Foreign Policy Essay

Sorry, Folks: Things Are Not Actually Going So Great in Afghanistan

By Gary Owen
Sunday, August 9, 2015, 10:16 AM

Editor’s Note: A few weeks ago, we ran a provocative piece by Stephen Watts and Sean Mann in which they argued that in both its politics and in its development, Afghanistan is doing better than is commonly believed. Gary Owen, a civilian development worker who has spent the last several years working on the ground in Afghanistan, begs to differ. He paints a far gloomier picture of Afghanistan, arguing that the country and U.S. policy have a long way to go.

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Many Americans are surprisingly bullish on Afghanistan, and this perspective showed up in a July Lawfare post on “Afghanistan After the Drawdown” by RAND analysts Stephen Watts and Sean Mann. Although the two authors offer some valid points, they miss many of the country’s problems and, in so doing, are wrongly optimistic about where Afghanistan is going.

After a decade and more of U.S. intervention, it can be difficult to pin down how things are going in Afghanistan. By some measures, things in Afghanistan are better: There are more children in school than there were under the Taliban, more Afghans have access to basic healthcare than before the 2001 invasion, and Internet access means more connections to the outside world than was ever possible during the time of the black turbans. Watts and Mann cite those cases as reasons to be optimistic about the country, and rightly so. Where they go wrong is in three key areas: relations with Pakistan, the current government as a symbol of Afghan unity, and the abilities of Afghan security forces.

One of the first things newly-elected President Ashraf Ghani did after taking office was beat a path to Islamabad. Unlike his predecessor, Ghani felt that making nice with Afghanistan’s closest neighbor made more sense than reaching out to the Indians in New Delhi. For their part, the Pakistanis are more than passingly concerned with the state of security across their border, something Watts and Mann address, stating that “Pakistani officials worry that Afghanistan will increasingly be used as a sanctuary for militants fighting the Pakistani state.”

Pakistan’s got plenty to worry about when it comes to sanctuaries within its own borders, a grim point made by last year’s school shooting in Peshawar. And recent revelations that Mullah Omar died in Pakistan, and his whereabouts were known to the ISI for years, don’t paint a picture of Afghanistan being used as a base to launch operations against Pakistan. Instead it speaks to Pakistan’s harboring of the Taliban with the government’s knowledge, something Islamabad is scrambling to correct as they look ahead to peace talks with the Taliban.

While Islamabad grapples with its Taliban problem, Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah are trying to make the National Unity Government (NUG) work. The NUG was hammered out after a contentious election appeared to leave the two deadlocked, and Watts and Mann refer to this as “a premier example of Afghan politicians reaching across ethnic and factional divides to achieve consensus.”

Or it’s just a case of Afghanistan following the American lead.

In the fall of 2014, after another runoff election threatened to bring the country’s democratic future to a grinding halt, Secretary of State John Kerry addressed a group made up of Abdullah’s leadership team. According to an administration official, Kerry told the group, “I have to emphasize to you that if you do not have an agreement, if you do not move to a unity government, the United States will not be able to support Afghanistan.” Aimed squarely at those who supported Abdullah to the point that they might take up arms in his name, Kerry’s statement was an offer neither Ghani nor Abdullah could possibly refuse. The current government isn’t a triumph of consensus so much as it is a case study in diplomatic extortion, and its survival is doubtful if the Americans stick with the current timeline for complete withdrawal by the end of 2016.

The current government isn’t a triumph of consensus so much as it is a case study in diplomatic extortion, and its survival is doubtful if the Americans stick with the current timeline for complete withdrawal by the end of 2016.

Thanks to advances by the Taliban in Faryab and Kunduz, influential politicians like Rashid Dostum (currently Ghani’s vice president) and Atta Noor (the powerful governor of Balkh province) have been pretty vocal in their thinking that Afghan forces alone can’t get the job done; that to tip the balance means more troops from somewhere—either the Americans (not out of the question completely, but unlikely), or some kind of militia. Since today’s anti-Taliban militia could be tomorrow’s coup attempt, it lays some troubling groundwork for widening existing divides in the country that the United States had hoped the Ghani/Abdullah deal would help bridge. Unless they can manage to bring the security situation that’s deteriorating faster than Iggy Azalea’s career back under control, Afghan troops could have some new bosses very soon. Their current performance doesn’t inspire much hope.

Watts and Mann state that “no one is certain how the ANSF will perform as the U.S. and international drawdown proceeds” and argue that the forces are “passably capable” and “resilient.”

Actually, it’s pretty clear how those forces will perform. In a word? Badly.   

Since the Afghans assumed control of the country’s security in 2014, more civilians have been killed, more soldiers have died, more Afghan troops have deserted than ever before, and security forces are still torturing one-third of their detainees. This is the force Watts and Mann describe as “passably capable” and “resilient.” If by “passably capable” they mean “doesn’t torture too many people,” then sure, I suppose they are “passably capable,” but I think we might want to aim just a bit higher.  

According to the Americans, civilian casualties as a result of ground engagements between the Afghans and insurgents were up eight percent for the first three months of 2015 when compared to the same period in 2014. In June, Afghan Chief of Army Staff Gen. Qadam Shah Shaheem told his troops that using artillery and conducting night raids against the insurgents was just fine, and no one would be prosecuted as a result. Since most engagements occur among the population when one is countering an insurgency, this change in the rules of engagement means more innocent civilians are going to die as the result of actions by Afghan security forces. That’s borne out by the latest report on civilian casualties from UNAMA, which found that throughout the first half of 2015, Afghan forces caused more civilian casualties than the Taliban did.

And when they’re not busy leveling villages, Afghan forces are dying in record numbers. Throughout the first five months of 2015, security forces casualties were up 70 percent from the same period in 2014. Some of that’s attributable to increasing activity by the insurgents, but a “capable” force doesn’t see that kind of casualty increase unless its capabilities are less than optimal. Even so, the biggest cause of attrition for Afghan troops isn’t being killed in action (KIA). According to a June report by the Americans to Congress, the largest source for attrition is “dropped from rolls” (wherein a soldier stops showing up for work for more than a month so he’s no longer counted), and KIA is the smallest source for Afghan force attrition.

But when they do manage to not die and to show up for work, Afghan forces like to spend some quality time with their detainees. A February report by the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) found that while torture is on the decrease, around 35 percent of all detainees surveyed reported being tortured in detention. Much of that alleged torture was at the hands of the National Directorate of Security (NDS), which is similar to the FBI, except that the FBI has better windbreakers and isn’t prone to hooking people up to car batteries unnecessarily. That probably explains why the Americans made it clear in June that no U.S. funds were going to the NDS, even though nearly every other aspect of Afghan defense operations comes directly from American coffers and internal defense is vital for the success of the counterinsurgency.

In an alternate-reality Afghanistan, civilians aren’t dying in greater numbers, the government isn’t on the verge of collapse, and the return on foreign investment is staggering. The Afghans would love it—because that’s the country the Americans promised them.

An American solution to Afghanistan’s problems faces the struggles of a dwindling security force to keep the Taliban at bay as they strike from sanctuaries in Pakistan, a government on the verge of collapse, and large numbers of civilians being victimized by their own government. And that’s without the growing threat of the Islamic State. In an alternate-reality Afghanistan, civilians aren’t dying in greater numbers, the government isn’t on the verge of collapse, and the return on foreign investment is staggering. The Afghans would love it—because that’s the country the Americans promised them.

The reality is that that Afghanistan’s future, while grim, is still better than it was. There is cause for cautious optimism. That does not mean that we shouldn’t be painfully honest about what’s happening in Afghanistan. Given the sacrifices made since 9/11, it’s tempting to do otherwise. But doing so means ignoring challenges the country faces, and the decisions about its future the Americans still need to make.