Post Afghanistan Endgame

The paper is a project by interns under the supervision of Spearhead Research employees.

By  Haider Abbas and Shirin Naseer

Afghan-US Peace TalksThree main topics make up the core of the transition in Afghanistan debate at the moment. The 2014 presidential elections, the security situation – the use of proxy wars as national policies by Pakistan– and the regional forces and spillover effects.


On Elections: There are various recommendations when it comes to elections and U.S. policy towards them. Some argue for making the 2014 elections the focus of U.S. policy and control technical matters such as voter registration and turn out.

Unfortunately what matters in Afghan elections, similar to Pakistan’s elections, as they are currently run is not who can mobilize the most votes, but who can control the process. So President Karzai and his lieutenants in the executive branch are grappling to control the makeup and duties of the election commission and the complaints body. Currently the head of the election commission declared that the tussle over the electoral law had gone on too long for the provisions to be implemented, and that Karzai would be enacting regulations by legislative decree.

Karzai has also vetoed a bill establishing the structure and mandate of the Independent Election Commission (IEC) and the ECC.  He is demanding the right to unilaterally appoint all IEC members, and wants the Attorney General’s Office to play the role of the ECC.

So the question arises: will the international community have the constancy and the deftness to out-maneuver whatever Karzai and his network have in store this time? What if Karzai’s model for an IEC and ECC under his orders prevails?  How will the international community act to ensure that the results of this “Afghan managed and Afghan led” election aren’t in fact dictated by the Karzai network?

On Security:  For at least the past year, U.S. government officials have publicly acknowledged that the Pakistani military, through the ISI, has not merely turned a blind eye to the development of insurgent groups on its territory but has taken a complex, active role in helping reconstitute them. If so, what would be the purpose? Why would Pakistani officials foment explosive instability right on their border? Why would they take the risk that the extremism they help foster might shift its focus—as it has—to them?

To better understand this situation, a simple analogy between the Soviet occupation and withdrawal and the unfolding Western experience can be made. Ideological and political sensitivities may explain this aversion, yet studying the similarities and differences between the two experiences can be enlightening and useful.

In both cases, foreign powers attempt to impose a social model of modernization that is not acceptable to the local population, apart from the urbanized elites. Pakistan’s support for the Taliban directly parallels Pakistan’s support for the mujahideen in the 1980s. In both cases, Islamabad did so for essentially the same reasons as part of its competition with India. The regional power game—a factor that destabilized Afghanistan in the 1990s—is being revived and looks much the same.

Pakistani government interests in Afghanistan have grown increasingly manifest over the years, and they are linked to the military’s perception of the Pakistani rivalry with India. The constantly evoked threat is Indian encirclement—a too-cozy relationship between Kabul and New Delhi, which could leave Pakistan trapped in the middle.

The security cost would be enormous for Pakistan, particularly if the Afghan Taliban and Pakistani jihadist groups were to join forces for offensive operations in Pakistan. Given the highly unstable situation on the border and the Pakistani government’s inability to establish civilian authorities after military operations (in Waziristan for example), the consequences would be grave. The Pakistani army would need to become more heavily involved along its western border with Afghanistan even though its priority is India. Further complicating matters, the Pakistani army is convinced that India is taking an offensive position in Afghanistan, supporting anti-Taliban groups and Baluchi tribes calling for independence from Pakistan. Indian policy is interpreted as a strategic threat to Pakistan.

To forestall this eventuality, it seems increasingly clear that the Pakistani military leadership has aimed to regain a degree of the proxy control over Afghanistan that it enjoyed in the 1990s, by determining the conflict’s end game.

On Regional Stability: Tajikistan, whose government corruption most resembles Afghanistan’s, and whose long border with Afghanistan lies largely unsecured, has the most to fear. The situation is far different than it was in 1989, when the Soviet withdrawal led to the last major bout of turmoil. Even a collapsing Soviet Union could still secure its borders, then. A tsunami of Afghan refugees could further blur the already indeterminate frontier, leading toward a de facto merger of large swaths of the two countries’ territories and further facilitating drug and weapons smuggling. Disaffected young people, already turning to extremist teachings, may be increasingly radicalized. The Mohamed Merah case in France demonstrates that this area remains a magnet for jihadists from Western countries. Merah killed seven people in France in March 2012, including three Jewish children as well as French soldiers whose unit had fought in Afghanistan. The Merah case also establishes the importance of regional stability and cooperation that prevents Afghanistan and its neighboring areas from becoming a sanctuary that harbors extremists.


On Elections: If the U.S. government is going to assist Afghanistan in the upcoming elections then U.S. financing and support for the vote must be contingent on Kabul’s adherence to some minimum standards. A truly independent, empowered elections commission whose members are elected fairly.

And more broadly, the only way to significantly reduce the incentive for cheating in the 2014 election is to work seriously to build political consensus among Afghan constituencies ahead of time.  The current U.S. policy of pursuing negotiations exclusively with the Taliban is self-defeating.  Given the non-representation of significant Afghan stakeholders, the likely outcome—if such efforts were to produce any results at all—is an agreement that would be unacceptable to much of the Afghan population, thus planting the seeds of future civil conflict.

A better approach both to reconciliation and to the upcoming election would be to broaden the scope of ongoing reconciliation efforts to all major Afghan constituencies. The Afghani government should have a seat at the table and Pakistan should not play any role.  Pakistan’s concerns and aspirations with respect to Afghanistan should be guaranteed through formal inter-state channels, not via proxy involvement in an intra-Afghan peace process.

On Security: 

Understanding the Environment 

Gen. Stanley Mc Chrystal has admitted to the Council of Foreign Relations (an independent think-tank in New York) that Washington lacked both insight and foresight in the Afghan conflict, that their understanding of the region was myopic and simplistic.

It is important to understand that there is an entire generation of Afghans that has seen nothing but bloodshed and chaos in the homeland and that they identify the west’s agenda as anti-Islamic. Another important fact to acknowledge is that Afghans viewed the Karzai government as a ‘new regime of old criminals’ and ‘no better or worse’ than the Taliban regime that toppled in 2001 (according to Hamish Chitts from Direct Action).

The west still has to do away with its biases against the Afghans as unruly, irrational and ungovernable people as most Afghans want a new system that is participatory in nature. They are rooting for a system that can provide them the basic, decent levels of health, education and justice and one that is well integrated with their cultural values and traditions. Democracy is falling short in this regard as the masses see it as a means by which a class that is not truly representative governs them, even employing violent tactics sometimes.

The United States should cease rehashing past messaging about progress in Afghanistan and take sober stock of the dangers this conflict still presents. Those dangers result from policies promoted by both Republican and Democratic administrations, and should not be fodder for partisan one-upmanship. The Obama administration should also devote a greater proportion of intelligence and information gathering to understanding the associations and motivations of Afghan military and governmental officials to allow for more nuanced partnering as the transition proceeds.

Therefore, the real task is to understand the Afghan as a people, to reach out to them and recognize their grievances to allow for the transition process to reap its benefits. As it is, Washington’s outdated vision and biases towards the Afghans have given strength to the resistance movement as thousands have adopted a radical, Talibanized view of Islam.

Bolster deficient institutions 

There is a need for the American administration to prioritize effectively. Focus needs to be placed on rigorously promoting the quality, instead of the quantity, of the ANSF and other government institutions. Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr. (supreme military commander, Afghanistan) has credited US efforts to increase in numbers. It is interesting to note that in 2008 the ratio for every members of the ANSF to the US Marines was 10 to 1 whereas now the ratio has shifted to 3 members of the Afghan forces for every member of the coalition. Where optimism can be encouraged from a growing-the-army perspective it is significant to keep in mind that strength in numbers would mean little if the structure of the institutions backing these numbers is not strong enough to withstand the repercussions of a US exit.

In an interview with The New York Times, Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., shed some light on the ‘quality issue’. He admitted to some ‘command-and-control challenges’ and the need to improve the ‘quality of leadership’. However, in order to ensure a clean exit these issues must be debated more vigorously. Challenges in this area can be overcome by the cooperation, support and tolerance of the U.S.

On Regional Stability: It is argued that the Obama administration’s current policies maintain an exclusive focus on the government and the Taliban.  Converging the focus on these actors, as the only Afghan partners would not be a wise move. Many nationals attribute the violence in the country to the restricted focus that enables mischief-makers use to use insecurity as a cover to further their personal political and economic ambitions. Many elements benefit from the conflict in the country: these include corrupt government officials, policy-makers, contractors, warlords and the Taliban.

The situation is tricky due to competing interests of regional players in the Afghan equation: Pakistan, Tajikistan, Iran, India and China, each having their own priorities. The rivalry between China and the U.S. is also another cause for concern. The U.S. is looking to create a ‘Greater Central Asia’ or a ‘New Silk Road’ connecting nearly all-potential economic zones of Asia where the ports of Karachi and Gwadar in Pakistan and Port Abbas in Iran assume key importance. It is possible that the Iran-US relations could improve as a more liberal government has been elected.

The US will have to be tactful and consistent in terms of policy towards key stakeholders i.e. Pakistan, Indian and Afghanistan itself to ensure strategic alliance and cooperation towards the shared goal of countering terrorism. As of now, in Pakistan’s case, frustration is visible vis-à-vis the deadlock over Afghan Peace Talks (Doha process) and both Washington and Islamabad are likely to figure out other ways to kick-start the reconciliation process which might even call for a transfer of the Taliban office from Qatar to start the talks fresh.