|#1595||2258||June 23, 2016||By Pavneet Chadha|
Afghanistan in 2016 is facing major challenges of transition on the political, economic and security front. The fault-lines have become particularly visible since the drawdown of US and NATO forces and the end of their combat mission in Afghanistan. The political environment has become increasingly fractious and polarized. Taliban is resurgent conducting violent attacks against the state and gaining a significant footprint in the country. The economy is characterized by low growth, poverty and high unemployment. The illicit narcotics trade further undermines governance and state legitimacy.
The security situation is increasingly volatile and the conflict has grown in intensity and scope causing high casualties and internally displaced people. According to the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), 11000 civilian casualties occurred in 2015, the highest since US led invasion in 2001. Taliban has also expanded its area of influence. For the first time since 2001, Taliban holds more territory than ever in Afghanistan. According to Bill Roggio of the Long War Journal, Taliban now actively controls 38 districts and contests 43 districts in Afghanistan. In 2015, Taliban expanded its territorial reach, temporarily capturing 24 district centres in the north (in Badakhshan, Baghlan, Faryab, Jawzjan, Kunduz, Sari Pul and Takhar provinces), in the west (in Badghis and Farah provinces), in the east (in Nuristan Province) and in the south (in Helmand and Kandahar provinces), in addition to temporarily seizing the provincial capital of Kunduz.
Traditionally, the attacks from insurgents subside during the winter and escalate in spring in what is referred to as the spring offensive. This year was an exception since the fighting continued unabated even during the winter months.The control of Kunduz was the most important battlefield victory for Taliban. It dispelled the notion that the group is capable of administering territory only in its strongholds in the southern provinces. It dealt a major blow to the government highlighting the vulnerabilities of Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). It was also a major psychological and propaganda victory for the group since it came shortly after the news of death of Mullah Omarwent public. The internal dissent and rebellion over the succession of Mullah Akhtar Mansour did not have a considerable impact on the operational capability. Mansour’s death too is unlikely to have a major effect. The impact of leadership decapitation on a decentralized group like Taliban may not be effective or reduce violence perpetrated by the group in the short run.
The peace process with the Taliban has not made much headway either. Taliban has repeatedly refused to negotiate unless its preconditions are met which include withdrawal of foreign troops, release of prisoners and removal from international sanctions list. The Quadrilateral Coordination Group comprising Afghanistan, China, Pakistan and US has met five times with no tangible progress except a press release reiterating the commitment to the peace process. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has also announced the formation of its Khorasanbranch in South Asia, a loose coalition of defections from Taliban. Its presence is mainly restricted to eastern provinces of Nangarhar and Nuristan.
The National Unity Government (NUG) in Afghanistan is struggling to project unity. The implementation of election reforms, long-delayed parliamentary elections, and a potential change by a Loya Jirga might fundamentally alter Afghanistan’s constitutional order. On the political front, the benchmark is so low that even the survival of NUG would be considered a success. There has also been a change in regional power politics. When Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani came to power, he reached out to Pakistan proposing better ties between neighbours and cooperation to bring Taliban to the table. The initial goodwill with Pakistan has now tapered off. After a series of attacks by Taliban including the devastating attack in Kabul in April 2016, which left 56 dead and hundreds injured, Ghani openly called out Pakistan for sponsoring and sheltering the leadership of Taliban. In the last two months, border tensions have escalated with allegations of cross border firing from both sides. Pakistan imposed stricter border controls at the busiest border crossing between the two countries at Torkham and temporarily closed the crossing. This may have been a retaliatory move since Pakistan is not comfortable with increasing Indian presence in Afghanistan. In the last few months, Indian Prime Minister Modi has inaugurated the parliamentary building in Kabul and the Salma dam in Herat. Both structures have been financed by India.
There has been some progress in terms of private investment in infrastructure and energy sector projects, such as the TAPI pipeline and Chabahar port project which will improve trade linkages. But these projects will be operational in the medium term. Afghanistan is overwhelmingly dependent on external aid. It relies on external funding sources for 69% of its government expenditures. Inequality, diminishing economic prospects and security concerns fuelled waves of migration seeking asylum in Europe in 2015. World Bank now expects low economic growth off a low base. Growth in 2016 is projected at 1.9 per cent according to the World Bank. Two important conferences in Warsaw and Brussels in the coming months will make crucial decisions on the level and type of assistance the international community shall continue to provide to Afghanistan. Without sustained levels of donor support over the medium term, the cycle of conflict, poverty and the illegal drug trade will remain impediments to development.
Kabul will be unable to address its dire economic situation until it first contains the insurgency. The road to sustainable peace in Afghanistan is long and weary.
Pavneet Chadha is a Research Assistant at CLAWS. Views expressed are personal.