Fifteen years after the ghastly ‘9 /11’ attacks and the US-led ‘war on terror’, Afghanistan is still considered vulnerable in international security assessments. This is because the country has once again fallen back to insurgency and terrorism. The fragility of the security situation coupled with unstable political environment of the country has brought back much of the world’s attention to Afghanistan and has led the West to deeply engage in the country’s internal affairs.
The Taliban forces have again resurfaced in Afghanistan after 15 years of their removal from power. Many studies suggest that insurgents now directly control 40 of the 400 districts of Afghanistan and are high threats to another 40 districts. The city-center of Kunduz in northern Afghanistan fell to the Taliban in 2015 and insurgents could infiltrate in to another strategic city of TarinKot, the provincial capital of Uruzgan, in southern Afghanistan for almost 24 hours fighting the government forces.
In 2006 when the Taliban had reemerged in small numbers and areas, American counter-terrorism expert Peter Bergen termed them as a tactical threat to the coalition forces in Afghanistan. Later on, this tactical threat changed into a strategic one, which was viewed as a threatening force to the survival of Afghanistan.
A study of NATO forces shows that of 34, at least 20 provinces of Afghanistan witness a full-fledged war. The finding indicates that in these provinces the major players are the Taliban, Al Qaida, Islamic State Khorasan (ISK) and other extremist groups.
The intensifying war in Afghanistan has resulted into major casualties, especially from Afghan forces. A recent statement by US forces commander in Afghanistan stated that in 2015, around 20000 Afghan security and defense personnel were killed and injured. The increasing number of ANDSF (Afghan National Defense Security Forces) casualties suggests that the war in the country is serious and bloody, which is taking many Afghan lives.
The current situation shows that even with 15 years of harsh struggle to build a ‘new’ Afghanistan, security wise the country seems to be following a downward path with indicators that remind of the 9/ 11 era, the time when the country was at war and the Taliban controlled majority of Afghanistan. The new player added to this war is the ISK, which is more brutal than any other anti-government armed forces. The ISK is targeting Afghans of all backgrounds and does not even show mercy to the Taliban elements.
ISK has tried to establish bases in Afghanistan, but effective counter-terrorism measures of the Afghan government and the international community have countered the group’s expansion across Afghanistan as for now.
Instability has resulted into unfortunate consequences in Afghanistan. Among other hardships faced by common people, in post-2014 era, when NATO-led forces announced the end of combat mission in December 2014, economic recession started in Afghanistan. The aid-dependent economy coupled with financial dependency and presence of international forces, foreign contracts, bases and international organizations’ employments resulted into an unexpected economic recession bringing about an uncertainty about the future of the country and its citizens.
This situation led to unprecedented migration. The year 2015 saw the largest wave of immigration of Afghans into Europe. According to UNHCR, around 40000 Afghans sought asylum in Europe between April to August 2015. Another media report puts the figure at 200,000 Afghans who immigrated to Europe in 2015. The refugee crisis made history again in post-2014 era. During the civil war, Afghanistan ranked number one nation of refugee seekers globally. From 2015, Afghanistan has the second largest number of refugees in Europe and other parts of the world, after Syria.
The refugee crisis in Afghanistan is one of the indicators that the situation has changed for the worst. Most media reports’ findings show that Afghans flee the country due to instability and unemployment. It means that the poor living condition and bad economic situation coupled with instability have made many Afghans flee the country.
The fragile situation has made life uncertain for many Afghans. They are not satisfied with the government and State’s response to the challenges facing the country, especially the government apathy towards the poor and the vulnerable population. The formation of National Unity Government (NUG) was viewed as a hope and a door towards prosperity, but within the second anniversary of the NUG, a poll finding showed that the people are highly dissatisfied with the government’s performance. Nearly 81 per cent of respondents said that they were somewhat or very dissatisfied with the performance of the national unity government, while 17 per cent said they were somewhat or very satisfied.
The current situation in Afghanistan shows that the country is facing a downfall at least in its security, economy and governance areas. While they are no good signs for a positive and hopeful future, the struggle also continues to change the status quo.
Domestically Afghanistan stands at a tipping point. Many believe the country cannot stand on its own as security and economic challenges loom large. Nevertheless, while facing public dissatisfactions, the NUG is progessing towards transformed foreign relations. In contrast to the last few years of Karzai era when Afghanistan experienced a failed foreign relation with its strategic allies, including the United States, the NUG leadership has been able to change the picture of Afghanistan globally.
Within two years, NUG leadership’s confidence building measures resulted into friendly and close foreign relations with the United States. President Ghani was warmly welcomed in the US joint session of the Congress and the US has reassessed its withdrawal strategy for the first time since December 2014. Meanwhile, looking into the criticality of the security situation in Afghanistan, Washington initiated its support to Afghan soldiers at war and announced sending 1400 marines to southern Afghanistan.
Starting from rebuilding strained relations with the US, the NUG worked for productive relations with China, Russia and even Pakistan. China was the first country the Afghan president visited after taking office in late 2014. Pakistan was the only country president Ghani and his allies in the NUG invested their political capital with a special focus to address Af-Pak differences and challenges. However, it was NUG’s only failed attempt in its global relations.
The only issue that remained unresolved since the 9/11 incident and did not change for the good was Pakistan’s relation with Afghanistan. During Karzai administration, several initiatives were designed to pave the way for a change in Pakistan’s strategic calculus about Afghanistan, but those efforts failed and did not produce a productive change.
After Karzai, Ashraf Ghani’s main foreign policy paradigm was building confidence with Pakistan, which he thought could end instability and insurgency in Afghanistan. However, his efforts failed too. With failed attempts, Ghani now seems to have changed his policy towards Pakistan. Isolation of Pakistan and building good relations with India and others in the region, including Iran, seems to be a top priority for Afghanistan government.
Although the war is expanding throughout the country and the insurgents are using sophisticated tactics and strategies, the government seems committed to keep the status quo and change it through reform processes undertaken recently. The combat operations defending Tarin kot city, backfire of Taliban operations in Helmandand defeating the insurgency in Kunduz and Takhar are seen as vital steps of minimal success stories of the government in countering the insurgency in Afghanistan.
Along with counter-insurgency and stabilization operations, the government is also focusing on good governance. At the same time, the government’s focus is also on countering corruption, the biggest challenge as seen by the international community threatening the survival of the State.
Meanwhile, the government has invested highly on regional connectivity through regional economic initiatives. Recently, the first China-Afghanistan direct train cargo arrived at Hairaton city port in northern Afghanistan. At the same time, Iranian railway is connected to Herat in Eastern Afghanistan. The building of the Chahbar Port is also seen as a strategic initiative taken by the NUG. These projects are seen as important development factors needed for stability of Afghanistan in the long run.
It can thus be stated that while Afghanistan has witnessed poor security environment and lack of development in the 15th anniversary of 9/11, there are millions of people in the country who are hopeful of a good future and appreciate the State’s efforts in bringing changes domestically through reforms and projecting Afghanistan in good light internationally.