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Afghanistan: Critical Cusp

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By Ajit Kumar Singh
Research Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management

With less than a fortnight to go for the all important Presidential Elections scheduled to be held on April 5, 2014, a wave of terror strikes has enveloped the length and breadth of Afghanistan. In the most recent of major incidents (each resulting in three or more fatalities) at least nine persons, including four foreigners and five Afghans (including two children and two women), were shot dead by Taliban terrorists inside the luxurious Serena Hotel complex in national capital Kabul, in the night of March 20, 2014.

The attackers managed to smuggle pistols past security checkpoints and then hid in a bathroom, eventually springing out and opening fire on guests and hotel guards. All the four terrorists were killed in the subsequent operation by the Security Forces (SFs). The attack took place despite recent security reports rating Serena Hotel, guarded round the clock by dozens of security guards armed with assault weapons, among the highest-risk locales in the city. The hotel is frequented by foreign officials and the Afghan elite.

In another incident earlier in the day, Taliban terrorists killed at least 11 people, including the Police Chief of Jalalabad District, and wounded another 22, in a suicide bomb attack and gun battle at a Police Station in Jalalabad city, Nangarhar Province. The assault began with two explosions just before dawn targeting the Police Station and a nearby square, close to compounds used by international organizations, including the United Nations. The initial attack was carried out by two suicide bombers, one of them driving a three-wheeler vehicle. Afghan SF personnel, with the help of International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) helicopter gunships, launched retaliatory fire. The ensuing gun battle lasted for over three hours, at the end of which six Taliban terrorists, all of them wearing suicide vests, were killed.

On March 18, 2014, a suicide bomber riding a rickshaw blew himself up outside a checkpoint near a market in Maymana, the capital of Faryab Province, killing at least 15 civilians and injuring another 46. The explosion took place some 200 metres away from the Provincial Governor’s residential compound.

On January 17, 2014, at least 21 persons, including 13 foreigners and eight Afghans, were killed in a suicide bombing by the Taliban, at a Lebanese restaurant, Taverna Du Liban, in Kabul. Wabel Abdallah, the International Monetary Fund’s Resident Representative in Afghanistan, was among the dead. Three attackers were also killed. The restaurant, popular among foreigners and wealthy locals, is located in an area that houses several diplomatic missions.

According to partial data compiled by the Institute for Conflict Management’s (ICM's) South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), since the beginning of 2014, a total of 682 persons, including 141 civilians, 101 SF personnel and 440 terrorists, have been killed in terrorism-related incidents across Afghanistan (data till March 23, 2014). The country has recorded at least 45 major incidents in 321 deaths during this period. More worryingly, 21 out of these 45 incidents were suicide attacks, accounting for 132 killings.

Violence recorded a significant escalation through 2013. SATP data indicates that at least 6,363 fatalities were recorded through 2012, including of 2,754 civilians, 893 SF personnel and 2,716 terrorists, rising to 7,074 fatalities in 2013, including 2,959 civilians, 1,413 SF personnel and 2,702 terrorists - an increase of 11.17 percent in overall fatalities.

More worryingly, civilians continued to face the brunt, with civilian fatalities increasing by 7.44 percent in 2013. According to United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), the number of civilians killed through 2013 surpassed civilian fatalities in all the previous years since the beginning of war in 2001, barring 2011, when the civilian fatalities stood at 3,021. UNAMA, however, started compiling data only from 2007, in which year 1,523 civilian deaths were documented across Afghanistan.

Other parameters of violence, includng suicide attacks and improvised explosive device (IED) attacks also witnessed an increase in 2013, as compared to the previous year. As against 101 suicide attacks in 2012, year 2013 recorded 107 such attacks, according to UNAMA. 73 of 107 suicide attacks in 2013 targeted civilians, killing 255. Throughout 2013, the use of IEDs remained the leading cause of civilian deaths and injuries. 962 civilian deaths and 1,928 injuries occurred in 2013 due to IED explosions, as compared to 868 civilian deaths and 1,663 injuries in 2012.

Indeed, varying media sources estimate that the Taliban, which lost power in 2001 as the US and its allies launched Operation Enduring Freedom in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, has regrouped and now dominates an estimated 40 to 60 per cent of Afghanistan.

More than 50,000 ISAF combat troops who are still in Afghanistan are due to leave by the end of the year. Afghan Forces now control almost 93 per cent of their territory and lead 97 per cent of all security operations across the country. They are also responsible for over 90 per cent of their own training activities. Afghan National Security Force (ANSF) troops have demonstrated their capabilities in a number of successful operations, but difficulties persist, as is evident in the failure to stall the rise in violence. US Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, thus told the Senate Armed Services Committee on February 11, 2014, that, on the battlefield, Afghan Forces often score tactical victories against Taliban insurgents, but had difficulties holding cleared territory, particularly when Police units were involved. Clapper also observed that the Afghan National Army (ANA) had, improved but still suffered from “extensive desertion problems”. About 30,000 Afghans deserted from the ANA in 2013, out of a total strength of 185,000, Clapper disclosed. The head of the US Defence Intelligence Agency, Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, added, at the same forum, that Afghan troops had made “modest progress”, but still needed international assistance with logistics, air transport and intelligence.

Clearly, the current situation demonstrates tremendous vulnerabilities in the ANSF, and the need for a continued and significant presence of ISAF troops, if the state is to retain its structure and dominance in future engagements. Nevertheless, the process of the premature drawdown of ISAF Forces continues to accelerate. On March 16, 2014, the United Kingdom (UK) handed over another two bases to Afghan Forces. From 137 UK bases in the country, there now remain just two bases - Camp Bastion, which is the main base for UK personnel, and observation post Sterga 2, both of which are in Helmand Province.

On February 25, 2014, the White House announced that US President Barack Obama had ordered the Pentagon to prepare for a possible complete withdrawal of troops, following Afghan President Hamid Karzai's refusal to sign a Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) with the US, despite the US and Afghanistan agreeing to details of the BSA and the agreement being endorsed by a council of 3,000 Afghan tribal elders, the Loya Jirga. Karzai has stated that he will only sign the BSA if the US publicly starts a peace process with the Taliban and ensures transparent elections this year. Indeed, according to a February 3, 2014, media report, President Karzai has been engaged in secret contacts with the Taliban. Aimal Faizi, Karzai's spokesman, characterized the contacts as among the 'most serious' the presidential palace had with the Taliban since the war, adding, “The last two months have been very positive. These parties were encouraged by the President’s stance on the bilateral security agreement and his speeches afterwards.” Despite coalition reservations, the Karzai Government has also gone ahead with its decision to release detainees at Bagram Prison in Bagram District, Parwan Province. It has so far released 120 detainees – 55 on March 20, 2014, and 65 on February 13, 2014. The US Forces had handed over the prison at Bagram Air Base to full Afghan control on March 25, 2013.

The final word on the BSA, however, will only be heard after the Presidential Elections of April 2014. Indeed, soon after Obama’s telephonic conversation with Hamid Karzai on February 25, 2014, the White House issued a statement noting, “We will leave open the possibility of concluding a (security agreement) with Afghanistan later this year. However, the longer we go without a (deal), the more challenging it will be to plan and execute any U.S. mission.” Crucially, all the nine candidates who are in fray for the President's post have supported the signing of the BSA, though none of them have stated this openly, with the exception of Abdullah Abdullah, who was the runner up to Karzai in the disputed 2009 elections. Abudllah observed, “It is in the interest of Afghanistan to sign the BSA.” The pact would allow the US to keep as many as 10,000 troops in the country to focus on counterterrorism and the training of Afghan security forces.

The BSA alone, however, cannot ensure peace in Afghanistan. Unless the Taliban's safe sanctuaries and infrastructure of support in Pakistan are dismantled, Pakistan-backed Islamist extremists will continue to wreak havoc in Afghanistan. In his final address to Afghanistan’s Parliament on March 15, 2014, Karzai declared, in an obvious reference to Pakistan, that the US could bring peace to Afghanistan if it went after terrorist sanctuaries and countries that supported terrorism. Similarly, Major General Stephen Townsend, who commands US and NATO Forces in eastern Afghanistan, noted, "Until the Pakistanis do something about the safe havens, that's going to be a problem. (Terrorists) can recruit and train and equip and prepare to launch in Pakistan."

The most immediate concern is, of course, conducting a free and fair Presidential election. Indeed, in 2004, the fatalities during the campaign period (September 7 to October 7) stood at 196. The elections, which were conducted on October 9, 2004, were by and large fair. As a result, violence in the post-election period remained low. On the other hand, in 2009, a total of 1,173 persons were killed during the campaign period (June 16 to August 18), and the elections, which were held on August 20, 2009, were marred with controversy so much so that a runoff election was declared on November 7, 2009, which was finally called off on November 2, when second runner up Abdullah Abdullah decided, on November 1, not to contest, citing the “inappropriate actions of the Government and the election commission”. The violence and lack of transparency in the elections catalyzed the growth of the Taliban. Present developments indicate that this process might well be repeated in the present round of polls. Since the beginning of the campaign on February 2, 2014, 534 persons have already been killed in Afghanistan, till March 23. The campaign will last till April 2. Unless this rising violence is contained at the earliest and an environment where free and fair elections can be conducted can be established, the outcome could bode ill for the future of Afghanistan.

[Source: SATP]

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