By 2007-08, delegations from NATO member states visiting Afghanistan were already giving up on the country’s seemingly intractable problems. The perspectives of the political advisers to the Office of the EU Special Representative were sought out then for their objectivity, informed by regular field visits beyond Kabul to garner wider Afghan opinion in assessing political and security developments from regional and local perspectives. By 2009, field trips were only made by air, usually to the secure ‘bed and breakfasts’ provided by the Provincial Reconstruction Teams located throughout the country and, at a stretch, to ISAF’s forward operating bases. Even these more limited attempts to access broader Afghan opinion are no longer possible. NATO handed over lead-security responsibilities to the Afghan government security forces in mid-2013, well over a year ahead of the security transition’s original timeline of the end of 2014. “In the land of the blind,” so the saying goes, “the one eyed man is king.” The international community in Afghanistan operates under ever-thicker blindfolds.
The usual question posed by visiting delegations following political and security briefings was “what can we do?” The lack of workable answers to this question only underlined the inability of the international community (defined here as the US and its main allies) to influence internal events in Afghanistan by this stage. As reports in the international media increasingly focused on the corruption and ineffectiveness of the Afghan government, domestic opposition to continuing an apparently pointless and costly military engagement in Afghanistan mounted within the NATO states that mattered. By 2010, growing donor fatigue and the deepening global financial crisis added to the urgency of demands within NATO member-states to radically change the nature of the international engagement inside Afghanistan. Getting the bulk of combat forces out of Afghanistan by the end of 2014 has become the overriding objective for the main troop-contributing states. How this will affect security in Afghanistan remains uncertain.
Some analysts believe that as the withdrawal of NATO forces removes the casus belli, security will improve. Such optimism is misplaced. One respected reporter, Graeme Smith, who was a correspondent for The Globe and Mail, recently spent six months travelling to areas of Afghanistan where the insurgency has been particularly active, specifically looking at the effects of foreign troop withdrawals. In areas where foreign forces have left and the Taliban, or other insurgent groups, have taken over (such as the once infamous Korengal Valley in Kunar Province), violence has decreased dramatically. This is because the Afghan army has decided not to patrol an area under the control of the armed opposition. But levels of violence elsewhere in Kunar Province remain ‘exceptionally high’. The same is true of Kandahar Province. Although violence has significantly decreased in Kandahar city, where the Afghan army maintains a robust presence, violence has increased in surrounding areas of the province. Smith concludes that the withdrawal of foreign forces from contested provinces is causing a shift in violence to different areas, rather than an overall quietening down. In north-western Faryab Province, far from the Taliban’s heartland, all foreign troops had departed by September 2012. Smith found violence increased significantly since the withdrawal of foreign forces in September 2012 and the Afghan government losing ground. Smith stresses that Afghan nationalists with different visions for Afghanistan exist on both pro- and anti-government sides, and are prepared to fight. “The Taliban cannot just walk back into Kabul,” he concludes.
Post-withdrawal scenarios by Afghan and international analysts are focused on security outcomes. At one end of the spectrum a best-case scenario sees a still-fragile central government remaining viable with some level of international support. Those less optimistic predict increasing, localised outbreaks of violence and the further fragmentation of power, with access having to be negotiated across terrain controlled by different factions. The worst-case scenario (possibly triggered by electoral outcomes being viewed as unacceptable by factional leaders) involves a widening civil war that some analysts believe could bring the survival of Afghanistan as a nation-state into question. International humanitarian agencies and NGOs are reportedly preparing for the mid-range scenario.
It is because of the precarious military balance between the Taliban and the Afghan government, and the real risk of state collapse, that close attention (inside and outside Afghanistan) is being paid to the fortunes of the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) between the US and Afghan governments. It will determine how the US and NATO will engage in Afghanistan beyond 2014, if at all. The BSA includes continued financial, logistical and training support from NATO to the Afghan security forces after 2014 as well as US plans for a separate counterterrorism strategy to be conducted from Afghan military bases. US Special Forces and those of its NATO allies will only retain access to Afghan bases after 2014 if the BSA is signed.
The international community’s earlier attempts to set the foundations of a sustainable democratic political process in Afghanistan were laid out in the Bonn Agreement, reached in December 2001, as the Taliban government was being overthrown. It did not include Taliban representation and it would not, to the bitter disappointment of many Afghans, prevent the return of the ‘warlords’ to political power. Anything but. The 2002 Emergency Loya Jirga and the 2005 parliamentary elections were landmarks in the ‘Bonn process’ that constituted a roadmap for both restoring and building central government institutions through a Transitional Authority legitimised by Presidential and Parliamentary elections in 2004 and 2005, respectively. These pivotal events also provided key opportunities for Afghan commanders to convert the power they were intent on re-establishing into official political power. The images of former warlords and commanders taking their reserved front-row seats at the 2002 Emergency Loya Jirga were widely broadcast on Afghan television. This sent a clear message to Afghans that rather than hoped-for political change, those who had paved the way for the rise of the Taliban were back, apparently with international support. The unedifying sight of some Afghan former commanders on electoral posters in the streets of Kabul in the run-up to the 2005 parliamentary elections – many of whom were known to have blood on their hands – marked another turning point in deteriorating Afghan trust in ‘democracy’, and the intentions towards their country of the UN, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and the Western nations backing the Afghan government. As the international community’s moral authority evaporated, the legitimacy of the new Afghan government was an ever-softer target for its opponents.
Some factors stand out in the failure of the US-led intervention to tackle the political culture of ‘warlordism’ that had developed during the wars that followed the Afghan communist revolution of 1978. The UN Security Council’s decision not to extend the presence of ISAF beyond Kabul in the crucial early years of the international engagement – when Afghan security forces were nascent, and the prioritisation of the political objectives punctuating the Bonn Agreement over the implementation of security sector reform – are both cases in point.
The widening security gap allowed the war economy (based on the cultivation and trafficking of opium, timber and gems) to be restored unhindered by those who controlled it. Organised crime proliferated and illegal armed groups increased in number, while the links of their commanders to political power strengthened at all levels of the country. At the same time, the Taliban and other armed opposition groups, benefiting from the porous border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, were able to return and set up bases, initially in the Taliban’s heartlands in south-western Afghanistan.
The UN Security Council’s decision not to expand ISAF’s presence beyond Kabul in 2002 was linked to the shift in US focus away from Afghanistan towards Iraq. By the middle of that year the US was already removing key air assets and military personnel from Afghanistan, and the country became a sideshow. European NATO member states, dependent on US air resources for medical evacuation and other operations, were unwilling to expand ISAF’s presence without a sufficiently resourced US military presence.
As the insurgency gathered momentum, the intervention ultimately veered from ‘too little too late’ to one of ‘too much too late’. International funding (largely unmonitored) peaked in 2010, coinciding with the completed ‘surge’ in US force numbers that prominent US military figures (including Generals Stanley McChrystal and David Petraeus) had lobbied the US government hard for. More US forces, they argued, would enable an intensified counterinsurgency campaign, thereby averting a damaging defeat and saving Afghanistan from itself.
US President Barack Obama’s announcement that he would authorise an increase of approximately 30,000 more US troops from 2009, to be fully deployed to Afghanistan by 2010, stressed the temporary nature of this ‘surge’. Obama was heavily criticised at the time for the plan’s potential to encourage the armed opposition simply to outwait their foreign adversaries.
Observations made in Robert Gates’ 2014 memoir Duty support what some suspected at the time: that Obama’s support for the Afghan surge was linked to his ultimate goal, to get out. Hence, Obama’s commitment of approximately 30,000 more US forces deployed between 2009 and 2010 should be viewed within the context of the overall decision to accelerate an international military exit from the country. It was not an indication of confidence that an intensified counterinsurgency military campaign would win the war in Afghanistan. It is noteworthy that the decision to militarily exit from Afghanistan had been taken at political levels within NATO by 2008, according to a senior civilian NATO representative in conversation with this writer in 2011.
A tight security transition timeline was formally agreed upon at the London Conference in January 2010, to enable the withdrawal of the majority of NATO/ISAF combat forces over the following three to five years. Consequently, the counterinsurgency mantra of ‘clear/hold/build’ gave way to one of ‘clear/hold/transfer’. The selection criteria for choosing areas of Afghanistan to enter the phased transition process (agreed by the Afghan government and NATO) included adequate levels of governance and development being in place. In practice, the transition process went ahead regardless of conditions on the ground that could not have been significantly altered, given the brevity of the transition timetable. References to a ‘conditions-based’ approach in implementing the security transition, that had featured in the early international discourse on managing a sustainable security transition, were quietly dropped.
Questions surrounding the aftermath of NATO’s withdrawal from Afghanistan will ultimately be answered by facts established on the ground. Whether the April 2014 Presidential elections can produce sufficiently credible outcomes – given the strong likelihood of counting fraud and the problematic security context for holding elections – will be crucial to the continuation of the political trajectory set by the 2001 Bonn Agreement.
The Bilateral Security Agreement
The Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) was supposed to have been signed by the Afghan and US governments by May 2013. Some issues of contention delaying the agreement have been more discussed in public than others. These include whether after 2014 US and NATO forces will come under the jurisdiction of Afghan law, and the question of responsibility for Afghan detainees. The latter issue has been resolved with the agreement to bring detainees under the control of the Afghan government. Since 2013, Karzai has said he will not sign the security agreement until the US helps get Taliban peace talks on track and ends unilateral military operations inside Afghanistan. Less publicity has been given to the Afghan government’s failed attempts to get comprehensive security guarantees from the US. The Afghan government had sought US military assistance and protection in the event of a conventional attack by one of Afghanistan’s neighbours. They wanted the eventual security agreement to have the force of a Treaty between the two countries. These are conditions that the US government was not willing and/or able to sign up to.
Karzai’s refusal to sign the BSA has resulted in the Taliban issuing statements of approval for his actions for the first time, although the substantive talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government sought by Karzai have yet to materialise. Karzai’s inaction over the BSA created alarm within important quarters in Afghanistan, including civil society, that Karzai and his closest advisers are placing outreach to the Taliban (often referred to as ‘brothers’ in Karzai’s speeches) above critical security considerations. The risk to NATO’s plans set out in the 2012 Chicago summit – namely, to support the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) by providing a non-combat, ‘train, advise and assist’ mission of between 8000 and 12,000 troops to be based in Kabul and up to four locations outside the capital – cannot be dismissed. NATO’s planned mechanism for providing funding to the Afghan national army beyond 2014 is now also under question.
According to Thomas Ruttig, co-founder of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, Karzai’s motives for refusing to sign the agreement should be viewed primarily within the context of domestic political considerations. Above all, Karzai wants to build a legacy that casts him in the role of peace-maker with the Taliban. The objective of the NATO-led security transition is to deliver a self-sustaining Afghan state. NATO’s more limited support for the Afghan security forces after 2014 is to help prevent the collapse of the central government and wider disintegration of the Afghan state. Concerns are deepening in the NATO member-state capitals over whether there will be sufficient time – once the BSA is signed by a new Afghan government – to implement even limited plans for a support mission after the end of 2014. If a delay in signing stretches into autumn, such a mission may not be possible to implement, in full or even in part. The stakes are raised by widely anticipated delays to a clear electoral result in this year’s elections.
Speculation that the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), now underway between NATO and the Afghan government, could cover US interests and replace the BSA is mistaken. NATO reiterated at a NATO Defence Ministers’ meeting in Brussels at the end of February 2014 that the SOFA between NATO and the Afghan government cannot be signed until the BSA is formally agreed. At this meeting it was announced that NATO had authorised planning for a complete withdrawal of all its forces when the alliance’s combat mission ends in December, should a new SOFA not be completed in time.
Obama called Karzai two days before the February 2014 NATO meeting (reportedly the first contact between the two Presidents in ten months) to inform him that he had instructed the Pentagon to start planning to withdraw all US forces from Afghanistan by the end of 2014. In the White House press statement on the call, the door was left open for the BSA to be agreed upon with a new (post-Karzai) Afghan government. Obama also stressed that time was of the essence, reiterating the US position stated a month earlier “that we can’t pursue a post-2014 mission without a BSA. And that mission would be one tailored to focus on counterterrorism operations and training and supporting Afghan security forces.”
Though the implementation of NATO’s mission of support to the Afghan security forces depends on the signing of the BSA, whether the US even has an Afghanistan policy any longer is questionable. With flawed attempts at state-building now off the international community’s agenda, the wider aims of the US counterterrorism strategy that galvanised US engagement in Afghanistan in the first place, remains the overriding strategic interest of the US and its main NATO allies.
US-led counterterrorism operations increasingly rely on the use of drones operated from military bases in Afghanistan, such as Bagram. After 2014, access to some of these military bases will be a key component of US plans aimed at maintaining counterterrorism operations in the tribal areas of Pakistan, which border Afghanistan. The US needs its own agreement to cover such operations in what will effectively be a separate US military mission from NATO. The BSA forms the basis for future access to Afghan military bases after the withdrawal of most ISAF forces. It would also establish Afghan guarantees of legal immunity for the US Special Forces and military trainers that will remain in the event the BSA is signed.
Wherever one stands on the impact of a continuing US military engagement in Afghanistan, the US Congress’s decision in late January to slash Afghanistan development aid by half and further curtail military assistance is a very worrying one. Significantly, there was no ‘perceptible opposition’ to the congressional appropriators’ drastic reduction of the development budget for Afghanistan from the Obama administration. Frustration and anger towards Karzai’s government has intensified in the White House and US Congress, driven most recently by Karzai’s decision to release Afghans detained by ISAF on suspicion of conducting fatal attacks on international and Afghan military forces in Afghanistan. The release of detainees went ahead despite the US government’s repeatedly stated opposition.
Though it is impossible to gauge the actual level of Afghan support for the BSA, rising anxiety over Karzai’s refusal to sign is expressed across political divides. Most of the leading candidates for the 2014 presidential elections have gone on record opposing Karzai’s actions in this regard, as have prominent civil society activists. The dire consequences for the Najibullah government following the end of Soviet financial and logistical support to the Afghan army in 1991, and Afghanistan’s subsequent slide into civil war, happened within living memory. Afghanistan is still unable to raise the costs of maintaining its security forces from domestic revenue, even if numbers are reduced.
If the BSA is signed by a future Afghan government, how tenable is a continued smaller foreign troop presence in Afghanistan? US military representatives have stated that after 2014 the ‘zero option’ would be preferable to a military presence smaller than 10,000. One international observer who worked in the country during the civil war, under the Taliban and for most of the post-9/11 international engagement, shares the view of other long-standing observers that no-one has an accurate take on Afghan opinion, especially in the villages. There, a far greater ambivalence towards an international military presence exists than is normally admitted, partly as a result of experiences of being pushed off roads by international military vehicles, or alienated by strobe lights and loudspeaker instructions shouted in English upon being stopped. Such experiences may prove more telling than questionable survey results claiming to reflect Afghan support for the international military. The question of the impunity of international military forces will certainly continue to be an inflammatory one, playing into Taliban propaganda and eroding the legitimacy of any future Afghan government, especially in the eyes of Afghan youth.
The lack of Afghan government accountability and responsibility for service delivery and development is well-known by Afghans who experience government shortcomings, corruption and impunity daily. However, support for the Afghan government it helped to create was the central plank of the post-2001 international engagement in Afghanistan. Unsurprisingly, the Afghans blame the US-led international community for their government’s shortcomings. Had the international community conducted a more principled engagement in Afghanistan, so much more could have been achieved with far less money.
Legacies from the past as well as more recent events contribute to a continuing Afghan tragedy, which the international media is again losing interest in. These include past superpower rivalries and Cold War objectives, which also resulted in vast amounts of weapons entering the region. During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, Pakistan effectively controlled the direction of US and Saudi funding, as well as military resources, to the benefit of the Afghan political parties of Islamist hues. These ‘Tanzims’ were selected by Pakistan to further its political and security objectives in Afghanistan. Iran, Russia and India all prosecuted perceived interests in Afghanistan via proxy actors there. Fears that India and Pakistan are conducting a proxy war in Afghanistan were prevalent during the eight years I was based in the country, and continue to be at the forefront of international concern. These are only some of the factors undermining prospects for stability and development in the country. The failure of the West’s intervention and its rushed military withdrawal has brought these underlying factors and increasing regional involvement in Afghanistan’s affairs back to centre stage.
The victim culture so prevalent in the Afghan psyche results in Afghans avoiding taking any responsibility for the situation they find themselves in, and a tendency to always blame the ‘other’. David Chandler, in his International Statebuilding: The Rise of Post-Liberal Governance, echoes this failure to take responsibility. The most striking aspect of the contemporary discourse on international state-building, he writes,
is the collapse of confidence of western policy-actors in their own ability to intervene and shape the world around them. The apologetic content of the discourse highlights the low horizons and low expectations of those who claim the mantle of intervention and their lack of desire to take responsibility for policy-making… The lack of progress can be explained as due to the hold of history, expressed in terms of institutional path-dependencies whereas the future is held to be a closed book which humanity lacks the capacity to shape.
The Afghans are not alone in waiting to see what happens next.
~This article is a part of Reclaiming Afghanistan: web-exclusive package.
~Barbara J Stapleton has been widely published on Iraq and Afghanistan. She is particularly known for her work on security sector reform processes and the expansion of civil military affairs. Based full-time in Afghanistan from 2002 -2011, she was Advocacy and Policy Coordinator for the Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief (ACBAR) in Kabul until 2006, and senior political adviser and deputy to the EU Special Representative for Afghanistan in Kabul 2006-2010, liaising with NATO/ISAF. She is a member of the Afghanistan Analysts Network (AAN). Her comprehensive critique of NATO’s strategy for withdrawal, ‘Beating a Retreat – Prospects for the Transition Process’, is on the AAN website.