James Flint | Revisiting AfghanistanBy Jelena Loncar on 31 May 2016
Revisiting Afghanistan: An Interminable Search for Political Stability
Author: James Flint (Plymouth University)
This short-article builds upon a prior piece on Afghanistan’s 2014 presidential elections, which placed the poll within Afghanistan’s broader historical context (1). Published contemporaneously, this prior paper couldn’t examine the poll’s results. However, it found that Afghanistan’s unique socio-political heritage and historical power-structures demanded that a distinctly Afghan mode of democracy be pursued within the broader state-building efforts. That is to say that the ‘flavour’ of institutionalised democratic polyarchy promoted (2) was more important than the winning presidential candidate. Although, ultimately it transpired that the end result was somewhat inconclusive and uninspiring; there was no singular candidate with a clear political mandate to govern. Rather, through an ad-hoc, non-transparent, and thus undemocratic process of mediation Ashraf Ghani came to be declared President and Abdullah Abdullah the ‘chief executive’ with a clear seat at the table despite their not being habitual allies.
This article forwards that this vacillation in Kabul is matched by an equally significant failure to propagate popular perceptions of a fair and inclusive political settlement at the grassroots of Afghan civil-society and decentralised power-structures. As a result, Afghanistan’s political landscape remains highly-charged and contested – whereas for Afghanistan to operate as a state it traditionally requires careful balancing of power between the elites hemmed-in in Kabul and the distant provinces (3). Here, the failure of adequate political stabilisation opens space to ‘shadow’ competition. Afghan citizenry requires a superior deal, moving with the grain of local values, in comparison to what the insurgents can offer. But, those tribal confederations identifying themselves as marginalised continue to risk polarisation into opposition; the only likely solution being in mutual shura consultation, amongst all political actors, upon fairer settlements from the local-level upwards.
The ‘National Unity Government’
The 2014 presidential election was broadly superior to the horrendously corrupt election of 2009, which saw Karzai re-elected. However, the poll was only one component of the broader democratisation and state-building efforts, and its significance has been undermined through there being no clear victor and transferal of legitimate political authority; Kabul remains somewhat divided. More significantly, the resultant ‘National Unity Government’ (NUG) in nomenclature is an obvious misnomer (there being only limited existential national unity), leaving this ‘legitimate’ system to offer fallacies which the insurgent’s ‘shadow’ alternative can capitalise upon.
The importance of Afghan-led processes (or ‘Afghan-good’ standards) struggle as a result of a divided executive polity, whereas the failure of the Islamic Republic’s NUG to propagate the perception of a fair and inclusive settlement amongst all of Afghanistan’s factional peoples is comparable to the prior (2001) Bonn Agreement’s foremost failure of inclusion, which contributed to the latter Neo-Taliban insurgency. Indeed, post-2014 the NUG’s failing to facilitate for political stability – a failure to link local rural peoples to local-level governance and a lack of an atmosphere of inclusive and fair settlement – perpetuates instability by preventing worthwhile institutional (or economic) development.
Sub-national governance in Afghanistan is pivotal to the Islamic Republic’s need to achieve existential sovereignty (4); entailing cross-group settlements within merit based (and accountable) institutional development. Afghanistan will never be a ‘Jeffersonian democracy’ – and in any case this wouldn’t be an idyllic scenario for the Afghans. It is now popularly and rightfully considered to be a fallacy to intervene to force your own democratic world-view upon a foreign people (5). But, nonetheless it remains clear that the Islamic Republic’s mode of modernity is struggling to find popularity or acceptance amongst all of Afghanistan’s peoples.
Democratisation efforts have resulted in façade democracy operating as a veneer over traditional power-structures and patronage networks. Here it is significant that the corruption of public services was never sufficiently suppressed. Corruption is so rife that despite significant US-led Security-Sector Reform (SSR), the Afghan National Defence and Security Forces (ANDSF) even struggle to provide basic necessities such as suitable boots to its servicemen. The game is one of patronage and inequalities – which elite gets to sit at the table – not one of a level playing field. Therefore, any sense of nationhood must suffer. However, the NUG now has only limited political capital and capacity; it needs to be strategic in tackling tenacious problems like entrenched corruption.
In the face of no clear victor, the NUG was an exceptional event for Afghanistan. Notably, the recognised camps of Ghani and Abdullah didn’t openly take up arms against each other – but then Afghanistan never really escaped civil-conflict. Considering the lack of democratic or economic progress, and the failure to stifle corruption, it is likely that the NUG’s agency will only decline without a generous foreign sponsor. But it should be noted that badly spent aid risks exacerbating corruption, and can fuel underlying causes of insurgency, rather than tackle them. Presently the Islamic Republic’s elites (and aid recipients of this recent period) are perhaps now more interested in entrenching their own power-base, at the expense of the state.
The NUG needs to operate more as though a ‘unified’ actor if it is going to avoid total failure and function stably despite factional and competing interests. It is an established norm of politics that governments of ‘national unity’ have at best a limited life expectancy given the frequent fragility of their founding union. Formal power-sharing arrangements in such cases may be of less importance than ‘back room’ talks and insidious ‘shadow’ influences.
The Security Landscape
A prominent RAND Corporation study forwards that as a counter-insurgency campaign, Afghanistan sits within the realms of historical victories, with factors such as the rise of Islamic State (IS) potentially even pushing Kabul and Islamabad towards greater cooperation – but concerns are also highlighted, such as with the ANDSF’s lacklustre military capacity in comparison to NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) (7). President Ghani has claimed (unsurprisingly, and likely more in hope than belief) that morale and recruitment within the ANDSF are high, but even were this to be true, recruitment isn’t the same as retention, and morale whilst important doesn’t alone directly equate to capability.
Subordinate to the NUG, the ANDSF are in reality fraught. The Army (ANA) in particular, while historically less corrupt than the Police (ANP), has struggled post-withdrawal of ISAF and its embedded mentorship. The ANA has become less mobile than the insurgents, lacks leadership, lacks retention (and recruitment), lacks equipment maintenance and is poorly administrated – ultimately the insurgents hold the initiative (8). However, frankly, this was always going to happen, as the long history of British decolonisation during the Cold War period demonstrated – you can’t build an independent army in a rush. Indeed, since the NUG’s inauguration, provinces such as Nangarhar and Helmand are floundering amidst political-disorder, narcotics and insurgency. With the Taliban’s 2016 ‘spring offensive’ now well underway, the gravitas of the deteriorating security situation over-shadows the NUG’s domestic political toils.
With reference to the UK’s past contributions in Helmand province, the ISAF counter-insurgency efforts in Afghanistan by 2011 (and operation Herrick 14) were almost unrecognisable from 2008-2009 (Herrick 8/9) and prior, and significantly evolved by 2014 (Herrick 20). This is evident within contemporary institutional discourse, and was the fruit of ideas (and subsequently doctrine) on conflict, reconstruction and state-building progressing through the ‘comprehensive approach’ towards an ‘integrated approach to stabilisation’ (6). Afghan communities began to align with local governance and fair settlements decided upon. The people’s perception of security improved drastically, as communities became co-opted into the Islamic Republic. However, the premature withdrawal of ISAF de-railed this, the pre-arranged exit in 2014 gifting strategic initiative to the insurgents.
Furthermore, ‘Security’ isn’t just about military capacity. In the face of a recent and symbolic Taliban Suicide-IED attack on Kabul security forces (and civilians), with over 400 dead and wounded, the Kabul Ambulance Service became utterly overwhelmed, dispatching all of its meagre 15 ambulances. Public services in Afghanistan (in addition to the ANDSF) are at the brink of failure, with the embedded corruption doubtless exacerbating this. As a result, it is hard to fathom how the Afghan people can feel much personal/human security.
The deadly Taliban attacks within the cities are a result of the growing influence of the Haqqani network within the otherwise Taliban-led insurgency; the network’s leader, Sirajuddin Haqqani, becoming the Taliban’s second-in-command. In this role Sirajuddin Haqqani has become responsible for much of the Taliban’s aggression, resourcing and shadow governance. Such influence will also doubtless only continue to grow after Mullah Mansour’s death – a death which is unlikely to bring any real or substantive advantage to the Islamic Republic, the NUG, or the West (9).
Pentagon and Islamic Republic representatives have also reported that a rapprochement between a resurgent Al Qaeda and Taliban leadership has seen the two groups operating more closely once again in Afghanistan. Whereas, IS propaganda and subversion operations (such as radio broadcasts) are on the increase in Afghanistan and Pakistan, showing an unnerving degree of organised campaigning. Then, within tiers beneath these prominent terrorist organisations also operates a mass of illicit narcotics, organised crime, petty criminality and opportunism.
Despite significant efforts, the sum of the international community’s engagement and assistance to Afghanistan has during the past been incoherent (10). Now, ISAF has been supplanted by the more limited ‘Resolute Support’ mission, which shall continue beyond 2016 in one form or another. The UK continues to provide financial assistance to the ANDSF (amounting to the tune of £70 million a year through to 2020), and elements of military, diplomatic and intelligence assistance, but policy-makers are increasingly constrained by domestic factors. Meanwhile, US assistance (beyond finance) is delivered principally through an insatiable appetite for drone-strikes.
The West’s ‘Resolute Support’ mission continuing is both promising and worrisome. On the one hand, the West isn’t completely abandoning an erstwhile ally, but the West is also acknowledging that far more still needs to be done. As Farrell and Semple succinctly noted in 2015, when the Islamic Republic couldn’t fully vanquish the Taliban with all of ISAF’s support, the ANDSF in isolation have no chance of achieving such a victory alone.
For the state-sovereignty ‘gap’ in Afghanistan to be bridged at the level of sub-national governance, it is necessary for both internal and external (foreign) actors to better align their intentions and associated assistance. However, vested interests hinder this – the various stakeholders holding varying agendas. Furthermore, inside Afghanistan’s borders it is far from clear where real political-power lies. The Islamic Republic is arguably on a losing trajectory, and the NUG has to accept assistance wherever it may find it.
It is unlikely that regional powers will fill the power-vacuum left by the West’s withdrawal, but China, India, Pakistan (and Iran among others) do remain stakeholders in the Afghanistan conflict – for better and for worse. At its very worst this entails a simmering India-Pakistan proxy war within Afghanistan. More positively for the NUG, China has its own violent extremism problem in its western provinces, and is seeking closer security ties with Afghanistan. However, different states still hold different interests, and certainly there is significant contention between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan and India. Afghanistan thus remains locked into others’ ‘great games’.
Pakistan, with the north-west frontier being a long-term haven for insurgents, is especially troublesome. Pakistani agencies have been suspected of abetting the Haqqani network, with its growing influence within the Taliban-led insurgency. To some elites in Pakistan, an Afghanistan dominated by the Taliban and Haqqani network may well seem preferential to the Ghani/Abdullah NUG. Aggravating this, and despite possessing only limited military capacity and indeed limited influence outside of its cities whilst confronting insurgency, the NUG still manages to find dispute with its neighbours. Examples include the recent instance of border-fencing with Pakistan, and the associated undocumented Afghan migration into Pakistan.
Furthermore, President Ghani has recently signed a deal for a transport corridor with Iran and India which will both bypass and antagonise Pakistan, and which the insurgents will doubtless tax. Quarrels with Pakistan, however small, undermine what Farrell and Semple in 2015 identified as Ghani’s gambit to placate the Pakistani military establishment, and those other Pakistani agencies engaged in actively subverting Afghanistan, thus ending Pakistan’s escalating proxy war with India in addition to ending their support of insurgency in Afghanistan.
In contrast, IS’s presence in Afghanistan may actually be rather more useful for President Ghani, their potentially helping to garner foreign support; Ghani’s attempting to link IS in Afghanistan to the greater anti-IS context. However, there is little reason to think the Taliban will be as meek as the Iraqi Army where it comes to containing IS, especially with potential support from elements within Pakistan.
Conclusion: An Interminable Search for Political Stability
Many lessons have been identified throughout the course of interventionism into Afghanistan, with some perhaps being learned, or institutionalised into practice. However, when praxis was at its strongest, with skills honed, the West largely withdrew and Afghanistan was left half-transformed into an unsustainable political no-man’s-land. Foreigners to Afghanistan have only entrenched their image as a fickle friend of the Afghan. Whereas real political-power in Afghanistan was once held by the West through NATO’s ISAF, on withdrawal the NUG has failed to adequately fill the vacuum. This is not surprising, but it is a great indignity that the West should all but abandon the Islamic Republic to its present untenable position after identifying the lessons as to how to more effectively bolster political stabilisation.
Whereas Afghanistan’s 2014 presidential election was better administrated and less corrupt than that of 2009, its end result was uninspiring. Open violence between the recognised competitors was avoided, but the lack of transparency with regard to the mediation which led to the NUG was a backwards step for democratisation. Furthermore, the resultant government sitting in Kabul is at best vacillated. The NUG is a misnomer through its failure to genuinely represent or unite all of Afghanistan’s factional peoples. However, more importantly, the continued opposition and insurgency only demonstrates how in the rural provinces there has been a failure to propagate popular perception of a fair and inclusive political settlement; those identifying as marginalised continue to operate amidst shadow governance and armed opposition.
As it now stands as of 2016, neither side can win through force of arms alone, corruption of public services remains rife, and the political landscape is stagnating. Afghanistan is in dire need of greater (in quantity and quality) aid interventionism, but the West’s continuing ‘Resolute Support’ mission is relatively meek and regional powers hold vested interests which risk escalating into a more significant proxy war.
A distinct and stable Afghan mode of democracy within an Islamic Republic now seems perhaps less likely to reach fruition than ever before in the last decade. The NUG offers more of a political plateau than scope for progress and stability. It is hemmed-in and secured by a very thin line of ANDSF, which is effectively at a stalemate with the Taliban-led insurgency. Unless the NUG somehow regains the initiative through concerted and unified effort (and indeed foreign aid interventionism) Afghanistan will doubtless fall towards political anarchy and disarray sooner or later.
(1) Flint, J. (2014) ‘Afghanistan’s 2014 Presidential Election: Assisting Democratisation’, Ethnopolitics Papers, Vol. 4, No. 28
(2) Dahl, R. (1972) Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition, Yale University Press: New Haven
(3) Elphinstone, M. (1842) An Account of the Kingdom of Caubul, and its Dependencies, in Persia, Tartary, and India; Comprising a View of the Afghan Nation, and a History of the Dooraunee Monarchy, Schulze and Co: London
(4) Blunt, P., Mamundzay, F., Yama, N. and Afghan, H. (2015) ‘Policy Paradigms, Subnational Governance and the State Sovereignty Gap in Afghanistan’, Progress in Development Studies, Vol. 15, No. 3, pp. 270-285
(5) Ashdown, P. (2008) Swords and Ploughshares: Building Peace in the 21st Century, Phoenix: London; Stewart, R. and Knaus, G. (2011) Can Intervention Work, Norton and Company: London
(6) Bailey, J., Iron, R. and Strachan, H. (eds) (2013) British Generals in Blair’s Wars, Ashgate Publishing Limited: Farnham; MOD. (2008) ‘Op Herrick 8: Operational Guide’, Ministry of Defence: Mission Support Branch, January, No. DS13197 [Redacted]; MOD. (2013) ‘Op Herrick 20: Operational Guide’, Ministry of Defence: Mission Support Branch, October, No. AC71904 [Redacted]; SU. (2014) ‘UK Principles for Stabilisation Organisations and Programmes’, Stabilisation Unit, October 2014, [online] at: www.gov.uk
(7) Paul, C. and Clarke, C. (2016) ‘Counterinsurgency Scorecard Update: Afghanistan in Early 2015 Relative to Insurgencies since World War II’, RAND Corporation, [online] at: www.rand.org
(8) Farrell, T. and Semple, M. (2015) ‘Making Peace with the Taliban’, Survival, Vol. 57, No. 6, pp. 79-110; Giustozzi, A. and Ali, A. (2016) ‘The Afghan National Army After ISAF’, Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit Briefing, March, [online] at. www.areu.org.af; Mansfield, D. (2016) ‘The Devil is in the Details: Nangarhar’s Continued Decline into Insurgency, Violence and Widespread Drug Production’, Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit Brief, Februrary 2016, [online] at: www.areu.org.af
(9) Winterbotham, E. (2016) ‘Paving the Way to Peace? US Drone Strike Targets Taliban Leader Akhtar Mansour’, Royal United Service Institute Commentary, May 24, [online] at: rusi.org
(10) Stapleton, B. and Keating, M. (2015) ‘Military and Civilian Assistance to Afghanistan 2001-14: An Incoherent Approach’, Chatham House Briefing, Afghanistan: Opportunity in Crisis Series No. 10