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Afghanistan: Deepening Crisis

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By Ajit Kumar Singh
Research Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management

While the rest of the world has focused its attention towards bloodbath in the Arab World, where the Islamic State of Syria and al Sham (ISIS), now rechristened as Islamic State, has created havoc, Afghanistan is plunging deeper into chaos. The political upheaval arising out of the power struggle following the disputed presidential elections has added to the people's misery, as the security scenario deteriorates rapidly.

In a daring attack, on July 17, 2014, heavily armed Taliban terrorists gained access to a building under-construction near Kabul International Airport and launched an attack on the Airport with grenades and automatic weapons. Though the Afghan Interior Ministry claimed that "not a single rocket" had landed inside the Airport, the attack, which lasted for nearly five hours, led to the closure of the Airport. The attack eventually ended with all the six terrorists killed. While five of the attackers were shot dead by Policemen, Deputy Interior Minister for Security, Mohammad Ayub Salangi, disclosed that the area was "completely cleared", adding, "The last insurgent has just blown himself up, because he knew [Afghan Forces] were on the way to capture him." One trooper also sustained injuries.

On the same day, armed Taliban cadres attacked a convoy carrying a presidential security team in the Zurmat District in Paktia Province. Four guards were wounded in the ensuing gun battle. The security team was travelling to Urgun District (in neighbouring Paktika Province) to prepare for the President's visit there. The convoy pushed ahead despite facing another two ambushes by the insurgents, and reached its destination without sustaining any further casualties. Four vehicles of the President's security convoy were damaged by rocket fire.

President Hamid Karzai was to visit Urgun District to sympathize with the families of 89 people who had been killed in a suicide attack on July 15, 2014. The suicide bomber, driving a truck packed with explosives, had blown himself up when he was stopped by the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) in a busy market area.

Despite ‘repeated assurances’, the Taliban continued to target civilians through the first half of 2014. Indeed, according to a United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) report of July 2014, out of the 147 attacks claimed by the Taliban in which UNAMA recorded civilian casualties, 75 attacks appeared to have been directed at military targets, while 72 attacks deliberately targeted civilian objectives, including tribal elders, civilian Government and justice sector employees, and civilians in public places. Out of the 4,853 civilian casualties (1,564 civilian deaths and 3,289 injuries) in the first half of 2014, the Taliban publicly claimed responsibility for 553 civilian casualties (234 killed and 319 injured). During the same period in 2013, out of 3,919 civilian casualties (1,342 civilian deaths and 2,577 injured), the Taliban claimed responsibility for 571 civilian casualties (166 civilians killed and 405 injured) in a total of 52 attacks. Significantly, there is an increase of 17 per cent in civilian deaths and 28 per cent in civilian injuries (24 per cent overall increases in civilian casualties) in 2014, as compared to the corresponding period in the previous year. 

More worryingly, for the first time since 2009 when UNAMA began systematically documenting civilian casualties in Afghanistan, more civilians were found to have been killed and injured in ground engagements and crossfire between terrorists and SFs than any other tactic. Between January 1 and June 30, 2014, UNAMA documented 1,901 civilian casualties (474 civilian deaths and 1427 injuries) from ground engagements, as against 1,004 civilian casualties (219 civilian deaths and 785 injuries) in the corresponding period of 2013, an 89 per cent increase. Ground engagements include kinetic ground operations, crossfire, stand-off attacks and armed clashes between parties to the conflict that encompass attacks or operations in which small arms, heavy weapons and/or area weapon systems such as mortars and rockets are fired. Earlier, improvised explosive device (IED) explosions were the most preferred tactic.

The gigantic increase in ground engagements between the terrorists and SFs is, according to UNAMA,  directly related to, the closure and transfer of more than 86 International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) bases in the last half of 2013. Obviously, the ANSF, which now controls almost 93 per cent of Afghan territory and leads 97 per cent of all security operations across the country, has failed to stem the spread of the Taliban, who are increasing their physical presence across wider areas. Despite ANSF demonstrating their capabilities in a number of successful operations, tremendous vulnerabilities are increasingly visible. Indeed, varying media sources estimate that the Taliban has regrouped and now dominates an estimated 40 to 60 per cent of Afghanistan.

With about just 51,000 ISAF troops, including 33,000 US troops currently in Afghanistan, as against a high of 131,000 in 2010, the crisis is bound to worsen with the premature drawdown inching closer. The 337,000 strong ANSF is still in a process of learning the traits of an enemy that includes an estimated 25,000 hardened fighters, supported by jihadists from all across the globe. Crucially, Pakistan's notorious external intelligence agency, the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), continues to provide both safe haven and material support to Taliban groupings, in its sustained efforts to secure 'strategic depth' by installing a puppet regime in Kabul. On numerous occasions in the past the Afghanistan Government has accused the ISI of carrying out attacks inside Afghanistan, using its proxies, the Haqqani Network and Lashkar-e-Toiba, both against Afghan and Indian targets. Most recently, Afghan Interior Ministry spokesman, Sediq Sediqi, asserted that the July 17, 2014, attack on Kabul International Airport was either plotted by the ISI or the Haqqani Network, adding that the attack was apparently plotted to avenge the coordinated attack on Karachi Airport, as Pakistan believes Afghanistan was involved in the attack. Sediqi argued that ISI is keen to stop international flights to Afghanistan after similar flights were halted in Karachi following the June 8-9, 2014, attack. Indeed, the Afghan Interior Ministry officials had earlier claimed that the terrorist assailants were of Pakistani origin, as they were speaking Urdu. Significantly, the Haqqani Network was, on September 21, 2011, described by former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, as a “veritable arm” of the ISI.

At a juncture where Afghanistan urgently needs a strong and decisive Government to manage the transition and block the resurgence of the Taliban and its associates, the just-concluded Presidential Elections have vitiated the political environment.

The first round of the Presidential Elections, held on April 5, 2014, failed to throw up a clear winner, but were fortunately devoid of controversy. Abdullah Abdullah, the former Foreign Minister, garnered 45 per cent of the total votes, followed by former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, with 31.56 per cent votes. According to the demands of the Afghan Constitution, at least one of the candidates had to secure 50 per cent or more of the votes to be declared the winner. Consequently, second round of polls took place on June 14, 2014. Preliminary results on July 7, 2014, showed that Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, the runner up in the first round, got 56.44 per cent votes as against 43.56 per cent for Abdullah. While Ghani welcomed the results, Abdullah, who had urged postponement of the declaration of the preliminary results claiming that there were “unclean votes”, declared, "I will accept the result when the clean votes are separated from unclean votes." Sayed Fazel Sancharaki, Abdullah's spokesperson, alleging widespread voting fraud, argued, "The level of participation in the second round was far lower than the first round, so how can the [election] commission announce that more than 7 million people participated? We have documents showing participation [in the second round] could not have exceeded 5.2 million. In some areas, there are more votes than people." Significantly, the number of votes cast in June exceeds the April vote by over 1.3 million. European Union chief election observer Thijs Berman on July 3, 2014, thus noted, "I have serious concerns about a significant number of polling stations. I have no conclusions on possible fraud because this you can only do when you have done an in-depth audit, but the indications are very worrying.”

With Ghani displaying some reluctance, Abdullah’s supporters, who felt that he had been cheated for the second time, as he was the runner up to Karzai during the first round of polls in 2009 as well, and did not contest the run-off elections, asked Abdullah to form a “parallel Government.” Indeed, Abdullah even threatened to declare his own Government, though he urged his frenzied supporters to give him time to negotiate. On July 8, 2014, he thus stated, “The people of Afghanistan have been asking us to announce our government today, and we can’t disregard this right. I am not going to betray you — just give me time to defend justice, freedom, the rule of law and the people’s right. Give me time.”

For the time being, however, better sense appears to have prevailed, as the two candidates have agreed to an audit of votes. US Secretary of State John Kerry, who rushed to Afghanistan at the height of the political squabble, announced on July 12, 2014, "Both candidates have committed to participate in and stand by the results of the largest most possible audit. Every single ballot that was cast will be audited."

Meanwhile, on July 17, 2014, the Afghan Election Commission begun the audit of 7.9 million votes cast in the June 14 run-off elections. The process is expected to take at least three weeks, thus delaying the final results which were originally scheduled to be announced on July 22.

Both the candidates have agreed to abide by a 100 per cent internationally supervised audit and have also vowed to form a National Unity Government, presumably one that includes members of each side, once the results are announced. A smooth transfer of power is imperative to contain the country's accelerating hurtle into chaos. It will also provide the US the much needed legal mandate to leave behind some troops even after 2014, as both these candidates support the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA). Any persisting controversy over election results, and the consequent mistrust and potential ill-will between the two presidential candidates and their substantial base of supporters, however, could prolong the present crisis and lead to greater instability.

[Source: SATP]

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