Afghan Conflict Update – March 2021

ABF Checkpoint on Durand Line

News, analysis, and commentary about the war in Afghanistan. Topics include security, ANDSF, Resolute Support, peace negotiations, governance, development, podcasts, videos, and more.

Afghan News Summary

Everyone is watching for the Biden administration’s next move. It is quite evident that the US won’t withdraw its 3,500 military personnel and thousands of contractors by May 1, 2021. It would take a logistical miracle to have an orderly departure of personnel and equipment in just over 30 days. It is very likely that Biden will decide to keep troops in Afghanistan until November. The intra-Afghan peace negotiations are not resulting in any concrete progress and are currently stalled. Lots of meetings are taking place among interested parties with no results. The violence continues. The Afghan security forces have not been able to stem the violence nor defeat the Taliban. The Afghan National Defense and Security Force (ANDSF) can protect Kabul, the provincial capitals, and many of the district centers. However, it has difficulty with providing security for some district centers, the major road networks, and much of the rural countryside. Afghanistan continues to face multiple threats – conflict on the battlefields, increasing security, funding decreases from international donors, endemic corruption, poor economic growth, a growing drug trade, and more.

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Security

Intel Report. A classified intelligence estimate prepared last year warned that the full withdrawal of US personnel from Afghanistan before a power-sharing arrangement has been agreed upon by the Taliban and Afghan government would result in a Taliban takeover in 2-3 years. (Homeland Security Today, Mar 29, 2021).

Breakthrough or Collapse. Dexter Filkins provides a lengthy article providing a detailed look at the security situation in Afghanistan. “Last Exit from Afghanistan”, The New Yorker, March 1, 2021.

The Demise of ISKP. In 2019 the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) suffered a significant defeat in Nangarhar province. In 2020 the Afghan affiliate of the Islamic State lost its last territorial base in Afghanistan in Kunar province. The ISKP has a limited presence in the country and it has transitioned to a small underground movement. “Hit from Many Sides (2): The demise of ISKP in Kunar”, Afghanistan Analysts Network, March 3, 2021.

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Taliban

Increasing Attacks Against ANDSF. While the Taliban have not attacked US personnel since the February 2020 Doha Agreement it has stepped up its offensive against Afghan security forces. It has also engaged in targeting government officials, members of the media, human rights activists, and others.

If the US Stays? The Taliban threaten to continue its offensive against the Afghan security forces if US and NATO forces remain in Afghanistan. Although US forces have not been attacked in recent months that could change if the US does not withdraw by May 1st. The Doha Agreement provided for a cessation of Taliban attacks against the United States. If the May 1st withdrawal is not honored by the US then the Taliban have, in their view, a clear path toward re-engaging US troops in combat. Of course, with only 3,500 US military personnel in country located on large bases the opportunity to target US personnel is limited. However, IEDs against convoys, mortar and rocket attacks against bases, and firing at overhead aircraft remain viable actions the Taliban could take.

Killing Polio Workers. The Taliban often tell communities vaccines are a Western conspiracy aimed at sterilizing Muslim children. Attacks against polio workers have been conducted by the Taliban for a number of years. On March 30th three Afghan women involved in a nationwide polio immunization program were killed by gunmen in the eastern city of Jalalabad. “Three Women Polio Workers Shot Dead in Afghanistan”, The Defense Post, March 30, 2021.

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ANDSF

The ANSF has seen some improvement however it still faces long-term capability and sustainability challenges. It will require US and international military support far into the future if it is to be successful on the battlefield. The Afghan Special Security Forces (ASSF) continue to provide most of the offensive punch for the ANDSF. Most of the conventional army and police are relegated to garrison, checkpoint duty, or ‘clearance’ operations with no long-lasting results. The effectiveness of Afghan security forces certainly is affected by the reduction of US forces in general and the effects of a coronavirus pandemic where person-to-person advising has been, for the most part, discontinued. In addition, with the downsizing of US personnel and the pandemic the ability to assess the ANDSF is limited as well. Taliban attacks on the ANDSF over the past year have intensified and ANDSF casualties remain high.

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Resolute Support

New Zealand Heads Home. The final New Zealand Defense Force (NZDF) deployment to Afghanistan has lowered the national flag for the last time. More than 3,500 NZDF personnel have served in Afghanistan. Ten New Zealanders lost their lives in Afghanistan. (Joint-Forces.com, Mar 29, 2021).

US General Officer Assignments. Brig. Gen. William Boruff, deputy commander, Combined Security Command-A, Afghanistan to CG Picatinny Arsenal, New Jersey. Brig. Gen. Curtis Buzzard , commandant of cadets at West Point to be deputy chief of staff, RSM. Brig. Gen. John Kline currently with TRADOC to be senior advisor to the Ministry of Defense. Brig. Gen. Joseph Ryan, currently deputy chief of staff, RSM, to be CG 25th Infantry Division, Hawaii.

“The New Guy”. Kyle Staron tells a story about a new guy deployed to Afghanistan who just didn’t get it. Everyone has met ‘this guy’ on their deployment. Read about a comedy of middle management in an endless war in “When the New Guy Came to Afghanistan”, SLATE, March 2, 2021.

A Chopper Ride to Work. A Special Forces officer writes about that period of time between mission prep at the base camp and actions on the ground – called the ‘infil paradox’. “A former Green Beret recalls the ‘captivating calm’ of helicopter infiltration”, Task and Purpose, March 11, 2021.

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Peace Negotiations

Biden’s Options. Brian Michael Jenkins, author of numerous books and reports on terrorism and conflict (and former Green Beret), outlines the choices the Biden administration has for Afghanistan. Each of the courses of action carries a risk of resulting in bad outcomes. “Getting Out of Forever Wars: What Are Biden’s Options in Afghanistan?”, The RAND Blog, March 12, 2021.

The Blinken Letter. A letter sent to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken reveals the Biden administration’s path forward to get the stalled Afghan peace talks energized. The letter, published by Tolo News, provides four ways to move forward – talks with regional nations, talks between the Taliban and government representatives hosted by Turkey, proposal for a new Afghan government, and a 90-day reduction of violence.

Kashmir and Peace in Afghanistan. The key to stopping the violence lies with Pakistan. Given the complicated regional dynamics, the Afghan peace process is unlikely to yield results unless the Kashmir issue is also addressed. “Does the Road to Peace Go Through Kashmir?”, Outlook India, March 29, 2021.

US Withdrawal

The deadline for the removal of all US military and civilian personnel from Afghanistan is about 30 days away. That is, if the US intends to honor its part of the U.S.-Taliban withdrawal agreement signed in February 2020. However, there are indications that some troops will remain after the deadline. There are currently 3,500 US troops and 7,000 ally troops in Afghanistan. President Biden said that the upcoming deadline to remove U.S. troops by May 1st will be “hard to meet“. Biden said that it is important for U.S. service members to leave in a safe and orderly manner and that it should be coordinated with NATO allies who also have troops in Afghanistan.

Last Exit? The security situation in Afghanistan is getting worse and the outcome of the intra-Afghan negotiations is in question. Will peace talks with the Taliban and the prospect of an American withdrawal create a breakthrough or a collapse? Dexter Filkins, author and journalist, provides a lengthy article about this topic in “Last Exit from Afghanistan”, The New Yorker, March 1, 2021.

CT Units to Stay? President Biden has always been a fan of a small footprint of counterterrorism forces in Afghanistan. This may be what he decides for the immediate future in place of a full withdrawal in May. Read “Biden wants to explore keeping U.S. counter-terrorism troops in Afghanistan”, Reuters, March 24, 2021. In place of a ‘resident’ CT capability, the US might opt for an ‘offshore’ CT platform. Perhaps repairing relations with Uzbekistan and placing a CT platform at the old K2 base (but not on the chemically contaminated area once occupied by US forces).

And the Contracts? There are about 18,000 contractors working for the United States in Afghanistan. Over 6,000 of them are Americans. Getting out of these contracts could be expensive for the US government. The contractor presence in Afghanistan has always been high. At its peak in 2011 and 2012 a total of almost 100,000 US service members were stationed in the country, while there were over 117,000 contractors. Over the past two decades almost 4,000 contractors (US and TCNs) working for the US have died, while 2,300 US troops have died. Some of the contracts may be cancelled under what is called “Termination for Convenience of the Government”. The contractor can then agree to a settlement with the government or sue for a settlement. “US trapped between Taliban and own contractors on Afghanistan withdrawal”, Presstv.com, March 29, 2021.

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Commentary

Afghanistan – Reframing the Mission. Many Americans are surprised when they realize that we still have troops in Afghanistan. Most say that the war is ‘unwinnable’. Perhaps Americans should view the efforts in that troubled country as a long-term international stability and counter-terrorism mission. Colonel Thomas Spahr teaches strategy and military history at the U.S. Army War College. He recently completed a 12-month tour with Resolute Support HQs in Afghanistan. Read his thoughts on the conflict in “Reframing the Mission in Afghanistan”, War Room, U.S. Army War College, March 11, 2021

Pakistan’s Proxy War. Chris Alexander, a Canadian diplomat and former Canadian Ambassador to Afghanistan, outlines how Pakistan has been supporting the Taliban and is conducting a proxy war in Afghanistan. (PDF, 64 pages, March 2021) Ending Pakistan’s Proxy War in Afghanistan, Macdonald Laurier Institute, March 2021.

Remembering Sangin. A former Marine recalls a day of combat in Helmand province, Afghanistan. He writes about the intense chaos of that day in “Remembering Sangin: Shared Experiences and ‘an Epic War-Porn Trailer”, Coffee or Die Magazine, March 3, 2021.

From A Refugee in Afghanistan to a Captain with SOCOM. Born into the Harzara Tribe, 4-year-old Sher Najafy and his family fled Afghanistan’s civil war for Pakistan. Now Najafy is an intelligence officer with USSOCOM’s Joint Military Support Operations Web Operations Center. Read “I am living my American dream”, USSOCOM, March 9, 2021.

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Governance and Politics

Stagnated Governance. A recent report looks at the legal framework, status, and trajectory of four important Afghan state institutions and how they have contributed to an overall stagnation of the Afghan government. (Afghanistan Analysts Network, Mar 2021).

Corruption. Afghanistan continues to be one of the world’s most corrupt nations. Much of the US aid provided to Afghanistan is squandered by corrupt officials. The Afghan government anti-corruption measures are ineffective and do little to stem the corruption found at all levels throughout all Afghan government institutions. A lack of proper oversight by international donors contributes to this rampart state of corruption within Afghan government and society.

Heart of Asia Conference. President Ghani met with other regional officials in Dushanbe, Tajikistan. Much of the conversation was about solutions for peace in Afghanistan. During the conference Ghani said that a transfer of power to another president in Afghanistan must be done in accordance with the Constitution. He called for the Taliban to announce a ceasefire and for the international community to monitor the ceasefire. (Ariana News, Mar 30, 2021).

Decentralization of Government. Michael O’Hanlon and Omar Sharifi argue that in a multi-ethnic nation such as Afghanistan a democratic and decentralized system of governance may be the only remaining option. Read their thoughts in “The Hail Mary of power-sharing in Afghanistan”, Brookings Institute, March 29, 2021.

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Economy, Development, and Society

The Afghan government is nowhere near being near its goal of financial self-reliance. Most government functions as well as the security forces are funded by international donors. About 80% of its $11 billion in public expenditures comes from foreign donors. The economy does not sustain that level of expenditure now and it won’t for a long time in the future. There are many pockets of impoverished Afghans across the country that rely on humanitarian assistance from international organizations.

COVID Update. As of late March, Afghanistan has had over 56,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases and almost 2,500 associated deaths. The coronavirus pandemic has prompted the US and NATO forces to curtail some operations. Over the past year COVID-19 has put the ‘train, advise, and assist’ effort into a ‘remote advisory mode’ – using cell phones, email, VTC, and other internet applications for advising functions. The COVID-19 pandemic has dampened any economic growth that Afghanistan might have experienced during 2020.

Narcotics Trade. The Afghan government has done little to contain the trade in drugs in Afghanistan. This narcotics economy provides opportunity for corrupt government officials to line their pockets and is a source of financial income for the insurgents. Efforts by the international community to curtail the narcotics trade have been futile and have diminished over the years.

Women’s Rights at Risk. There are very few Afghan women involved in the current peace negotiations between the Taliban and Afghan government representatives. Women advocates worry that this will result in an agreement that will not protect Afghan women’s rights. There is a fear that the advances made in Afghan society for women will be erased with a power sharing arrangement with the government. The proclamations made by the Taliban on women’s rights do not reflect what is happening in Taliban-controlled areas of Afghanistan.

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Books, Reports, and Publications

SIGAR High Risk List. Each year the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction publishes a report on Afghanistan that outlines significant areas of concern on the US efforts in Afghanistan. This report provides “. . . an independent and sober assessment of the various risks now facing the Administration and Congress as they seek to make decisions about the future of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan.” 2021 High-Risk List, SIGAR, March 2021.
https://www.sigar.mil/pdf/spotlight/2021-High-Risk-List.pdf

Pakistan and Proxy War. Chris Alexander, a Canadian diplomat and former Canadian Ambassador to Afghanistan, outlines how Pakistan has been supporting the Taliban and is conducting a proxy war in Afghanistan. Read his 64-page paper (PDF) entitled Ending Pakistan’s Proxy War in Afghanistan, Macdonald-Laurier Institute, March 2021.

Drugs in Afghanistan. A recent paper details how Afghanistan’s opium poppy economy presents a complex policy problem for the government of Afghanistan and the international community. This report provides a broad discussion of Afghanistan’s counter-narcotics policy challenges. Drugs and Development in Afghanistan, Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit (AREU), February 2021, PDF, 45 pages.

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Podcasts, Webcasts, Movies, and Videos

TV – United States of Al. CBS will be airing a news series beginning April 2021 about an Afghan interpreter who comes to live in the US and joins up with his former US Marine comrade. The comedy is about Al adjusting to life in the US and the Marine combat veteran struggling to adjust to civilian life. It is already receiving some criticism from reviewers. “New US sitcom faces backlash over ‘cringeworthy’ Afghan portrayal, ‘white saviour’ storyline”, The New Arab, March 29, 2021. Watch the official trailer by CBS. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SQEwuapZ5RA

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Photo / Image: Guardians at a checkpoint at Dande Patan District along the Durand Line – 203rd Corps, Afghanistan.


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