Symptoms of Withdrawal in Afghanistan

28 03 2013

28 March 2013

Below RFE/RL quotes me on the changing security landscape of rural Afghanistan as both NATO and Afghan forces realign themselves in the coming years.  Link available here.

Afghans Failing Security Test in Badakhshan

By Frud Bezhan and Mustafa Sarwar

For years, Badakhshan Province enjoyed life away from the action, an island of stability as war engulfed the rest of Afghanistan. But as the broader conflict winds down, the northeastern province is offering a bleak view of the future.

8C2FC9E0-F258-4D96-9FDF-48991030842C_w640_r1_sThat’s because NATO last year handed over security duties in Badakhshan exclusively to the Afghan National Army (ANA) and National Police (ANP), but the transition has coincided with a spike in violence and increased militant activity.

It boasts the types of mountainous valleys and rugged terrain used as safe haven by militants throughout the country. It shares borders with three neighboring states — China, Tajikistan, and Pakistan. And it is an important transit route for the booming opium trade.The region is an ideal testing ground of Afghanistan’s ability to secure remote areas on its own.

Moreover, its isolation saved it from becoming a main theater of the Afghan conflict, allowing fresh troops to gain much-needed experience before Afghanistan takes over security duties across the country at the end of 2014.

But David Young, a conflict-resolution expert and adjunct fellow at the American Security Project, says the security landscape has changed as coalition and Afghan forces have focused on securing urban areas, leaving large swaths of rural Afghanistan — such as Badakhshan – vulnerable.

“NATO forces across the country are focusing their efforts and dissipating resources on the places where they can have the most impact,” Young says. “Badakhshan is not one of those places. I fear that any terrain not classified as even moderately urban will take a lower priority and open the door to Taliban infiltration.”

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The Coming Rise of Afghan Militias

24 01 2013

24 January 2013

My latest piece for The Atlantic, available here.

In early 1989, Dr. Mohammed Najibullah, the embattled communist president of Afghanistan, faced a choice. As the last of the Soviet forces supporting him had withdrawn, he knew the momentum of the U.S.-funded mujahideen bent on his overthrow would be hard to stave off. Moscow was offering only money, a handful of advisors and limited air support as a consolation to what seemed like impending doom. Even with a strong army, Najibullah knew success would depend on his ability to secure mujahideen territory outside of Afghan cities, and that would require the help of militias.

While centuries of fickle alliances and treacherous terrain have made unaccountable Afghan warlords and the fighters they command a double-edged sword, it was a risk Najibullah felt compelled to take. By the time Soviet financing finally dried up in early 1992, Najibullah had amassed more than 170,000 irregular fighters (not including those whose neutrality he leased), and as he knew they would, his newly poor militias switched sides in droves, signaling the beginning of the end.

Afghanmilitia

President Karzai (and his 2014 successor) will soon face a similar dilemma, though in all likelihood, what surely didn’t feel like much of a choice to Najibullah will feel equally constricting to Kabul in the coming years. The numbers and dynamics on the ground speak for themselves.

Assuming Washington is able to secure a Status of Forces Agreement with Kabul, U.S. forces will draw down to an expected 5,000-10,000 advisors and counterterrorism professionals by the end of 2014. In the following three years, Afghan forces (police, military and border security) will collectively contract from 352,000 to 230,000 due to budget constraints and a lack of international donors.

Currently, Afghan forces have significant difficulty holding territory on their own even when NATO forces secure it for them, to say nothing of their ability to capture new territory independently. Worse still, Afghans are known for abandoning their outposts shortly after U.S. forces leave them in Afghan hands; in one catastrophic 2011 instance, the Afghan army abandoned a fully-stocked, well-fortified, battalion-sized base to the Taliban in Kunar. Read the rest of this entry »





Bringing the Taliban to the Table

13 01 2013

13 January 2013

Below RFE/RL quotes me on how the Afghan government can improve its reconciliation effort with senior Taliban officials released from Pakistani custody. Link available here.

Taliban Prisoner Releases are High-Risk, Low-Reward

By Frud Bezhan

After having little success playing it safe, the Afghan government is gambling on a risky new strategy to convince the Taliban that the road to peace runs through Kabul.

In recent months, scores of Taliban officials and rank-and-file have been freed from prisons in Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan. Now, Afghanistan is upping the ante with the expected release of thousands more within its borders while pushing Islamabad to free some of the Islamist militant group’s most dangerous characters.

The prisoner releases are seen as a signal of good faith from the administration of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who is wary of peace efforts not led by Kabul but whose overtures for direct talks with the Taliban have been refused.

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But there are no assurances that the freed detainees will, as Kabul predicts, help bring the Taliban leadership to the negotiating table or convince militants to reintegrate into Afghan society.

Analysts say the move is fraught with risk, and has little chance of succeeding.

“The worst-case scenario, which is actually quite likely, is having these individuals return to the Taliban, bolster their ranks, and increase their efficacy on the battlefield,” says Jeffrey Dressler, a senior analyst and team leader for Afghanistan and Pakistan at the Institute for the Study of War in Washington.

“It would not surprise me one bit if the majority of these folks were recaptured or killed on the battlefield six months to a year from now.”

Dressler says that even those who might be ready to give up the fight would be highly reluctant to facilitate reconciliation.

‘Doomed From The Start’

The Afghan authorities announced on January 4 that 80 prisoners captured in operations against the Taliban and other groups had been released from Bagram military prison, which houses some 3,000 Taliban fighters and suspected terrorists. A further 1,200 prisoners, it was announced, would be freed in the coming weeks.

​​In neighboring Pakistan, 26 Taliban have been freed in recent months amid reports that Kabul had presented a 40-man wish list to Islamabad. The release of about 100 more prisoners is reportedly forthcoming.

David Young, a Washington-based conflict-resolution expert and adjunct fellow at the American Security Project, says the Afghan government’s latest effort to get the Taliban leadership to the negotiating table is “doomed from the start.”

He says that even before the detainees were released, it was unknown what role the freed militants might play in bringing Taliban leaders to the negotiating table, what connections they still have to the group’s leadership, or even their stance on negotiations.

Under a “safe passage” agreement between Kabul and Islamabad, according to Young, prisoners have been released with no conditions and many have simply disappeared. A better approach, he suggests, would have been to home in on key individuals.

​​”In order to work, a strategy like this would require the release of officials who still hold significant weight in the Taliban’s political apparatus, but are reconcilable. Secondly, it would be far more effective if Afghan officials had taken the time to build relationships with the prisoners before they were released,” Young says.

“Their sincerity and access to the Taliban could have been tested while they were still in prison. And then perhaps arrange their release once it became clear that they would be more effective on the outside.”

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Pakistan’s Cosmetic Reconciliation Attempt

16 11 2012

16 November 2012

Below RFE/RL quotes me on Pakistan’s recent release of a handful of former Taliban officials meant to facilitate the Afghan peace process.  Link available here.

Pakistan Takes Step, Not Leap, Toward Afghan Peace

By Frud Bezhan

In a move intended to encourage the Taliban to join stalled peace negotiations with the Afghan government, Pakistan this week released at least eight jailed members of that militant group.

The releases, granted by Islamabad after repeated requests, is seen by some as a sign that Pakistan is finally prepared to play a constructive role in jump-starting reconciliation efforts that have yielded little since they began several years ago. Skeptics — including the Afghan government —

say that while it is a positive step, Islamabad must do much more to prove its commitment to the Kabul-led peace process.

The Afghan government and its Western allies have stepped up efforts to find a political solution to the ongoing battle against Taliban militants. There are fears that the country could descend into civil war or face another Taliban takeover if militants are not brought into a serious peace process before 2014, when the majority of U.S. and NATO-led ISAF troops will leave.

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Interviews on Voice of America

21 10 2012

On 15 Oct 2012 I was interviewed by both the Dari and Pashto channels of the Voice of America – Afghanistan.  Below are the videos of each interview, and further below are the approximate English transcripts.

 

 

 

DARI TRANSCRIPT

VOA: Given Afghanistan’s achievements and the security challenges facing the country, including green-on-blue attacks, can the transfer of security responsibility to Afghans succeed?

DHY: It can certainly transfer, yes, but its success is a different question.  It’s important to remember that only 15% of these attacks are the result of infiltration–that is, the Taliban sends one of its fighters undercover into the Afghan National Security Forces to attack NATO forces at a later time.  Another 15% are the result of coercion of existing ANSF members–either by blackmailing them and threatening their families if they do not attack NATO forces, or by bribing them with money.  The remaining 70% are due to cultural clashes.  The reason for those cultural clashes are frequently rooted in the way of training.  American forces tend to train Afghans by using a great deal of shouting, profanity and even humiliation because that’s how most armies are trained, including America’s.  In fact, Afghans train the same way, but it completely changes the dynamic when the trainer is an outsider and not from the same culture or religion as the trainee.   Read the rest of this entry »





The Future of Militias in Afghanistan

10 10 2012

Below are my remarks (click to play audio) on the future of local defense forces and militias in Afghanistan at the American Security Project on 9 OCT 2012.  I essentially argue that in two years, with few choices available, Kabul will deliberately instigate civil war in remote areas of the east and south to prevent open conflict in key population centers.





The Anatomy of an Anti-Taliban Uprising

12 09 2012

Foreign Policy
12 September 2012

[My latest piece for Foreign Policy, in Part One and Two]

Part 1

Revolt is a loaded word, conjuring up images of the Free Syrian Army, the Anbar Awakening, and the Libyan civil war.  In small pockets across eastern Afghanistan, however, farmers, shopkeepers and others are taking the fight to the Taliban over the group’s abusive tendencies.  Though entirely isolated from one another, instances of violent resistance to harsh Taliban rules have spiked this past summer—brought on by school closings in Ghazni, music bans in Nuristan, beheadings in Paktia and murders in Laghman, among other causes.  While a small number of Afghans admire the Taliban, most who support it do so because they are coerced, or believe that the group is less predatory than the government, though that’s hardly an endorsement.  So what precisely does it take for Afghans to stand up to the Taliban, and what are their options?

When I served in eastern Afghanistan as a civilian advisor to the U.S. military, I closely monitored the Taliban’s relationship with the local population and discerned a number of red lines the Taliban could not cross, depending on the retaliatory options available to their victims.  While working closely with a dozen or so of these nascent rebel groups in Laghman and Nuristan Provinces, I noted that the amount of Taliban abuse most Afghans will endure before considering rebellion in one way or another depends on a number of inter-related factors (incidentally, the calculus for whether Afghans will join the Taliban due to government abuse is similar): the severity of the grievance, the locals’ ability to retaliate, and the community’s resilience to withstand inevitable counter-attacks if they do rise up.  More specifically, they ask:

  1. Does this abuse or restriction prevent my family from earning a living or even surviving?  ‘Prevent’ is the key word here.  Afghans will walk an extra five miles every day to avoid a Taliban checkpoint on the way to a bazaar, and as long as they are able to get to the bazaar, the obstacle can be classified as a mere nuisance.  If, however, the Taliban is restricting movement to such a degree that there is a threat of being shaken down or attacked every time Afghans leave their home, the Taliban is playing with fire.
  2. Does it prevent the men in my family from receiving an education?  Again, as long as they get the education, even if the Taliban dictates that Islam should be taught in a certain way, such slights are likely to be overlooked in the face of overwhelming force.  Tactful members of the Taliban will usually encourage changes in a ‘dangerously westernizing’ curriculum through intimidation but stop short of actually closing them by force, given the value Afghans place on education and their willingness to fight for it.
  3. Do I have the support I need (fellow fighters, weapons, fortifications) to retaliate?  Afghans make decisions collectively, so if the village elders do not support a counter-attack, it will rarely happen.  If an individual retaliates without consulting his elders, he risks becoming a social pariah or being thrown to the wolves when the Taliban comes hunting for payback. When the community does approve, it is usually in the form of revenge for a very specific grievance (such as a murder), targeted accordingly and proportionately to convey to the Taliban that the community does not intend to start a war but rather to secure limited retribution and make it known that a line was crossed.  For instance, a specific Talib may be singled out and attacked for a crime he committed.  Sometimes the Taliban will allow the retaliation to go unanswered and sometimes they won’t.  If the retaliation simply entails chasing the Taliban out of an area with sticks, the insurgents are likely to let it slide and come back in a few days as though nothing had happened.  Yet frequently the leader of an uprising will be beaten or executed if he is viewed as a threat, rather than simply helping his community blow off a little steam.
  4. Do I have the support I need to retaliate continuously and maintain a heightened defense posture indefinitely?  If the goal is permanent expulsion of the Taliban or if the community knows any retaliation will be met with a harsh response, they must feel confident that their supply of ammunition and fighters runs deep.  Men have to quit work or school and devote all their time to defense; all movement and communication becomes riskier and more costly; intelligence networks of spotters and infiltrators have to be established and maintained; and savings are spent in days on matching the Taliban’s capabilities, including makeshift bunkers, RPGs, PKM machine guns and even DSHKA heavy machine guns.  If the community lacks the resources or connections to live under siege or project power at least a mile in every direction, they will not survive permanent enmity with the Taliban.

Careful not to push the community too far, the Taliban dances a fine line as well.  Abuse the population too little and they won’t fear you, but abuse them too much and you give them nothing left to lose.  Inevitably, the Taliban either misread the population’s redlines or arrogantly exceed them, confident that no one would dare challenge their writ no matter how cruel they are.  When faced with a possible rebellion, the Taliban will frequently roll back their demands (re-opening schools, for instance) and the population will resume its previous indulgence of modest though frustrating restrictions, such as the requirement to stay at home at night.  And the dance continues.

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