Afghanistan 2024: What is the future of war in Afghanistan?

Key points:

  • After handing over of the security of Afghanistan to Afghan forces in December 2014, the UN-led transition period (2001-2014) officially came to an end and Afghanistan moved to an Afghan-led transformation decade (2015-2024).
  • In February 2018, President Ghani offered a ceasefire, prisoner release and recognition of the Taliban as a legitimate political party to encourage the group to engage in peace talks; however, the Taliban did not show any response and the group has been continuing its fight in Afghanistan.
  • Having no response received from the group, the Afghan Government has threatened the Taliban with closure of its office in Doha if no progress is made in peace talks.
  • Since a quick resolution is not likely in the near future, the war in Afghanistan will continue until the Taliban (and all other Taliban-affiliated insurgent groups) and the Afghan government (with the mediation of regional and international players) compromise on each other’s terms and agree to peace talks.
  • Despite overwhelming threats by insurgent groups in Afghanistan, President Ghani seems very optimistic with Trump’s new commitment and its Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) to win the war and protect Afghanistan against any internal and external threats until 2024 and beyond. 

In May 2012, one year after the killing of Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan, the US and its allies endorsed an exit strategy in Chicago Summit to handover the security of Afghanistan to Afghan forces [1]. In December 2014, after thirteen years of intense war against terror, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) officially handed over the security of Afghanistan to the Afghan Police and Army. Today, 14,000 U.S. forces and 6,635 soldiers from 39 the NATO-Allied countries are left in Afghanistan to train and assist the Afghan forces [2]. Soon after the transfer of security responsibility to Afghan forces, a former Taliban commander in south-west of Afghanistan declared his allegiance to Islamic State (Daesh) and began recruiting fighters in Southeast and West provinces of Afghanistan [3]. Since then, Daesh and Taliban groups have increased their operations in Afghanistan and together they have gained full control/influence over 13 percent of Afghan districts, equaling to 12 percent of Afghanistan’s total population [4]. The author predicts Afghanistan’s security in 2024, and conclude that the war in Afghanistan will continue in 2020s until the Afghan government and insurgent groups accept each other’s terms and share power among them.

Background:

In 2001, Hamid Karzai assumed office to move Afghanistan from the UN-led transition period (2001-2014) to an Afghan-led transformation decade (2014-2024). During the transition period, the United Nations was responsible for assisting Afghanistan to rebuild its economy, political and social institutions and infrastructures, which were all destroyed during the internal war of 1990s. The US, NATO, and the coalition forces, which comprised the International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF), took the responsibility for arming, training and leading Afghan forces during the transition period. The transformation decade, which has begun early in 2015, seeks to rebuild Afghanistan and ensure its goal of being a “functional, stable and durable state” [5].

In December 28th, 2014, the US and NATO forces formally brought an end to their combat operation in Afghanistan. Today, the role of U.S. and allied forces are limited to train and support the Afghan Police and Army [6]. Since the Afghan forces are poorly armed and ill-trained, they have suffered record casualties in the absence of the US and the coalition ground support. At the end of 2017, the UN has recorded 23,744 security-related incidents in Afghanistan.  As a result, 10,453 Afghan civilians lost their lives or suffered from injuries [7]. Additionally, brain drains and refugee arrivals by millions, opium production of 9,000 tones yearly, corruption, discrimination and lack of rule of law and human rights have been in increase since 2014. Perhaps, a peace deal with the notorious warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar on his return to Kabul in May 2017 is the only achievement of the Afghan Unity Government that can be named here.

Afghanistan as a ground zero of insurgency:

Afghanistan has the highest concentration of terrorist groups compared to anywhere else in the world. Soon after the US-NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014, more than 20 regional and international terrorist groups filled the vacuum and increased their operations throughout the country [8]. For example, from the early-2015, Daesh Khorosan Province has been continuously threatening the security of Afghanistan and its national interests. Since gaining a foothold in Afghanistan, Daesh fighters are heavily involved in kidnapping and hanging Afghan civilians, beheading and killing Afghan soldiers and burning down historical places and sacred shrines in south, east and northern provinces of Afghanistan.


List of insurgent groups operating in Afghanistan


According to the Afghan National Security Advisor Hanif Atmar, Daesh Khorosan aims “to unify the whole region into one province under the name of Khurasan Caliphate.” [3, 9]. According to Atmar, Taliban and Daesh together with East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), which is trying to “enter into China through northern parts of Afghanistan”; Ansarullah Group which “wants to enter Tajikistan”; the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) which tries to “enter Uzbekistan and then Russia”; and Lashkar e Tayyiba (LeT) which wants to “enter Kashmir through northeastern areas of Afghanistan” are continuously threatening the security of Afghanistan and the whole region [9].

The Haqqani Network is another ruthless terrorist group which has been in war against the Afghan Government for over 40 years. Headquartered in Waziristan of Pakistan with a strength of 4,000 to 15,000 fighters from Arab countries, Pakistanis, Afghans, Chechen and other Al-Qaeda recruits, the Haqqani Network carries out the most brutal attacks targeting high-ranked officials, Afghan and the NATO troops, foreign offices and foreign aid workers, and supplies recruits and materials for other insurgent groups in Afghanistan [10]. The truck bomb explosion in May 2017 near the German Embassy, killing over 150 and injuring 413 people, is one of the many examples of terrorist attacks carried out by the Haqqani Network across Afghanistan [11].

Overall, the Taliban-affiliated insurgent groups have control over 13 percent of Afghanistan’s districts, equaling  13 percent of its total population, and contesting over 30 percent of its districts, equaling 24 percent of its total populations [4].

Source: SIGAR’s January 2018 Report.

The peace talk process

In February 28th, 2018, at the Second Kabul Process for Peace and Security Cooperation, President Ghani offered unconditional peace talks to the Taliban and asked the group to renounce violence, accept the rule of law, and enter into fruitful peace negotiations. President Ghani’s offer to the Taliban also included the release of Taliban prisoners, passports and visas for their members, and removal of sanctions imposed on their leaders [12]. While these offers fulfil the Taliban’s previous demands for peace talks, the group has not made any clear response to Afghan Government except releasing a statement saying our leadership is “studying the proposal.”[13].

  1. The main obstacle to peace talks

Perhaps the main obstacle to peace talk is the presence of the U.S. and its allied forces in Afghanistan. The Taliban considers Afghanistan an occupied country and, as declared by its deceased leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, they will continue their fight until they defeat the US-Allied forces and free the country from the occupation of the Western imperialism [14]. Therefore, it is highly likely that the Taliban will not show any interest in peace talks until the U.S. and NATO forces have fully withdrawn from Afghanistan.

  1. Lack of clear strategy among the Afghan politicians in peace talks

Despite many efforts had been made by Karzai and Ghani Administrations, the Taliban never announced its willingness to talk with the Afghan government and continuously labelled the Kabul administration a “puppet” of the United States. While President Ghani made many trips to Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, China and other neighbouring countries to seek their support for peace, his Chief Executive Dr. Abdullah Abdullah has continuously raised his concerns that his Tajik Jamiat Party has been marginalized from the process.  Similar concerns have been raised by the Hazara Mohammad Mohaqqeq, Dr. Abdullah’s Deputy, and Uzbek Rashid Dustum, Vice President. As a result of ambiguity in peace talk process among the Afghan politicians, Taliban became more frustrated and the Group has been increasing their operations throughout Afghanistan.

  1. Peace deal with Hekmatyar’s Islamic Party

While peace talks with the Taliban Group stalled repetitively, in September 2016 the Ghani Administration succeeded in signing a peace deal with Hezb-e Islami (Islamic party) led by notorious warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. The peace deal became possible when Hekmatyar dropped his pre-condition of full withdrawal of the U.S.-NATO forces and entered into a ceasefire with Afghan government. In return, the Afghan government gave him amnesty from his past crimes, removed his name from the UN’s sanction list, and released prisoners linked to Hekmatyar’s Islamic Party. The Taliban-affiliated Islamic Party was involved in many mass-killing and terrorist activities in the 1990s and post-2001 Afghanistan.

While President Ghani considers the peace deal a successful achievement, many believe that Hekmatyar had already lost obedience from the party. Before entering into a deal, many Party members already become part of the state with shares of political power and resources, and the rest had long away moved from the “ideological slogans of the Jihad era” or had been killed by the US-Afghan forces [15].

Secondly, Hekmatyar became too old to continue the fight and remain hiding in his caves from the Afghan forces and U.S.-NATO radar. With the increasing numbers of drone attacks and Afghan National Army’s (ANA) search capability, the chances of him being targeted like Al-Qaida and Taliban leaders became very high in recent years. Thus, Hekmatyar was left with no choice but to enter in a peace deal with the Afghan Government.

Overall, evidence shows that the peace deal with Hekmatyar did not bring any changes to security of Afghanistan. Instead, his presence in Kabul brought more uncertainty and ethnic tension than peace. While his anti-Massoud remark increased tensions among Tajik’s Jamiat Party, Hekmatyar was also defamed by Afghan people for his remark on “Ethnic War” in Afghanistan or calling suicide attacks Istishhadi raids (martyrdom) [16, 17]. In addition to ethnic tensions, security had been getting worse as well. Only from September to November 2017, the UN recorded 3,995 security incidents, with an average of 64 incident per day. Overall, 2017 recorded one of the worst years with highest numbers of security incidents.

Proxy war and regional meddling:

One month after President Ghani’s unconditional peace offer to the Taliban, the National Security Adviser Mohammad Hanif Atmar revealed ties between regional countries and the Taliban and mentioned “there are actors in the region that draw a distinction between good and bad terrorists. And unfortunately, another sign of that breakdown of consensus is that we all agreed to have state to state relations for counterterrorism, but there are those who look at state to non-state actor’s relations for counterterrorism with serious implications for all of us.” [18].

Hanif Atmar categorised terrorist groups into four and mentioned that the Afghan forces are not only fighting the Taliban and the Haqqani Network, they fight against international terrorist groups such as Al-Qaida and Daesh, regional terrorist groups such as Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) from Central Asia and China, and Pakistani terrorists such as Lashkar-e-Taiba, Pakistani Taliban (TTP) and Jaish-e-Mohammed groups. According to Atmar, “all these four categories, the Afghans, the global, the regional and the Pakistanis [terrorist groups] have some biotic relationships among themselves.” [18].

While the Afghan government seems very optimistic about the Trump’s Afghanistan policy, “there is a very difficult set of facts on the ground that cannot be ignored.” [19]. According to General John Nicholson, Commander of Resolute Support Mission/U.S. Forces Afghanistan, “Russia is now meddling in Afghanistan in an apparent attempt to prop up the Taliban and undermine the United States”, “Iran is reportedly arming and funding the Taliban”, and numerous terrorist groups still operate within Pakistan, attack its neighbors [Afghanistan], and kill U.S. forces.” [8]. Considering the ground reality, achievement in Afghanistan is immeasurably difficult, if not impossible, as long as its neighbours and regional and international powerbrokers do not show a real and true commitment to Afghanistan’s peace.

The US-Allied Commitments in Afghanistan war:

The war in Afghanistan has been tremendously painful for other nations as well, especially the U.S. and its allies, and regional countries. From 2001 to 2017, 2,357 U.S. soldiers and 3,401 U.S. contractors have been killed in Afghanistan and 20,289 U.S. were wounded [4, 20]. The United States has spent US$ 840.7 billion in in the last 17 years of war in Afghanistan. Excluding the U.S. contractors’ data, Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (CIGAR)’s total cost of the U.S. aid to Afghanistan through 2017 is US$122.09 billion [21]. According to the Afghan National Security Advisor, currently, the US spends US$12 million daily to fight terrorism in Afghanistan [9]. Compared to NATO and other regional players, the U.S. spends more than 4 times the amount of China, 10 times that of Russia and 10 times that of NATO (France, Germany and the UK) in the war against terror, including Afghanistan war [21].

Conclusion:

The power vacuum created in 2014-2017 provided the Taliban an opportunity to increase its operations up to 70 percent in Afghanistan and quickly gain control of 45 percent of its districts [22]. Daesh Khorosan is present in 30 districts and carrying out deadly attacks throughout the country, targeting mainly the Shia Hazaras. While President Ghani offered unconditional offers of peace talk, the Taliban have shown no interest in peace. The Afghan government has recently threatened the Taliban that it will pursue with the Qatari authorities to close the Taliban office in Doha if the office is not facilitating the peace talks [23].

The government of Afghanistan is still optimistic about the future of its country and its relationship with the United States. The Ghani administration relies heavily on the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) with Washington committing to protecting Afghanistan against any internal and external threats until 2024 and beyond. The BSA was signed in September 2014 and the U.S. is committed to continuing its economic support, keeping its soldiers in the country to train and assisting the Afghan security forces. Following Trump’s announcement of his Afghanistan policy in August 2017, the possibility of the U.S. further increasing its forces from current 14,000 soldiers in Afghanistan is highly likely in 2018/19.

Finally, seeing the ground reality Afghanistan, the war in Afghanistan will continue beyond the transformation decade, 2024. Even if the Taliban accepts President Ghani’s peace offer, the Haqqani Network, Daesh Khorosan and dozen other terrorist groups are wildly waiting in the line to replace Taliban overnight. Therefore, the war in Afghanistan will continue until the Taliban, Daesh, the Haqqani Network and all major insurgent groups, through the mediations of major regional players such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan, Russia and China, are convinced to join the peace talks.

* Deedar Raheem-Khudaidad is the founding editor of FutureOutlooks.com


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