Thursday, 22 October 2015

The battle for Kunduz and its repercussions

Published in Analytical Articles

By Stephen Blank

October 22nd, 2015, The CACI Analyst

On October 13, 2015, the Taliban announced its withdrawal from the major Afghan city of Kunduz that it had captured earlier. A counterattack by the Afghan Army and the ISAF alliance’s air power reversed the Taliban’s earlier victory and forced them out of the city. Nevertheless, this battle cannot be considered a victory for the Afghan government or for ISAF, and its repercussions are wide-ranging. Almost immediately after the Taliban withdrawal, President Obama ended his long review of U.S. strategy and policy in Afghanistan by announcing that 5,500 U.S. forces would stay through 2017, i.e. into the next administration, to ensure the continuing stabilization of Afghanistan. 

BACKGROUND: This decision, in effect, reversed the entire trend of U.S. policy under Obama, which had been to decrease the U.S. footprint in Afghanistan and withdraw completely by 2016. Thus it attests to another failure of U.S. policy and strategy. Obama’s decision reflected one of the most immediate consequences of the battle for Kunduz, namely that the “happy talk” about the U.S. and Afghanistan making such progress that U.S. forces could leave Afghanistan by 2016 was just not true.

A recent study published by the U.S. Army War College makes clear that while U.S. intelligence agencies are and have been generally pessimistic about Afghanistan’s staying power and the government under President Ashraf Ghani; the U.S. army and the Administration were previously talking up Afghanistan’s prospects. It is now clear that the intelligence analysts more or less got it right. The Taliban’s initial victory in seizing Kunduz demonstrated that despite the billions spent on training, the Afghan army could not stand up to the Taliban without allied airpower and that this will remain the case for quite a long time. Thus Obama’s decision to preserve a U.S. force in Afghanistan, along with the larger ISAF force, was all but inevitable. No other choice was remotely conceivable.

But the U.S. policy reversal is hardly the only major consequence of this battle. It is clear that President Ghani has failed to build a viable government, admittedly a very difficult task given that he presides over a coalition with his rivals. Nevertheless, neither the Army, nor the government command sufficient capability to withstand the Taliban attack. After 15 years of fighting in Afghanistan, this is a sad commentary on the success of U.S. and allied strategy. Afghanistan remains afflicted by the problem that has tormented it since 1973 – the lack of an effective or legitimate government.

This political weakness calls into question not only the considerable socio-economic progress that has been made but also the country’s future ability to transform from aid-dependency to a more or less self-sufficient economy. Only after a successful transition will not only the government but also the economy and the country as a whole advance. Ongoing political failure and ensuing security risks also call into question the viability of major infrastructural projects, not least the TAPI (Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India gas pipeline) project that has finally gotten off the ground after many years of negotiation.

In addition, to the extent that Afghanistan cannot sustain itself as a state or at least remains at serious risk, foreign investors will remain leery of bringing skills, knowhow, technology, and capital into the country. Those inhibiting factors can only perpetuate the vicious circle that has plagued efforts at recovery since the 1990s.

Finally, continuing state weakness opens the way for foreign governments to pursue their rivalling agendas both within and over Afghanistan. India and Pakistan are the most egregious cases, but they are hardly alone in their competition. As has been the case historically, each foreign government that is interested in playing a major role in Afghanistan has been able to forge a common cause with Afghan partners.

IMPLICATIONS: A perfect example of this latter phenomenon is Russia. To be sure, Russia neither can, nor wants to commit troops to Afghanistan. Yet the fall of Kunduz, coupled with the insurrection in Tajikistan last month, has led Russian officials to voice mounting concern about the terrorist organization calling itself the Islamic State (ISIS) and/or the Taliban coming to power in Afghanistan, and to express in public their anxiety for Tajikistan. Once again, rumors circulate of possible deployments to Tajikistan’s border with Afghanistan, while Ghani’s rivals like Vice-President Abdul Rashid Dostum, who is a long-standing Russian ally, is turning to Russia for helicopters and ammunition.

Moscow apparently will transfer helicopters to Afghanistan and pressure Central Asian states for help, but there is no regional organization or mechanism to administrate this endeavor. Neither is there as much Central Asian cooperation as rhetoric might lead outsiders to think – it is indeed difficult to conceive of any truly viable Central Asian security cooperation. Considering that Moscow has long publicly voiced its negative assessments of future outcomes in Afghanistan, it becomes clear that if the government would fall or if a Central Asian state like Tajikistan would fail, Russia would have to intervene because there is nobody else to do so.

Given Russia’s recent international behavior and its increasingly tightly constrained capabilities, this is hardly an appealing prospect, but it is the stark reality. The battle of Kunduz and its final outcome graphically illustrated that the U.S. strategy has failed again and that Washington cannot leave Afghanistan lest it descend once again into a maelstrom of violence. Yet it is unlikely that any subsequent Administration will be able to persuade the U.S. public to continue shouldering the burden of years of bipartisan strategic failure.

Worse yet, there is no sign of any coherent U.S. policy for Central Asia other than trying to hold Afghanistan together. Central Asia, and for that matter the Caucasus, are areas that epitomize the strategic retreat of the U.S. from many areas of the world. Certainly nobody in the Obama Administration has either articulated a strategic vision for Central Asia or been willing to assign it major resources. The expectation was that we would reduce our profile in Afghanistan. That has now been put off for two years, but there has probably been little thought given to forging a viable strategy to stabilize Afghanistan beyond the band aid of 5,500 US troops and a continuing, albeit reduced ISAF deployment.

Every Central Asian government has a tendency to believe that all of its opponents are terrorists or at least professes to call them that. But the fact remains that there are multiple governance issues throughout the region and a Taliban victory will inevitably heighten those tensions even if internal unrest in any state is not caused by ISIS or the Taliban. According to the UN, the Taliban controls more of Afghanistan than at any time since 2001, which testifies to the utter failure of Western and U.S. strategy to date. Therefore, the fighting around Kunduz cannot but increase the anxieties felt by Central Asian governments and the great powers about developments in Afghanistan. Yet the willingness to commit more resources, including manpower to this battle against the Taliban is, if anything, decreasing. Europe and the U.S. simply cannot muster the resources or attention to deal with another major crisis in a systematic way, which is necessary if lasting progress is to be made in Afghanistan.  

Neither is Afghanistan the only local government facing the prospect of insurgency or even state failure. Putin’s and President Nazarbayev’s joint public expression of concern about Tajikistan’s stability points to the broader security challenge of fundamental reforms in government that must sooner or later be made across Central Asia before it is too late to mount an effective defense of those states. Yet regional cooperation in security or in other spheres does not really exist.  The nominal organizations that have been established to provide security, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the Collective Security Treaty Organization, are untested and riven by divisions despite outward shows of unity. 

CONCLUSIONS: The necessity of more effective state building, the need for a more viable U.S. policy, and fighting the war in Afghanistan are questions with significant ramifications for the entire Central Asian region. Kunduz, taken in the context of ongoing events throughout Central Asia, highlights the permanent vulnerability of the region as well as the weaknesses of its anti-terrorist forces. Central Asia, for all its successes, remains vulnerable to governance challenges of an intra-state nature, to the possibility of insurgency and terrorism in Afghanistan, and to the absence of any viable regional structure of security. In addition, none of the major players in Central Asia appear ready to assert a vector upon which local governments can rely in their consistent multi-vector foreign policies. These shortcomings are mutually reinforcing and interactive. Consequently, whether or not Afghanistan can survive the challenges it faces, absent any serious effort to redress those challenges the region will remain permanently at risk for a long time to come.

AUTHOR’S BIO: Stephen Blank is a Senior Fellow with the American Foreign Policy Council. 

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The Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst is a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program, a Joint Transatlantic Research and Policy Center affiliated with the American Foreign Policy Council, Washington DC., and the Institute for Security and Development Policy, Stockholm. For 15 years, the Analyst has brought cutting edge analysis of the region geared toward a practitioner audience.


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