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August 12th, 2015

Afghan attacks show country at crossroads

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Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Editor

August 12th, 2015

Afghan attacks show country at crossroads

1 comment

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Andrew-HammondThe attacks in Kabul over the weekend highlight that Ghani’s administration faces a daunting array of security, political and economic risks on the horizon. Taliban casualties are now at the highest since 2001 so the first priority is to bolster domestic security, writes Andrew Hammond.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has ramped up security in Kabul following the most deadly wave of attacks, in years, on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. The Taliban offensive, which killed more than 40 people, including a Nato soldier, and injured more than 300, has prompted Ghani to convene emergency meetings of the Afghan National Security Council.

The attacks, which came around a week after the apparent confirmation of the death of Taliban leader Mullah Omar, may well have been triggered by infighting with the terrorist group following disagreements over the anointment of new leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour, and anger over the apparent cover-up of Omar’s death some two years ago.

There has been infighting within the Taliban in recent days between supporters and opponents of Mansour, and the upsurge in violence in Kabul could reflect this succession struggle.

Such infighting threatens not only further violence, but also the possibility that the fragile peace process, that was suspended last week by the Taliban after the announcement of Omar’s death, could derail completely. Ghani maintains his government remains committed to peace but it “will respond to these sort of terrorist attacks with force and power”.

In this context, the next few weeks could represent the biggest test yet for the Afghan government of national unity which was formed last year when a landmark power-sharing agreement was reached between Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, the former foreign minister. This followed a disputed presidential ballot between Ghani and Abdullah when up to a million votes were thrown out for fraud.

The creation of the national unity government, and the election of Ghani, represents the first democratic transfer of power in the country’s history and also the end of the post-9/11 Hamid Karzai era. This has consolidated the power and legitimacy of the new government which could help preserve some of the fragile gains secured in Afghanistan since 2001.

However, as last weekend’s attacks underline, the country faces a daunting array of security, political, and economic risks on the horizon. And the number one item on the agenda is bolstering domestic security.

To this end, a security deal was agreed last year with Nato that has seen a remaining international force of about 13,000 US and Nato personnel forces stationed primarily for training purposes (almost 11,000 of them from the US). This continuing international presence will also help ensure extensive funding and training for the approximately 350,000-strong Afghan police and military forces (which now take day-to-day responsibility for security in the country) which may otherwise disintegrate.

Fears have already been raised, including by US Senator John McCain, that the reduced foreign force in Afghanistan (less than a 12th of the 140,000-strong combat force it was in 2011), leaves the country vulnerable to an upsurge in Taliban violence. McCain, who is Chairman of the US Senate Armed Services Committee, asserts that a significantly larger international force is needed to help repel the Taliban, and has warned that Afghanistan risks becoming destabilised in what he called the “same movie” we have seen in Iraq.

According to a report released on August 5 by the UN, there has been a major spike in civilian casualties which are now at the highest since the Taliban regime was toppled in 2001. During the first six months of 2015, almost 5,000 civilians were killed or wounded, double the amount compared to the same period in 2014, according to the UN.

As the report highlights, this surge has been driven by an almost 80 per cent increase in Taliban suicide and complex attacks, akin to the ones that rocked Kabul at the weekend. In this context, it is also separately reported that more than 5,000 Afghan force members could be killed in action in 2015, a figure that is the highest ever.

And the warfare is also widening geographically. Since the spring, for instance, the Taliban have maintained an offensive in north Afghanistan, targeting especially Kunduz province.

Hence, the reason why another key priority of Ghani’s government has been advancing reconciliation in the country with the Taliban. The president has recognised that Pakistan’s influence could be key in facilitating any eventual peace deal and is pushing for the country’s cooperation.

Right now, however, the initiative primarily rests with Mansour who (should he remain Taliban leader) faces a tough tight rope to walk by either steering the terrorist group through the controversial peace talks, or returning to all-out warfare. He is seen in some circles as a relative moderate and proponent of peace talks with the Afghan government, but it remains unclear if this will be borne out in practice as Taliban leader.

Not least because he must now try to hold the Taliban together, amidst the current tensions, and enhance its appeal at a time when Daesh (the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant), which revels in its ruthless reputation, is seeking to win away potential recruits.

Turning to the economic front, Ghani also faces a very difficult challenge. After 2001, the economy became steadily more dependent on foreign aid.

However, such aid has been cut back. In part, this is because previously significantly larger US and Nato forces provided a security umbrella under which some of the aid agencies operated after 2001.

Another key problem is that there has been only very limited success in economic diversification since 2001. The danger is that, as aid is reduced, the economy becomes increasingly dependent upon drug exports such as opium and heroin.

Taken overall, the government could face its toughest test yet in coming weeks if violence increases, and peace talks derail. With the country at a potential crossroads, there is a prospect of significantly greater political, security and economic instability if the reconciliation process cannot be advanced with the Taliban.

This article originally appeared 10 August 2015 on Gulf News. It is reposted with the author’s permission.

Cover image credit: flickr/isafmedia

Note:  This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the South Asia @ LSE blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please read our comments policy before posting. 

About the Author

Andrew-HammondAndrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS (the Centre for International Affairs, Diplomacy and Strategy) at the London School of Economics, and was formerly a UK Government Special Adviser.

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