‘For peace to have a chance in Afghanistan’, according to Ben Barry, IISS Senior Fellow for Land Warfare, ‘both the Afghan government and Taliban must feel confident that they can negotiate privately, and that the gap between their positions has narrowed sufficiently that they have some common ground on which to do deals.’
At a discussion meeting at the IISS on Thursday titled ‘The Endgame in Afghanistan’, Barry was hopeful that the prospects for successful negotiations, and a peace deal, could increase after the scheduled 2014 elections when a new president takes over.
Barry’s assessments and insights on the factors that would influence the future of Afghanistan were informed by his recent trip to Kabul, the centrepiece of which was observing President Hamid Karzai and NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen announce ‘Milestone 13’, the beginning of the final stage of the Afghan transition. In this stage, military leadership of the campaign will move from the NATO Joint Command to General Sher Mohammad Karimi, the Afghan Chief of the General Staff.
In his talk, Barry explored the continuing transition of security from NATO to Afghan leadership by 31 December 2014, analysed the progress of the Afghan government’s talks with the Taliban provided an in-depth assessment of the military dimensions of the transition, about which he was cautiously optimistic. However, he conceded that the great question mark was long-term political stability and legitimacy:
‘The Afghan endgame will be increasingly influenced by the political transition which will result from the 2014 Afghan presidential election’, Barry said. ‘I question whether there will be sufficient improvement in Afghan governance and a reduction in corruption to neutralise root causes of the insurgency.’
It was crucial, he warned, that government corruption was addressed so that Western aid to Kabul was not considered a waste, and that both the elections and the new government, after April 2014, were legitimate and credible in the eyes of the Afghan people.
In Barry’s assessment of strategic issues, he concluded that ‘the Afghan Army are probably strong enough to continue to hold the main cities and the key rural areas that were largely cleared of insurgents during the surge … The transition strategy does not require the insurgency to be eliminated, simply that it is reduced to such a level that it no longer poses an existential threat to the state and can be contained by Afghan forces.’
He explained that the challenge from Afghan insurgent groups is their ‘shared strategic objectives’ of expelling the International Security Assistant Forces (ISAF), overthrowing the current Afghan government and, for some groups, restoring a Salafist Islamic regime.
‘Mounting spectacular attacks in Kabul seeks to shift the narrative in their favour,’ he said, and while he noted that the Taliban seemed to be increasing the intensity and frequency of attacks, he also stated that ‘the ANSF seem to be “holding the ring” against the insurgents, and doing so with far less NATO support on the ground than in previous years. If they can continue to do so for the rest of 2013, they will grow in capability and confidence.’
Barry observed that an important ‘known unknown’ will be the extent to which the Taliban’s narrative – that they are fighting to expel infidels from Afghanistan – will retain its credibility once US and NATO troops increasingly withdraw from combat operations and tactical mentoring.
Meanwhile, talks between the Taliban, Afghan government and the United States, intended to reach some form of political settlement, seemed to suffer another setback. Reports suggested that the Taliban had closed its Doha office after the group’s flag was removed by Qatar officials. The Afghan government and the United States had apparently objected to the flag being raised outside the office. They also objected to a plaque bearing the inscription of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, which had been used by the Taliban in the 1990s.
But Barry believes the door has not shut completely. ‘In the short term, it is difficult to see common ground between Karzai and insurgent negotiators,’ he said.
‘In Kabul, I got a feeling US and NATO countries’ entreaties to the Afghan government are coming close to being seen by many Afghans as hectoring born of political desperation for a clean end to the war.’
However, he said, a new president open to dialogue could be a game-changer. When the new president takes power after the 2014 elections, ‘there will have been a significant reduction in US and NATO combat troops, potentially eroding part of the Taliban’s legitimacy. If the ANSF continue to hold against the insurgents, these factors may create new opportunities for negotiation’.
Listen to the discussion.
Read the transcript.