Afghanistan: from bad to worse
Tuesday the United States Institute of Peace hosted a panel entitled Can Afghanistan Stabilize as US Forces Plan their Exit? Panelists included William Byrd (USIP Senior Expert in Residence), Ali Jalali (Former Minister of the Interior of Afghanistan and USIP Senior Expert in Residence), Scott Smith (Director, Afghanistan and Central Asia Programs, USIP), Moeed Yusuf (Director, South Asia Programs, USIP). The panel was moderated by Andrew Wilder (Vice President, USIP Center for South and Central Asia). A link to a full video of the conference can be found here.
Wilder presented an overview of the situation in Afghanistan. The Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) have had more casualties this year alone than the US military has had over the entire course of the conflict in Afghanistan. There is pessimism in Kabul over the political deadlock, there is very little economic activity (ironically in part because some investors are scared away by President Ghani’s anti-corruption agenda), and President Ghani’s outreach to Pakistan has been unpopular domestically.
Jalali discussed Afghanistan’s poor security environment. The end of the Coalition combat mission meant an end to international air and intelligence support in this typical fighting season. The Taliban may be willing to negotiate, but want to improve their bargaining power through gains on the ground.
The ANSF struggle with a low force to space ratio in its attempt to defend vast territories. The troops are spread thinly to maintain a presence in all parts of the country occupying small, remote, vulnerable outposts. The Taliban attack these outposts, causing heavy casualties, and then disperse. Suicide attacks in cities have also increased, demonstrating to citizens that the government is incapable of providing security.
The ANSF lack intelligence capacity. In the past, they were able to foil 70% of planned attacks, but now they foil a mere 30%. Instead of manning remote, strategically insignificant posts, the ANSF should focus on intelligence-gathering to take the fight to the Taliban through ambushes.
Smith discussed Afghanistan’s political impasse. The government is in a state of institutionalized crisis, as disagreements continue between the supporters of President Ghani and Chief Executive (CEO) Abdullah. The agreement between the two parties gives both sides an equitable share of power, but does not contain mechanisms for dispute resolution if one side oversteps its authority. The result is disputes about how to resolve disputes.
Those who try to serve as mediators between the parties become distrusted by both sides. Ghani has tried to build a competent government but has not appointed anyone with previous ministerial experience. Abdullah is losing some supporters because he cannot provide patronage appointments to all his benefactors.
Meanwhile, an opposition is forming that includes former president Karzai and is hoping this government will collapse so that it can step into its shoes. The risk is that the Taliban will step in instead.
Byrd discussed Afghanistan’s economic woes. Afghanistan’s economy has traditionally been based on subsistence agriculture and herding. The Coalition’s military campaign brought investment, but this is drying up in the wake of the withdrawal, causing a decline in growth. Growth is not yet negative only because recent harvests have been good.
There is little business investment, capital flight, and high unemployment. Human capital indicators, such as literacy, are poor. There is a dire fiscal crisis, though revenue has improved somewhat in the first four months of this year. The Afghan private sector needs more confidence. Byrd argued that high tariffs on imports of cash crops like apples and almonds, combined with innovative export subsidies, could be beneficial.
Foreign policy and negotiations
Yousef spoke about Ghani’s attempt to reconcile with Pakistan. Ghani’s outreach to Pakistan made sense because he has no other options. The state has gotten weaker and the Taliban stronger. Pakistan has been reluctant to go after the Taliban’s safe havens militarily and has been concerned about Afghan-Indian ties. Ghani has been less warm towards India, hoping that Pakistan can bring the Taliban to the negotiating table.
So far, this has not happened. If negotiations do occur, they should focus on what is needed to achieve a ceasefire. Yousef argued they should not become mired in human rights issues, which can be addressed later.