With the proposed NATO pull-out at the end of 2014, the security situation in Afghanistan is once again under scrutiny – and with good reason. A long-term security agreement between Washington and Kabul looks increasingly unlikely, raising the possibility of a full NATO withdrawal that would leave Afghanistan to stand alone without direct American or European security assistance. This article will examine the stability prospects for Afghanistan should NATO leave without some kind of permanent military deployment being left behind.
The Afghan Security Forces: Ready or Not?
Since taking greater responsibility for the security of their country, the Afghan security forces have not performed well. Though they now carry out the vast majority of military and security operations, this increase has been marked by a spike in casualties, both for Afghan military forces and civilians caught in the crossfire with the Taliban. Poor training is also evident in the increasing number of beatings, lootings, and extrajudicial executions being reported by the UNAMA.
In addition to training problems, there are also issues with recruitment and retention. While Afghan security forces now number around 345,000 overall, desertion and end-of-service contribute to a loss of around 30,000 troops a year. The Afghan Air Force also has significant problems with obtaining working replacement parts and the general availability of modern military aircraft, both of which will represent a significant hurdle to future military operations. As it stands right now, the air force would be limited to a peripheral support role should NATO pull its air assets out of the country.
Even given these apparent limitations, there are questions of how such a large military will be paid for. Afghanistan’s annual budget is around $1.7 billion, but the amount needed to maintain existing personnel levels is around $4 billion annually. At the moment, this shortfall is being paid for by the United States, but it is not clear how Washington would continue its substantial support without a security agreement in place - especially given the corruption issues that have hounded the Afghan government. As such, the US military estimates that the Afghan government will only be able to pay 12% of its troops unless new sources of outside funding are found.
It is also worth noting the ethnic character of the Afghan military. A large majority of its troops and, in particular, its officer corps are of Tajik origin from the north of the country. This stands in stark contrast to the almost entirely Pashtun Taliban. Given the nature of Afghan politics, with its strong ethnic component, this is a worrying development, as it frames the conflict with the Taliban in ethnic terms and in doing so contributes to a lack of Pashtun recruits that hinders the growth of a representative national security force.
Militants are rehabilitated into the political process
One possible outcome to a complete withdrawal is that the door may open for bringing militant groups like Hezb-i-Islami and more moderate elements of the Taliban into the government, assuming a round of successful negotiations take place. This appears to be Karzai’s current strategy, given his talks with the Taliban and stalling on a security agreement with the United States. Such an approach would have several benefits, such as weakening the insurgency in the south and perhaps even convincing Pakistan that its interests in the country will be given sufficient attention (Pakistan’s support for the Taliban can be linked in part to regional strategic concerns).
However, such an outcome is not without risks – not least that hardline anti-Taliban elements in the country, along with the military, would find such a deal unpalatable. The Tajik-dominated army already looks upon Karzai with suspicion due to his Pashtun background and attempted mediation with the Taliban. With potentially large cuts in military spending looming, one source of instability could be Afghanistan’s own outsized security forces, should they perceive the government is acting against the national interest. Large sections of the Afghan population completely reject the Taliban as a political actor, and thus the path to political rehabilitation is definitely not without its risks.
Deployment or not; the insurgency rages on
The more likely outcome is that, even if some insurgents can be convinced to lay down their arms, violence in the south will continue. This is especially true if a security agreement allows for foreign troops to remain in the country.
The best guide here may be the history of the Taliban through the 1990s. Utilizing the weakness of the border and large numbers of students attending militant religious schools in Pakistan, the Taliban were able stage raids across the south and west of the country, eventually consolidating control over various towns and villages.
In particular, Kandahar and the surrounding provinces of Helmand and Uruzgan are at risk. Kandahar is the traditional homeland of the Taliban movement, and it is here where it is strongest. Kandahar’s shared border with Pakistan allows Taliban forces to move troops and supplies across the border – a technique that has served them well in the past, and would be very easy to accomplish if, as some suspect, the Taliban are still receiving help from the ISI in Pakistan.
Eventually, Taliban forces would attempt to take Kabul, though not before establishing a secure power base in the southwest. While the Taliban have been able to carry out numerous terrorist attacks in the region, conventional warfare would pose a much greater logistical challenge, and the Afghan government would certainly use every resource available to hold the capital.
Opium: The criminal ‘x-factor’
Behind the scenes of the fight between well-known actors such as the Taliban and Kabul, there is another factor worth considering: the drug trade. Afghanistan is one of the world’s largest sources of opium for heroin production, most of which passes through Pakistan before finding its way to the rest of the world. All sides in Afghanistan are involved in the drug trade to fund their activities, and with an increase in violence likely in the near future, they will only become more dependent on this critical source of income.
While the outlook for Afghanistan is currently bleak, there are still signs for cautious optimism. The possibility of a complete US withdrawal has India, Russia, and China all discussing what kind of aid they would be willing to provide to Afghanistan. While putting troops on the ground seems very unlikely (and, in the case of Indian troops, needlessly provocative), these countries are in a position to provide funding, arms, and parts which could improve the strategic standing of the Afghan security forces.
The other major factor determining Afghanistan’s future will be the country’s upcoming presidential election. This will be the first election where Hamid Karzai is ineligible to run, and while he will no doubt remain an influential figure behind the scenes, the uncertainty as to who will succeed him and their approach to Afghanistan’s many problems will have a major impact on the course of the country in the crucial months to come.
Marc Simms is a contributor to Geopoliticalmonitor.com