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Secretary of Defense James N. Mattis and Marine Corps Gen. Joe Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, meet with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani at the Afghan Presidential Office building, Kabul, Afghanistan, Sept. 7, 2018. (DoD Photo by Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Dominique A. Pineiro)

The United Nations Strategic Review of 2017 reclassified Afghanistan from a post-conflict state to an active conflict state. As we enter 2019, the conflict not only remains active, but rather it is worsening. In the past year, there have been an additional 550,000 civilians displaced and 3.3 million people pushed past emergency levels of food insecurity. Another 6.3 million people need some form of humanitarian and protection assistance. The battlefield has been less favorable to the Afghan forces who have already absorbed 46,000 casualties. Continuing into 2019, the weakening security situation, political stalemate, and tense ties between the United States and Afghanistan’s regional neighbors will act as stumbling blocks to any attempts to bring an end to the conflict.

On the Battlefield: the Taliban and the United States

Lieutenant General Kenneth McKenzie, the Pentagon’s nominee to lead U.S. Central Command, has stated that though war is at a stalemate, new efforts are at play. The United States is involved in two missions, the NATO-led Resolute Support Mission (RSM) which was recalibrated in 2015 to train, advise, and assist the Afghan government forces. The other mission that the United States is involved in is Operation Freedom Sentinel (OFS), which includes U.S. counterterrorism and allied forces that conduct joint combat operations, which have increased since 2017. The Afghan government now only controls 55.5% of all districts, the lowest since 2015. One of the most brutal offensives in 2018 was the Taliban’s attempt to take control over Ghazni province, primarily targeting Hazara majority districts. The Taliban has a long and bloody history of fueling ethno-religious issues to further entrench societal divisions in an attempt to increase their own control.

It is evident that the United States underestimated the support and strength of the Taliban, and this has impacted its calculations for military responses. InDecember 2018, Lt. General Richard Clark stated that the Taliban are 60,000 strong, correcting his last estimate of 20,000 members. Furthermore, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) noted that from January to September 2018, there have been a total of 8,050 civilian casualties, with 2,789 dead and 5,252 injured—similar to the same period in 2017.

The use of violence from suicide and complex attacks has increased in frequency and lethality, contributing to a 5 percent increase in civilian deaths from the same time last year. For instance, in October, a coordinated attack was launched against General Abdul Raziq, barely missing U.S. General Austin Miller, who heads U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan. Gen. Raziq was one of the most powerful men in the Taliban heartland of the South, known for having kept Kandahar secure for years and for his brutal offensives against the insurgents. These ground realities and media reports that President Trump may withdraw about half of the 14,000 U.S. forces remaining in the country have resulted in a looming uncertainty among the Afghan population and sense of success among insurgents.

Incorporating the Taliban in the Peace Process

In February, Afghan President Ghani recognized the Taliban as a legitimate political group and called for unconditional peace talks. Following this, there was an international peace conference held in Uzbekistan in March 2018, with major allies and the United States in attendance. These talks were strategically scheduled right before the elections in hopes of appeasing the Taliban and preventing them from disrupting the electoral process. The Afghan parliamentary and presidential elections were originally scheduled to occur in 2016, but were delayed.

On October 20th, nearly 9 of 12 million eligible people, including 3 million women, came out to vote in the parliamentary elections, during which UNAMA recorded approximately 435 civilian casualties from election-related violence. Following the election, the Independent Electoral Complaints Commission (IECC) invalidated all votes cast in Kabul—over one million—citing major fraud and mismanagement by the Afghan Independent Elections Commission (IEC). The results of the parliamentary elections have yet to be released, and no future course of action has been announced to address the concern of mismanagement.

In a weak effort to demonstrate his control at the Geneva Ministerial Conference on Afghanistan in November, Ghani announced a “roadmap to peace” that outlined how the Taliban would be incorporated into the peace process. More than anything else, this was a strategic move by the Ghani administration to signal to its allies it will not be sidelined from the process. Nonetheless, there is sense of uncertainty surrounding the affairs of the democratic process, since the failure of the parliamentary elections has further delayed and complicated the upcoming presidential elections.

Geopolitical Context

The United States and the Afghan government want to incorporate the Taliban in the peace process without sidelining the Afghan government, but the United States’ approach to regional players have not made the situation conducive to this policy goal. The United States’ foreign interests and Afghanistan’s interests do not align when it comes to relations with Afghanistan’s neighboring states. When Trump first announced his new South Asia strategy at Fort Myer in 2017, he emphasized a more comprehensive role to be played by India and upbraided Pakistan for being a U.S. ally while supporting insurgents. It is vital to note that the Pakistani army has been documented to have supported some of the 20 insurgent groups that are operating between the Afghan-Pak border. In June 2018, Pakistan was put on the Financial Action Task Forces (FATF) “grey list” for its failure to stop anti-terror financing.

The United States’ hostility towards Afghanistan’s neighbors has also spread to Iran. In May, President Trump announced that the United States was backing out of its multilateral nuclear deal with Iran, followed by a reimposition of sanctions. The Iranian government has been accused of further enhancing violence in the Ghazni province by providing weapons to the Taliban, while Iran denies these claims, alternatively accusing the United States of transferring Islamic State (IS) militants to Afghanistan.

It seems that a deteriorating relationship between the United States and Afghanistan’s neighbors is particularly harming the Afghan government—the Taliban have engaged in talks with the United States, Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and China, all the while refusing to incorporate the Afghan government at any of the meetings they attended in Moscow and the United Arab Emirates. They are also refusing to engage with the Afghan government in the upcoming meeting in Saudi Arabia this month.

Trump appointed Zalmay Khalilzad as the American special envoy to Afghanistan in September with the primary mandate of “developing the opportunities to get the Afghans and the Taliban to come to a reconciliation.” In this new position, Khalilzad has been traveling to Pakistan, Afghanistan, Russia, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Belgium, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar with an interagency delegation. The Taliban receives immense foreign support, including resources to finance its operations, territorial space to be used as sanctuary, and even trade linkages.

Although these states providing external support could exert pressure over the Taliban to talk to the Afghan government, they are using the Taliban as a strategic negotiating chip to pressure the United States to limit its regional involvement. This mounting pressure has perhaps influenced U.S. foreign policy, compelling Trump to threaten a partial withdrawal and call upon Russia, Pakistan, and India to play a decisive role in ending the conflict in Afghanistan.

Looking Ahead to 2019

In retrospect, it is clear that a failing security situation, political instability, and tense interstate relations between key actors has shifted the power balance away from the Afghan government, undermined its legitimacy on the world stage, and allowed the Taliban a stronger negotiating stance in peace talks. Implementing a strategy that addresses the various layers of complexity in the Afghan conflict will be significant to both Trump’s reelection bid and to President Ghani’s.

Since the Afghan government’s power is largely an extension of its support from the United States, U.S. foreign policy will inadvertently implicate the status of the Afghan government both domestically and internationally. The United States began 2018 with a tough foreign policy stance towards Afghanistan: it increased the number of troops on the ground and criticized Afghanistan’s regional neighbors. By the end of the year, the increasing violence, loss of territory to the Taliban, and delays in the democratic process have assured Trump that a hasty victory is not possible. As a result, the Afghan government — with its closest ally signaling that it may leave it behind — will be scrambling to reassert its power in the regional context while maintaining a softer approach to the Taliban into 2019.

Editor’s Note: SAV  contributors from India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Sri Lanka look back at 2018, reflecting on significant political and economic developments in the subcontinent and assessing what these events may foretell about 2019. Read the series  here.

Click here to read this article in Urdu.

Image 1: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff via Flickr

Image 2: Ashraf Ghani via Twitter

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