Assessing the overall security situation in Afghanistan

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  1. Source: International Crisis Group (ICG)
    Date: 17 Apr 200

    Assessing the overall security situation in Afghanistan
    Speech by Nick Grono, Deputy President, International Crisis Group
    , DCAF - NATO Parliamentary Assembly Seminar on "Stabilising Afghanistan: Developing Security, Securing Development", 17 April 2008

    I’ve been given the broad and challenging task of assessing the overall security situation in Afghanistan.

    First let me by setting the context. The sad reality is that Afghanistan has suffered from sustained conflict for almost thirty years. The enduring paradigm is that of abusive power-holders preying on the local populations. The power-holders change – absolute monarchs, Afghan communists, Soviet military, mujahedeen, Taliban, and now re-empowered warlords -- but the problem remains the same: highly personalised rule, a culture of impunity, and the abuse of large sections of the population on ethnic, regional, tribal, or sectarian grounds.

    The U.S. and its allies reinforced this pattern of grievance and impunity in 2001 and 2002 by outsourcing the fighting and stabilisation operations to discredited and largely disempowered warlords and commanders. When they entrenched themselves in their former fiefdoms, they reverted to their old practices of human rights abuse, corruption and drug production, working once again to build their own networks at the expense of central government authority.

    The result is festering grievances and an alienated population that often has little faith in its leadership and offers rich pickings for insurgent recruitment.

    Quick fixes, such as arming local militias, empowering discredited power-holders, making deals and giving impunity to extremists, don’t address these problems – they worsen them. The local population understands the hypocrisy of such policies, and knows that they will continue to be the victims of these power-holders.

    So that’s the general context, but now let me focus more specifically on the security situation.

    The figures

    We hear lots of statistics thrown around regarding Afghanistan – troop numbers, aid promised and delivered, development indicators and so on. Usually these are used to try and establish some trends. I too am going to give you some figures, but with provisos.

    Casualty and incident figures in Afghanistan are notoriously inexact and difficult to compile. Insurgency-related deaths are often in remote, inaccessible areas which insurgents have made all but off limits to independent verification.

    And claims about casualties are often wildly exaggerated or significantly understated while categorisation as civilian/combatant is often contested.

    Let me give just one example. On 12 April there was a suicide attack on a road construction team in Nimroz. ISAF issued a statement condemning the loss of two ‘civilian workers’’ lives and noted the death of two insurgents. A statement by the Taliban spoke of the death of ‘20 Indian engineers and puppet police.’ Later that day, Reuters reported the death of ‘3 Indian road engineers and an Afghan’. This took place in a provincial capital – so just imagine in the challenges of getting accurate figures about attacks in the districts.

    But, even given these provisos, the headline figures are grim:

    - The U.S. military said earlier this year that suicide bombings were up 27% in 2007 over 2006. But their incidence is also up a horrifying 600% over 2005; and all insurgent attacks are up 400% over 2005.

    - The last Secretary-General’s report to the Security Council reported 8,000 insurgency-related deaths in 2007, of which at least 1,500 were civilians.

    Humanitarian workers are increasingly targets. The Secretary General reported the looting of 40 convoys delivering food for the WFP in 2007, 130 attacks against humanitarian programs, 40 relief workers killed and another 89 abducted.

    Making predictions for the coming year is fraught, particularly at the beginning of the traditional ‘fighting season’ of spring and summer in Afghanistan. However both UN [Department of Safety and Security (UNDSS)] and the Afghanistan NGO Safety Office’s (ANSO) reporting indicates that incidents so far this year are up compared to last year. (ANSO’s breakdown specifically shows this to include insurgency-initiated attacks, challenging the explanation that incidents are up solely because more international forces are there to tackle them.)

    Attacks and casualties are of course not the only measure of stability: we’ve all heard of continuing record opium harvests in Afghanistan, which now provides 93% of the world’s opium supply. This is both a source and symptom of insecurity, possible only because large swathes of land are beyond the rule of law with most of the cultivation centred in the core areas of the insurgency. This continues to fuel both corruption within the Afghan government and sustain the insurgency.

    Perceptions of security

    So those are some of the headline statistics, but in an asymmetric conflict like the one we face in Afghanistan, perceptions are also vital. In Afghanistan’s case this means perceptions both in country as well as back in the capitals of the dozens of nations involved. As Thomas Hammes wrote, insurgents now use:

    "all available networks – political, economic, social and military – to convince the enemy’s political decision makers that their strategic goals are either unachievable or too costly for the perceived benefit."[1]

    That means that insurgents do not have to win -- they just have to not lose long enough to sap the population and the donors’ will.

    Today there are different perceptions of security emerging in Afghanistan, with the international military often appearing to have a more optimistic take on the situation than international civilian actors. This is worrying, because it results in military and civilian efforts lacking strategic direction.

    Last week a British NATO commander, having just returned from Afghanistan, was reported as saying there were 'real signs of progress' in the conflict in Afghanistan, and that NATO ‘works’ in Helmand.

    And the President of the Red Cross said on 8 April during his visit to Afghanistan: 'There is growing insecurity and a clear intensification of the armed conflict, which is no longer limited to the south but has spread to the east and west.´

    Of course, they may both be right – depending on what the are measuring, and on what facts they are basing their judgements.

    The international military tell us that things are getting better on the security front - because they are winning every engagement. The charts show that 75 per cent of the country experienced less than one security incident per quarter per 10,000 people, with 70 per cent of the events occurring in just 10 per cent of districts.

    However it’s important to understand that military statistics are subject to strict parameters – I understand that incidents counted are those deemed to be insurgency related and largely in areas in which they operate. For political and development actors general lawlessness – not just the insurgency – and a culture of impunity has a chilling impact on their ability to operate.

    And while the Afghan army and international forces win in armed clashes, asymmetrical attacks such as suicide bombings, IEDs, hit and run attacks and kidnappings can make it harder to engage in development and political outreach. The fear created by just a few such attacks have an impact far beyond the immediate victims.

    Such attacks are often portrayed as the ‘desperate last remnants of the Taliban’ – as they have been for several years now. But that is what guerrillas do and the Taliban have achieved a sense of momentum through such attacks, projecting themselves much more strongly than their actual numbers. The ultimate aim is to drive a wedge between the government and the people.

    The recent approach of targeting Taliban commanders is probably the right one, but, according to recent testimony by Dave Barno, who at one stage led Coalition forces in Afghanistan, NATO still dropped 3,572 bombs in Afghanistan last year. Such use of air power would appear to contradict most counter insurgency approaches, but we understand that this is at least partly a symptom of the lack of boots on the ground. However it must be emphasised again that civilian deaths at the hands of international forces – whatever the reason -- feed the insurgent recruitment.

    The Taliban cynically and publicly use such deaths in their propaganda – twisting concerns about civilian casualties, which they certainly have no regard for, back on the internationals -- declaring in one recent statement:

    "The enemy has lost its morale and does not have the spirit to fight the mojahedin face-to-face. Therefore, arbitrary bombing raids have destroyed people’s homes and crops, and they think they can achieve victory by carrying out such acts. However, this will further increase Afghans’ sensitivities, resistance to and hatred of the enemy."[2]

    Crisis Group has experienced firsthand the spread of the insurgency having always been proud of its ‘dust on its boots’ fieldwork but having to plan much more carefully for travel now. Central provinces such as Logar and Wardak, just a short drive from Kabul, are now the site of kidnappings and intimidation.

    One translator we have used now travels to his home in the weekends with a cassette of Taliban songs in his car stereo in case he is stopped. Others with families further afield carefully divest themselves of all identification showing that they work with an international NGO -- including purging phone SIM cards and changing US dollars to local currency -- before they go on visits.

    In Kandahar following the kidnap of an American woman and her driver, NGOs have withdrawn their international staff. On a recent visit the only foreigners working in town appeared to be the ICRC, the UN and some contractors. Even national staff at NGOs are restricted in how they operate, both in terms of geography and implementation – during the visit mentioned an Afghan, working with the government’s reconciliation programme, was shot dead during a weekend visit home to Panjwayi, just outside the city.

    Often the response to these observations is that this is all happening in the dangerous south, and things are better in the north. And they are – but there are still widespread security problems in the north and north west too.

    According to ANSO figures of 11 NGO deaths in 2008 – ten Afghans and one foreigner - three of those were in Kandahar, the rest in areas more regularly described as stable.

    Similarly in 2007 of 15 NGO deaths – four internationals and 11 Afghans, one was in Kandahar in the south, one in Nangarhar in the east, six in the increasingly insurgency-hit southern provinces of Logar, Wardak and Ghazni – and the remaining seven in the north and north east.

    This is partly because there are far fewer NGOs in the south, but also highlights the crime and political violence by armed groups and local powerholders seeking to flex muscles.

    Herat in the west, routinely described as stable, has the highest rate of criminal kidnapping in the country according to the head of the National Security Directorate. In an alarming development such groups also appear increasingly linked in with the insurgency – two recent kidnappings in Kandahar and Herat are both believed to be criminal gangs tied in with insurgent outfits.

    The decades of conflict have damaged the country’s social fabric, undermining state and traditional resolution mechanisms. Without the institutions to tackle grievances the result is chronic local conflicts – not all, or even most of it directly linked to the insurgency itself. In fact, a recent, nationwide survey by Oxfam, following on from our own 2003 work on peacebuilding, found that the leading cause of conflict in Afghanistan was not the insurgency, but water, land and tribal disputes, in that order.

    Of course, it is not NATO’s responsibility to resolve such disputes. But their pervasiveness highlights the failure of the Afghan government and its international partners to implement effective community peace-building efforts.

    Insurgents use such grievances to reach out to the disgruntled and disenfranchised and persuade to come over their side. The Taliban is not a standing army of ideological warriors, it has become a diffuse protest movement, its foot soldiers made up of both students from extremist madrassas in the Pakistan border areas along with the disillusioned and disenfranchised within Afghanistan.

    So we have a situation in which the parameters by which it may have seemed easiest to track progress in Afghanistan - namely military engagements may actually be obscuring strategic shortcomings in what is ultimately a political struggle.

    Defining success on the security front must be tilted towards community perceptions and behaviours. For it is local communities that will ultimately build a stable and secure state – not short term military victories.

    We are never going to shoot the last insurgent and leave. The military are there to create a security umbrella to allow political and development work to take place and the strategic must take the place of the tactical.

    When it comes to tackling the pervasive insecurity in Afghanistan, the Karzai government and the international community need to hold their nerve and focus on institution building rather than quick fixes. In particular this must be those institutions central to the rule of law and driving service delivery. It must be appreciated that this IS counter insurgency – by building such institutions we undercut Taliban legitimacy and their recruitment and support base.

    So I will finish up here. I know this assessment has been somewhat gloomy, but it is important to remember that there is an incredible reservoir of hope and goodwill amongst the Afghan people which we must seek to tap and justify. The vast majority of people still support the presence of foreign troops and fear what will happen should they leave.

    For the last few years now there has been talk of the ‘tipping point’. It has not come to that and the Taliban will not be marching into Kabul any time soon. But we need to be brutally honest about shortcomings now if there is to be decisive change. This is not supposed to generate hopelessness but rather act as a wake up call to promote action and greater resolve.

    Footnotes:

    [1] Thomas X. Hammes, The Sling and the Stone: On War in the 21st Century, (2004), p.2.
    [2] ‘Afghan Taleban announce launch of new operation in spring’, BBC Monitoring, 25 March 2008.