Afghanistan after 2014: What's Next?

Posted in Afghanistan | 19-Jul-13 | Author: Hubertus Hoffmann,

What will happen in Afghanistan after the end of the ISAF-Mission in December 2014? A collapse of the Kabul government, a separation into north and south, or peace?

These were some of the questions that the Afghanistan Team of the independent World Security Network Foundation (Prof. Ludger Kühnhardt, Dr. Mario Ohle and Dr. Hubertus Hoffmann) discussed with ISAF representatives, Afghan military and police officers and ordinary people in the streets of Kabul and Mazar-e-Sharif on a fact-finding mission in July 2013.

Here are some of the most frequently asked questions and answers from us and several clues as to Afghanistan after 2014: What's Next?

Will Afghanistan become a new, Vietnam-style defeat for the U.S.?

Answer: A clear no. The Pashtun-rooted Taliban have some support from neighboring Pashtun-Pakistan, but not a large army for an invasion in the large country, like the Vietnamese had in the early 1970s. Inside Afghanistan, the Taliban groups are not as strong as the Vietcong insurgents were before the storming of Saigon in 1975. The Taliban are most disliked and weakest in the North; they cannot conquer and rule the cities.

As it has over the last 12 years, Washington will continue to use its global military and intelligence power to contain any new larger terrorist activities in Afghanistan to avoid another 9/11, and will do so indefinitely. The U.S. can kill any new al Qaida or Taliban leader anywhere in the country with drone strikes, as has been demonstrated each week in the tribal areas (FATA), or with special operations, including by the secret Delta Force and with airstrikes that are used now secretly. Therefore, it is impossible for the Taliban to build up any open leadership and governmental structures in any city without the acceptance of the White House at the least. Without it, they cannot rule. They are under pressure to find a modus vivendi with the U.S. and to distance themselves from al Qaida terrorism and started official negotiations with the U.S. in Doha only weeks ago.

The U.S. and its ISAF allies will not totally withdraw from Afghanistan as they did from Vietnam after 1973. The West will not abandon Afghanistan again like it did after 1989 when the Soviets took their troops out, anarchy prevailed and the Taliban emerged. If the Kabul government agrees on a deployment agreement with NATO, there will still be thousands of U.S. and other former ISAF troops for military training, mentoring and intelligence, combined with strong financial support for the larger ANF and massive economic support of more than 4.5 billion USD per year after 2014. Against this, the Taliban is lost.

Did the ISAF and ANF or the Taliban win the war in Afghanistan?

The international troops of the ISAF and Afghan National Forces (AFN) won the new Afghan war. They have pushed the Taliban back and control most of the territories.

It is not the ISAF which fights now or wins now in 2013, but the Afghan National Army, Afghan National Police and Afghan Border Police – collectively known as the Afghan Nation Force or ANF – with local police units.

By June 2013, the Afghans had taken over responsibility for security all over the country. The ISAF only supports their planning with reduced and limited military actions and intelligence. The main losses are now those of the Afghan Police, who have to hold territories against insurgents.

As the Western forces will be out at the end of 2014, the Taliban can no longer argue that they are 'liberating the country from the unbelievers and the Americans'. Thus, they will lose this strong argument for recruitment and hate propaganda.

The Afghan National Security Forces will take over responsibility for the security of Afghanistan from the ISAF when its 13-year mission concludes on December 31st, 2014. Until now, there has been no support-agreement for the U.S. and NATO for the mission "Resolute Support". No later than November 2013, the international forces have to know about support after 2014. Germany will leave 600 to 800 soldiers for training missions in the North for two years.

In the regional reconciliation process, more than 6,000 former Taliban fighters laid down their arms.

The Taliban cannot take over central power in Kabul and the North or in larger cities, but could perhaps become stronger in the rural parts of the South and the West. The North and Kabul are quite calm and the insurgents have been pushed out. In the North, the 209th ANA Corps and the police hold large areas they retook from the insurgents. Since 2008, the ANF have been responsible for security in Kabul. They cannot avoid all bomb attacks in such a large city, with a population of 3.3 million, but have done an excellent job over the last five years.

The main weapons of the insurgents are improvised explosive devices (IEDs). The ANF has become much more effective at containing these threats over the last three years and neutralizing two out of every three IEDs. Now, the Taliban strategy is to get world-wide media attention and produce a feeling of needling insecurity through IED explosions against civilians, as in Kabul in the last few weeks. This shows more weakness, as they cannot launch massive military operations to conquer and hold large territories and cities – as the North Vietnamese were able to do in 1973-75.

The ANF is still lacking an air force and effective artillery capabilities, intelligence and C3, which will limit its military strength from 2015 onwards, but it will still be strong enough for defensive capabilities.

The situation is like two scorpions. The ANF will be strong enough to avoid a Vietcong-style Taliban victory in Kabul, major cities and the North. However, the Taliban will control large rural areas in the South and West and threaten the ANF with IED attacks.

The Taliban movement lost the support of the people through its attacks on civilians, which is also a crime under Islamic Jihad rules.

Shadow-player Pakistan has no interest in putting the Taliban in power again, but rather to influence its glacis to the West. The Taliban are a tool employed by some nationalist elements within the ISI to influence the future of Afghanistan and to avoid too much influence by arch-enemy India.

What is the scenario after the end of ISAF, after 2014?

Politically, the country will be fragile for some years to come, threatened by a bad mélange of terrorist attacks, Taliban insurgents, corruption, mismanagement in Kabul, power struggles and drug lords.

But the trend of internal development is upwards.

It will take one more generation to stabilize Afghanistan after 33 years of wars and the stone-age rule of the Taliban.

On April 5th 2014, a new President will be elected. Karsai can not run again, as the Presidency is limited to two terms. There are several different possible candidates and a search is underway for a consensus candidate, as well from the opposition. Democracy is alive, with active debate. More open-minded and conservatives political groups are involved. Nevertheless, the technical and legal basis is unclear and the leadership of the election commission has not been filled – a manipulation by Karsai.

The society has changed radically in the cities over the last 12 years and will continue to change for the better. Afghanistan has opened up to the world in terms of culture and business.

In the North, 90 percent perceive positive development; in the South, 60 percent. The rich governors and generals have an interest in their assets and stability. The economy is growing. Natural resources such as some gas, oil and minerals could be used in the long term. The infrastructure is much better. Eight million children – 40 percent of whom are girls – go to school now. There are several new universities in the country. Basic healthcare provision is up from a mere six percent during the Taliban times to 85 percent. Infant mortality is down 66 percent. Millions of refugees have returned, mainly from Pakistan. There is much free media. Lots of cell phones. Seven percent use the internet.

Many fresh faces and new parties are emerging among young people. The old system of warlords still exists, but is fading out – aggressive Islamists have lost sympathy and attraction. And, most important, the Afghans are great people with spirit and strong will to recover.

The most important issue now is to give the young generation hope and jobs and to stimulate the economy.

Can the al Qaida terrorists return to Afghanistan?

Unfortunately, Afghanistan had been a safe haven for Osama bin Laden for five years from 1996 to September 11th, 2001, only because both U.S. Presidents Clinton and Bush did not authorize decisive military strikes and limited operations by the Delta Force and Navy Seals to their training camps and the killing of Osama bin Laden. This was a critical weakness of the U.S. leadership, which in the end cost several thousand Americans their lives and many more in Afghanistan itself. The White House had no efficient anti-terror strategy for too long. This was the main political mistake in Washington pre-9/11.

Now, a permanent mixture of excellent intelligence, special forces and CIA operations, drone strikes, cuts of financial support and other political actions take away al Qaida's oxygen to breath. Osama bin Laden and his leadership have been killed. His network is destroyed and done. The snake of the Hindu Kush will not be able to recover there again

Smaller groups will still be a threat, but would be better able to operate in countries like Yemen, those of the Sahara or Iraq, where the U.S. is not so active and dangerous to them as in Afghanistan or Pakistan's FATA.

In addition, a smart U.S. double-strategy of power and reconciliation is needed, including promoting The Human Codes of Tolerance and Respect (see and an action plan to enlighten young people in Afghanistan and Pakistan as to the true, peaceful nature of Islam. Here, a vacuum exists at the important political level.

Who are 'the Taliban'?

There is no single "the Taliban", but a mix of groups, now labeled as the "enemies of Afghanistan": some politically-motivated Taliban rooted in the Pashtun tribes, a few al Qaida-insurgents, as well as drug dealers, smugglers and criminals, mixed with tribes who for a while decided to join the enemies out of political opportunity.

What is the core of the conflict?

The Taliban had been inspired by the radical Wahabit religion from Saudi Arabia, supported by hundreds of millions from rich families like the bin Laden clan. This aggressive version of Islam infiltrated Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation of 1979 to 1989 and produced a mix of narrow-minded fighters like Osma bin Laden, with no tolerance and respect towards others.

This is not the real and true Islam of the Prophet Mohammad but a politically-driven perversion of this religion, which has also been strong in the tribal areas (FATA) and Pakistan since the 1980s. Thus, ignorance and aggressiveness flooded both countries in the 1980s, together with war. The people of Afghanistan got used to killings but not the pretty flowers of peaceful Islam, as in many centuries before.

After 9/11, the U.S., joined by NATO and many nations from all over the world, decided to destroy the dangerous al Qaida terrorist network, drive the al Qaida-protecting Taliban from power and invade the territories of Afghanistan. These political aims were soon reached, within a matter of weeks: al Qaida was smashed and the Taliban was out of the government as part of "Operation Enduring Freedom" in November 2001. Phase One was a quick and total victory

What mistakes were made?

In Phase Two (from December 2001 until 2010), many severe mistakes were made on the political, rather than the military level, which almost led to a 'lost victory'. Only in 2010, after eight lost and long years, a clever joint military and political strategy (COIN) was implemented in Phase Three, which until the end of 2014 led to much more stability and hope for the future. This turn-around has been a great success so far. Now, a fourth phase will start in 2015, after the ISAF mission is concluded and the Afghans have taken over all military and political responsibilities.

What went wrong?

The U.S. and its allies decided to commence a gigantic nation-building project, starting with the Petersberg Conference in Bonn in December 2001. This was a naïve as well as over-dimensioned approach in a war-torn country. It was also not necessary for preventing another 9/11, which could have been done by intensive intelligence, air strikes and special forces on a case-by-case basis.

Instead of a federal system with strong local authorities, which fits to the diverse structure of the country, a centralized government was formed under President Hamid Karzai by the U.S. All eggs were put into this one fragile basket and on the shoulders of one man in Kabul. This wrong concept slowed local progress that had been achieved and undermined stability in the valleys.

From the start, this approach was an impossible mission in such an under-developed country, where foreigners have not been viewed favorably for 1,000 years, especially when they are Christians and Americans.

Foreigners also got involved in the usual power-struggle between different groups and tribes and local rulers.

Drug production was not contained and corruption emerged.

The idea of implementing democracy by pure elections was also naïve.

No reconciliation and peace talks with the Taliban were started in 2001/02 and no strategic plan to integrate the important interests of Pakistan and the tribal areas (FATA) was devised.

The West talked only of integrating Pakistan and supporting development in the tribal areas, but did almost nothing. The U.S. sold billions of dollars of weapons to the Pakistani army on lost credits and invested too little money in development there. Nice talks dominated, but no deeds and actions. Pakistan got lost along with the possibility of politically-integrating this country and the Taliban in the peace process.

Because of the War in Iraq, beginning in March 2003, the U.S. lost focus on Afghanistan and the insurgents came back. Only in 2010 did ISAF Commander Stanley McChrystal implement a credible ISAF COIN strategy and build-up of a strong-enough Afghan Army and Police.

The quite positive status of 2013 could have been reached with the same strategy as early as 2006. This action-gap from 2003 to 2010 was the main mistake of the U.S. and its Western partners, who simply followed the wrong American policy.

The country was flooded with money and large projects as well and too quickly, which led to mismanagement and corruption in Kabul with no clear plan and too little cooperation between the civilian and military sides until 2010.

Severe political mistakes were made; not by the military, which only follows politics.

What do President Karsai and the Afghan leaders want?

Egoism rather than national patriotism prevails. The Afghan leaders mainly fight for themselves and their local clans: for money, influence and prestige. The society is still tribal and personality-oriented. Most top political and military leaders accumulate power and money for themselves – not the country – and their families and clans.

Atta Muhammad Nur, the important and efficient governor of Balkh province in the North in Mazar-i-Sharif, for example, is said to have become a billionaire. An influential political office is always used to make money for the family via business partners who gain profits, mainly with contracts from Western donators. There is no bad feeling about it, as it has been the custom for centuries. Money is transferred out of the country to Turkish, Dubai or Singaporean bank accounts.

Afghanistan is still the old world, sometimes with traditions Europe knew in pre-industrial times in the seventeenth century, when a few aristocrats and bishops dominated the people. Still, the leaders take it all and the poor and simple people suffer.

Who do the Afghans not like?

It is a sad reality, that the United States, together with Pakistan, is at the top of the list of 'not-liked-nations', together with criminals and the Taliban, when you ask the man in the street. This is not fair, but a fact of public opinion and the perception of the people. Germany, on the other side of the spectrum of allies, is well-liked because of historical good relations. The Afghans are extremely sensitive when it comes to sovereignty and foreign interference. They feel too pushed by the U.S. From this perception, a withdrawal of the U.S. and its allies makes clear that it is not an occupation, and that the Afghans have to clear the situation by themselves.

What about drugs?

Nobody has an achievable plan or the funding to reduce the country's immense poppy production, which has a value of approximately USD 600 million per year. Afghanistan's economy is based on opium production and accounts for more than 70 percent of the global demand, which is the basis for criminal gangs and the funding of the Taliban as well. A simple farmer can make USD 8,000 per hectare in poppy production, but only USD 100 when he grows wheat.

How will the international community support Afghanistan after 2014?

In July 2012, 80 nations pledged USD 16 billion for Afghanistan until the end of 2015 at the Tokyo Conference. USD 35 billion in civilian aid was spent from 2001 to 2010.

It is like two sides of a single coin: it is good to support and necessary to fund the Afghan forces and to improve the lives of the people, bad as it can be in being like honey attracting wild bears in Kabul with regard to corruption. The country is over-aided, and therefore those on top are spoiled and too inactive. Too few funds reach the poor.

The U.S. and its partners have been unable for more than 11 years now to form a solid base with reduced corruption, clear and fair laws and a good government. They were too naïve and soft on Karsai. Still, they now hope to progress with better governance in the future.

Still missing is a plan for the soft landing of the international support with reduced funds and a long-term structure for Afghanistan in 2020.

A new focus should be the young coming generation. We propose a large 'Afghan Leadership and Mentoring Program', with mentors involved who will take care of 50,000 young mentees per year, helping them to build up a well-educated new generation.

Peace Negotiations with the Taliban

Since 2009, the global World Security Network has promoted the commencement of negotiations with the Taliban to initiate a political process of reconciliation. Very late now, on June 18, 2013, the Taliban opened an office in Qatar. The integration of Pakistan, as the most influential neighboring country, is essential and a fundamental factor of success that is still missing. We endorse starting UN negotiations that include Pakistan, the United States, Turkey and Germany for the international community, with delegations from Afghanistan and the Taliban without any pre-conditions. These meetings should be structured into several working groups: respect to Islam and rules of reconciliation; education for women and the role-model of Khadijah bint al-Khuwaylid, the emancipated first wife of the Prophet and businesswoman in Mecca; respect for the UN Charter and human rights and the Afghan Constitution; denial of terrorism according to the Holy Quran; the development of agriculture; and guarantees from Pakistan and the international community.

These reconciliation talks will take several years. The first aim should be a ceasefire for one year. It is a good opportunity to listen to the Taliban, get to know them and create mutual acceptance.

Lessons Learned

Since December 2012, the German government has been collecting Afghan-lessons-learned and best practices in defense, development and international relations so as to use this know-how in future failed states and conflicts.

Afghanistan was the largest ever effort of many countries and NATO. It strengthened international cooperation, but also produced a lot of frustration and clearly showed the West the limits of the influence of military interventions.

The U.S. and NATO should now produce field manuals for the stabilization of other failed states like Mali or Syria. Furthermore, the most effective tools of influence should be drawn upon and used, which would have a maximum effect with a minimum input of cash.

The World Security Network is promoting a fresh and creative foreign policy with its "World 3.0" initiative. One basis is the focus on elites in those countries. To know them. To support them with large-scale mentoring programs. Thus, we can transfer know-how as well as some of the values of the UN Charter, which is the global consensual basis of peace and stability.

There should be no further military interventions without a previously written detailed and realistic 500-page action plan using best practices, fixing a quick exit after Phase One, realistic development in Phase Two and accounting for all costs involved.

What to do as priorities

The first priorities should be as follows:

  1. The West has no other option than to continue the plans put forward in Tokyo, as there is no time left for major changes now.
  2. Integrate Pakistan into the peace talks and transfer the negotiations into a UN framework.
  3. Start the large-scale promotion of peaceful Islam with the human codes of tolerance and respect in Afghanistan and Pakistan (see for details)- a jihad for tolerance including Shiites and other minorities.
  4. Support fresh and credible new leaders with much more support and training. Register thousands of fresh leaders of the next generation and support them with a one billion dollar "Afghan Mentorship Program" to influence positive development from within (see for details on the importance of mentoring elites for progress).
  5. Manipulations of the presidential elections in April 2014 which are a main mile-stone for the stabilization of the country, should not be tolerated.
  6. More concrete actions to discover corruption and contain drug exports.

To my judgement, the Afghan glass of hope is two thirds full.