AEIdeas » Ahmad Majidyar The public policy blog of the American Enterprise Institute Sat, 25 Oct 2014 17:32:01 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Afghanistan’s democratic transition: Hope and perils Mon, 29 Sep 2014 14:03:00 +0000 read more >]]> Afghanistan today inaugurated a new president after months of election wrangling that threatened to trigger nationwide unrest and complicate the US withdrawal. Ashraf Ghani, a former World Bank official, succeeded Hamid Karzai as the country’s newly elected leader, and Abdullah Abdullah, a former foreign minister, became the chief executive, a newly created position whose role is akin to a prime minister’s.

The peaceful and first-ever democratic transfer of power marks a real milestone in Afghanistan’s turbulent history, but it was far from being a smooth one: massive fraud in the second round of voting pushed the country to the brink of disintegration, and it took enormous international pressure and mediation – including several phone calls by President Obama to both candidates and visits by Secretary of State Kerry to Kabul – to break the deadlock and convince the two rival teams to form a government of national unity.

Although it is far from certain whether the two teams would be able to set aside partisanship and work together to address pressing security and governance challenges, the power-sharing arrangement was arguably the best outcome to save Afghanistan from descending into anarchy right now. The election campaign had inflamed dangerous ethnic and factional tension across the country and the winner of the fraud-tainted process would have lacked broad-based legitimacy to govern effectively without including his rival in the government.

However, even if the two teams manage to foster a sincere and workable partnership, the new government will be unable to tackle the myriad of problems it inherits without long-term international military and financial support. The Afghan security forces have made remarkable progress in size and capabilities, but they are still unable to contain the Taliban on its own as evidenced by the terrorist group’s military gains this year as foreign troops draw down. Moreover, foreign aid makes up about 90% of the country’s GDP and the country is unlikely to become economically self-sufficient for the next decade. Last year, drugs cultivation in Afghanistan hit a new record and the illicit drug business threatens to fuel corruption and insecurity at an ever greater scale as foreign funding begins to diminish.

While the Obama administration should welcome the inauguration of the new government in Kabul, it will be a grave mistake if the US and its allies use Afghanistan’s peaceful transfer of power as an excuse to justify their exit strategy. As in Iraq, a premature withdrawal is a recipe for disaster and allows the Taliban and al Qaeda to reestablish themselves in parts of Afghanistan and destabilize neighboring Pakistan.

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Taliban readies for a comeback in Afghanistan Tue, 16 Sep 2014 18:37:23 +0000 read more >]]> Taking advantage of foreign troops’ withdrawal and months-long election crisis in Afghanistan, the Taliban and its foreign allies have stepped up violence across the country to project power, seize territory, and further weaken international support for the Afghan mission.

This morning, a Taliban suicide bomber in an explosive-laden vehicle attacked a NATO military convoy near the US embassy in Kabul, killing three coalition troops in the latest in a series of high-profile terrorist attacks this summer. On July 15, a Taliban bombing killed 42 civilians in a busy market in eastern Paktika Province, just hours after a roadside bomb killed two employees of President Karzai’s office in Kabul. In the same month, the terrorist group launched a string of deadly attacks against the Kabul airport and government buildings in southern and eastern provinces.

But while Taliban suicide and spectacular attacks surge each summer during the fighting season, this year the group has also coordinated significant offensives to reclaim territories it had lost during the surge in 2010 and 2011. Over the past three months, hundreds of Taliban militants have launched a large-scale assault on Afghan forces in several key districts in the southern province of Helmand– overrunning security check points, seizing villages, and killing hundreds of Afghan security personnel and local civilians.

According to Afghan officials, two strategic districts of Musa Qala and Sangin are on the verge of falling to the hands of the Taliban, as ill-equipped local security forces do not receive adequate support from Kabul or coalition forces. In the past 90 days, insurgents have reportedly launched about 800 attacks in Sangin and two neighboring districts of Nawzad and Kajaki alone. Sangin, a major regional hub for opium trade, was a focal point of the surge; but as the American Marines left the region in May, the Taliban is back with a vengeance.

Given the deteriorating security situation, it is imperative that both Afghan presidential contenders put an end to their political wrangling and form a unity government to address pressing political and security issues. A continuation of the political crisis would only benefit the Taliban, undermine the morale of the Afghan security forces, and further erode international support for Afghanistan.

Lessons learned from Iraq’s recent descent into chaos and terror also dictate that President Obama reconsider his politically-motivated decision of pulling out all troops from Afghanistan within two years. As in Iraq, a premature withdrawal would allow the Taliban and al Qaeda to reconstitute along the Afghan-Pakistani border from where they plot attacks against America and its allies.

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Afghanistan braces itself for a risky runoff election Thu, 15 May 2014 17:08:12 +0000 read more >]]> The Afghanistan election commission announced this morning that the second round of the country’s presidential vote would be held on June 14, after final results showed no outright winner in the first round. The two top vote getters – former cabinet ministers Abdullah Abdullah (45%) and Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai (31.6%) – will contest the runoff, as ex-foreign minister Zalmai Rassoul, widely seen as President Karzai’s favorite candidate, placed a distant third (11.4%) and declared support for Abdullah in the next round. Both front-runners have so far ruled out forging a coalition to avoid another round of voting.

Nearly seven million Afghans, more than a third of them women, went to the polls on April 5, defying Taliban threats and demonstrating a strong commitment to democracy. The election was a major success both for the Afghan government, which conducted the process almost entirely on its own, and for the United States and its allies that have been helping the country over the past 12 years.

The key question now is: will the second round happen in a smooth and credible manner?

The runoff faces two key challenges. The first threat is security as the second round coincides with the peak of the fighting season in Afghanistan. On Tuesday, the Taliban began its so-called “spring offensive” by launching a series of attacks across the country, killing at least 21. The end of the poppy harvest, the start of summer vacation of religious madrassas in Pakistan, and the coalition’s shrinking security role in Afghanistan all point to an imminent surge in Taliban attacks. Moreover, the terrorist group suffered an image problem after trying but failing to disrupt the first round; they are likely to redouble their efforts to undermine the second round. Although the Taliban, as proven from Afghanistan’s previous five elections, is unable to completely derail the runoff process, a spike in violence could lower the voter turnout and undermine the legitimacy of the polls.

Perhaps the most important factor determining the success of the second round, however, will be whether the losing candidate in the next round will accept the results. There was a double-digit gap between the two front-runners in the first round; but if the margin narrows down significantly in the runoff, the loser may refuse to admit defeat – which could stoke ethnic tension, derail the democratic process, and create anarchy and violence at a critical time when foreign troops are exiting.

But even if the runoff goes by smoothly and there is a new president in Kabul by summer’s end, the White House, as I wrote earlier, must not use the success of the election as a pretext to cut and run from Afghanistan; instead it should seize the momentum to reaffirm its long-term commitment to the country, work with the next government in Kabul to sustain the gains of the past decade, and ensure that al Qaeda and the Taliban do not get a chance of reconstituting in parts of the country from where they can plot against America and its allies.

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Small footprint jeopardizes gains in Afghanistan Tue, 22 Apr 2014 17:48:20 +0000 read more >]]> Quoting administration officials, Reuters reports that the White House is considering keeping fewer than 5,000 troops in Afghanistan beyond 2014 – significantly less than the minimum 10,000 requested by military commanders to continue assisting the Afghan National Security Forces and conducting counterterrorism operations in the region. Renewed deliberations over a smaller footprint are reportedly influenced by the Afghan government’s ability to hold a smooth election earlier this month and the Taliban’s failure to disrupt the process.

With over 80% of Americans now opposing the Afghan war, the decision to keep a small footprint may be politically expedient for the Obama administration, but it’d certainly put at risk the gains of the past decade and undercut the US military’s ability to continue the fight against terrorism in South Asia.

The administration is right in that the ANSF has made remarkable progress both in size and capabilities and are holding their ground against the Taliban. Providing adequate security for the election with minimal coalition support was another testament to the ANSF’s progress. But the ANSF has yet to become self-sufficient and its success continues to hinge upon the coalition’s assistance, especially in terms of logistics, air power, intelligence, and planning. A small US residual force – which also means a smaller NATO presence – would be unable to train, advise and assist the ANSF effectively. And without the coalition support, the local forces’ operational capabilities and efficiency would decline sharply.

Additionally, top US commander in the field, Gen. Joseph Dunford, has warned that any number below 10,000 would not able to protect itself; as a result, the troops will most likely be confined to Kabul and will be unable to assist the ANSF in insurgent-hit regions of the south and east. The US forces’ ability to conduct unilateral counterterrorism operations against al Qaeda and the Taliban along the Afghan-Pakistani border will also be undermined. The success of drone strikes in Pakistan, too, depends on the US military and intelligence presence in Afghanistan.

Vice President Biden has long been a strong advocate for a light footprint focused narrowly on counterterrorism. But the Afghan government is unlikely to allow special forces to operate in its territory if the mission is entirely to capture and kill without providing assistance in governance, security and economic stability. Counterterrorism alone also means endless killing without effectively countering the threat of terrorism facing the United States from South Asia.

Instead of using the success of the election as a pretext to cut and run from Afghanistan, the Obama administration should seize the momentum to reaffirm its long-term commitment to the country, work with the next government in Kabul to preserve the gains of the past decade, and ensure that al Qaeda and the Taliban do not get a chance of reconstituting in parts of the country from where they can plot against America and its allies.

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US poised to repeat mistakes in Afghanistan Mon, 27 Jan 2014 21:52:45 +0000 read more >]]> The New York Times reports that the American intelligence agencies are alarmed that if President Obama pulls out all troops from Afghanistan by this year’s end, the intelligence community could lose strategic air bases vital for the US drone strikes against al Qaeda in Pakistan and for responding to a potential nuclear crisis in the region:

The concern has become serious enough that the Obama administration has organized a team of intelligence, military and policy specialists to devise alternatives to mitigate the damage if a final security deal cannot be struck with the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, who has declined to enact an agreement that American officials thought was completed last year. If Mr. Obama ultimately withdrew all American troops from Afghanistan, the C.I.A.’s drone bases in the country would have to be closed, according to administration officials, because it could no longer be protected. Their concern is that the nearest alternative bases are too far away for drones to reach the mountainous territory in Pakistan where the remnants of Al Qaeda’s central command are hiding. Those bases would also be too distant to monitor and respond as quickly as American forces can today if there were a crisis in the region, such as missing nuclear material or weapons in Pakistan and India… “There’s no easy alternative to Afghanistan,” one former senior American counterterrorism official said.

As I argued in an article last year, that the United States needs a significant post-2014 military presence in Afghanistan for two vital interests: 1) to sustain the gains made over the past decade and prevent the Taliban and al Qaeda from reconstituting themselves in parts of Afghanistan; and 2) to fight al Qaeda and its associates in Pakistan and ensure they will not get access to the country’s nuclear arms.

Without a post-2014 military presence, the CIA-led drone strikes into Pakistan’s tribal regions will either cease or be rendered ineffective. With Washington’s intelligence cooperation with Pakistan at its lowest point since 2002, the US drone campaign against terrorists in South and North Waziristan is now entirely reliant on bases in Afghanistan. The US intelligence may not have been able to locate and kill bin Laden without bases in eastern Afghanistan. In addition to geography, as I’ve explained here, a complete withdrawal will also deny the intelligence community another essential asset: human intelligence and local contact.

It is true that President Karzai has not been a reliable ally, but the Obama administration should decide on the size and scope of its post-2014 engagement in Afghanistan based on national security needs in South Asia rather than the Afghan president’s erratic behavior. After all, there will be a new president in Afghanistan after April, and most Afghans back an enduring partnership with the United States. A complete withdrawal of American troops from Iraq has resulted in a resurgence of al Qaeda affiliates in Iraq and in the broader Middle East. Repeating the mistake in Afghanistan will allow “core al Qaeda” and its Pakistani and Afghan terrorist associates to reestablish themselves along the Afghan-Pakistan border, from where they could plot against America and its allies.

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Iran’s Revolutionary Guards send Afghan refugees to fight in Syria Wed, 15 Jan 2014 19:38:01 +0000 read more >]]> In a new escalation of its sectarian involvement in Syria, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) is reportedly training and sending scores of Afghan refugees (mostly Shi’ites) to fight alongside President Bashar al Assad’s forces in Syria. According to a report by Afghanistan’s leading daily Hasht-e Sobh, the IRGC has deployed 120 Afghan fighters to Syria over the past two months alone, of whom 28 have been killed and 8 others wounded. Those killed were buried in the Behesht-e Reza cemetery in the Iranian city of Mashhad, and the wounded were treated at an undisclosed IRGC hospital. Based on statements by five Afghan militants who recently returned from Syria to Mashhad, the report adds that the Iranian government recruits Afghan refugees by offering them permanent residency in Iran and other inducements. There are about 2.5 million Afghans living in Iran, a third of them registered refugees and the remainder economic migrants.

Last November, the IRGC-affiliated Tasnim News Agency also reported the death of 10 Afghan refugees in Syria. Officials from Bonyad-e Shahid (the Foundation for Martyrs) participated in the burial ceremony for two of the “martyrs” in the Iranian holy city of Qom, which indicates that the Iranian government pays compensation to the families of the victims, as it did for Iranians killed in the Iran-Iraq war. Later that month, Sayed Hamed Iqtedar, an Afghan journalist who fled Syria, told Afghanistan’s Bokhdi News Agency: “Thousands of Afghans are present on both sides of the Syrian war… and tens of them have been killed or injured.” Iqtedar added that Afghans coming from Iran to Syria are fighting for money, while others fighting on the rebel side are sent by jihadist groups in Afghanistan.

The Afghan government is reportedly probing these cases.

The IRGC’s use of Afghan refugees for its terror agenda should surprise nobody. Over the past decade, the IRGC’s secretive Quds Force has provided training, funding, and weapons to the Taliban to expedite the withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan. Afghan government officials have repeatedly accused the Quds Force of training Afghan citizens in terrorist camps in the Iranian provinces of Khorasan, Kerman, Sistan va Baluchestan and Khuzestan. The IRGC has assigned the Ansar Corps, a Quds Force sub-command based in Mashhad, to run operations in Afghanistan. In August 2010, the Department of Treasury sanctioned the commander of the Ansar Corps, Mossein Musavi, and another senior Quds Force officer, Colonel Hasan Mortezavi, for providing monetary and material support to the Taliban.

Syria’s sectarian conflict – between a Shi’ite axis of Iran-Hezbollah-al Assad and rebel groups backed by regional Sunni governments – has inflamed longstanding tensions between Islam’s two largest sects and has destabilized the Middle East. The conflict’s spillover effects have already pushed Iraq and Lebanon to the brink of new civil wars. But the IRGC’s use of Afghan refugees in its sectarian struggle against regional Sunni monarchies is likely to have serious implications for Afghanistan and for South Asia more broadly. Sunni violence against Shi’ites in Pakistan has reached its highest point: there were almost 700 sectarian killings in Pakistan last year, a 22% increase over 2012. And as foreign troops are leaving Afghanistan by next year, Afghanistan is also likely to turn into a proxy battlefield between Shi’ite Iran and a Sunni alliance of Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and the Taliban.

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Mullah Omar’s actions contradict his words Tue, 06 Aug 2013 18:48:04 +0000 read more >]]> In his annual Eid message, Taliban leader Mullah Omar has called on his fighters to spare civilians and promised that his group will not monopolize power after foreign troops leave Afghanistan next year. In a lengthy statement published on the group’s website today, he said:

I assure all, no personal revenge will be taken on any one following the end of occupation because our struggle is neither for achievement of personal gains nor personal power… I reiterate once again that we do not think of monopolizing power… Rather we believe in reaching understanding with the Afghans regarding an Afghan-inclusive government based on Islamic principles.

While Omar’s conciliatory tone may raise hopes in Washington and Kabul over the prospect of a political settlement with the group to end the Afghan war, any notion that the Taliban will honor its pledges in the future is pure folly.

As Pakistani author Ahmed Rashid documented in his book “Taliban: The Power of Militant Islam in Afghanistan and Beyond,” Taliban leaders preached inclusivity and peace when it first emerged in southern Afghanistan in 1994. Indeed, the group conquered much of southern and western parts of the country not by military offensives but by co-opting and negotiating with regional power holders of different ethnicities. But once it captured Kabul in 1996, the Taliban eschewed slogans of inclusivity and embraced despotism. It killed or marginalized moderate Pashtun leaders and excluded all non-Pashtun ethnic minorities that make about 60% of the country’s population.

Omar’s show of concern for civilian casualties should also be taken with a grain of salt. Omar made a similar remark in last year’s Eid message, but a recent UN report showed a 23% rise in civilian killings this year – nearly three quarters of them by the Taliban.

Omar also made clear that the Taliban would not accept the Afghan constitution and denounced Afghanistan’s upcoming presidential elections:

As to the deceiving drama under the name of elections 2014, our pious people will not tire themselves out, nor will they participate in it. Our pious and Mujahid people know that selection, de facto, takes place in Washington… Participation in such elections is only a waste of time, nothing more.

The Taliban reject democracy and elections because of both religious beliefs and pragmatism. The group’s members believe legitimacy comes from God – not elections. In 1996, Omar assumed the title of Amir al-Mu’minin – Commander of the Faithful who should rule the Islamic community in the world – not through an election but an oath of allegiance by his supporters, including Osama bin Laden. Moreover, the group lacks popular support in Afghanistan and realizes that its only chance of returning to power is through violence.

Although Omar reiterated in today’s statement that his group would continue fighting against the “infidel invaders and their allies,” he maintained that his group was open to talks with Washington through the Qatar office. But it is clear from his words that he pursues talks not to reach a settlement to end the conflict, but to encourage Washington to speed up troop withdrawal and not to leave behind a residual force that could help the Afghan government after 2014.

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For the White House, timeline trumps reality in Afghanistan Wed, 31 Jul 2013 19:31:26 +0000 read more >]]> A new Pentagon report claims that Afghanistan’s security forces aren’t yet ready to protect the country against the Taliban and al Qaeda on their own and will require “substantial training, advising, and assistance, including financial support” after the 2014 transition. The report cites significant progress in the number and quality of Afghan forces in the past two years, but maintains that they’re still heavily dependent on coalition forces in key support areas, such as air operations and logistics. Another report by the United Nations released today cites an alarming 23% rise in civilian casualties in the country in the first six months of 2013 – indicating an increase in Taliban violence and a deterioration of security as Afghan forces are taking the lead from withdrawing US and NATO troops.

The findings of the two reports show that the White House’s withdrawal timelines are at odds with security realities on the ground. About half of the remaining 60,000 American troops will leave Afghanistan by next February. More ominously, the administration says it is considering a complete troop withdrawal if negotiations with the Afghan government over a security agreement are not finalized soon. As I wrote earlier, however, a “zero option” will undo the last decade’s security gains and undercut the effectiveness of US counterterrorism operations in South Asia. Afghanistan may revert to a pre-9/11 situation, where al Qaeda and its affiliates operated with impunity and used the Afghan territory as a launching pad against Western targets.

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Obama’s ‘zero option’ in Afghanistan is a recipe for disaster Tue, 09 Jul 2013 18:22:47 +0000 read more >]]> The New York Times reports that President Obama is “giving serious consideration” to pulling out all US troops from Afghanistan next year because of growing tension with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Suspicious of direct US-Taliban talks in Qatar, Kabul last month suspended planned negotiations with Washington over a Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) that lays out a legal framework for a residual American military presence in Afghanistan after 2014.

Let’s hope that this is a pressure tactic used by the administration to increase its leverage with Kabul in the negotiation process. But given President Obama’s rush to exit from Afghanistan and his track record in Iraq, it appears to be déjà vu all over again.

A premature US pullout from Iraq proved disastrous: the country is sliding back into chaos; al Qaeda has made a comeback; and Iran has emerged as the most influential player in post-Saddam Iraq. But the consequences of an abrupt withdrawal from Afghanistan are likely to be much worse. A complete pullout next year would put at risk all security gains the US and its allies have made against al Qaeda and its affiliates in South Asia in the past 11 years. Afghanistan could revert to a pre-9/11 situation.

As I wrote on CNN GPS earlier this year, the US needs a significant military presence in Afghanistan beyond 2014 to achieve four principal objectives: 1) to send a strong message to friends and enemies in the region that the US is not abandoning Afghanistan; 2) to continue to assist and advise Afghan security forces until they are self-sufficient; 3) to conduct unilateral counterterrorism operations in remote Afghan provinces to further weaken al Qaeda and associated forces and prevent them from reconstituting in parts of the country; and 4) to keep a check on the growing terrorism threat emanating from Pakistan. The success of drone strikes against al Qaeda and its affiliates in Pakistan largely depends on military and intelligence assets in Afghanistan. A complete withdrawal means the US will no longer be able to conduct counterterrorism in South Asia effectively.

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Taliban’s hypocrisy in peace talks Tue, 25 Jun 2013 18:30:34 +0000 read more >]]> Early this morning, a group of Taliban gunmen launched a sophisticated attack on the presidential palace and a nearby CIA base in Kabul, infiltrating into one of the most fortified security zones in the Afghan capital and forcing President Karzai to cancel a planned news conference to discuss peace talks with the insurgents.

The brazen assault – the latest in a series of high-profile suicide bombings and spectacular attacks by the Taliban in recent weeks – is yet another indication that the terrorist group is insincere about peace negotiations, which have gained fresh momentum after the Taliban opened a political office in Qatar last week.

The office was meant to facilitate direct negotiations between all parties to end the war. But the process ground to a halt almost immediately as Kabul boycotted the talks, protesting that the Taliban used the opportunity as a publicity stunt to present itself as an alternative government in exile. At the inauguration ceremony, the Taliban hoisted their white flag and placed an “Islamic Emirate” banner outside its embassy-like building. Instead of pursuing peace, Taliban representatives appear to be using their presence in Qatar to raise funds in the Gulf region, spread propaganda through international media, and build closer ties with state and non-state actors in the Middle East. A senior Taliban delegation traveled from Doha to Tehran earlier this month, which the group praised as a PR victory on its website.

In past years, the Afghan government and its foreign allies have given many unilateral concessions to the insurgents to encourage them to join the peace process, such as releasing hundreds of Taliban prisoners and removing senior insurgent leaders from the UN sanctions list. But the Taliban has only stepped up violence, continued its close ties with al Qaeda, and refused to accept the Afghan constitution. Now that foreign troops are leaving, they have even less incentive to lay down their arms and make peace.

As my colleagues and I have written before (here, here, here, here, here, and here), the Taliban is using diplomacy not to end the conflict but to speed up US withdrawal, enhance its international credibility, and seek concessions from Kabul and Washington. The Taliban’s strategy is to wait out foreign troops and to try to topple the Kabul government after 2014. And Washington’s hasty exit is helping the Taliban to achieve that goal.

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