What to Watch? Key issues to follow in Afghanistan in 2017
As in most years, the feeling in January 2017 is that this will be another crucial year for Afghanistan. The AAN team has identified several key themes that we think it important to follow this year. They range from crises in the Afghan government and how changes in global politics, particularly the change of administration in Washington, will affect governance and peace efforts in Afghanistan, to the Afghan government’s efforts in the field of basic rights and freedoms for all and, of course, migration, both Afghans leaving and returning. The list of issues reflects the worry that, in 2017, Afghanistan will be left increasingly alone to sort out its old and new challenges, despite commitments of continued international support.
Key issues to watch in 2017:
Internal crisis in the government The Afghan government has been in a state of relatively stable crisis. The set-up of the National Unity Government (NUG) and its complex power-sharing arrangements has paralysed governance in Afghanistan and this is likely to continue with several ongoing crises flaring up again in 2017.
2016 saw several attempts to reorganise the power-sharing arrangement, most recently through the removal of ministers by parliament (which has not yet been accepted by the executive); the negotiations between Balkh provincial governor and chairman of Jamiat-e Islami’s Executive Council Atta Muhammad Nur and the President Ashraf Ghani (which has, by design, undermined the position of Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah); the uproar around the alleged attack on former governor of Jowzjan Ahmad Ishchi by, or on the order of, Vice-President Abdul Rashid Dostum; and Hezb-e Islami’s demands for a greater share in power after its September 2016 peace agreement with the government.
For now, there seems to be a lull in the various negotiations, as the various actors wait to see how the United States administration will pan out and what that will mean for their relative positions. The legality of the NUG, which came into being through the mediation of former US Secretary of State John Kerry, was explicitly supported by the previous US administration. A change or a wavering on the US’s side in this regard could signal a reopening of the discussion over the legitimacy of the current government, while changes in the level of financial and/or military support to Afghanistan would affect the strength of the Afghan administration as a whole. Moreover, it is not only the US administration’s formal policies that are relevant. Equally important for the various Afghan powerbrokers, is to see who will have friends and backers in the new administration, and who will not.
Crises and conflicts in the government and the rearranging of relative power risk further escalating ethnic, religious and geographical tensions. These have, in the past year, became particularly visible around the protests over the electricity power line from Central Asia (TUTAP) and the controversy over the reburial of former king, Habibullah Kalakani. Potential future flashpoints include any attempt to sideline Dostum or to share power between three parties in government (by giving a greater share to Hezb-e Islami) or even four (by giving a share to any Taleban splinter faction that might opt for a similar peace deal). Both new parties to the power sharing equation would be overwhelmingly Pashtun.
The rifts, for the moment, are not expected to be bad enough to pull the country or the government apart. Even the Uzbeks, who are currently the most likely to be disaffected, if Dostum is further sidelined, are expected to continue to play a role in the centre as long as they can. Although the mobilising power of the overwhelmingly Hazara-based Enlightenment Movement is regarded with suspicion by the Afghan government (as well as the current Hazara leaders), the movement is not intended to threaten the centre. Having said that, the political rifts need to be taken seriously both by the Afghan and the international side, with all sides guarding against inflaming tensions further. Even if nothing worse happens, getting anything done in government will remain, of course, difficult.
The upcoming elections will continue to dominate the political arena in 2017, even though it is unlikely that the planned parliamentary election will take place in the coming year. The newly appointed Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) will need at least a year to prepare, which can only happen after the possible changes to the electoral system have been agreed and finalised (which may prove to be a further stumbling block). Ultimately, after a long period of the government insisting that the parliamentary elections will take place as soon as is possible, they may actually be further postponed, possibly to be held together with the next presidential election in 2019. In the meantime, the process of political positioning and alliance building, that precedes every presidential election, had already begun in late 2016. This will continue, and increase, throughout 2017 and 2018, probably inspiring new (whether temporary or lasting) partnerships and rifts.
The intensity of the war The conflict in 2016 continued unabated, showing an increase in Taleban gains, both in territory and influence, particularly in rural areas. The Taleban are likely to seek to intensify their war effort in the coming year and seem to be gearing up to further erode the ANSF’s territorial control and morale by launching intensified and more sophisticated attacks. Alongside the fighting effort, they will probably continue to try and play the ‘soft card’ providing local populations with incentives to surrender and seeking to act as a shadow government in areas under their control or influence – focusing on sectors of the civilian arena such as taxes, security, courts and construction works. Pakistani support to the Taleban’s military effort has continued, despite a series of arrests of key Taleban figures in the autumn. That support is likely to continue in the coming year. However, the forced deportations and departures of large numbers of Afghan refugees from Pakistan may diminish the recruitment pool for the insurgency, at least from Pakistan.
The intensified war effort is likely to lead to further attrition of the Afghan national security forces (ANSF) and losses of territory. The lagging capabilities of the ANSF and the ambiguous role of pro-government ‘auxiliary’ forces (known as ‘National Uprising Groups’) in countering the insurgency, remain points of concern. Although certain units perform well, the ANSF on the whole continue to suffer from attrition, combat readiness, logistics, air power, morale, intelligence capabilities, command and control, lack of coherence and coordination, human rights violations and causing civilian casualties. Not only are the troops on the ground often not able or willing to effectively respond to Taleban attacks, they are also often poorly equipped, left to fend for themselves and faced with an unresponsive, indifferent and sometimes incompetent leadership wracked by political divisions, mistrust and corruption. There have been the first arrests of senior officers accused of fraud or corruption. A deputy to one of the deputy ministers of the interior was found guilty of taking bribes and sent to prison by the newly created Anti-Corruption Criminal Justice Centre.
On both the government and Taleban sides, there were again large numbers of casualties, with little prospect that this will let up. This may have an impact on morale and recruitment on both sides. It could also lead to a further hardening of positions and the entrenching of violence and revenge – or, more hopefully, encourage peace-making.
Whether the ANSF will be able to beat back the Taleban and prevent them from holding on to greater gains, such as key districts, roads or even provincial centres, will largely depend on the extent of sustained international military support. Vulnerable areas in this regard currently include Kunduz, Sar-e pul, Baghlan, Farah and Helmand. The increased recruitment of non-Pashtuns into the Taleban is likely to continue, both in terms of the ground troops and the leadership, providing them with a secure presence in the north.
The US is expected to, in the short run, intensify its military efforts in Afghanistan; General Nicholson, Commander of NATO troops in Afghanistan, as well as the incoming US military and national security team around President Donald Trump seem poised to step up counterterrorism air strikes and focus on killing or capturing the leaders and commanders of the insurgency. This could already be seen in summer 2016 as the US military in Helmand and Kunduz (unsuccessfully) sought to kill the senior most commanders of the Taleban. This is likely to accelerate, if more members of the Taleban leadership move into Afghanistan, as a result of increased pressure by Pakistan.
The intensification of the war has led to much suffering: an increase in civilian casualties, IDPs and food insecurity. This trend is likely to continue. As UNOCHA discussed in its humanitarian appeal for 2017: “The continued deepening and geographic spread of the conflict has prompted a 13% increase in the number of people in need of humanitarian assistance in 2017, now 9.3 million […] With no obvious prospects for an improved state of affairs, 2017 is likely to see at least 450,000 new IDPs and potentially as many as a million more Afghan returns from Pakistan and Iran.”
The Afghan-Pakistani Daesh franchise (known as the Islamic State Khorasan Province, or ISKP) will seek to increase its foothold in the east of the country, as well as keep up its media-grabbing presence in the urban centres, particularly Kabul, by committing high-profile terrorist and possibly sectarian attacks. The positioning of regional countries vis-à-vis insurgent and militant groups, including Pakistan, Iran, Russia, China, India and the Gulf states, will continue to affect the relative strengths of the various groups. Changes in patterns of support will obviously have repercussions on the battlefield.
Prospects for peace talks With the expected military escalation from the US backing up the ANSF and the continued ambiguity within the NUG towards a peace process, prospects for serious peace efforts in 2017 are limited. There has been no sign of any real desire desire to work for a negotiated end to the conflict by the Taleban leadership either. Although there have been a series of informal direct discussions between the Taleban and the NUG in recent months, the effort could easily be (and is to some extent already) offset by a more belligerent US approach. Some semi-governmental and independent initiatives for peace are likely to continue, although probably not in a very consistent or centralised manner. These efforts may or may not gain momentum, depending on the situation on ground and the quality of the initiatives.
The increasing ethnic dynamics of Afghan politics may lead to a re-alignment (or deepening) of positions regarding peace talks. For instance, Kandahar pro-government strongman General Raziq, long known for his robust anti-Taleban stance, particularly on the battlefield, has recently come out with statements honouring the late Taleban leader, Mullah Omar ,and proposing to provide the Taleban with a safe zone – in what was generally read as an ethnically-motivated shift of opinion. There have always been suspicions that both former president Karzai’s and current president Ghani’s support for a peace process (as with the recent Hezb-e Islami deal) were motivated by the wish to strengthen the ‘Pashtun hand’ in politics. This could affect the mood towards a possible peace deal, if at some point there is one on the table.
The extent to which the recent ‘peace agreement’ with Hezb-e Islami has an effect on the battlefield (up till now, wholly absent) and/or results in power sharing and privileges (not yet finalised) may have an effect on support for a possible deal with (parts of) the Taleban. At the moment, the privileges offered by the government seem to far outweigh Hezb’s importance, both in the political and military field. Politically, the peace deal will probably lead to a re-unification of a party that had been split into various wings (several of which were already part of the political set-up in Kabul), allowing Hezb to gain political weight. On the military side, the party’s insurgent wing has not been particularly active for a number of years, but has now promised to send fighters against the Taleban, which may further strengthen the party politically.
The next step in the efforts towards ‘peace’ may be another largely inconsequential deal, this time with the (shrinking) splinter factions of the Taleban, which the government seem to be wooing. These factions may also demand formal representation and a cut of government appointments, as Hezb-e Islami did. All in all, these ‘peace deals’ – both those already concluded and those possibly imminent – are likely to strengthen the influence of a conglomerate of (formerly) armed, Islamist factions in the government (although they could also lead to further competition between them).
Reports that Russia and Iran are in direct talks with (or are supporting) the Taleban continue. Russia was reportedly assured by the Taleban that it was a strictly national movement that did not intend to spread beyond Afghanistan’s borders. Russian support fits in a wider policy of allying itself with local forces against Daesh (and against NATO, which Moscow accuses of supporting Daesh). The recent trilateral talks in Moscow between Russia, Pakistan and China, are being followed with much interest in Afghanistan.
Rights and freedoms The crisis in the government and the intensification of the conflict may further erode the protection of human rights in Afghanistan – both in the area of civil and political rights, and economic, social and cultural rights.
Issues to watch, especially as Afghanistan readies itself for new elections, are efforts by the government to limit freedom of expression, and threats and violence, by various powerful groups and individuals, towards journalists, civil society and non-Islamist political activists. The right to education, especially for girls, in conflict-intense areas remains a concern. The already precarious legal protection for girls and women may face specific challenges, as the ongoing efforts to subsume the Elimination of Violence against Women (EVAW) law into the Penal Code threatens to change or dilute important articles in the EVAW law. In addition, the president may not sign the Law on the Elimination of Harassments against Women and Children, which was recently passed by the Afghan parliament, as Afghanistan’s government tries to combine all separate codes with criminal articles, into a single penal code.
The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, which in the past has been an important voice in defence of human rights, will move to its permanent premises in 2017, but the positions of two commissioners remain empty since last year. Decreased international funding of civil society organisations and independent media outlets (the latter already ongoing for years), as well as a decreased focus on democratic and human rights values, threatens to weaken the effectiveness, or even survival, of important independent voices, including in remote areas.
Towards the end of 2016, the NUG established a Judicial Centre for Corruption that has just started operations. There has also been a focus on justice sector reform, led by Vice President Muhammad Sarwar Danesh; the effort, so far, has led to reforms in the penal code and reforms in the judiciary (several rounds of staff replacement). During 2017 it should become clearer whether the claimed campaign against corruption is indeed serious and effective. If it is, there may be political implications, leading to greater factionalism, particularly if the targeting is seen or can be cast as partisan or uneven.
Relations with the US, wider international relations Changes in US policies on Afghanistan and, more broadly, multilateral cooperation within NATO and the UN, will have a direct effect on the situation in Afghanistan and its region, and on policies in Europe. Changes in US policies on Afghanistan may include an intensification of fighting and targeted killing, in an effort to decisively ‘deal with’ or ‘contain’ the war. It could also result in a decline in funds or a lack of clarity on whether the US will keep its commitments, which will reverberate both in Afghanistan’s national politics and on the battlefield.
Relations with the US may become strained if the Office of the Prosecutor (OTP) of the International Criminal Court (ICC) decides to open an investigation in Afghanistan. A preliminary examination in 2016 showed that the thresholds of admissibility had been reached and that war crimes and crimes against humanity that meet the ICC gravity threshold had been committed in Afghanistan by all parties – the Taleban, US military and CIA, and the NDS and other parts of the ANSF – involved in the armed conflict, after 2003 (the ICC only has jurisdiction of crimes committed from 2003 onwards). The OTP is currently deciding whether to request authorisation from the ICC’s pre-trail chamber to open an investigation.
The Afghan government is ambivalent towards the ICC’s engagement in Afghanistan. President Ghani, although initially supportive of addressing the legacies of war crimes in Afghanistan, has recently said he believes an ICC investigation could undermine peace talks, as it would prevent the Taleban from trusting the government. The fact that the ICC’s preliminary examination names the US as one of the perpetrators, may affect relations between the court and the new US administration.
The economy The economy is a subject that will be on the mind of many Afghans – both in terms of the sustainability of Afghanistan’s national budget, and the economic opportunities (or lack thereof) for Afghans in general. So far, for the general population, the trends have not been good; poverty and food insecurity rates over the last few years have risen, rather than declined, despite the post-2001 investments.
The government has strongly emphasised the importance of regional cooperation, infrastructure investments and job creation, and has proposed several programs that aim to grow the economy and combat unemployment, although their effects may not be immediately felt.
A key component of the government’s economic policy is driven by the need to increase revenues. This includes expanding tax collection, levying new taxes and computerising the customs system to cut down corruption and other losses. Donors, in particular, expect Afghanistan’s revenue generation to steadily grow, as a reassurance that at some point in the future the country will be able to fend for itself without massive international assistance. Experts however have noted that the recent increases in revenue collection are either not replicable or unsustainable and that the economy is set to shrink rather than grow.
For the second year in a row, the number of provinces declared ‘poppy-free’ has decreased; in 2016, 21 provinces were cultivating opium, with only 13 declared poppy-free (UNODC considers a province ‘poppy-free’ if less than 100 hectares is under cultivation). Issues to watch include the drug economy; whether changes in domestic and regional relations lead to a restructuring of who controls the trade; and the festering water management conflicts with the neighbours.
Migration: leaving and returning 2015 and the beginning of 2016 saw unprecedented, at least in recent years, numbers of Afghans leaving their country and traveling towards Europe. This was fuelled by the declining hope of a politically and economically stable Afghanistan and the pull of the, temporarily, open route provided by the Balkans corridor (for about half a year, all Afghans who reached the western Balkans were ferried onwards into the EU). The fear of a sustained high influx prompted European countries to tighten their procedures and border controls. As a result, the numbers of Afghans travelling to Europe seem to have returned to pre-2015 levels.
Mass returns of refugees from Pakistan and Iran since, which are expected to continue in 2017 (more than half a million from Pakistan alone since July 2016), have been a heavy burden on the country’s economy and have overburdened already fragile services, particularly health and education, in the most-affected areas. This is exacerbated by the fact that many returnees have not lived in Afghanistan for a long time (or, in many cases, ever). The large numbers of returnees from Pakistan and Iran, and to a lesser extent from Europe, moreover, are likely to result in a serious decline of remittances, both at the national and the household level.
European countries seem poised to continue to view migration as a key issues in their bilateral relations with the Afghan government, with a particular focus on ensuring Afghan cooperation with forcible returns – a politically unpopular position for the government to be in. The miserable conditions in and on the road to Europe, however, mean that far fewer Afghans are currently contemplating the trip. This is what Europe intended, but the diminishing opportunities for young people means that the country has lost an important pressure valve.