The US and Afghan crisis

Published 21 Mar, 2018 11:00am
Illustration by Reema Siddiqui
Illustration by Reema Siddiqui

On February 13, 2018, Daniel Coats, Director National Intelligence, presented to the Senate Intelligence Committee an unclassified testimony, representing the views of 17 intelligence agencies that are part of the US intelligence community. The assessment of the current situation in Afghanistan, and what the immediate future would look like, was presented as follows:

“The overall situation in Afghanistan probably will deteriorate modestly this year in the face of persistent political instability, sustained attacks by the Taliban-led insurgency, unsteady Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) performance, and chronic financial shortfalls. The National Unity Government (NUG) probably will struggle to hold long-delayed parliamentary elections, currently scheduled for July 2018, and to prepare for a presidential election in 2019. The ANSF probably will maintain control of most major population centres with coalition force support, but the intensity and geographic scope of Taliban activities will put those centres under continued strain. Afghanistan’s economic growth will stagnate at around 2.5 per cent per year and Kabul will remain reliant on international donors for the great majority of its funding well beyond 2018.”

This succinct and grim summary presented in the morning session was followed by a classified briefing later that day which is obviously not available to the general public. However, as a close follower of events in Afghanistan I will try in the next few paragraphs to indicate what in my view were the points that would have been made in the classified section of the briefing before giving my own conclusions.

The following is what I think must have been the gist of the exchanges during the classified part of the intelligence briefing:

“[At the time of the briefing] there have been no suicide or IED attacks in Kabul or other urban centres in Afghanistan comparable to those that occurred in January and early February.* This does not mean, however, that the situation in Afghanistan – political and economic – has stabilised. It remains fraught. No Afghan politician or analyst believes that the district and parliamentary elections will be held as scheduled in July this year. The National Unity Government has not resolved the problem of provincial governors such as Atta Mohammad Noor or General Razik’s defiance of its orders. Opposition continues to grow with support for the NUG dwindling and President Ashraf Ghani being forced to refute charges of ethnonationalism (putting only Pakhtuns in positions of power).

“There has been some progress in economic reform but apart from the budget of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF), which is met almost entirely by foreign funding, even the normal budget continues to be dependent (55 to 63 per cent) on foreign assistance. Barring some progress on reconciliation, there is little prospect of Afghanistan’s economic situation improving in the near future. Afghanistan’s production of 9,000 tons of opium is a major contributor to the generation of employment and income for the economy of virtually every province in Afghanistan. The role it plays in generating income not only for the Taliban but for corrupt Afghan officials and local warlords also fosters spoilers who want instability to continue in Afghanistan.

“An impressive list of operations by the untethered American forces (1,644 ground operations and 181 air strikes against the Taliban, resulting in 220 deaths; 68 ground operations and 28 air strikes against members of the Taliban-affiliated Haqqani Network leading to 34 deaths; 43 ground operations against other insurgent networks causing 36 deaths) does not appear on the ground to have caused the Taliban to lose control of any territory. Our military has, however, been able to assist the ANDSF to recapture areas in Helmand province, the central province in the generation of opium-related income for the Taliban, government officials and local warlords. Such success, if built upon, may change both the economic and political situation.

“The commander of the allied forces in Afghanistan has stated that in two years’ time the Afghan government’s control will extend to 80 per cent of the population and leave only 10 per cent of the population under Taliban control. This is possible, but it remains to be seen if this optimistic assessment of the capabilities of the ANDSF, which will be in the lead for securing territorial gains, will prove equal to the task in the face of a determined enemy.

“Our policymakers have talked of supporting reconciliation and have acknowledged that only reconciliation, not military victory, is the way to bring stability to Afghanistan. We have not made public the efforts we have been making in this direction because the subject is delicate and public disclosures would sabotage rather than advance the process. We hope to use the five Afghans we released from Guantanamo in exchange for Bowe Bergdahl to establish substantive contact with the Taliban leaders, who are prepared for reconciliation. Also, since the process has to be Afghan-owned and Afghan-led, our role can only be advisory and provide our Afghan partners – those we deem trustworthy and sincere in pursuing this objective – with the intelligence we are able to gather. We and our Afghan friends have been fooled in the past by masqueraders and have to be cautious. More work is required in this respect.

“It is generally acknowledged that US efforts to improve the allied train and assist missions in support of the Afghan National Security forces (ANSF) are not matched by credible plans to build effective Afghan political unity, effective governance, and an economy that can win public support. We recognise that in the administration, as also in Congress, there is little support for ‘nation building’ but without some effort in this direction we cannot hope to have a stable Afghanistan. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s decimated State Department cannot, at least at this time, remedy this and the NUG’s own efforts in this direction are likely to flounder in the absence of substantive foreign financial and personnel resources being provided for ‘nation building’. This is the reality Congress and the administration have to contend with.”

My own view is that the economic situation in Afghanistan is such that there is no prospect of Afghanistan being able to survive without foreign assistance at least until 2030-35 and that, too, only if there is movement towards reconciliation, the enforcement of local ceasefires as part of reconciliation, and thus the creation of conditions for the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline and Central Asia-South Asia (CASA-1000) electricity transmission line.

A ray of hope is offered by the Taliban’s open letter to the American people and President Trump on February 14, 2018 which states, “The Islamic Emirate had asked America from the very beginning to solve her issues with the Islamic Emirate through talk and dialogue … War is imposed on us; it is not our choice. Our preference is to solve the Afghan issue through peaceful dialogues.”

This is a refreshing contrast to the open letter to President Trump on August 15, 2017 in which the emphasis was different. It stated, “Mujahideen are wresting control of several districts from the corrupt regime in a one-week span and are seizing so much equipment that they can continue fighting for a long time. They can easily take control of all major highways of the country …” It had no mention of a readiness for dialogue.

This Taliban offer is, of course, for talks with the Americans and not with the NUG. Predictably, the NUG and the Americans have reiterated their oft-stated stance of reconciliation being an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned process.

Perhaps over optimistically, I interpret the Taliban letter as a tacit acknowledgement of potential battlefield losses and a move towards eventual talks with the NUG by the Taliban’s titular leader Haibatullah Akhundzada. If it happens, the process will be long and tortuous but it may bring some measure of peace.

This article was published in the Herald's March 2018 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.