The Western commitment to propping up the Afghan Government is increasing again.Jump to full report >>
Situation on the ground
Levels of violence in Afghanistan are rising; 2017 could be a record year for civilian casualties. The Taliban have been gaining momentum, while the Afghan government only controls about half of the national territory.
In March 2017 the Taliban captured Sangin in Helmand, scene of many British military casualties a decade ago.
ISIS/Daesh has a branch in Afghanistan, announced in 2015, calling itself the Khorasan Province of the Islamic State. Many ISIS-affiliated fighters are disaffected former Taliban and have clashed on several occasions with their former comrades. Al-Qaeda retains a presence in the country. Corruption and crime make the situation even more complicated.
The humanitarian situation remains dire, with nine million people in need of assistance. Thousands have been forced to leave their homes; Pakistan has been accused of a deliberate campaign to force the 600,000 Afghan refugees out of the country and meanwhile, UN agencies are struggling to raise enough money to help all those who need it, while the approaching winter will exacerbate the problems.
At the most recent conference on support for the Afghan Government, held in Brussels in December 2016, pledges were higher than expected, however. In the last three years (2014/15, 2015/16, and 2016/17), DFID’s bilateral allocation in Afghanistan was £178m per year.
The 2014 election was inconclusive, with both sides claiming victory. Subsequent peace talks led to the formation of a Government of National Unity, led by President Ashraf Ghani, who won the second round to the election, and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, who came second and disputed the result.
The two have never agreed on the distribution of power between them, and the dissent, partly based on ethnic differences, permeates the Government and the Afghan National Defence Forces. The two leaders tend to favour Afghans who identify with the Pashtun tradition (Ghani) and the Tajik tradition (Abdullah) respectively, leaving other ethnicities, particularly the Shia Hazara and the Uzbeks, increasingly marginalised.
Corruption remains rife in the country, hampering efforts to improve governance and security.
Afghanistan’s economy remains plagued by the persistent violence and insecurity. Years of conflict have left the country very poor and dependent on foreign aid and security spending; the business climate is not conducive to private investment. Natural mineral resources give some hope for future growth, as does the young and growing population, but at present the economy struggles to provide enough jobs for young people entering the jobs market and refugees returning to the country. The IMF predicts gradual improvement in GDP growth over the next few years, and the fact that it has joined the World Trade Organisation may boost trade and Afghanistan’s integration into the regional and world economies. Infrastructure projects, supported by neighbouring countries like Iran, may add to growth in the future.
Insecurity and poor governance – corruption and a weak legal environment – need to be improved before Afghanistan can realise the potential that its natural resources offer.
There is something of a contradiction in the US President’s remarks about foreign policy, on the one hand wanting to spend less and on the other wanting to score decisive victories against terrorists. This may have been behind the difficulties in formulating the Administration’s policy. After a long delay, the President announced his new policy in August 2017, saying “We are not nation-building again, we’re killing terrorists.”
There would be probably between 3,000 and 5,000 more troops to join the 8,000 there already, focusing on special forces. The policy also prioritised building on the relationship with India and being tougher on perceived Pakistani sponsorship of the Taliban. After military success, the Administration envisages negotiations with elements of the Taliban.
Reaction to the policy was not particularly positive, looking, as it did to many commentators, like a compromise between those in the Administration who want to pull out and those who fear that would mean a blow to US prestige in the region and the possible re-establishment of terrorist safe havens in Afghanistan.
The UK intends to add 85 personnel to the 500 UK military personnel already there. The Government has explicitly ruled out sending any more in response to the US demand for more support from NATO allies.
As the US and NATO have wound down their presence in Afghanistan, neighbouring countries such as Iran, Russia, Pakistan and India have been recalibrating their policies to maximise their influence over the eventual Government of Afghanistan.
Russia and Iran, formerly opposed to the Taliban, have reportedly been supporting the group, nomnally in its fight against ISIS. But Russian weapons have also been used by the Taliban against the Afghan Government.
Partly on the back of their apparently successful collaboration in Syria, Iran and Russia are also keen to work against US interests, according to analysts.
Elements in Pakistan continue to provide covert support for the Afghan Taliban and related groups; Donald Trump’s strategy speech promised a tougher line against that support. Many observers think that that increased US pressure on Pakistan is unlikely to be very successful. Pakistan will continue to see a friendly government in Kabul as essential to reducing Pakistan’s vulnerability to a potentially hostile India.
India, meanwhile pursued the opposite course – trying to support the Afghan Government with large amounts of aid and investment in projects such as the Salma Dam.
China is increasingly involved in Afghanistan, partly because of the ‘one belt one road’ policy to secure land trade routes from China to Europe. For several reasons the Chinese have a strong interest in maintaining stability in Afghanistan, with which it shares a short border. Analysts argue that it does not want to replace the US as Afghanistan’s security guarantor; China’s links with Pakistan might influence Chinese policy towards Afghanistan, however.
There has still been no substantial progress towards a political settlement. The US has accepted for some time that a deal with at least some elements of the Taliban would be necessary, and the Trump strategy provides for that. Disagreements between interested countries – the US and Russia; Pakistan and India, for example – have hampered peace efforts. The US did not participate in Russian-sponsored talks in April 2017