Afghanistan Conflict Update – March 2020

Afghanistan News Update

News, analysis, and commentary about America’s longest war. Topics include U.S. withdrawal, peace negotiations, election, security, governance, development, and more. The U.S. is trying to extricate itself from the longest conflict in its history. But the path to the exit door is unclear and strewn with obstacles.

“We’re going to go to 8,600 by the summer. Conditions on the ground will dictate if we go below that. If conditions on the ground are not permissive, my advice would be not to continue that reduction.”

U.S. CENTCOM Commander General Frank McKenzie, March 10, 2020, in testimony before Congress.

Success in Afghanistan Elusive

Shifting strategies and ambitious goals have hampered mission success in Afghanistan. Over the course of 18 years the U.S., and other nations as well, have spent billions of dollars propping up an inept Afghan military and ineffective and corrupt Afghan government.

The U.S. and its allies enjoyed an initial success in 2001 and 2002 with the destruction of al-Qaeda and toppling of the Taliban regime. However, in a case of mission creep, the international community tried to establish a centralized and Western-style democratic government. This took place at a time when the Bush administration turned its attention to Iraq – invading that country in 2004.

Meanwhile the Taliban were refitting and reorganizing in Pakistan. In a few years the U.S. found itself embroiled in a full-scale insurgency in Afghanistan. The surge under the Obama administration enjoyed short-term success. The large-scale implementation of Security Force Assistance (SFA) from 2012 to 2014 – aligning advisor teams at kandak and district level – was effective. However, this was also a short-term fix that was abandoned with the withdrawal of the vast majority of U.S. and other nation’s troops as the ISAF mission concluded and the Resolute Support Mission began.

The last several years has seen the Resolute Support Mission remaining committed to Afghanistan yet not really gaining ground on the Taliban. The current U.S. administration wants out and the next 18 months will see some drastic changes occurring in Afghanistan. Below you will read a summary of the news over the last month about several different topics about Afghanistan and Afghan conflict.

Security

The Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) continue to suffer heavy losses. The ANDSF has lost thousands (perhaps 50,000) over the past several years. It has maintained security in the cities and most of the major roads. However, the Taliban enjoy freedom of movement in much of the rural countryside and in many of the rural districts.

Coronavirus. Beginning on Saturday, March 28, 2020 Kabul was on a ‘locked-down’ order for three weeks. The nations largest city has an estimated population of six million. All Kabul residents are urged to stay at home, avoid non-essential movement, and avoid gatherings. Ezzatullah Mehrdad writes that “. . . a combination of political rifts, lack of testing, extremely social lifestyles, and a war-torn health care system have Afghanistan on the brink of disaster.” (The Diplomat, Mar 27, 2020). As of the end of March there has been no large outbreak in Afghanistan. The Afghanistan Analysts Network (AAN) provides a detailed summary of the situatuation. (AAN, Mar 27, 2020).

Iran and Coronavirus. Iran is suffering greatly from the gravity of the coronavirus. This is spilling over into Afghanistan. Officials in Afghanistan’s western province of Herat are warning of a potential health crisis. Read more in “Afghans Brace for Coronavirus as Thousands Return from Iran”, Gandhara, March 12, 2020.

Assessment of Violence. The Afghanistan Analysts Network (AAN) has compiled a detailed study of the resumption of violence by the Taliban since the 8-day reduction of violence period in February. Read “Voices from the Districts, the Violence Mapped: What has happened since the reduction in violence ended?”, AAN, March 21, 2020.

Air Strikes. CENTCOM reported that it had carried out 360 airstrikes in the month of February 2020 – the second-highest number in a month since 2009.

NATO and Resolute Support

RS Cdr Addresses Afghan People. In a video General Scott Miller emphasized the continued commitment and support of Resolute Support to the ANDSF and the Afghan people. He stressed the importance of the Taliban reducing the violence level and warned about the dangers of COVID-19. Watch the 3 minute long video. (NATO, Mar 25, 2020).

U.S. Officer Assignments. The United States Army has announced upcoming moves for key members of the Resolute Support Mission. BG William Boruff will be the deputy commander for Combined Security Transition Command – Afghanistan. BG Marcus Evans to be commander of Special Operations Joint Task Force – Afghanistan. BG Charles Masaracchia, currently commader of TAAC-East will be going to the Mission Command Center of Excellence at Fort Leavenworth. BG William Taylor, currently senior advisor to the MoD Afghanistan, will be going to the J-35 Joint Staff. Col (P) Trevor Bredenkamp, currently commander of TAAC-South, is heading to Eighth Army in Korea.

8,600 – A Magic Number. The current plan is to reduce the U.S. troop level to just above eight thousand. This has been the plan for many months – whether or not a peace agreement between the U.S. and the Taliban was reached. Apparently the current Resolute Support Mission commander, General Scott Miller, believes that 8,600 is the necessary amount of troops needed to conduct the counterterrorism mission and to continue to support the ANDSF. Reducing to 8,600 will mean vacating bases that currently support some of the regional ANDSF units – perhaps the 203rd and 215th Corps.

Croatia: Job is Done in Afghanistan. The Croatian army has participated in the Afghan mission since 2003. It has recently sent another contingent to take part in the Resolute Support Mission for a six month-long tour. The Armed Forces Supreme Commander says that in light of the US-Taliban agreement that the job appears to be done. (Total Croatia News, Mar 6, 2020).

UK Withdrawal. The British will be reducing its numbers in Afghanistan beginning in July. Currently there are over 1,000 UK military personnel stationed in Afghanistan – most around the Kabul area. Over 300 will depart by the end of the summer – depending on the progress of the peace settlement.

Australia’s Contribution – Was it Worth It? A commentator examines his countries efforts in Afghanistan and wonders if it was worth it. Read “Bang for our buck? Afghanistan and ANZUS”, Defence Connect, 20 March 2020.

32nd IBCT – ‘Guardian Angels’. Nearly 400 Soldiers from the 32nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team (BCT) were mobilized in July 2019 to serve as ‘guardian angels’ and force protection for the 3rd Security Force Assistance Brigade (SFAB). The 128th was integrated into the 3rd SFAB as its seventh battalion. Read more in “Red Arrow Soldiers in Afghanistan build on legacy”, Army.mil, March 6, 2020.

Returning US Troops in Quarantine. More than 300 paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne Division were placed in two weeks of quarantine upon their return from Afghanistan. The measure is being taken to prevent the potential spread of the coronavirus. There have been several cases of COVID-19 reported by the Afghan Ministry of Public Health. (Stars and Stripes, Mar 14, 2020).

U.S. IO Fight in Afghanistan Hampered by Bad Execution. A firm that was awarded millions of dollars to generate an information operations campaign is facing a lawsuit for false claims for monetary reimbursement. The Leonie Group is a firm that specializes in strategic communications, information systems support, intelligence and operations research. Leonie allegedly billed the U.S. government for ads on billboard and radio ads that were never posted or aired. (Stars and Stripes, Mar 30, 2020).

War Crimes Investigation. Prosecutors at the International Criminal Court plan to investigate war crimes that may have been committed in Afghanistan by the Taliban, Afghan military, and U.S. forces. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo quickly brushed aside the issue – calling the ICC an “unaccountable political institution, masquerading as a legal body”. The ICC was established in 2002 – the U.S. has never been a member. See “ICC clears way for probe of alleged Afghanistan war crimes”, Reuters, March 5, 2020.

Peace Negotiations

On February 29, 2020 the U.S. and the Taliban signed a peace agreement that will provide cover for the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. There was an eight-day reduction in violence that has now ended. The Taliban have resumed combat and terrorist operations against the Afghan security forces and government.

The Afghan government was not a direct participant of the peace talks between the U.S. and the Taliban. The intra-Afghan talks have not yet begun – although the organization of a government negotiating team is underway. The big spoiler in the negotiations is Pakistan – a long-time supporter of the Taliban – so eyes are on Pakistan. A key element of the agreement is that the Taliban will not support any international terrorist groups – such as al-Qaeda and ISIS. The U.S. would like to maintain a counterterrorist capability within Afghanistan.

Abdullah Abdullah as Lead Negotiator. John Allen (Gen Ret) and Michael O’Hanlon argue that appointing former Afghan CEO Abdullah Abdullah as the lead Afghan govt negotiator to meet with the Taliban could go a long way to resolving the current leadership dispute. Read “Resolving the Ghani-Abdullah impasse in Afghanistan”, Brookings Institute, March 25, 2020.

Secret Annexes. The U.S. – Taliban agreement has a few “military implementation documents” that lay out the specific processes for a U.S. withdrawal. These annexes, thought to be two, are secret and not available to the U.S. public; although Congress has had a look at them. And, of course, the Taliban have them as well.

Taliban and ISIS. According to the peace agreement the Taliban is supposed work towards eliminating the Islamic State in Khorsan Province. The Taliban’s ability to do this is questioned. Read more in “Taliban’s inability to control Afghanistan’s ISIS insurgency problem”, The Washington Times, March 11, 2020.

Prisoner Release. One of the ‘conditions’ in the agreement was that the Afghan government would release ‘up to 5,000’ prisoners. The release of prisoners is intended to build trust between the government and the insurgents and to lead to direct talks to end the 18-year war. The Afghan government sees the Taliban prisoners as one of their last remaining sources of leverage so it has been reluctant to begin the release of former imprisoned insurgents. Indications are that the release of Taliban prisoners will start at the end of March. See “Afghan President, Taliban at Impasse Over Prisoner Release”, Gandhara Blog, March 11, 2020.

What Did the Agreement Yield? It appears that the U.S. gave a lot up while the Taliban gave up very little. The Taliban are getting a U.S. and Coalition troop withdrawal – probably a complete withdrawal over 18 months. Most national security observers look at the agreement as ‘political cover’ for the Trump administration to leave Afghanistan.

Taliban Reject Afghan Negotiating Team. As of March 28th the Taliban have refused to engage in talks with a team of negotiators announced by the Afghan government. The 21-member team was announced by the Afghan government on March 26th. (Voice of American, Mar 28, 2020).

Taliban Declare Victory. Shortly after the Trump administration signed its accord with the Taliban on February 29, 2020 Taliban leader Haibatullah Akhundzada declared victory on behalf of the Muslim and Mujahid nation. (Long War Journal, Mar 3, 2020).

Elections

Two Afghan Presidents? On March 9th Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah declared themselves president in separate ceremonies held in Kabul. U.S. representatives attended Ghani’s ceremony including General Scott Miller. Election officials had declared Ghani the winner of the fall 2019 elections but Abdullah rejected the result and declared himself the winner. Most countries have recognized Ghani as the winner. Ghani has, by executive decree, eliminated the office of Chief Executive Officer (CEO), a position held by Abdullah in a power-sharing agreement. Abdullah is in the process of declaring his own government and setting up a ‘parallel governmental structure’.

U.S. Mediation. US Special Envoy on Afghan Peace Process Zalmay Khalizad is attempting to mediate the dispute. On Monday, March 23, 2020 Secretary of State Pompeo was in Afghanistan to try and resolve the dispute between Ghani and Abdullah and to advance the peace process. (Los Angeles Times, Mar 23, 2020). He was unsuccessful. Upon his departure he published a press statement about the political impasse in Afghanistan – saying that $1 billion in aid would be suspended. Several Afghan ‘observers’ weigh in on the $1B threat.

Governance

Afghanistan has been struggled to provide good governance and services to its people. It has squandered the billions of dollars of international aid through ineffective administration and corrupt practices. The central government has failed in providing an administration that can rule the country. The corrupt provincial and district officials appointed by the central government in Kabul have failed as well.

Corruption. Afghanistan, every year, is rated as one of the five most corrupt countries in the world by Transparency International. The levels of corruption found at all levels of the Afghan government, in the security forces, and within Afghan society is astounding. The corruption issue renders the government ineffective, diminishes the Afghan people’s support of the central and sub-national government, and is a recruiting point for the Taliban.

Opium Production. The drug trade is a major source of corruption with the Afghan government, security ministries, and the army and police at provincial and district level. In addition, the Taliban enjoyed financial benefits from opium production – especially in southwest Afghanistan. Government efforts to stamp out the opium trade are ineffective, corrupt, and alienate the portion of the population that depend on it for household income.

NUG: Five Years of Failure. General (Ret) Lutfullah Mashal speaks out about the “five miserable years” since the establishment of the National Unity Government. He refers to them as Afghanistan’s “worst times” since the fall of the Taliban in 2001. He cites the dwindled economy, worsening security situation, rising unemployment, and record-high civilian and military casualties as evidence of the failure of the NUG. Read more in “Five years of failures, political partisanship, scandals, corruption and incertitude of Afghanistan’s NUG”, Khaama Press, March 4, 2020.

Afghan Government Reform Needed. “Afghanistan needs both a central government with a monopoly over the use of force and reforms which factor in the self-governance capabilities already found at the local level”. See “Enduring Peace Requires Reforms to Afghan Governance”, The Diplomat, March 5, 2020.

Funding the Government. William Byrd provides the key steps needed to boost the Afghan state revenues and sustain donor’s aid. Read An Essential for Afghan Peace: Funding the Government, United States Institute for Peace, March 2, 2020.

New UNAMA Head. Deborah Lyons of Canada has been appointed as the United Nations Special Representative and head of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA). She succeeds Tadamichi Yamamoto of Japan who is leaving his post. (United Nations, Mar 24, 2020).

Commentary

Two American Hostages? There is no indication that the United States is pressing the Taliban on the two hostages being held by insurgents. One was captured in 2014 and the other in January 2020. Read “Afghan peace deal leaves two American hostages in limbo”, by Eric Lebson, The Hill Opinion, March 7, 2020.

China and the Taliban. The Chinese officials have a cozy relationship with Taliban leaders. Frequent meetings are held between the two and reflects China’s interest in maintaining and growing its influence in Afghanistan and Central Asia. Austin Bodetti writes “China Plays NIMBY With the Taliban”, YaleGlobal Online, March 12, 2020.

India’s Options in Afghanistan? Dr. Shanthie Souza comments on the need for India to play a larger role in enabling Afghans to take charge of their own affairs to prevent a further slide into instability and chaos. (Eurasia Review, Mar 25, 2020).

IS-K – The Future? Kabir Taneja speculates on the future of the Islamic State – Khorsan in “Islamic State in Afghanistan: Reading between the blurred lines”, Observer Research Foundation (ORF), March 17, 2020. Candace Rondeaux, a senior fellow and professor at the Center on the Future of War, explains how ISIS is trying to gain a bigger foothold in Afghanistan as the U.S. draws down. (World Politics Review, Mar 27, 2020).

Iran – Will it Exact Revenge via Afghanistan? The Iranians have found out that the U.S. has ways to retaliate against Iranian or Iranian proxy actions. There is no doubt that Iran will find a way to hurt the U.S where retaliation is not likely. One such way could be to exploit the situation in Afghanistan where the U.S. is trying to extricate itself from a very long and costly war. Read more in an article by Obaidullah Obaid entitled “How Iran’s new Quds Force commander could hurt the US in Afghanistan”, Atlantic Council, March 11, 2020.

A Bleak Future. Ajit Kumar Singh, a research fellow with the Institute for Conflict Management, comments on the peace deal. Read “Afghanistan – Impending Folly”, Eurasia Review, March 16, 2020.

A ‘Decent Interval’? At the end of the Vietnam conflict Frank Snepp, a CIA employee with experience in South Vietnam, wrote a book entitled “Decent Interval“. It was a scathing critique of how the U.S. extricated itself from the Vietnam war at the expense of its loyal allies that it left behind. Essentially the Paris Peace Accords bought the U.S. time between when it left South Vietnam and the fall of the country to the communists. So now – we may do it again. Read “The Afghan peace deal and its eerie parallels with Vietnam”, Center for a New American Century, March 10, 2020.

Reports and Publications

Report on Taliban. Andrew Watkins has penned a 28-page report entitled Taliban Fragmentation: Fact, Fiction, and Future, United States Institute of Peace, March 2020.

Humanitarian Aid and Data Collection. Rodrigo Mena has authored a 40-page paper about using technology for data collection and communication in places affected by high-intensity conflict. Read Technology & Humanitarian Aid in Afghanistan, Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit (AREU), February 2020.

Report on IS-KP. The Combating Terrorism Center at West point has published a 95-page report entitled Broken, But Not Defeated: A examination of state-led operations against Islamic State Khorasan in Afghanistan and Pakistan (2015-2018), March 23, 2020.

Videos and Podcasts

Podcast – Latest Developments in Afghanistan, Middle East Institute, March 20, 2020. Vanda Felbab-Brown, Michael Kugelman, and Marvin Weinbaum join host Alistair Taylor to discuss the recent US-Taliban agreement in Afghanistan, the political power struggle over the presidency, the challenges facing the intra-Afghan dialogue, and the effects of coronavirus.
https://www.mei.edu/multimedia/podcast/latest-developments-afghanistan


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