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Dec 22, 2018 | 13:00 GMT

11 mins read

Afghanistan in 2018: No End to the Stalemate

An Afghan man walks along a hilltop overlooking Kabul on March 21, 2018.
(SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images)
Editor's Note

With the current conflict in Afghanistan approaching its 18th year, the United States has yet to find a way to escape its longest war. The United States and its NATO allies are but one component invested in Afghanistan's future, as the country finds itself once again a focal point for great power competition. Despite the rhetoric of the current U.S. administration and a revised strategic approach relying more heavily on air power, the stalemate on the ground has yet to be broken. The NATO-backed central government in Kabul continues to control the country's urban areas while the Taliban exerts influence over wide swaths of the countryside.

On the diplomatic front, Russia has made more significant gains — seeking to needle its Western opponents — while Pakistan continues to muddy the waters. All the while, China watches and waits. As we take stock of what transpired in 2018, two late developments have the potential to affect the trajectory of the embattled country in 2019: the impact of a proposed 50 percent reduction of U.S. forces in Afghanistan and a new U.S. secretary of defense, replacing James Mattis.

In our 2018 Annual Forecast, we wrote that the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump would continue to increase pressure on Pakistan over the country's continued support for militants in Afghanistan. Less than 24 hours into the new year, the White House made clear its intent to punish Pakistan for its perceived meddling in one of South Asia's most enduring conflicts.

On Jan. 1, U.S. President Donald Trump fired off his first tweet of 2018, saying that the United States has received nothing but "lies & deceit" in return for the over $33 billion in aid it has provided to Pakistan over the past 16 years. Later that day, the White House announced it would continue withholding $255 million in foreign military financing that had been designated for Pakistan in 2016, but not delivered. Read the full article: Pakistan: The Subtext of Trump's New Year's Tweet.

This is not the first time Islamabad has found itself in Washington's sights, accused of not taking sufficient action against militants on the Pakistani side of the border. For Pakistan, though, it's an intentional strategy because it can exert influence over its neighbor, using militant proxies to ensure Kabul remains amenable to Islamabad's interests and, more importantly, isolated from Indian influence.

Despite harsh rhetoric from the United States and Pakistan, both countries are seeking to balance cooperation with coercion as they advance their respective strategies in Afghanistan. Recently, Islamabad revealed that it had been in discussions with NATO officials hoping to use Pakistan's southwestern port of Gwadar — a Chinese-built facility in the insurgency-wracked Balochistan province and a key element of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, itself part of China's ambitious Belt and Road Initiative — to ferry supplies for the war effort in Afghanistan. For NATO convoys, Gwadar serves as a faster, cheaper alternative for transporting supplies than the port they currently use, Karachi. Read the full article: U.S., Pakistan: A Carrot-and-Stick Approach to Ports
In a year of great power competition, China's interest in South Asia encapsulates both Pakistan and Afganistan, something that was very clear in early 2018 when China announced plans to build a military base for Kabul's armed forces in the northeastern province of Badakhshan, confirming a deal that was discussed during an Afghan military visit to Beijing in December 2017.

Afghanistan has long been a locus of geopolitical competition among external powers, great and small. Countries such as the United States, Russia and, increasingly, China have a shared interest in containing the spread of militancy and securing their own imperatives.

An increasingly important component of Beijing's Belt and Road Initiative, Afghanistan is part of the Central Asian corridor that runs all the way to China. Beijing is in the process of expanding its economic and security cooperation in Central Asia. As we noted in our assessment on China's Increasing Security Buffer on Its Western Frontier:

Ultimately, such basing plans are in line with China's strategy to contain the spillover of militancy from Afghanistan and broaden its security presence beyond its borders as it deepens its economic involvement in Afghanistan and the broader Central Asian region. Beijing, as is the case with many other involved parties, is concerned about the future of Afghanistan if the United States and NATO eventually withdraw, so China is working to set up a limited buffer ahead of that a possible outcome. The United States is well aware China is in Badakhshan and does not view its presence there as a threat.

As if a reminder was needed about the poor security situation in Afghanistan, the Taliban claimed credit for the Jan. 20-21 storming of a hotel in Kabul that saw four gunmen kill 18 people, including 14 foreigners, and injure 22 others.

Afghan security forces inspect the site of an attack on the office of the British charity Save the Children in Jalalabad on Jan. 24, 2018.

Just days after the attack in Kabul, militants associated with the Islamic State attacked the Jalalabad office of British charity Save the Children on Jan. 24, 2018. Gunmen blasted their way into the British aid group's compound, killing three people and wounding 24.

(NOORULLAH SHIRZADA/AFP/Getty Images)

Bookending the violent month, on Jan. 31, the BBC released a detailed study on the extent of militant presence and control over Afghanistan. According to the report, the Taliban possessed full control over 14 districts and maintained an open presence in 263 more. In other words, jihadist insurgents were active in 70 percent of Afghanistan's 398 districts. The situation is exacerbated by endemic corruption and mismanagement in Afghanistan's National Unity Government, which has failed to provide rural Afghans with an enticing alternative to the Taliban. In turn, the success of the Taliban's shadow government system undercuts Kabul's attempts to extend its authority over much of Afghanistan's conservative rural terrain, reinforcing the underlying stalemate between the Afghan government and the insurgency.

The Taliban have also benefited greatly from foreign support over the course of the Afghan war. As a result of the organization's links to the outside world, the Taliban has been able to import everything from fertilizer for improvised explosive devices to night vision gear. Among the Taliban's powerful backers is Iran, which has long been involved in Afghan affairs. For instance, the Islamic republic recruited fighters from Afghanistan's Shiite Hazara community — and from Iran's own 3 million-strong Afghan refugee population — to fill out the Fatemiyoun Brigade Tehran has deployed alongside government forces in Syria. Iran's support for the Taliban is unlikely to dwindle in the coming years, as we noted in our March 8 assessment on why Iran is backing the Taliban:

Supporting the Taliban offers Iran a way to counter the Islamic State's expansion to its east, and Tehran will feel justified in backing the insurgents so long as the transnational jihadist group has a presence in Afghanistan. Beyond counterterrorism, though, Iran wants to maintain contact with the Taliban to be in their good graces if they eventually assume a role in the Afghan government. Even the United States, which has been battling the Taliban for more than a decade and a half, has admitted that a power-sharing deal in Afghanistan likely would involve the Taliban. In that case, Iran will be well-placed to expand its reach in the South Asian country, having kept its ties with both the Taliban and the government's NATO-backed components.

In May, the Taliban kicked off its annual spring offensive. Besides staging attacks across the country, the movement directed its energies toward capturing the provincial capital of Farah province in an effort to replicate its brief takeover of Kunduz in 2015. Despite the movement's stated intent to reconquer Afghanistan, the Taliban could pragmatically enter prospective peace negotiations from a strong position should they continue to make gains. However, despite the organization's deepening hold over large swathes of Afghanistan, internal divisions threaten the cohesion of the Taliban as an entity. At least four main branches exist, whose relations range from pragmatic cooperation to active hostility. As we explored in our March 23 assessment, For Afghanistan, a Divided Taliban Poses an Obstacle to Peace

The fragmented nature of the Taliban will complicate the chances of success in any peace negotiations, as assent from all factions is a prerequisite for any lasting deal. Given that fissures within the group are forging rival centers of power, Pakistan is likely to bolster its support for the Haqqani network in the hopes of bringing other factions to heel. But because the United States has designated the network as a terrorist organization, Islamabad's support for the faction is likely to drive a greater wedge between itself and Washington.

Despite intense fighting during the 2018 spring offensive, neither side achieved meaningful gains, as we explored in our assessment, What Lies Beneath the Enduring Stalemate in Afghanistan:

With international forces backing the Afghan National Security Forces, and with the Taliban deeply unpopular in urban and minority areas, it will be very difficult for the insurgency to seize and hold Afghanistan's cities. On the flip side, however, the Afghan government is not in a position to restore its authority over much of the Afghan countryside. The resulting stalemate, in which the Taliban's deep bond within the rural social fabric of the country plays a key part, is unlikely to be broken by military force alone. That leaves negotiations as the only real alternative toward ending the conflict in the short term — negotiations that remain highly vulnerable to the byzantine interests within the country and the shifting positions of external parties.

Afghan Taliban militants took to the street to celebrate an unprecedented cease-fire on the second day of Eid in the outskirts of Jalalabad, June 16, 2018.

Afghan Taliban militants celebrate an unprecedented cease-fire on the second day of Eid in the outskirts of Jalalabad, June 16, 2018.

(NOORULLAH SHIRZADA/AFP/Getty Images)

Beyond the conflict between Kabul and the Taliban, Afghanistan provides fertile ground for other groups, such as the Islamic State's Khorasan chapter and Chinese Uighur militants. The prospect of transnational extremist groups using Afghanistan to launch attacks into other parts of Central Asian was enough to draw closer attention from another great power, Russia, which shares Pakistan's concern over creeping militancy:

For Russia, its deepening relations with Pakistan overlap with growing attempts to involve itself as a mediator in Afghanistan. Beginning in December 2016, Moscow hosted the first of several conferences aimed at jump-starting talks between Kabul and the Taliban. Although the Taliban did not attend any of these gatherings, they have accepted Moscow's invitation to take part in an upcoming conference; that acceptance is a sign of the movement's desire to elevate its diplomatic profile by positioning itself as a serious political actor. If Russia succeeds in bringing both Kabul and the Taliban to the same table, the accomplishment would heighten President Vladimir Putin's leverage over negotiations to end a NATO-backed conflict that Washington has failed to resolve. Read the full assessment here

Moscow seeks a diplomatic victory to strengthen its leverage while its relations with Washington remain tense, as we mentioned in our 2018 Fourth-Quarter Forecast. This plays into the Taliban's desire to become a serious political actor, with Russia's help to elevate the organization's diplomatic profile.

Parliamentary elections played out in October, another key component of Afghanistan's war-ravaged path to democracy. The polls — to elect members for the lower house of parliament — were originally scheduled for 2015 but were repeatedly delayed by the inability of the National Unity Government to implement key electoral reforms. Because of this failure and other infighting, presidential elections set for April 2019 will be a complicated affair. As we wrote in our assessment, For Afghanistan, Parliamentary Elections Are Another Step on the Rocky Road to Democracy:

At the core of Afghanistan's political instability is an unresolved debate involving ethnic competition, regional intervention and the structure of the state. With 42 percent of the population, the Pashtun and their many tribes account for the largest and most dominant ethnic group in the country. But they are outnumbered by the non-Pashtun populations as a whole, which include the Tajiks, Hazaras and Uzbeks. The Pashtun favor a centralized form of government under a strong president wielding sweeping powers to enable rapid and controlled political and economic reform. This, in their view, is the key to maintaining the unity of the country — under Pashtun rule. The non-Pashtuns favor a federalized model that hinges on a prime minister elected by the parliament who — along with provincial governors elected by the people — can function as checks on the president. The Pashtuns fear the decentralization model will erode their power, weaken the unity of the state and enable regional powers to have greater leverage in domestic affairs.

Meanwhile, Pakistan welcomed in its newly elected prime minister, Imran Khan. Khan's hands-off approach to the country's military means little change for Pakistan's foreign and defense policies on Afghanistan, which will remain under army control.

On Nov. 9, Russia launched a bold attempt to wind down four decades of war in Afghanistan, hosting a multinational conference on the conflict. Hosted by the Russian Foreign Ministry, the conference included officials from Afghanistan, China, India, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, the United States and Uzbekistan. Most significant among the roster of attendees, however, was a five-member delegation from the Afghan Taliban. That group, unsurprisingly, rejected calls from Kabul's representatives to start peace talks without preconditions.

As 2018 concludes, we look ahead to what the coming year will hold for Afghanistan. As we wrote in our 2019 Annual Forecast

U.S. pressure will continue to drive Pakistan toward a stronger security partnership with Russia and Iran as part of its regional foreign policy pivot. And Islamabad, Moscow and Tehran will use the threat of the Islamic State to strengthen their security partnership. As the United States runs out of medium-pressure tactics (such as cutting off funding, revoking Pakistani officer training and curbing defense sales), it is more likely to impose harsher measures such as revoking Pakistan's non-NATO major ally status. The Taliban will express more serious interest in negotiations, but talks will only begin if NATO commits to a drawdown.

We considered a drawdown unlikely given concerns that the Afghan army isn't strong enough to handle security on its own. But taking into account the unexpected Dec. 20 announcement from the White House to slash U.S. personnel in Afghanistan by half, 2019 could be the year that the Taliban take their seat at the negotiating table.

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