With the proposed NATO pull-out at the end of 2014, the security situation in
Afghanistan is once again under scrutiny – and with good reason. A long-term
security agreement between Washington and Kabul looks increasingly unlikely,
raising the possibility of a full NATO withdrawal that would leave Afghanistan
to stand alone without direct American or European security assistance.
This article will examine the stability prospects for Afghanistan should NATO
leave without some kind of permanent military deployment being left behind.
The Afghan Security Forces: Ready or Not?
Since taking greater responsibility for the security of their country, the
Afghan security forces have not performed well. Though they now carry out the
vast majority of military and security operations, this increase has been marked
by a spike in casualties, both for Afghan military forces and civilians caught
in the crossfire with the Taliban. Poor training is also evident in the
increasing number of beatings, lootings, and extrajudicial executions being
reported by the UNAMA.
In addition to training problems, there are also issues with recruitment and
retention. While Afghan security forces now number around 345,000 overall,
desertion and end-of-service contribute to a loss of around 30,000 troops a
year. The Afghan Air Force also has significant problems with obtaining
working replacement parts and the general availability of modern military
aircraft, both of which will represent a significant hurdle to future military
operations. As it stands right now, the air force would be limited to a
peripheral support role should NATO pull its air assets out of the country.
Even given these apparent limitations, there are questions of how such a large
military will be paid for. Afghanistan’s annual budget is around $1.7
billion, but the amount needed to maintain existing personnel levels is around
$4 billion annually. At the moment, this shortfall is being paid for by the
United States, but it is not clear how Washington would continue its substantial
support without a security agreement in place - especially given the corruption
issues that have hounded the Afghan government. As such, the US military
estimates that the Afghan government will only be able to pay 12% of its troops
unless new sources of outside funding are found.
It is also worth noting the ethnic character of the Afghan military. A
large majority of its troops and, in particular, its officer corps are of Tajik
origin from the north of the country. This stands in stark contrast to the
almost entirely Pashtun Taliban. Given the nature of Afghan politics, with
its strong ethnic component, this is a worrying development, as it frames the
conflict with the Taliban in ethnic terms and in doing so contributes to a lack
of Pashtun recruits that hinders the growth of a representative national
Militants are rehabilitated into the political process
One possible outcome to a complete withdrawal is that the door may open for
bringing militant groups like Hezb-i-Islami and more moderate elements of the
Taliban into the government, assuming a round of successful negotiations take
place. This appears to be Karzai’s current strategy, given his talks with
the Taliban and stalling on a security agreement with the United States.
Such an approach would have several benefits, such as weakening the insurgency
in the south and perhaps even convincing Pakistan that its interests in the
country will be given sufficient attention (Pakistan’s support for the Taliban
can be linked in part to regional strategic concerns).
However, such an outcome is not without risks – not least that hardline
anti-Taliban elements in the country, along with the military, would find such a
deal unpalatable. The Tajik-dominated army already looks upon Karzai with
suspicion due to his Pashtun background and attempted mediation with the
Taliban. With potentially large cuts in military spending looming, one
source of instability could be Afghanistan’s own outsized security forces,
should they perceive the government is acting against the national interest.
Large sections of the Afghan population completely reject the Taliban as a
political actor, and thus the path to political rehabilitation is definitely not
without its risks.
Deployment or not; the insurgency rages on
The more likely outcome is that, even if some insurgents can be convinced to lay
down their arms, violence in the south will continue. This is especially
true if a security agreement allows for foreign troops to remain in the country.
The best guide here may be the history of the Taliban through the 1990s.
Utilizing the weakness of the border and large numbers of students attending
militant religious schools in Pakistan, the Taliban were able stage raids across
the south and west of the country, eventually consolidating control over various
towns and villages.
In particular, Kandahar and the surrounding provinces of Helmand and Uruzgan are
at risk. Kandahar is the traditional homeland of the Taliban movement, and
it is here where it is strongest. Kandahar’s shared border with Pakistan
allows Taliban forces to move troops and supplies across the border – a
technique that has served them well in the past, and would be very easy to
accomplish if, as some suspect, the Taliban are still receiving help from the
ISI in Pakistan.
Eventually, Taliban forces would attempt to take Kabul, though not before
establishing a secure power base in the southwest. While the Taliban have
been able to carry out numerous terrorist attacks in the region, conventional
warfare would pose a much greater logistical challenge, and the Afghan
government would certainly use every resource available to hold the capital.
Opium: The criminal ‘x-factor’
Behind the scenes of the fight between well-known actors such as the Taliban and
Kabul, there is another factor worth considering: the drug trade. Afghanistan is
one of the world’s largest sources of opium for heroin production, most of which
passes through Pakistan before finding its way to the rest of the world.
All sides in Afghanistan are involved in the drug trade to fund their
activities, and with an increase in violence likely in the near future, they
will only become more dependent on this critical source of income.
While the outlook for Afghanistan is currently bleak, there are still signs for
cautious optimism. The possibility of a complete US withdrawal has India,
Russia, and China all discussing what kind of aid they would be willing to
provide to Afghanistan. While putting troops on the ground seems very
unlikely (and, in the case of Indian troops, needlessly provocative), these
countries are in a position to provide funding, arms, and parts which could
improve the strategic standing of the Afghan security forces.
The other major factor determining Afghanistan’s future will be the country’s
upcoming presidential election. This will be the first election where
Hamid Karzai is ineligible to run, and while he will no doubt remain an
influential figure behind the scenes, the uncertainty as to who will succeed him
and their approach to Afghanistan’s many problems will have a major impact on
the course of the country in the crucial months to come.
Marc Simms is a contributor to Geopoliticalmonitor.com