December 4, 2014

TSG IntelBrief: Afghanistan Facing A Difficult Transition

• Taliban militants have stepped up their attacks in Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul, in an effort to undermine confidence in the new government of President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Officer of the government Abdullah Abdullah

• Ghani and Abdullah are engaging in a show of unity at today’s London Conference of donor countries for Afghanistan, but the unified front masks deep differences that have delayed the naming of a new cabinet

• The recent upsurge in violence in Afghanistan has prompted the Obama Administration to extend the combat role for U.S. troops beyond 2014, and to maintain substantial airpower in the country

• The extended combat authority for U.S. troops provides U.S. and NATO commanders with additional tools to help the Afghanistan National Security Forces (ANSF) prevent major Taliban gains as international troops thin out substantially this month.


The multinational, NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) will transition at the end of this month primarily to a training and advisory role for ANSF, known as the Resolute Support Mission (RSM). Accompanying that transition is a substantial drawdown of international forces in Afghanistan. The largest force in Afghanistan, that of the United States, will decrease from a peak of 100,000 in 2011, to 9,800 as of January 1, 2015. Of those, about 2,000 will be counter-terrorism forces that will continue to combat al-Qaeda and other high value targets that are in Kunar, Nangarhar, and Konduz Province. U.S. forces will also target the Haqqani Network that is active in the eastern provinces as well as in Kabul city, often attacking India’s diplomatic facilities there. The U.S. contingent in the RSM will be joined by about 3,000 partner forces from 13 NATO and other partner countries—primarily Germany, Italy, and Turkey—almost exclusively in a training and advisory capacity.

Taliban and/or Haqqani Network militants have focused on puncturing the security “bubble” in Kabul since President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Office Abdullah Abdullah took office in late September. Insurgents have conducted brazen attacks on Kabul police headquarters, guesthouses for foreign aid workers, and the convoy of prominent women’s activist Shukria Barekzai, among other targets. Attacks on heavily-protected Kabul are not new, but the concentration of attacks there in recent weeks appears to represent an insurgent strategy of directly undermining confidence in the new leadership team. The attacks have largely succeeded in shattering the sense of security in the capital and caused Kabul Police Chief Mohammad Zahir to submit his resignation on November 30, although Ghani turned down the resignation.

Insurgents perceive the new leadership team as vulnerable because of its longstanding rivalries and competing constituencies. The Ghani-Abdullah team missed a self-imposed 45-day deadline (November 15) to name a new cabinet because Ghani and Abdullah each seek to place as many of their key supporters as possible in cabinet positions. Ghani dismissed the existing cabinet on November 30, but stated that new cabinet nominations were still “weeks away.” The failure to install a new cabinet (which also requires confirmation by the elected National Assembly) has not only led to decision-making paralysis at key ministries, such as defense and interior, but has also slowed payments to contractors who depend on Afghan government spending to pay their workers. In a sign of further discord, in November, Salahuddin Rabbani, the head of the “High Peace Council” that nominally oversees the government-Taliban peace process, resigned because of differences with Ghani. As a member of the dominant Pashtun community from which the insurgency draws its recruits, Ghani tends to take a softer line on reconciliation than do Rabbani, Abdullah, and other Tajiks.

Apparently recognizing the potential for their differences to stoke pessimism about Afghanistan’s post-2014 future, Ghani and Abdullah are in London today for a major meeting of international donors. The meeting will review Afghanistan’s performance on benchmarks set by the 2012 Tokyo Conference, which linked donor aid to progress on such issues such as anti-corruption, effective budgeting and delivery of services, and merit-based hiring. Despite their differences, the two are likely to make the case that Afghanistan has satisfied the Tokyo criteria and deserves continued international financial support. Afghanistan depends on donor aid for 75% of its $7.6 billion budget.

Even though today’s London Conference is likely to express continued international support for Afghanistan, the United States and its NATO partners have a guarded outlook on post-2014 Afghanistan. The top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, General John Campbell, continues to express confidence in the ability of ANSF, which now leads 99% of all operations, to prevent major Taliban gains. However, in November, General Campbell announced he was reviewing plans for the 2015 and 2016 U.S. force drawdown. Under the existing plan announced by President Obama in May, the U.S. force is to shrink to 5,000 military personnel in 2016, and to only about 1,000 after 2016.

To instill greater confidence among U.S., NATO, and ANSF commanders in their ability to blunt Taliban gains as international forces are reduced, in November President Obama reportedly altered the post-2014 rules of engagement for U.S. forces. Even though their mission will remain mostly focused on advising and training ANSF, U.S. troops will be able to conduct continued combat against militants when they or Afghan forces are threatened. President Obama’s directive also provides for U.S. airpower (including drones) to remain in Afghanistan after 2014. The planned departure of that airpower had greatly worried U.S., NATO, and Afghan commanders because the Afghans lack any close air support capability.

The change in the post-2014 rules of engagement has not alleviated concerns among U.S. commanders for the post-2016 U.S. and NATO exit from Afghanistan. They assert that Iraqi forces would not have collapsed when confronted by the challenge from the so-called Islamic State if U.S. forces had remained in Iraq after 2011. Most commanders contend that ANSF might suffer the same fate if the U.S. force is reduced to only 1,000 military personnel after 2016. It is likely that the Obama Administration will at some point alter that drawdown plan to permit a larger and more capable U.S. support force to remain in Afghanistan after 2016.



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