Afghanistan at an Inflection Point

Afghanistan’s unity government has made progress on reform but remains dogged by endemic corruption and a resilient insurgency.

September 22, 2016

Interview
To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

Afghanistan’s unity government has stalled on pledged reforms two years after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry brokered a power-sharing arrangement to stave off violence after a disputed election. Meanwhile, Afghan and U.S. strategy is at sea amid a resilient insurgency, says Christopher D. Kolenda, a former Pentagon senior advisor. With weak or predatory governance in the provinces, Afghan forces have not been able to consolidate military gains, Kolenda says, while U.S. policy “is not bringing conditions any closer to a political settlement, it’s not leading to the defeat of the Taliban, and it’s not getting any greater regional cooperation.” A looming fiscal crisis, too, threatens the government, but still Kolenda sees cause for optimism in recent moves toward reform and the rise of a younger, well-educated generation.

Afghan police on patrol in Kabul
An Afghan policeman keeps guard near the site of a truck bomb attack in Kabul. (Mohammad Ismail/Reuters)

The approaching two-year anniversary of the national unity government has been marked by the public airing of tensions between President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah. How unified is the government?

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There are three major tensions within the national unity government. The first is a debate over the organization of the Afghan state: some favor a presidential system, others a parliamentary system with more authorities delegated to subnational levels. Second, there’s the tension between those who want to dismantle the kleptocracy and those who want to perpetuate it. Third, there is the tension between those who want to engage in peaceful compromise and those who’ll resort to political violence. Some well-armed and powerful warlords tend to threaten or to follow through with threats of violence.

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The 2014 deal was brokered by the U.S. with the backdrop of threats of political violence and lacked sufficient Afghan ownership. Requirements such as electoral reform, parliamentary elections, district council elections, and a loya jirga [analogous to a constitutional convention] to codify the chief executive’s position were probably unrealistic given the gridlock.

We’ve recently seen some positive signs. Many Afghan officials and military leaders are committed to the success of their country, but their efforts tend to get drowned out by corruption and warlordism. Afghans need to address these challenges, and the U.S. should resist the urge to parachute in.

This summer there were reports of major Taliban gains in the south and attacks in Kabul, which have caused high levels of civilian casualties. How are the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) faring?

Where the ANDSF are well led, they perform well and win firefights. The Taliban has not yet been able to take control of any major cities, although several remain under threat. But the Afghan government seems unable or unwilling to win the battle of legitimacy in contested or Taliban-controlled areas, and the Taliban now controls more territory than it has at any time since 2001.

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The ANDSF was supposed to be facing a residual insurgency by 2014, but that did not happen, and the ANDSF is not pursuing a strategy to defeat an industrial-scale insurgency. When the army does so-called clearance operations to take over areas from the Taliban, it doesn’t make those gains durable. Officials in those areas are often predatory or incapable, so the Taliban comes back as soon as the army has returned to its bases.

A recent report from the U.S. government watchdog for Afghan reconstruction says that U.S. funds have fed the insurgency, largely by creating opportunities for corruption and therefore grievances against the government. How do you reform a system in which so many are corrupt?

“Corruption” is a one-size-fits-all term that masks the nature of the problem. Petty theft, for instance, is a minor irritant and a low-level national security risk. Graft by political elites is more significant, but with political will, you can deal with it. Systemic corruption within specific sectors, such as defense or mining, is tougher still, but not fatal.

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“Many Afghan officials and military leaders are committed to the success of their country, but their efforts tend to get drowned out by corruption and warlordism.”

Kleptocracy, in which the government is self-organized for official enrichment, is fatal. That is the way the Afghan government evolved over time. Both President Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah are committed to decreasing and eventually dismantling this kleptocracy, but they’ve been blocked by powerful elites. At the same time, the United States and the international community have largely failed to enforce conditionality or mutual accountability that would help deal with these spoilers.

At some point donor fatigue will set in. Huge decrements in donor funding run the risk of a fiscal crisis creating a political crisis in which the Afghan government unravels and collapses because it can’t pay for itself.

The security transition has brought about an economic contraction. What does it mean for the kleptocratic state when the pot of potentially ill-gotten gains is getting so much smaller?

Afghans perceive that corruption is getting worse. That could be read one of two ways: either it is becoming a larger problem, or it’s becoming more visible and aggressive. It’s probably more the latter, because there have been efforts by the government to deal with corruption. Recently eight generals were arraigned on corruption charges. The government has taken some action against some of those responsible for Kabul Bank. Significant reforms are taking place within the Ministry of Finance, and, for the first time, Afghanistan met IMF targets for revenue collection. Continued reforms there have the potential to begin restoring donor confidence, but these efforts are not yet systemic enough to alter the perverse incentives that keep the kleptocracy moving forward.

Is progress being made on a political settlement between the Afghan government and the Taliban, the United States’ stated endgame?

I don’t think there’s going to be any progress while the United States reduces levels of support every year. That hasn’t helped create the conditions for a peace process to move forward. The Taliban perceives that its leverage will improve as the international forces dwindle. The Afghan government continues to believe that the United States can and will force Pakistan to force the Afghan Taliban to reconcile. Pakistan wants everybody to believe that it controls the Taliban, but it doesn’t.

“The Taliban now controls more territory than it has had at any time since 2001.”

Durable support within Afghanistan and sanctuary in Pakistan enable the Taliban to continue the insurgency indefinitely, and it recognizes and also resents its dependence on Pakistan. To avoid being seen as its puppet, it established an office in Doha for international outreach and discussions about a diplomatic resolution to the conflict. The United States and Afghanistan have demanded that Pakistan deliver the Taliban to the negotiating table. Their demands for negotiations while ignoring the political office come across as insincere to the Taliban.

Pakistan is threatening more than one million Afghan refugees with expulsion. Why is it seeking to leverage them now?

It’s a perennial threat. Pakistan believes that Afghanistan colludes with India to destabilize Pakistan, and Pakistan has kept millions of Afghan refugees on its soil with little perceived recognition and appreciation.

Afghanistan has the world’s second-largest refugee population; it was recently eclipsed by Syria. The main reason is that Afghanistan has been at war for nearly forty years. Afghanistan also has a huge internally displaced population challenge. Kabul has swelled to more than four million people. The unemployment rate is around 40 percent. It’s a major potential humanitarian crisis that hasn’t been adequately addressed.

“Huge decrements in donor funding run the risk of a fiscal crisis creating a political crisis in which the Afghan government unravels.”

But on the other hand, there’s been a boom in education. When the Taliban was in control, maybe eight hundred thousand kids were in school, nearly all of them boys. Today, by some estimates, more than eight million are in school, a third of them girls. Many have gone on to great universities. These twenty-somethings and early-thirty-somethings want their government and the economy to work, and as they come into positions of authority, the country will have a bright future.

Reversing his plans for a drawdown, President Obama in July said that 8,400 U.S. troops would remain through the end of his term, and they’ll be permitted to combat the Taliban, rather than just back up Afghan forces. What choices is he leaving to his successor?

The current policy is not bringing conditions any closer to a political settlement, it’s not leading to the defeat of the Taliban, and it’s not getting any greater regional cooperation. The new administration will need to consider a few broad policy options:

The first is to disengage. The new administration could say, we’re not seeing the kind of political reforms that are necessary, and Afghanistan shouldn’t rank higher than our other allies in terms of levels of support we give.

“We have more troops in Afghanistan than in any other combat zone and spend up to $6 billion a year in aid to the security forces plus additional donor support, yet there’s been no mention of Afghanistan by either candidate.”

A second is to stabilize the international presence, the U.S. presence in particular, for an enduring period of time, as long as the Afghan government wants it. Part of that is to ask, is 8,400 the right number? We know that with 9,800 troops, plus what our NATO allies were contributing, an entire [Afghan] corps in Helmand province was uncovered by any [international] advisors and suffered so badly in the fighting that it had to be reconstituted over the winter. Part of that would be a renewed effort to work toward a deliberate peace process.

Another is the blank check—the Korea model—in which you commit to staying there forever, with no intention of working toward a political settlement.

We have more troops in Afghanistan than in any other combat zone and spend up to $6 billion a year in aid to the security forces plus additional donor support, yet there’s been no mention of Afghanistan by either candidate. Nor does anybody seem to be forcing that discussion. It’s the forgotten war that nobody wants to mention.

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

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