Options for Peace in the Continuing War in Afghanistan

Suzanne Schroeder is an independent analyst.  She can be found on Twitter @SuzanneSueS57, and on Tumblr.  She is currently working on a long-term project on school poisonings in Afghanistan and has previously written for War on the Rocks.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of any official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group. 


National Security Situation:  The war in Afghanistan continues to hurt the Afghan people, Afghan Government, Afghan Taliban (Taliban), and causes the U.S. and its Allies and Partners to expend lives and treasure in pursuit of elusive political objectives. The goal of a defeated Taliban has proven to be outside of the realm of realistic expectations, and pursing this end does not advance American standing.

Date Originally Written:  February 6, 2019.

Date Originally Published:  March 11, 2019.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  Suzanne Schroeder is an independent analyst. She has a particular interest in the history of the Taliban movement, and how it will continue to evolve.

Background:  As of this writing, talks have begun between the U.S. and the Taliban. What decisions can promote and sustain constructive dialogue?

Significance:  It remains to be seen if, after almost eighteen years in Afghanistan, the U.S. can achieve a “respectable” peace, with a credible method of ensuring long-term security.

Option #1:  The U.S. makes peace with the Taliban, and begins a withdrawal of U.S. forces. 

Risk:  Terrorists with global ambitions will again operate from Afghanistan, without being checked the Afghan Government. In the past two weeks, former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker has written two pieces, and was interviewed in a third, warning of the dangers of making a hasty peace deal with the Taliban. In a February 10, 2019 interview for New York magazine, Crocker replied to a question about the chances of the Taliban (if they took power), allowing Afghanistan to be used as a “staging ground, for U.S. attacks.” Crocker replied: “Well, that’s one way to look at it. Another way is that the Taliban decided it would continue to stand with Al Qaeda, even though it cost them the country. They would not break those ties, and I would absolutely not expect them to do so now[1].” In the recently published work, The Taliban Reader, Section 3, which covers the period when the Taliban re-emerged as an insurgency, is introduced with this remark: “In the run-up to Operation Enduring Freedom, opinions among the Taliban leadership were split: some were convinced the US would attack, others-including Mullah Mohammed Omar-did not think the US would go to war over bin Laden[2].” The Taliban Reader essentially challenges Crocker’s assertion, that the Taliban made a conscious decision to lose their Emirate, in defense of Al Qaeda.

Gain:  The gain would be an end to a costly and destructive war that U.S. President Donald Trump has stated is “not in our national interest.” Peace with the Taliban might allow Afghanistan to achieve a greater level of stability through regional cooperation, and a more towards level of self-sufficiency.  This assumes that supportive means are well thought-out, so the war’s end would not be viewed as U.S. abandonment. In the absence of ongoing conflict, civil institutions might develop and contribute to social stability. Obviously, this is a delicate and precarious process, and it cannot be judged, until the participation of the Afghan Government takes place.

In July 2018, Dr. Barnett Rubin, the Director of the Center for International Cooperation at New York University, appeared on Tolo News to discuss the Eid Ceasefire that had just taken place between the Taliban and Afghan Government forces the previous month. Dr. Rubin made the following statement about the Taliban: “They have acted in reciprocity to the Afghan Government’s offer, which shows that they are part of the Afghan political system, whether they accept its current legal framework or not[3].” Dr. Rubin’s point was that the Taliban, at some juncture, must enter the Afghan system not defined as necessarily entering the Afghan Government per se, but no longer being a party to conflict, and an eventual end to the restrictions that were currently in place would give them a means to full civil participation. 

Negotiations are at an initial stage and will not be fully underway until the Taliban begins to speak to the current Afghan Government. But with the widespread perception that the Afghan government is not viable without continued U.S. support, this means that the Afghan Government will be negotiating from a disadvantaged position. A possible way to overcome this may be for the Taliban to be included in international development initiatives, like the Chabahar Port[4] and the Belt and Road Initiative[5].  With a role that would require constructive participation and is largely non-ideological, former enemies might become stakeholders in future economic development.

Option #2:  The U.S. and Afghan Government continue to apply pressure on the Taliban — in short, “talk and fight.” 

Risk:  This strategy is the ultimate double-edged sword, from the Taliban’s point of view. It’s said that every civilian casualty wins the Taliban a new supporter. But these casualties also cause an increased resentment of Taliban recalcitrance, and stirs anger among segments of the population that may not actively oppose them. The Afghan Peace march, which took place in the summer of 2018, shows the level of war fatigue that motivated a wide range of people to walk for hundreds of miles with a unified sense of purpose. Their marchers four main demands were significant in that they did not contain any fundamental denouncements, specifically directed at the Taliban. Rather, they called for a ceasefire, peace talks, mutually agreed upon laws, and the withdrawal for foreign troops[6] (italics added). With such strong support for an end to this conflict, the U.S., the Afghan Government and the Taliban all damage themselves, by ignoring very profound wishes for peace, shared by a large segment of the Afghan population. The U.S. also recognized taking on a nuclear-armed Pakistan may not be worth it, especially as the conflict in Kashmir has once again accelerated, and it’s unlikely that Pakistan will take measures against the Taliban.

Gain:  U.S. and Afghan forces manage to exert sufficient pressure on the Taliban, to make them admit to the futility of continued conflict. The U.S. manages to construct a narrative that focuses on the complexities of the last thirty years of Afghan history, rather than the shortcomings of U.S. policy in the region.  

Other Comments:  None.

Recommendation:  None.


Endnotes:

[1] Hart, B. (2019, February 10). A Former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Thinks Trump’s Exit Strategy Is a Huge Mistake. NewYork.

[2] Linschoten, A. S., & Kuehn, F. (2018). The Taliban Reader: War, Islam and Politics in their Own Words. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

[3] Tolo News Special Interview with US Expert Barnett Rubin [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PEEDrRTlrvY

[4] Afghanistan opens new export route to India through Iran’s Chabahar port – Times of India. (2019, February 24). Retrieved from https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/business/international-business/afghanistan-launches-new-export-route-to-india-through-irans-chabahar-port/articleshow/68140985.cms

[5] Afghanistan’s Role in the Belt and Road Initiative (Part 1). (2018, October 11). Retrieved from http://www.outlookafghanistan.net/topics.php?post_id=21989

[6] Ali M Latifi for CNN. (2018, June 18). Afghans who marched hundreds of miles for peace arrive in Kabul. Retrieved from https://www.cnn.com/2018/06/18/asia/afghanistan-peace-march-intl/index.html

Afghanistan Option Papers Suzanne Schroeder United States

Assessment on the Revised Use of Afghan Militias

Suzanne Schroeder is an independent analyst.  She can be found on Twitter @SuzanneSueS57, and on Tumblr.  She is currently working on a long-term project on school poisonings in Afghanistan and has previously written for War on the Rocks.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of any official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group. 


Date Originally Written:  November 27, 2017.

Date Originally Published:  December 25, 2017.

Summary:  A new plan is under consideration by the Afghan Government to transform the Afghan Local Police into an Afghan Territorial Army.  While this transformation contributes to the current U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, without proper oversight, the Afghan Territorial Army could be co-opted by regional strong men.

Text:  The number of U.S. and North American Treaty Organization troops currently in Afghanistan is insufficient to carry out U.S. President Donald Trump’s strategy.  This strategy has multiple parts involving an increased use of air power, employing Special Operations Forces in more ambitious ways, and a constant fight to reverse Taliban gains and prevent the Taliban from securing additional territory.  Additionally, there is a counter-terrorism part of the U.S. mission, which unilaterally focuses on containing/defeating the Islamic State-Khorasan Province[1].

On November 19, 2017, The Guardian newspaper reported that Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani is currently considering a U.S. proposal to restructure the Afghan Local Police into the Afghan Territorial Army, modeled after the Indian Territorial Army[2].  The Guardian also reported that the proposal would start with 1,000 men, and possibly reach 20,000, over two years[3].  This proposal has raised numerous concerns with human rights groups, including the United Nations and Human Rights Watch, that fear any new iteration of the militia system will revive the serious abuses that the militias have been accused of in the past ranging  from child sexual abuse to extra judicial killings.  As global attention shifts away from Afghanistan, increased misuses of power are a concern.

If one types the word “arbakis,“ the Pashto world that generally means militias, into the search field on the Taliban’s alemarah website the result is 81 pages where the term is used.  Despite the deceptions and exaggerations that often appear in Taliban propaganda, the negative opinions regarding militias allow the Taliban to gain political capital by exploiting the distrust of these groups based on their records of abusive practices towards civilians.  If this anti-militia narrative did not produce some benefit for the Taliban, it is doubtful they would continue to adhere to it so closely.

The plans to form an Afghan Territorial Army are an attempt to provide a second-line defense against Taliban gains.  The Taliban understand that repeated attacks on military and police targets accomplish the goal of psychological intimidation.  For anyone who may be considering joining the Afghan National Security Forces, the awareness of how often security forces are targeted is a strong deterrent.  Taliban attacks on police and military targets have become increasingly ambitious, complex, and deadly.

The war in Afghanistan is both regionally strategic, and a micro-level conflict driven by local concerns.  All regional players have their own motives for involvement in the conflict in Afghanistan, whether related to security concerns (containing the Islamic State for both Russia and Iran, as an example), or economic opportunities, as in the case with India and the People’s Republic of China.  Also involved are the ever-complex machinations of Pakistan and its security services.  Concurrently, there are numerous local competitions for resources, favors, development projects, drugs, and all other commodities.  These conditions have allowed local powerbrokers, most of whom have connections to the Afghan National Unity Government, to consolidate their power and establish local fealties, policed by militias.  The idea that an Afghan Territorial Army would not be co-opted in some fashion by regional strong men seems dangerously naïve.  Afghan Territorial Army units might also be used as conduits for influence from other regional actors.  There is no reason why Russia, who already assists the Taliban with small arms and a fuel supply scheme[4], wouldn’t seek to co-opt the Afghan Territorial Army.  Any establishment of an Afghan Territorial Army must also take into account the shifting of alliances, which have been so characteristic of this conflict.

A critical part of the counter-terrorism mission in Afghanistan includes the avoidance of another civil war, such as the devastating one that followed the Soviet departure in 1989.  While the continuation of Western aid would seem to prevent this outcome, it’s still a danger that existing conditions can be worsened by sectarianism, social inequality, and the ever-present corruption, that is too entrenched to be effectively combated.  The establishment of an Afghan Territorial Army that is unregulated and operates outside of an accountability structure, would further fuel declining social and political cohesion.  Combined with abuses, and little or no means of redress, Afghan hostilities may be directed at the Afghan National Unity Government, which ironically is greatly lacking in “unity.”  The inability of Afghans to redress the actions of an unregulated Afghan Territorial Army would ensure the Taliban gains support.  One way to preempt this inability of redress is to truly model the Afghan Territorial Army after the Indian Territorial Army, which is subordinated to the Indian Army to ensure proper oversight.

An Afghan Territorial Army with sufficient oversight, including maintaining an accurate inventory of its weapons and equipment, could contribute towards the U.S. strategic goal of recapturing territory from the Taliban (80% back in Afghan government control, after two years), and sufficiently degrading Taliban capabilities to make negotiations seem a reasonable option[5]. While this strategic goal is lofty, a narrower tactical goal could be an Afghan Territorial Army that succeeds in addressing the localized nature of the conflict and offsets the high level of desertions, among other problems that plague the Afghan National Army.

Any future development of the Afghan Territorial Army will require a functioning, sustainable system of oversight, and an awareness of consequences that could potentially damage U.S. engagement in Afghanistan, thus strengthening support for the Taliban.  If the U.S. is invested the creation of an Afghan Territorial Army, then Afghan partners must be willing to adhere to mutually agreed upon guidelines for its employment and oversight, and due care must be taken to evaluate both the potential successes and failures of this type of program throughout its life.


Endnotes:

[1] Author interview, with The Guardian’s Kabul correspondent, Sune Engel Rasmussen, September 11, 2017.

[2] Rasmussen, S. E. (2017, November 19). UN concerned by controversial US plan to revive Afghan militias. Retrieved November 27, 2017, from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/nov/19/afghanistan-militias-us-un-diplomats

[3] Ibid.

[4] Loyd, A. (2017, November 11). Afghanistan: the war that never ends. Retrieved November 27, 2017, from https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/afghanistan-the-war-that-never-ends-mchjpgphh

[5] Stewart, P., Ali, I. (2017, November 20).  U.S. General Sets Two-Year Goal for Driving Back Afghan Taliban.  Retrieved November 27, 2017, from www.usnews.com/news/world/articles/2017-11-20/us-general-sets-two-year-goal-for-driving-back-afghan-taliban

Afghanistan Assessment Papers Irregular Forces Suzanne Schroeder Taliban (Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan) United States