Is insurgency Afghanistan’s only problem?

By Salman Rafi Sheikh

In a recent report by Washington Post, Attiquilah Amerkhil — a Kabul-based political and military analyst — was reported to have said, “This is the worst fighting season in a decade … there is now fighting in every part of the country.” The report went on to say that  “in the first spring fighting season since the U.S.-led coalition ended combat operations in Afghanistan, heavy clashes are being reported in at least 10 Afghan provinces. The provinces are in every corner of the country, creating widespread unease about whether the Afghan government and army can repel the threat.”

It is quite clear that the Taliban are still fighting (as we also showed in our previous article on Afghanistan), and that they have intensified their so-called “final victory” campaign in their quest for re-establishing their supremacy in Afghanistan. A glimpse of their spring offensive can be had from their latest attack on May 18, 2015.  Reportedly, a Taliban attack on a district government headquarters in Afghanistan`s southern Uruzgan province on Monday killed at least seven people, an Afghan official said. Among those killed in the pre-dawn attack in Khas Uruzgan district were five policemen, a former district chief and a school principal, according to Abdul Kareem Karimi, the district chief administrative official. A few days ago, a rest house in Kabul, where foreigners used to stay, was also attacked (May 13, 2015) resulting in five casualties at least. The five dead also included an American and two Indian nationals.

This heightened insurgency is a continuation of the spring offensive the Taliban launched in April. They have since rolled out a fierce battlefield strategy across the country`s north and east, forcing the government to spread its security forces thin on many fronts. Targeted assassinations of government and judicial officials have also been on the rise.

While all this is true and constitute the gravest problem Afghanistan is faces today; it is also a fact that the Taliban are by far only one of the many problems Afghanistan is currently facing. Among other grave problems is political instability. Such reports as published by Washington Post tend to reduce Afghanistan’s problems to insurgency alone.  While there is no doubt that the insurgency is continuing, political instability is by no means an “automatic” outcome of it.  It has its own dynamics too.

For instance, the newly installed government in Afghanistan, notwithstanding the troubles this coalition had in forming its Cabinet, is critically dependent upon foreign aid. A government capable of generating acutely less than sufficient revenue and, conversely, hugely dependent upon foreign aid and assistance, cannot be expected to deliver. As we showed in another previous article, a huge portion of “development aid” provided by the U.S. is actually been spent upon military preparations. How effective and stable will this coalition be once the foreign aid dries out?  Will not lack of development, employment opportunities and, most importantly, lack of peace render this government vulnerable enough to succumb to both local (the Taliban) and regional power brokers?

As a matter of fact, Afghanistan has been one of the largest recipients of U.S. aid in this part of Asia. So far, only the U.S. has provided “aid” to the tune of $100 billion.  However, notwithstanding the amount of aid spent, the U.S. aid program has failed to establish even a single sustainable institution or development program. The USAID handed over, out of convenience, almost every project to independent contractors, and consequently failed to monitor those projects’ progress. On the other hand, corrupt government officials, too, find ways and means to hoard profits from aid for their own use. Examples are “declaring trailers and non-motorized conveyances in a list of vehicles needing fuel supplied by the U.S.” The amount of money being squandered in Afghanistan perhaps led Heather Barr of the Human Rights Watch, to argue that Afghanistan is a “perfect case study of how not to give aid.

A number of documents released by the U.S. on the “progress” of Afghanistan, ironically enough, demonstrates the acute “lack of progress.” An important document, in this behalf, was disclosed by Special Inspector General of Afghanistan Reconstruction’s (SIGAR). It highlights considerable delays and mismanagement in ongoing projects. Regarding energy sector projects, it mentions, “Our reports have found that the U.S. government’s efforts to execute large-scale energy sector projects in Afghanistan have frequently resulted in cost and schedule over-runs, contractor default, questionable or undefined sustainment methods, and wasted U.S. dollars”; and mentioning overall, it also cautions, “the scale of most projects means that these agencies will not achieve the planned contributions to the COIN strategy … ,” and “in some instances, these projects may result in adverse COIN effects because they create an expectations gap among the affected population or lack citizen support.”

Similarly, the poor state of Kajaki Dam in Helmand province and Tarakhil power plant built outside of Kabul — two important pillar-projects in the U.S. Counter-Insurgency Strategy — are highly symbolic of the grand failure of the U.S. and its allies in “reconstructing” and “developing” Afghanistan. Disputes between the central government and Helmand province officials regarding the construction of this dam are also highly symptomatic of the disease the Afghan political system is afflicted with: lack of financial resources to build Afghanistan. Provincial Council officials in the southern Helmand province claimed, in April 2015, that continued negligence on the part of the central government could further delay construction of the Kajaki Dam, which they warned, could prompt the project’s funders in the United States to withdraw their support. It is ironic to see the provincial administration blaming the central government for “negligence” while the fact is that this project is in ruins due to lack of interest by the U.S. in its materialization. As late as 2014, the Special Inspector General had to write a letter to the U.S. Congress in which he was found “questioning” the very logic behind the dam’s construction.

This dam in Helmand province, which is by far the most restive region in Afghanistan, was initially meant to serve a very real strategic purpose against the Taliban. Primarily, it was meant to provide employment to the local youth in order to wean them away from militant groups. In other words, the political-economy the dam represented was conceived of as a direct attack on the Taliban’s strong recruiting base. Not only does this failure signify the U.S.’s overall failure in Afghanistan, it also shows how fragile the Afghan government is without foreign aid. Hence, the question: Will it be able to survive once the aid money dries up? The most probable answer, given Afghanistan’s revenue capacity, can only be in the negative.

As a matter of fact, Afghanistan will need more than $7 billion annually for the next decade to sustain a functional government, build infrastructure and fund the army and police, according to the World Bank. But there are strong indications that foreign donors will not relish such a commitment. In 2014, the Obama administration requested $2.1 billion in financial assistance for Afghanistan, but Congress approved only half that amount. Hinting on Afghanistan’s extremely precarious economic situation, Alhaj Muhammad Aqa, director general of the treasury at the finance ministry, said in 2014, “If we do not receive extra funds in the next two months, we will face a problem with the operating budget, which is mostly salaries.” In 2014, Afghanistan could only pay roughly 20% of its budget; and in 2015, it could muster only 29% of its budget from domestic revenue sources. As it stands today, no funds were allocated in fiscal year 2015 for new development projects.

Afghanistan’s extremely precarious situation is quite evident from the two aspects we have presented here: On the one hand, the Taliban have greatly intensified their insurgency, on the other hand, the Afghan government is too weak, both financially and militarily, to checkmate the Taliban. However, what adds additional fuel to the fire is the continued existence of numerous warlords in and around Kabul, in addition to other parts of Afghanistan, who form a potential defense line of Kabul against an attack by the Taliban.

Given this phenomenon, how can this coalition be expected to “deliver” and provide safety of life and property when numerous warlords (and their well-armed militias) are operating freely and unscathed? In fact, it is they who are going to play a central role in the final fight against the Taliban; for, as is evident from a number of sources on ground, they were brought out of exile (after the Taliban were ousted), armed and funded by the U.S.-led coalition and used as an effective hedge against the Taliban.

Now that the coalition is “withdrawing,” and that Afghan security forces’ condition is far from hopeful (in 2014 alone, more than 5,000 security personnel were killed), only warlords can provide the assistance the government and foreign forces need to contain the insurgents. As such, these warlords are politically better-off than, say, Afghanistan’s parliament. It is an irony that many a warlord is actually part of the current parliament and are already better off than the government itself. Their power can easily be experienced on the streets and roads of Kabul. Heavily armed men, bullet-proof trucks, and long convoys define their position within the socio-political milieu of Afghanistan.

Most of the problems as highlighted here are a direct outcome of the US’s failed counter-insurgency strategy, and as such, they fail to capture the attention of the mainstream western media, which tends to focus only on insurgency, number of attacks conducted and soldiers killed by the Taliban. However, the reality is that the “Afghanistan project” — which was meant to firmly establish the U.S. militarily in the Western and Central Asian regions — just like ‘Vietnam project’, is a grand failure in all respects: political, economic and, most importantly, military. By merely focusing on insurgency, the mainstream western media attempts to over-simplify and reduce the extent of this grand failure. Ground realities, however, continue to tell us a very different story.

Salman Rafi Sheikh is a freelance journalist and research analyst of international relations and Pakistan affairs. His area of interest is South and West Asian politics, the foreign policies of major powers, and Pakistani politics.

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