[Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) in 2014— 3,720 killed -vs- 5,500 killed in 2015, an increase of 1780 Afghan troops in 2015 -vs- 10,628 Taliban killed in 2015, compared to 603 killed in 2014, an increase of more than 10,000 Taliban killed in 2015. That is a 1000% improvement in efficiency over US/NATO forces in their last year of combat before the official US withdrawal in 2014! They did that without US air support, depending solely upon their paltry helicopter assets and trainer planes. Just imagine what they could do with full air support.]
The Islamist group seeks legitimacy and political space in Afghanistan
Last week, US Secretary of State, John Kerry, was on a secret visit to Afghanistan to save the national unity government, NUG (Kerry’s Pushiness Threatens To Unify Afghans Against His Schemes ). He said that the 2014 deal setting up President Ashraf Ghani’s NUG would allow it to serve a full five-year term. For Afghanistan, 2015 was the worst year, the year of setbacks. Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) suffered the heaviest casualties for any one year. Nearly 5500 killed and 14,000 wounded. Civilian casualties were also very high. According to South Asia Terrorism Portal, 10628 militants, mainly Talibans, were killed in 2015 compared to 603 killed in 2014. The Taliban occupy more territory in Afghanistan than at any time since the war began in 2001. Twenty-seven of the country’s 34 provinces face high Taliban threat and in Nangarhar province the challenge is from the ISIS. Till last month 38 out of 400 districts were under Taliban control and 40 were being contested. For example, the Independent Afghan Analyst Network reported that Taliban was in control of most of the districts of Southern Helmand province except the district headquarters. Two years ago Helmand was under full government control.
Lt Gen John Campbell (now replaced by Lt Gen John Nicholson), top US Commander in Afghanistan, admitted that the decision to keep 5500 Nato troops till 2017 was based on some assumptions that did not turn out to be true. President Obama observed that ‘Afghan forces are not as strong as they need to be’. This rather bleak security situation is the result of the withdrawal of foreign forces according to a political time-line, unrelated to the adverse ground reality and capacity of ANSF to deter Taliban. It is likely that American commanders have fudged their assessment of the ANSF morale and calibre which turned out to be below par. The new President of the US will have to review the situation next year unless there is a Black Swan event earlier.
Washington has realised that the transition was premature. It was based on the flawed assumptions that ANSF would enable NUG to initiate an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned reconciliation process with Taliban and that Pakistan would deliver the Taliban for peace talks. Washington is frustrated with the squabbling within the NUG. A BBC Gallup poll conducted from October 22 to November 18, 2015 (that had 2500 respondents across 34 provinces) reveals that 81 per cent of Afghans are very dissatisfied with NUG and 69 per cent fear things will get worse.
A US survey reflected that the level of dissatisfaction with NUG was 60 per cent. The disapproval ratings for President Ghani too were pegged at 60 per cent while 86 per cent of the respondents went against CEO Abdullah Abdullah. Crowning this disunity, the UNAMA chief in Kabul stated he would be surprised if the NUG survives through 2016. Declaring the controversial presidential election results — Ghani 55 per cent and Abdullah 45 per cent — 16 months later was like tossing the NUG from the frying pan into the fire. Nearly 500,000 jobs have been lost due to the withdrawal of foreign forces further disabling an aid-driven economy. Washington and Brussels are becoming increasingly tired of Afghanistan and the mounting refugee influx from Syria and Iraq to Europe has shifted attention from Afghanistan to the threat posed to Europe by ISIS. Kabul could soon become a forgotten war zone precariously held together by western funding for ANSF and NUG.
President Ghani made a bold move by seeking Pakistan’s help on reconciliation with the Taliban which is seeking both geographical and political space in Afghanistan. Seventy-one per cent Afghans are not happy about reconciliation which has been left entirely for Pakistan to orchestrate but the Taliban has rejected face-to-face talks following their military victories. A spring offensive will likely place them in an unassailable position for a dialogue later in the year. Taliban is known to be seeking a change in the constitution, release of its prisoners and posts of Interior and Defence Ministers. Pakistan is also demanding concessions like recognition of the border (Durand Line) and dilution of Kabul’s relations with India. India remains the most popular country in Afghanistan with its extensive development assistance for institution and capacity-building programmes. It has told Kabul that it does not have an exit policy. Although India was initially relegated into the so-called fourth circle by Mr Ghani, there were growing demands for New Delhi to shoulder its responsibility as a regional power and net security provider. Afghanistan is calling for additional military assistance including equipment to strengthen the ANSF.
It wants full operationalisation of the Strategic Partnership Agreement of 2011 especially Para 5 of the security and political cooperation where India has agreed to assist as mutually determined in the training, equipping and capacity-building programmes. A comprehensive list of equipment was provided to New Delhi in 2013 but little materialised. The SPA was to be implemented through a Partnership Council consisting of foreign ministers which has met only twice. Only one of the four Joint Working Groups has convened despite Kabul’s many reminders. India appeared loath to operationalise the defence and security component till Mr Ghani met Prime Minister Modi last year during his official visit. Mr Modi asked: “What does Kabul need?” Only after Mr Ghani’s urging on military equipment that four Mi25 attack helicopters were provided to Kabul. There are some problems in supplying Russian equipment following US sanctions on Russia post-Ukraine. One of the biggest shortcomings in the ANSF capability is airpower which was withdrawn, US Commanders admit, prematurely from the battlefield. New Delhi has to do much more towards bolstering the fighting ability of ANSF.
Surprisingly Afghans are privately telling India that its alleged involvement in Balochistan and speculated links with Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan as promoted by Islamabad are worrying Kabul. New Delhi needs to clear the air on this and operationalise the institutional framework to implement the SPA. Let New Delhi not forget that India’s security frontiers lie in the Hindukush.
The author is convenor of a Track 2 Afghanistan Policy Group