Afghanistan’s stability has come into question as international troops draw down and as President Hamid Karzai refuses to sign an agreement with the United States that would keep U.S. troops in the country after 2014. The current International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mission concludes at the end of the year, and the United States and its partners have conditioned a smaller post-2014 training and security mission on the signing of the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA).
Karzai’s refusal to sign the BSA has complicated U.S. and NATO planning for the post-2014 mission. However, all of Karzai’s likely successors, to be elected in a presidential election process that begins on April 5, have said they would sign the BSA. Even if the new president is sworn in as late as September (allowing for a runoff and election complaint period), military planners say there will likely be sufficient time for the United States and NATO to assemble the planned “Resolute Support” mission. That operation would reportedly consist of about 12,000 trainers and mentors and another 2,000 Special Operations forces conducting combat missions nationwide. No firm decision on the size of the Resolute Support international force has been announced.
U.S. and NATO commanders express optimism about the prospects for Afghanistan’s security, assuming the Resolute Support mission will be approved. The overall U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Joseph Dunford, and other military leaders have said the Taliban insurgency no longer constitutes an “existential threat” to the stability of the Afghan government. By this they mean that the Taliban might continue to conduct attacks, such as those that have occurred in Kabul in recent weeks, but the insurgency lacks the strength to cause political collapse.
Some of the optimism for post-2014 Afghanistan is based on the 350,000-person Afghanistan National Security Forces (ANSF). Since June 2013, the ANSF has led combat operations nationwide and the ISAF has moved to a support role. Reports and statements by the Department of Defense credit the ANSF with holding all significant population centers and losing only a tiny percentage of engagements with Taliban fighters, even after taking heavy casualties.
However, even assuming the Resolute Support mission is in place beyond 2014, there is potential for security and political deterioration. The mission, under any currently envisioned scenario, will be relatively small and unable to resume a significant portion of combat duties should the ANSF falter. The Defense Department has acknowledged instances in which the ANSF has entered into local cease-fires with Taliban fighters. Much of the infrastructure for international forces, such as airlift, strike aircraft and logistics on which the ANSF has depended, has already been removed from Afghanistan, and the ANSF lacks the equipment and trained personnel to easily compensate. And, as observed in recent weeks, the Taliban can strike in the heart of the Afghan capital and potentially disrupt the pivotal April 5 election. The Taliban’s ability to conduct attacks and even gain ground in outlying areas will likely increase after international forces draw down further by the end of 2014.
Even if the security situation remains relatively stable after this year, there is potential for erosion of some of the gains made in Afghan governance since 2001. Although Karzai’s relations with the United States have deteriorated sharply since his 2009 re-election, he is widely credited with balancing ethnic and political interests. It is an open question whether his most likely successors — ex-Foreign Minister Zalmai Rasoul, ex-Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani and “opposition leader” Abdullah Abdullah — will be able to control ethnic and factional ambitions.
There is substantial agreement among Afghanistan experts that after international forces are reduced, there will be a re-emergence of ethnic and regional factionalism, likely led by Herat province potentate Ismail Khan; Ghani’s running mate, Abdul Rashid Dostum, of largely Uzbek northwestern Afghanistan; and Abdullah’s Hazara Shia running mate, Mohammad Mohaqiq. These figures, and others, have retained or can easily revive local militias that have, in the past, committed substantial abuses and exercise arbitrary administration of justice. Factional leaders will reassert themselves to prevent Taliban gains, whether or not the ANSF falters. Their doing so is certain to trigger a backlash from Afghan women’s rights groups and civil society activists that have emerged since 2001.
The prognosis for Afghanistan worsens dramatically if the Resolute Support mission is canceled or, because of a long delay in signing the BSA, becomes a very small “Kabul only” deployment. The continued success of the ANSF depends, by all accounts, on its sense of backstopping and mentorship by international forces, even if small in number. An ANSF without such support is likely to suffer significant loss of personnel, either through departure or defection, and Taliban gains are likely to be dramatic. This outcome might precipitate a mass flight of Afghan businessmen and other elites, and a fracturing of the political system. Such an unraveling would jeopardize the gains of 13 years of international involvement in Afghanistan and potentially lead to Al-Qaeda’s return there.
This article was written in Dr. Katzman's own personal capacity, and not in connection with his position in the U.S. government.