war-torn country. It also ignores the importance of engaging common Afghans in the rehabilitation process. All of these shortcomings are detailed in a depressing series of reports by the UN, the joint command and the US military itself.

The re-emergence of the Taliban has also given birth to another debate about the probable political transition in the post-2014 scenario. But the recent breakdown of dialogue between the US and Taliban has once again stocked the lurking fears of the ultimate failure of a peaceful transition, which could result in very serious problems for a safe withdrawal of US/NATO military forces and a resumption of fighting.

It is essential to discern those factors which have directly and indirectly contributed to this failure of COIN and of the Karzai-led government, and led to the re-emergence of the Taliban as powerful stakeholders. First and foremost, the US-led forces never fully committed themselves to the reality of Pashtun dominance despite the selection of Hamid Karzai, a Pashtun, to lead the government. Therefore the government has never had the crucial support of the Pashtun community.

It is strange how US policy makers could not read Afghan history on correct lines. It is a historical fact that all through Afghanistan's history Pashtuns, being the dominant majority, have ruled the country. The only instance of Tajik rule was when the Tajik leader Bacha Saqao in 1929 captured Kabul, but he too was defeated and driven out within a year. Similarly the Soviet-implanted Northern Alliance government in Kabul melted away when repeatedly attacked by Taliban.

As a result, the US has been left with no other choice but to change its policy vis-à-vis the Taliban and acknowledge that it cannot continue its military occupation in the hope of a final subjugation of the Taliban before withdrawing. It is for this reason that the US is now quietly adjusting itself to the ground realities with an "open ended" policy, focusing on bringing a kind of transition which would ensure its objectives irrespective of the form and manner of formulation of government, (even if the Taliban form or lead the government).

The fact that the current political arrangement has failed miserably has directly limited the US's policy options because the option of installing a government exclusive of Taliban would again end up in prolonged fighting. This would make it extremely difficult for the US to achieve its two critical objectives, the safe withdrawal of forces and transportation of sensitive equipment, and operationalizing some aspects of the US-Afghanistan Strategic Partnership. How the US would manage to achieve both objectives is moot.

Some reasons of this failure were elaborated in a report by the US Department of Defense on Progress toward Security and Stability in Afghanistan, April 2012, "The capacity of the Afghan government and the extension of effective governance and rule of law have been limited by multiple factors, including widespread corruption, limited human capacity, and uneven concentration of power among the judicial, legislative, and executive branches. Setbacks in governance and development continue to slow the reinforcement of security gains and threaten the legitimacy and long-term viability of the afghan government."

It is noteworthy that the US Defense Department's remarks are relatively mild. The situation on the ground is much more severe. A report of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, Afghanistan, titled "Corruption in Afghanistan: Recent Patterns and Trends," published last December, presents the factual position by highlighting that corruption is seen by Afghans as one of the most urgent challenges facing their country; that the delivery of public services remains severely affected by bribery in Afghanistan; and that in 2012 half of Afghan citizens paid a bribe while requesting a public service. The total cost of bribes paid to public officials amounted to US$ 3.9 billion, an increase of 40 percent between 2009 and 2012.

Similar is the situation of Afghan National Security Forces. Although its numerical strength has arisen considerably, it continues to suffer from operational as well as professional deficiencies. According to a CNN report, titled 'Are the Afghans Really Ready to Take over Security?' dated 20 June 2013, brings to fore that despite its remarkable growth rate, the ANSF has faced soaring casualties, rising attrition and desertion rates, Taliban infiltration, illiteracy and corruption, and a desertion rate of as much as 10 percent. In addition, elements of the ANSF are riddled with sexual and drug abuse, extortion, routine kidnapping, and they are often complicit in insider attacks.

In fact, the desertion rate is much higher. Figures from the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) suggest that that 27 percent of the Army deserted in 2012, 16.8 percent of police and 14 percent of the Air Force. Most of them allegedly join the insurgents along with their weapons and in some cases vehicle too.

Under such circumstance, the Taliban leadership could not have been expected to remain dormant. It was and is expected to formulate its policy options and objectives, fully capitalizing on the failure of the US and its ally government, related to the transition issues.

The Taliban not only have full control in a large number of territorial pockets in Afghanistan, but have also implemented a system of government which is working efficiently and to the satisfaction of people as well. Details of Taliban's ingress in Afghanistan's socio-political fabric have been spelled out in an ISAF report, titled State of Taliban (January 2012). According to this report, Taliban leadership and Taliban fighters have all started to believe increasingly in the possibility of establishing government in Kabul thereby, winning the war eventually against the allied forces and inevitably re-establishing their control throughout Afghanistan. But Taliban do not aim at persecuting their rival ethnic groups; rather aim at achieving a sort of "national reconciliation." The report highlights other critical facts and policies of THE Taliban:

"Taliban leaders, including Mullah Mohammad Omar, have publicly related a somewhat clearer and more consistent vision for a future Taliban government in Afghanistan, one which ostensibly advocates acceptance of all Afghan ethnic groups and distances the group from international extremism; --- The Taliban have publicly relayed their intention to include all Afghan tribes, including Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras, Pashai and Pashtuns in their efforts to rebuild Afghanistan --- Throughout Afghanistan, formal and informal agreements between Taliban, Arbakai militias and Afghan intelligence, police and army units have long been a common occurrence..."

It is also noteworthy that the areas which are now under Taliban control are being effectively governed. In that context, it is important to note that they have brought many significant changes in their pre-2011 pattern of governance. According to the above mentioned report, Taliban have, along with military operations, been focusing on laying down the basis of a civil governance system. While the media continue to focus on military operations, their ability to provide effective governance has become a source of appeal for common Afghans.

It has been achieved, the report says, through a new system introduced in the areas under their control. This system has been termed as "the civilian commission system" designed to provide local, Sharia-based government, unbiased mediation, judicial systems free of corruption, as well as an independent voice for civilians who have issues with the Taliban military command.

One of the strengths of the "civilian commission system" is its flexibility in which Taliban provincial governors are free to establish a civilian commission system which suits the needs of their assigned province. It is significant to note that the "People have reported their satisfaction with the system."

There are thus two things which have made the difference between the allied forces' effort and that of Taliban, which is providing effective governance system. The above mentioned report has provided very credible information about the Taliban effort. However, the case is opposite as far as the US' effort to reconstruct Afghanistan is concerned. The US's failure to provide relief to the war affected population of Afghanistan and failure in providing forceful incentives to the internally displaced populace to come back have thus turned out to be critical factors of the failure of COIN and the incumbent government which depended heavily for its success on successful execution of COIN.

In this behalf, we can take examples of much pronounced Kajaki Dam in Helmand province and Tarakhil power plant built outside of Kabul. The clearly 'unpromising' state of Afghanistan's reconstruction – considered the key to success of the US's COIN Strategy, has been highlighted in the official US document of the Special Inspector General of Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), dated 30 July 2012. It brings to the fore the actual state of Afghanistan's infrastructure construction/development projects including water, power, transportation, and other projects in support of the COIN strategy in Afghanistan. It highlights considerable delays and mismanagement in the ongoing projects.

Regarding energy sector projects, it mentions, "Our reports have found that the U.S. government's efforts to execute large-scale energy sector projects in Afghanistan have frequently resulted in cost and schedule over-runs, contractor defaults, questionable or undefined sustainment methods, and wasted U.S dollars"; and mentioning overall, it also cautions, "the scale of most projects means that these agencies will not achieve the planned contributions to the COIN strategy"; and "in some instances, these projects may result in adverse COIN effects because they create an expectations gap among the affected population or lack citizen support."

The above mentioned analysis based upon official reports of the US clears many aspects related to probable form of transition in Afghanistan in the post-2014 scenario. Both the US and Taliban are left with limited choices. Where the US is under pressure to withdraw its fighting force there, Taliban are also under pressure to end US/NATO military operations in order to provide the much needed relief to the 'war-weary' masses in a manner that Afghans' national sovereignty and their ingrained traditional values are not impinged.

It would be difficult for them to compromise on this objective, for a compromise would amount to a political defeat and a half military victory. However, Taliban should be expected to prefer the way of negotiations rather than guerilla tactics.