Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

International Engagement

After the Rollercoaster Comes What? Afghanistan in 2015

Martine van Bijlert 14 min

2014 was a rollercoaster of a year. The transition was completed. It did not tear the country apart or fragment the security forces, but it sometimes felt close. Afghanistan now stands at the beginning of the optimistically named Decade of Transformation. The country has a new leadership, both fuelled by confidence and ambition and bogged down by its own complications. The insurgency is violent and assertive, but also unsure how to position itself. Afghanistan’s emerging new relationship with the Western-led ‘international community’ is a complex mix of dependence and sovereignty. For some reason analysis is often asked to answer binary questions: Did we fail or did we succeed? Is the situation better or worse? Will it fall apart or will there be progress? AAN’s Martine van Bijlert argues, again, that reality tends to be more mixed than that.

Balloons for the cabinet inauguration are still available. Photo: Martine van Bijlert.Balloons for the cabinet inauguration are still available. Photo: Martine van Bijlert.

Afghanistan started 2014 with a mixture of fear, hope and determination. There were crucial questions of what the international troop withdrawal would look like (in particular with security agreements with the US and NATO unresolved), how the security forces would deal with the handover of responsibilities and whether a messy election would lead to chaos and instability. It turned out to be a rollercoaster of a year. There was relief and elation after the first election day and when John Kerry brokered the agreement between Ghani and Abdullah for the first time. But emotions were rubbed raw in the months of waiting and wrangling, during the count, audit and negotiations over the election outcome. There was a brief period of an almost exaggerated sense of optimism in the period immediately after the inauguration of the national unity government – as if people realised that disappointment would follow soon, but just wanted to enjoy the feeling while it lasted. Much of the optimism has been tempered as the cabinet formation dragged on, paralysing the government. And throughout the year there have been waves of exhaustion and a deep feeling of being unprotected, with the often relentless pace of attacks and reports of casualties. There was grief over loved ones lost, including public figures who are now sorely missed. There has also been defiance: small civil society demonstrations at the sites of recent attacks, support for the national security forces, on social media and through actions like blood donation drives, and complicated choices made by journalists on whether to boycott the reporting of Taliban violence. As Afghanistan embarks on a new year, it faces challenges that are similar to those it faced last year, but they are not exactly the same.

The handover of an ambiguous sovereignty

Afghanistan’s transition process formally ended on 31 December 2014. The new support and training mission, Resolute Support, was marked by a flag-lowering ceremony on 28 December 2014 in front of a handpicked audience at ISAF HQ. ISAF commander General John Campbell, somewhat grandiosely, claimed that their collective efforts had “lifted the Afghan people out of the darkness of despair and given them hope for the future” and that “by almost every metric Afghanistan is prospering” because of it. US President Obama, on the same day, also spoke mainly to his own home constituency when announcing that “the longest war in American history is coming to a responsible conclusion.” (1)

What neither of them chose to stress was that the “responsible” end to the war – and the ISAF and US follow-on missions (Resolute Support and Operation Freedom’s Sentinel) – is likely to involve continued combat. This was always implicit in the self-defence clauses included in the security agreements recently signed with the Afghan government (see here for more detail), and was apparently recently made explicit in a presidential order by Obama that authorises combat operations against forces that threaten American troops or the Afghan government. President Ghani is said to support such a role (although the sources tend to be ‘unnamed officials’) and has also already indicated that, in his opinion, the new 2016 deadline for full troop withdrawal may need to be re-examined. (For a detailed look at the agreements underpinning the NATO and US military missions in Afghanistan and what this might mean for the conflict, see AAN analysis here. A forthcoming AAN paper will assess the chances of success for the Resolution Support Mission).

The relationship will remain a complicated one. The US authorisation of continued combat on Afghan soil may be a practical necessity, tied up with having troops on the ground, but it keeps these troops in an ambiguous realm outside Afghan government control – after the full handover of security responsibilities – and raises questions as to who will be the judge of what constitutes a threat. President Ghani will probably need to deal with the fall-out from operational decisions that are outside his control (even though the BSA in principle precludes unilateral counterterrorism operations) – which was one of the early sources of acrimony between president Karzai and the US. For Obama the continued presence of US military and the continued, though less extensive, involvement in combat, fudges what was supposed to be a clear-cut simplification of what had become quite a messy involvement. On the other hand, this complicated relationship is still considered the lesser of evils, by both sides, as the prospect of no support – which would have included the cutting of aid for police and army salaries and the withdrawal of air support – would have probably made it difficult for the government to hold together in the future.

President Ghani marked the occasion of the full security hand-over in a separate ceremony at the Palace on 1 January 2015. He celebrated the sacrifices of the Afghan security forces and showed a defiant stance to those who might want to undermine Afghanistan’s stability (claiming that such efforts would come back to haunt them), as well as to those who might doubt the country’s ability to face its challenges. He reminded his audience that: “If, a year ago today, you had listened to regional and international analysts, they would never have thought today would happen. They were all wondering how a country with Afghanistan’s problems would be able to successfully complete a security and political transition.”(See also AAN’s piece on the 2014 syndrome here).  It is the same confident, almost belligerent posture that has marked many of his interviews and speeches and that stands in stark contrast to the extent his country continues to be dependent on outside support. (2)

It is a difficult dilemma that will play out in every realm and that had stymied former president Hamed Karzai. Afghanistan craves sovereignty, but needs continued support, which in practice means relinquishing control and tolerating a continued stream of demands, pressures and decisions made by others – some helpful or even crucial, others less so. Western governments, on the other hand, no longer want their political fortunes to be tied up with what happens in Afghanistan, but leaving too soon, and irresponsibly, would reflect badly, too. It would also uncomfortably tarnish the belief in what was tried in Afghanistan – in terms of democracy, stability, freedom and even counterinsurgency – and in the abilities and intentions of the West.

A recent example of this dilemma has been Ghani’s clash over the management of the UNDP-administered Law and Order Trust Fund (LOTFA), the vehicle that allows donors to fund police force salaries.

That the trust fund had problems was well-known (see for instance here)  but it had proven difficult for donors to find alternative channels that would allow them to disperse large sums of money without too much administrative headache. Although Ghani is not wrong to demand that the donor and aid community do better and they relinquish the tasks they do not need to do, the hostility and abruptness with which it was done ruffled quite a few feathers. Moreover, the demand that control of the fund be turned over, within six months, to the Ministry of Interior – also well known for mismanagement and, like all ministries, still without a minister – makes it look like this about control rather than proper management.

It will be interesting to see how the often-touted, but rarely honoured ‘mutual accountability’ between donors and the Afghan government develops. It is clear that Ghani intends to take the donor side of mutuality serious (3) and that the new Afghan government may turn out to be fairly confrontational in an attempt to lift the relationship to a more equal footing. This is potentially awkward when a country is so dependent on outside aid. For Afghanistan’s sake, it is to be hoped that the donors will not defensively, or disingenuously hide behind practical difficulties to protect institutional interests and entrenched ways of working – and that the Afghan government will not overreach and demand the principled handing over of funds and responsibilities to institutions that are clearly not ready. It is true that many aid and donor organisations were also not up to their tasks, but that can be no reason to demand rushed handovers that will be difficult to clean up later.

The donors have so far been less clear about their demands. What was supposed to be an early forum to enforce mutual accountability, the international donor conference in London in early December 2014 (see here and AAN reporting here), could not be used as such, as the drawn-out elections and cabinet formation meant the new government leadership had no record to account for. Instead, the conference was used by President Ghani to lay out his vision for the country. It will be interesting to see how the next conference, planned for summer 2015, pans out.

Political transition: the contours of a new government, but not yet a cabinet

The agreement on the national unity government (see the document here and AAN reporting here) averted an electoral crisis and ensured there was a government leadership that could sign the BSA and finalise the last steps of the transition. But it established a new and unwieldy form of government, its complications starkly illustrated by the excruciatingly slow process of cabinet formation. Both the delay (more than one hundred days since the inauguration – much longer than either team seems to have expected) and the difficulty to come to a workable agreement is troubling. It does not bode well for all the potentially painful and politically contentious reforms that the government has in mind. One could say that, at least, so far, neither side has walked away in anger or openly blamed the other for the deadlock (although there are discrete grumblings by supporters and open complaints by civil society and the parliament). The impasse – if one wants to be optimistic – could signify an unwillingness to cut corners or to skim over contradictions for the sake of expediency, which, if it makes for a firmer relationship and manages to hash out some of the difficulties, could help forge new ways of being a government. But it could equally be an indication of systemic problems and a warning to expect prolonged paralysis. Most likely it will lead to a combination of both: occasional spurts of progress bogged down by lengthy negotiations. This will undermine both the reform ambitions and regular government work and may well feed donor impatience.

What has made both sides tread carefully is that below the veneer of conviviality and cooperation, there are still a lot of raw nerves. Although the nasty exchanges, the smear campaigns and the twisting of information that strained relations and poisoned the atmosphere during the election period (particularly on social media) have been muted, there are occasional flare-ups. They serve as reminders that the acrimony and mistrust could be revived. And although social media, as in any other country, is not necessarily a reflection of what most people think, it can exacerbate and accelerate the emergence of political rifts.

What about the next elections? 

The unresolved electoral process has left the country’s political class with diverging views on what happened during the election: how the vote went, who won and what that means for the compromise that was reached. (4) Both leaders have supporters who believe their leaders should be commended for their magnanimity in sharing their rightful authority for the good of the country, as well as berated for selling their victory so cheaply. And although the ‘solution’ of the national unity government averted the electoral impasse of this particular election, it has not solved the fundamental dilemma of how to hold unproblematic elections. (5) This is particularly pertinent for the upcoming parliamentary elections that are supposed to take place later this year.

One of the things the government will need to deal with is the demand for electoral reform. This is complicated by the fact that there is no consensus on why the last elections were problematic: no agreement on the level and nature of the fraud, the level of complicity of the Independent Election Commission (IEC) and its leadership, and the extent to which this fundamentally altered the outcome of the elections. With the government and the wider political class split into roughly two factions, each with their own reading of what went wrong and who benefited, reform efforts are likely to be pulled in different directions and to focus on who controls the means of disqualification. (6)

What all sides will probably be able to agree on, is that the absence of solid data is the key factor that facilitates the whole range of potential interferences, ranging from petty fraud on the ground to mass manipulation at the central level. The most important measure would therefore be the establishment of a reliable voter registry. The government appears to still be working towards linking the voter registry to the anticipated introduction of the e-tazkera – which is, by itself, a complicated and politically fraught exercise. It will be interesting to see in what ways the use of and control over the data for electoral purposes may become a point of contention.

In terms of other reforms, the Wolesi Jirga has just embarked on a new round of amendments to the Law on the Structure, Authorities and Duties of the Electoral Institutions, This despite the fact that the next election (parliamentary) is supposed to be less than a year away and the Constitution precludes changing the law so close to the vote. (7) Initial discussions point towards an effort to increase control over the conduct of both electoral bodies. This includes proposals to abolish the relatively new independent selection committee for commissioners (which aimed to dilute control by the sitting president over the appointments, see here and here), to re-include international advisers into the electoral complaints commission and to give a greater oversight role to parliament. (The MPs are presumably still irked by the fact that representatives from both electoral bodies routinely refused to show up when summoned). Many of these discussions, under the guise of accountability and independence, are really about who can control whom. The Wolesi Jirga will presumably try to vote on the amendments before the winter recess, after which they will be passed on to the Meshrano Jirga and then the president.

Finally, the government needs to figure out what to do with the upcoming parliamentary elections. Nobody has officially spoken about a delay yet, but it is clear that the preparations for an April vote – which is the date mentioned in the Constitution – have not been made. The IEC says that technically it is ready, but that there has been no response to their funding requests and that they are waiting for further instructions from the government. In general, the new government will not be keen to have a messy parliamentary election on its hands in its first year in office, particularly given that the first hundred days have already been bogged down in internal politics.

The changing nature of the war

The gradual security handover, with the international combat forces retreating into the background, led to changes in the nature of the war. The conflict became increasingly Afghan versus Afghan. The Taleban stepped up attacks, leading to greater civilian and military casualties on the Afghan government side (and presumably on their own too), and are driving the conflict right through what is usually a winter lull – presumably to make the propaganda point that they remained while the foreigners were leaving.  Attacks increased on police posts, army bases and district centres, and there was a fairly relentless campaign of suicide and complex attacks, both in Kabul and in the provinces. The Afghan national security forces have not collapsed, but they did sustain very heavy casualties. The expectation that there would no longer be international air support encouraged the Taleban to mass in larger numbers and fight bigger battles, but they were regularly surprised when Afghan security forces did call in, and receive, air support. Without the continued air support, the picture might have been quite different.

The handover of security responsibilities means that the Afghan government also needs to take full responsibility for the conduct of the war, whereas in the past mistakes could be blamed on the foreigners. This was starkly illustrated when an ANA mortar recently hit a wedding party. The government acted swiftly and announced that the responsible soldiers were identified and would be court-martialled. But it is a fine balance, between being seen to act decisively and still ensuring justice and due process. A similar dilemma came up when the new government enacted the death sentences in the highly publicised Paghman rape case (see AAN reporting here). The punishment was welcomed by many Afghans, despite the worryingly faulty trial. Misgivings expressed by the European Union and Human Rights Watch led to fairly harsh reactions in the traditional and social media, where they were accused of showing disregard for the victims and putting up a misguided defence of rapists and terrorists.

Looking ahead

As Afghanistan stands at the beginning of what has been hopefully termed the Decade of Transformation, it still cannot pay its own army, police and civil service. The inflated economy is deflating and the effects are being widely felt. Large parts of the population were anyway living under, or just above, the poverty line and many of them will face personal disasters – floods, drought, crop failure, unemployment, illness, crime, violence – that they will find hard to recover from. Afghanistan’s new president believes the nation’s determination and resilience will pull it through. And it is true that most outside analysis tends to disregard the tenacity and potential of Afghanistan’s people, focusing mainly on the country’s fragility, but the odds are formidable.

For some reason analysis is often asked to answer binary questions: Did we fail or did we succeed? Is the situation better or worse? Will the country now fall apart or will there be progress? Our brains seem wired to demand it. But Afghanistan’s reality tends to be more mixed and the future usually holds surprises we cannot predict.

The challenges Afghanistan faces at the beginning of 2015 are similar to those it faced last year, but they are not exactly the same. The constellation has changed. There is a residue from the latest turmoil – from the elections, the upsurge of attacks, the change in government – that has resulted in a combination of both determination and fragility, confidence and concern, hope and fear. The year that has just passed was another of the many ‘make or break’ years Afghanistan has faced. It did not break the country, but it also didn’t put it securely on the path to stability. Looking ahead – and if all goes well – there will probably be many more years of very precariously muddling through.


(1) The concerns in the lead-up to 2014 were, to a large extent, fed by signals that the internationals were planning to leave – come hell or high water – regardless of the actual situation on the ground and regardless of the mess that might be left behind underneath the neat metrics. The transition thus became a framing exercise. A civilian surge alongside the military surge, now largely forgotten, was meant to accelerate progress in the fields of governance, justice and service delivery all over the country. Foreign advisers at the district-level were stationed at District Support Teams (outposts of the Provincial Reconstruction Teams) and were on the lookout for entry-points to spend money and report successes. Metrics were designed and measured to ensure the conclusion that the local government was ready. However, as security challenges increased, the working relationship with the government soured and the high ambitions of winning hearts and minds collapsed into a more pared-down version of counterinsurgency, the governance transition faded into the background.

(2) It is not the first time Ghani stressed that the gloomy predictions have been wrong and will remain wrong, arguing that such doubts fail to take into account the determination and resilience of the Afghan people. He has a growing arsenal of confident one-liners, including the claim that Afghanistan has been around for 5000 years and will continue to be around for at least another 5000. See also his latest speech where he vehemently told the world that “no one can drown Afghanistan” and that whoever wishes to destabilise Afghanistan will itself be destabilised as a consequence.

(3) This should surprise nobody who has been around long enough to remember the ambitions of the Afghanistan Aid Coordination Agency (AACA) in the early years. Headed by Ghani, the AACA, was intended to control and coordinate all foreign aid. (See here for more details  on the – meagrely documented – early aid architecture).

(4) For an overview of AAN’s reporting on the 2014 elections see here. This includes key reporting on the first signs of both trouble and convergence after the announcement of the preliminary results,   the main disagreements between the two sides, the final results that were not announced, and the agreement to form a national unity government.

(5) The main question that remains unresolved is how to arrive at a winner through a process that is inherently flawed and in a situation where there is no trusted impartial arbiter. The establishment of a national unity government in which the two main contenders take a seat – if this constellation survives – simply means that the real competition over who will head the government (together) has been moved to the first round of the vote. The second round then becomes an expensive, and still very contentious, way to project relative support and to hash out who will have which authorities.

(6) This demand for electoral reform has come up after every election, as the electorate, the donor community and political class were still reeling from its aftermath. Initially, there is a always firm determination that the elections’ problems should not be repeated and that electoral reform should ‘remain on the agenda.’ Over time, the sense of urgency tends to fade, as it becomes clear that the measures that would really change the equation, such as a reliable voter registry, are unwieldy and, on the Afghan side, may harm perceived electoral chances in the next election. The focus then tends to shift to reforms that seem more doable – such as the selection criteria of electoral commissioners, logistical details for the count or specific fraud detection measures – which are important in principle, but, in practice, do not really limit the levels of fraud or stop the election sliding into an argument over who controls the means of disqualification. In the run up to the next election, reasons are then sought, and found, why the upcoming vote may be less problematic or why the incentives to interfere may be somehow diminished – which, so far, have proven unfounded every time.

(7) The IEC has criticised the move, claiming that the proposed amendments are politically motivated and stressing that parliament is not allowed to change the law in the last year before an election. The Wolesi Jirga, however, maintains that because this specific law is not mentioned by name (the constitution only refers to “the electoral law” which is a separate law that deals with the electoral system and the conduct of the elections), it can still be amended. This has been a recurring theme in discussions on how the Constitution should be interpreted, with the Constitution being read as an exhaustive document rather than a guiding one (i.e. anything that is not specifically mentioned, cannot be considered to be implied).


Elections outlook Peace Politics Taliban War


Martine van Bijlert

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