Afghanistan at the Crossroads: Insights on the Conflict
International Conference on Afghanistan
Aside from the sporadic impact of a few artillery rockets in Kabul late July 19 and July 20, the one-day International Conference on Afghanistan, attended by more than 40 foreign ministers, appears to have gone smoothly — perhaps too smoothly. While commitments have been renewed and assurances have been given, there do not appear to have been any groundbreaking or unexpected shifts. Nevertheless, there are several developments worth noting:
The conference focused less on talk of the U.S. 2011 deadline to begin a drawdown and more on emphasizing that Afghanistan would take control of the domestic security situation, with Afghan security forces leading operations in all parts of the country by 2014. NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said the shift to Afghan control would happen slowly, based on "conditions, not calendars."
Of the $14 billion in aid that flows into Afghanistan annually, the government in Kabul reportedly manages only about 20 percent. Afghan President Hamid Karzai has argued against the practice, in part applied by donors to ensure more control over how the money is spent and to sidestep concerns over corruption in the Afghan government. At the conference, Karzai obtained a pledge that Kabul will be allowed to manage some 50 percent of aid money within two years.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton emphasized for the first time that while Washington was still moving toward putting the Haqqani network on its terrorist list, that the U.S. would not necessarily rule out Afghan efforts to reconcile with it — something Washington has long opposed.
(click here to enlarge image) Ultimately, the real movement and significance of the conference is regional. The American shift on the Haqqanis and the signing of a transit agreement between Afghanistan and Pakistan that Islamabad had long blocked are both signs that Washington and Islamabad have made significant progress in coordinating their Afghan policies. U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard C. Holbrooke acknowledged as much to reporters in Islamabad on July 18 when he spoke of a "dramatic acceleration" in cooperation between the two countries. There are even reports that the United States is now revising its strategy to embrace the idea of negotiating with senior members of the Taliban through third parties. So as the American strategy shifts toward more regional accommodation and reliance on regional allies, and as foreign forces move closer to drawing down, the regional dynamics will become increasingly defining for Afghanistan. Indeed, Washington especially seems to be realizing that a real exit strategy cannot take place without regional understandings — particularly from Pakistan.
Community Police Initiative
In another shift, Afghan President Hamid Karzai on July 14 conceded to pressure from the commander of U.S. Forces-Afghanistan and the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) Gen. David Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry to the recruitment of as many as 10,000 personnel for service in a more comprehensive, nationwide community police initiative. Karzai did achieve concessions like the inclusion of the new personnel under the aegis of the Interior Ministry. While this compromise will allow for the creation of a force that may be able to confront the Taliban in new ways, it also exacerbates the long-term risks of such an initiative. The community police will be linked to a system that has been ineffective at both supplying its own local police forces and managing issues of corruption and infiltration by the Taliban. The concessions also fail to address the issue that the underlying and inherent loyalty of these new community police is to their locality rather than the government in Kabul. This was one of Karzai's main complaints about this initiative, although the new personnel are ostensibly not to be trained in "offensive" tactics. It remains to be seen whether the compromise and implementation will have the hoped-for short-term tactical impact. The real question is whether those possible short-term gains will justify longer-term issues that are sure to arise with the establishment of such armed groups. For Washington, they may. For Kabul, the answer is far less certain.
Afghan Security Forces Violence
Two American civilian trainers and one Afghan soldier were reportedly killed July 20 near Mazar-e-Sharif by another Afghan soldier serving alongside them as a trainer. The event comes less than a week after the killing of three British soldiers by an Afghan soldier at a base in Helmand province. The week before that, on July 7, five Afghan soldiers were killed by friendly fire from a NATO helicopter. Although there are inherent problems with indigenous forces being penetrated and compromised, as well as issues of mutual interference with a dispersed and indigenous force, this series of developments begins to stand out. This is not the first time Afghan soldiers or police have been killed in airstrikes, but the killings of foreign troops by uniformed Afghans only further complicates deep-seated issues of trust. While in neither case can such danger ever be completely eliminated, these developments come at a time when ISAF and indigenous forces must work more closely together. An increase in distrust could seriously impact operational practices and effectiveness.
Mullah Omar's Guidance
NATO announced July 18 it had obtained a June communique from top Afghan Taliban commander Mullah Mohammed Omar allegedly issuing new orders to his Afghan commanders. In the guidance, Omar modifies the previous year's guidance to avoid civilian casualties, calling on his commanders to capture or kill Afghan civilians working for foreign forces or the Afghan government — a small and specific subset of the population. It is not yet clear whether this claim is genuine. However, the June 9 public hanging of a seven-year-old boy and an alleged suicide bombing at a wedding the same day that killed some 40 people — both attributed to the Taliban, though the group claims the wedding attack was an ISAF strike — demonstrate that either the guidance has changed or some commanders are violating it. (click here to enlarge image) Omar's alleged shift in guidance may seem to run counter to his earlier focus on not antagonizing the population — a sentiment readily understandable to foreign forces waging a counterinsurgency. But it may indicate that the Taliban has made far more progress in winning over a key portion of the population and can therefore act more aggressively against locals on the opposite end of the political spectrum — and from their perspective this would be a very selective and surgical targeting of a small subset of people. So the shift may reflect confidence in the strength of that local support; indeed, at least from the Taliban's constituency, more aggressive and ruthless tactics may not only be acceptable but desired. This is, after all, a struggle that is now in an extremely decisive phase. ISAF forces are already having some difficulties securing the population in key focus areas in Afghanistan's southwest. Already Taliban night letters and other forms of intimidation have made the local population extremely hesitant to cooperate not only out of fear for their lives in the immediate future but also once foreign forces depart. So despite the ongoing struggle to convince Afghan civilians that the other side is responsible for the vast majority of civilian deaths (a struggle the Taliban is not necessarily losing because it is better at getting its message out in a compelling way), an aggressive campaign by the Taliban against local civilians could erode the ISAF's position and local support more than it costs the Taliban local supporters.