Fighting season

As everyone braces for a bloody summer, the new US administration has shaken up its top military command in Afghanistan. But is the continued focus on the military intervention still too predominant?

Aunohita Mojumdar is the former Editor of Himal Southasian.

The commemoration of World Refugee Day, on 20 June, was marked in Afghanistan by an announcement by the UN's refugee agency, UNHCR, that the movement of people across the Afghanistan-Pakistan border had changed in character for the first time since the beginning of the conflict, when Russia imposed a government in 1978. Instead of the 'classical' movement of Afghan refugees crossing into Pakistan, a recent study by the agency suggested, this movement was now becoming increasingly 'normalised', with most of the crossborder movement that of economic migrants rather than those fleeing war. Yet while the agency's country office touted this as a positive trend, behind the numbers is another story.

An understanding of the complexity of the situation seems to be tacit within UNHCR, as well. As the agency's Afghanistan director, Ewen Macleod, pointed out, "People are moving increasingly for social and economic purposes to and from Afghanistan. But this does not mean that the factors that can give rise to refugee flight or internal displacement have been fully overcome." The findings of the study, which mapped the border crossings at Torkham and Spin Boldak, could largely be a result of the fact that Pakistan is not only unwilling to continue to host Afghan refugees, but is also pressuring the remaining refugees to leave the country. With camps forcibly shut down, harassment from the authorities and the deteriorating economic and security situation within Pakistan, Afghans have little option but to head back to their own country.

Those who were forced to flee within Afghanistan are now forced to take shelter in another part of the country, thus becoming what the jargon would describe as 'internally displaced persons'. According to UNHCR, precise figures about the number of such IDPs within Afghanistan are hard to come by, as access to insecure areas is limited and many 'displacements' last for only a short period. However, the estimates of those displaced internally during the last three decades of conflict by violence, drought and poverty, and those recently displaced by fighting in the southern provinces, is conservatively estimated to be 235,000.

Such numbers have, unsurprisingly, caught the attention of the very top levels of the international community. The situation has been so acute that it prompted the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres, to warn in mid-June that the refugee situations around the world "do not include the millions more uprooted people who are displaced within their own countries and who far outnumber the world's refugees. Many of them have also been unable to return home, sometimes for decades." Guterres continued: "Although international law distinguishes between refugees and the internally displaced, such distinctions are absurd to those who have been forced from their homes and who have lost everything. Uprooted people are equally deserving of help whether they have crossed an international border or not."

US military dominance
Many within Afghanistan humanitarian agencies expect that the increased fighting following the influx of some 20,000 additional US troops in recent months will result in greater displacement. In a joint report issued in early April, a number of reputed international humanitarian agencies warned that social protection and access to basic services were being adversely affected by the widening conflict, "with significant levels of displacement and severe disruption of health and education services". The report, released by agencies such as Oxfam, Care International, ActionAid and DACAAR, continued: "Planned increases in troops and military operations during 2009 are likely to lead to higher levels of displacement, further restrictions on social services and greater impediments for aid agencies to reach civilians in need of protection and assistance." Yet, such considerations were not being adequately factored into international security strategies, the agencies warned.

There is one thing that the various aid agencies and military actors agree upon, however. There is common expectation of increased violence and of still-bloodier fighting over the summer of 2009. Still, there is almost no agreement on the assumed impact of this fighting, nor how to deal with it. While the military forces expect that civilian aid will be used in support of military operations, both to mitigate the losses incurred during fighting and development work in the areas 'cleared' by the military, civilian aid agencies, especially humanitarian organisations, would like to distance themselves further from the military as the fighting intensifies.

Much of the unfolding scenario will depend on the US and the strategy adopted by the Barack Obama administration, the impact of which is yet to be felt. In recent weeks, the only significant change has been on the military front, with an abrupt replacement of the US commander in Afghanistan. On 11 May, US Defence Secretary Robert Gates fired General David McKiernan unceremoniously, appointing Lieutenant-General Stanley McChrystal in his place. While the need for fresh thinking was officially touted as the reason for the change, (Gen McKiernan is considered an expert in 'conventional' warfare, and thus was seen as unfit for the types of battles being waged in Afghanistan), many see this as indicating a shift in US military strategy. Until his new charge, Gen McChrystal was commanding the US military's Joint Special Operations Command. He is credited both with the capture of Saddam Hussein and the operation that killed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the al-Qaeda leader in Iraq.

While this would appear to dovetail into the professed aims of the US to go after al-Qaeda and high-value Taliban targets, Gen McChrystal has been at pains to signal a change in operating tactics with greater emphasis on civilian safety. Soon after taking command in mid-June, he began by emphasising the need to avoid civilian casualties, saying protection of civilians – rather than body counts – would be his yardstick of success. While some have welcomed this as a departure from the recent trend of military operations and the use of air power that were resulting in an increasing number of civilian casualties in Afghanistan (and frontier areas in Pakistan), there is a fair degree of scepticism about the oft-repeated rhetoric, which many criticise as not addressing the situation on the ground.

The changeover has allowed the new command to be at least partially critical of last month's US air strikes in the western province of Farah. Afghan government authorities have claimed this to be the highest civilian death toll ever by international air strikes – forcing the payment of compensation to over 140 families. While the US military command has suggested that civilian casualties were much lower, it has admitted that 'standard operating procedures' may have been violated.

Less visible has been the restructuring of the command structure of the international troops operating in Afghanistan, backed by a NATO meeting in Brussels on 11-12 June. Under it, Gen McChrystal will focus on strategy while an intermediate headquarters responsible to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) commander will be established to take care of the day-to-day operations. This plan reportedly draws heavily on the US experience in Iraq. Along with the increase in American troops, expected to double to 68,000 by the end of the year, this new structure will represent a greater US domination over the military strategy in Afghanistan. Currently non-US troops constitute over half of the roughly 61,000 troops on the ground.

Quiet on the political front
Over the past few weeks, levels of violence have refused to dip in Afghanistan, and Gen McChrystal has termed the next 18 months as a decisive period. That upcoming year and a half will also be politically decisive for Afghanistan in more ways than one, as presidential and provincial-council elections, scheduled for August, will be followed by parliamentary elections next year. But the initial flurry of excitement over candidates has now subsided somewhat into a resignation that suggests that the incumbent president, Hamid Karzai, has stitched up the elections through a series of shrewd deals – not just with his supporters, but also with potential spoilers. While President Karzai's unpopularity has been on the increase over the past two years, many Afghans seem resigned to what appears to be an inevitable outcome. Until the announcement of Mohammed Fahim as his running mate, President Karzai and Fahim, a former defence minister and vice-president, were thought to be at odds.

While the possibility of former US ambassador to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad (appointed by George W Bush), emerging as a presidential candidate has receded, his larger-than-life apparition still looms, with rumours of an appointment of a super chief executive to 'assist' the president. The Karzai administration has been careful neither to accept nor deny the possibility, while emphasising that any appointment would be within the bounds of the Afghan Constitution. But the possibility of a Bush administration official emerging as a key official within the Afghan administration is not the only unique feature of the upcoming Afghan elections. According to the Election Complaints Commission, "Fifty-five candidates didn't meet Article 15.3 of the Electoral Law for having links to or commanding unofficial military forces; plus one candidate had both criminal conviction as well as [being] found not comply[ing] under Article 15.3. And, one candidate was found to have [a] second nationality."

The end of the candidate-vetting procedure saw over 40 contenders for the post of president. But only two of them – former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani and former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah – are popularly accepted as serious challengers. Abdullah, a former Northern Alliance leader, received a fresh shot in the arm on 20 June, when the governor of the northern province of Balkh, Atta Mohammed, extended his support. Atta, as he is commonly known, was also a former Northern Alliance leader, and is considered to be an efficient if somewhat autocratic governor.

While a fragmented opposition puts President Karzai far ahead two months before the polls, it is not yet clear whether he will be able to secure 51 percent of the votes in the first round of polling, particularly if multiple opposition candidates split the vote share. If he gets less than that number, Afghanistan's electoral law would require a second round of polling. It is then that the contest could see a polarisation between two candidates – a potent chance for the opposition, or a simple anti-Karzai vote, to unite behind a single candidate.

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