The Tragedy of Strategy: Why Afghanistan is still in Chaos

Last year turned out to be as one of the most turbulent years in Afghan history for a while. In June, the Afghans elected a new government, accompanied by widespread election fraud and an unclear result. It was therefore a case of emergency when U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry promptly flew to Kabul in order to broker a deal between the two rivals Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah. After forming a “unity government” the newly elected President Ghani had to achieve a post-withdrawal agreement with the international coalition before the ISAF mission ended in December.

But given the fact that the security situation in Afghanistan was much worse in the final phase of the withdrawal than it had been in Iraq, this time President Obama and his Afghan counterpart were under pressure to reach a status of forces agreement – the legal basis of the new NATO assistance mission “Resolute Support”. With the help of the new mission the Afghan government has officially assumed responsibility to guarantee security since the beginning of this year, in spite of its weaknesses and ongoing violence. For the United States the new mission marks the end of the longest war in American history driven by a foreign policy that was overemphasized on the use of force and liberal ideology. “Muscular Wilsonianism”, as some labeled the strategic marriage between hardline policies and liberal ideology, was, indeed, supposed to defeat terrorism but finally strenghened the insurgency and extremism in Afghanistan and beyond.

Goals and failures in retrospect

Eliminating the Taliban, terrorists and their safe havens and establishing a democracy were the main goals of U.S. engagement in Afghanistan. Measured by its own goals, however, the United States and its allies lost the war. The focus on the use of force and the annual increase in the troop levels did not lead to the defeat of the Taliban, al-Qaeda, warlords and criminal networks. Instead, the Taliban are still capable of attacking almost anywhere in the country and enjoy several safe havens in Afghanistan and Pakistan. According to Afghan officials, parts of eastern Afghanistan are now under control of Taliban factions and a few areas in the north were jointly gained with their long-term ally Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) during their spring offensive “Azm”.[1] And just recently highly secured civilian areas were attacked by the Taliban, such as the Afghan parliament, the American and Indian embassy or the Park Palace Hotel.

But the expansion of the insurgency is not a new phenomenon. Violence in Afghanistan has constantly risen since 2001 and peaked at more than 12,000 battle-related deaths in 2014.[2] Even during the Hobbesian 1990s, the intensity of violence was not as high as it is today. At the same time, poppy production and other criminal activities such as smuggling and kidnapping have risen to the highest levels since the invasion in 2001.[3] And as the situation got worse in Afghanistan, so too did it in Pakistan. Several Islamist groups emerged there in the aftermath of the intervention and declared war on America and the Pakistani government.

The U.S. strategy also failed in terms of nation and state building and democracy promotion. President Bush and his advisors strongly believed in the democratic peace theory and even expected a democratic Afghanistan being able to stabilize the country. As can be seen, they were incredibly wrong. Democracy did not prove to be a magic silver bullet for solving all Afghan problems and it could not be established without resistance from different groups. What is left after years of nation building is a highly fragile state which can hardly guarantee core functions of a modern state. Firstly, Afghanistan lacks coercive power. The Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), including the military and police, have not fully been able to control the territory and to secure the Afghan borders. They are poorly trained, have high death and defection rates, lack cohesiveness and air power and increasingly rely on local militias. In addition to this, the security forces are deeply corrupt, selling weapons to insurgents, paying salaries to “ghost workers“ or distributing privileges among a few.

Secondly, the Afghan state lacks infrastructural power in the form of governance, services and law enforcement. One major problem is corruption, as it causes high rates of tax loss, high costs of starting a business or asymmetric income distributions. In 2014, Afghanistan placed at 172 in the corruption index of Transparency International, only having Sudan, North Korea and Somalia behind it. Moreover, the government’s ability to provide basic needs or to create a good economic performance is very limited, especially in remote areas. Despite years of investing in energy supply, for example, only 30 % of the Afghan population has access to electricity, according to World Bank data.[4] The same is true concerning the justice system. The local people in remote areas often prefer Taliban courts over official courts enforcing law in cases of crime because the official ones are ineffective or simply not prevalent.

Thirdly, the lack of ideological power in the sense of legitimate institutions and a vision of the Afghan state could not overcome the ideological divide within the fractured society. Today political culture is dominated by politics of exclusion and the centralization of presidential power.[5] In fact, the 34 provincial governments and 400 district chiefs are directly appointed by the president in Kabul and are not elected by the people, with the result that Afghanistan is viewed as having one of the most centralized political systems in the world. Furthermore, there is no long-term power sharing agreement at the political center. First, the warlord-dominated democracy engineered by the international coalition did not really prove popular among tribal elders and ethnic Tajiks. The Pashtuns, who form the largest group of the Afghan population, still refuse to acknowledge the central government, even though President Ghani has a Pashtun background. In their view the ethnic Tajiks, who are overrepresented within state institutions, have too much power. Moreover, Pashtuns, who have arranged themselves with the government, are opposed by hostile Pashtun tribes outside the government, of whom several are allied with Taliban factions and hide them. The ethnic Tajiks and other minorities have refused to accept the central government as well. They mainly favor a decentralized system because they fear being dominated by the Pashtuns.

The role of regional power politics

So why did the strategy of the United States not succeed despite its effort? To begin with, diplomacy as a strategic response to the 9/11 attacks was considered weak, leading to a direct intervention of the United States. In doing so, conflicts on the international level and regional power dynamics were largely ignored. The U.S. government treated Pakistan as an ally because the war in Afghanistan highly depended on the supply route through Pakistan. But Pakistan was actually no ally at all. As it is the case in Syria, Afghanistan has been a playground of rival states which used governments or militant groups as a proxy, contributing to the success of extremists. For decades India has tried to encircle Pakistan by promoting pro-Indian Afghan groups, close diplomatic ties to the Afghan leadership and soft power within the Afghan society. In return, the Pakistani government has supported the Taliban and other groups in order to gain strategic depth and to challenge Indian influence on Kashmir and Afghanistan. In addition to the Indian-Afghan threat, Pakistan has also feared an Iran-Russia alliance, which tried to shape Afghan politics. Although some factions of the Pakistani government see the Taliban as a threat and stepped up efforts to fight them, they consider Iran and a nuclear-armed India as bigger threats than the Islamists – that is why they still distinguish between good and bad Taliban factions.

The problematic relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan have also remained unsolved. Afghanistan has never accepted the border between the two countries because the Durand Line divides the Pashtuns, who are only a minority in Pakistan. Mohammad Daoud Khan, then Royal Prime Minister under King Mohammed Sahir Shah, was a strong supporter of Pashtun nationalism and even waged war against Pakistan for that matter in 1963. Today both states accuse each other of supporting terrorist groups and both are frequently engaged in border skirmishes. President Ghani and his predecessor Hamid Karzai tried to improve the relations with Pakistan but they were not willing to pay the price for accepting the border and rebalancing relations with India and Pakistan.

Between tactics and strategy

For years, experts have debated why the strategy of counterinsurgency (COIN) failed to deliver positive outcomes. In trying to answer this question, advocates of COIN mainly focused on the tactical difficulties and criticized how policies were put into practice. But as it turned out, the problem was not the tactics of COIN but rather the strategy itself. Bombing and occupying a foreign country and trying to tell the Afghans how they should organize themselves were ineligible strategies to win the hearts and minds of the Afghan population. As a result, it became easy for extremist groups to recruit fighters from a growing pool of sympathizers who saw the insurgency as a (legitimate) revolutionary resistance against occupying infidels.[6]

The withdrawal of the U.S.-led coalition was a first important step to delegitimize the insurgency. However, the increasing number of attacks in the last two years indicates that a security vacuum caused by the withdrawal of troops and a fragile state can be as disastrous as a foreign intervention itself. To solve this dilemma in the short-term Afghanistan desperately needs tactical assistance and foreign aid. In the long-term Western governments will need a new and fundamentally different strategy for dealing with extremism, a realistic one that refocuses on diplomacy. Policy-makers have to avoid military force being overemphasized and used as development program.

Challenging extremism would need a strategy that takes the complexity of actors into account. On the international level relations between Pakistan and its neighbors are a key to reduce the intensity of violence. As long as Afghanistan does not take a neutral position towards India and Pakistan, the survival of the Afghan government will be at risk because Pakistan wants to prevent being encircled by its main enemy India. Inside the domestic arena the Afghan government needs a long-term power sharing agreement at the political center and a devolution of power towards the periphery. The Afghan government could also be helped to conduct peace talks with moderate Taliban factions. Diplomacy can provide a whole set of new policies and tools to cooperate in a long range of issues including security, trade, infrastructure and development. But diplomacy cannot only bring actors to the table, it can also contain threats if needed.

[1] http://gandhara.rferl.org/content/afghanistan-imu-role-in-fighting/27011645.html

[2] http://www.ucdp.uu.se/gpdatabase/gpcountry.php?id=1&regionSelect=6-Central_and_Southern_Asia#

[3] http://www.worldbank.org/en/country/afghanistan/overview

[4] http://www.unodc.org/documents/crop-monitoring/Afghanistan/Afghan-opium-survey-2014.pdf

[5] http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/21/world/asia/ghani-afghanistan-unity-government-plan.html?_r=0

[6] https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/united-states/2015-02-16/why-counterinsurgency-doesnt-work

Mit Zickzackkurs zum „Brexit“?

Durch den klaren Erfolg David Camerons bei den Unterhauswahlen steht es fest. Spätestens 2017 werden die Briten über den Austritt aus der EU entscheiden. Erleben wir nun also das letzte Kapitel einer vier Jahrzehnte dauernden krisenhaften Partnerschaft, oder geht das Vereinigte Königreich nur seinen Zickzackkurs weiter, um sich innerhalb der Gemeinschaft neuerlich mehr Spielraum zu verschaffen?

Am 9. Mai 1950 gab der damalige französische Außenminister mit der „Schuman-Erklärung“ den Anstoß für einen Prozess, der bis ins 21. Jahrhundert die europäischen Völker wirtschaftlich und politisch immer stärker verband und damit Frieden und Wohlstand brachte. Vormals sechs, sind es heute 28 Staaten, die sich dem Erfolgsmodell einer „ever closer union“ anschlossen und einen Großteil ihrer Politiken unter ein gemeinsames europäisches Dach überführten.

Einst so stabil und fortschrittlich, scheint es so, als hätten die vielen Gewitter in den letzten Jahren so viel Schaden angerichtet, dass sich so mancher Mitbewohner der „WG-Europa“ mittlerweile nach neuem Wohnraum umsieht.

Eine schwierige Wohngemeinschaft

Griechenland beispielsweise kann seit April 2010 seine Miete nicht mehr bezahlen und lebt seither auf Kosten aller anderen. Zwar hat es unzählige Male beteuert, sein Zimmer umgehend und in allen Ecken aufzuräumen, doch ist das Gerümpel faktisch nicht mehr zu überblicken. Einfach rausschmeißen darf man es nicht, da der Mietvertrag unbefristet ist – der zunehmende Unmut der Nachbarn könnte aber durchaus dazu führen, dass man es irgendwann einfach seinem Schicksal überlässt.

Neben Griechenland sorgt auch ein weiterer Bewohner für schlechte Stimmung. Ein Rückblick: Weil die WG der sechs Erstbezieher Deutschland, Frankreich, Italien und der Benelux-Staaten seit 1952 so hervorragend funktionierte und man in der gemeinsamen Küche plötzlich nicht mehr nur wässrige Süppchen, sondern immer kompliziertere Gerichte gemeinsam fabrizierte, war der Andrang von außen plötzlich groß. Man nehme Großbritannien: Seine Freunde auf beinahe allen Erdteilen hatten sich von ihm losgesagt und als einsame Insel irgendwo im nordöstlichen Atlantik fühlte es sich sichtlich unwohl. Das Problem war nur, dass die Sechs um ihre Gruppendynamik fürchteten, und daher eine Anfrage 1963 noch ablehnten. Erst zehn Jahre später war die Zeit für vorerst drei Anwärter (GB, Irland, Dänemark) reif.

Tatsächlich lässt sich die folgende Phase gemäß dem Sprichwort mit den vielen Köchen und dem Brei umschreiben: Streit, Stillstand, (Euro-) Sklerose. Schuld daran waren irgendwie alle ein bisschen, Lady Maggie Thatcher war aber sicherlich diejenige, die am wenigsten auf die Anliegen der anderen einging. Blockierte sie anfangs nur manche Kompromisse in den Hausversammlungen, trat sie 1984 unmissverständlich mit folgenden Worten vor ihre Kollegen: „We want our money back“. Nicht nur, dass ein eigener Britenrabatt eingefordert wurde und nach wie vor so gewährt wird, verweigerte GB in den Folgejahren auch die Partizipation an einigen der wichtigsten gemeinsamen Hausregeln.

Ohne uns

Wo bei den anderen die Türen seit 1995 immer offen standen, sind etwa auf den beiden Inseln GB und Irland bis heute Ausweis- und Personenkontrollen gang und gäbe. Auch der Einführung eines gemeinsamen Zahlungsmittels zwischen den Bewohnern wurde seitens der Briten protokollarisch ein Riegel vorgeschoben. Ganz im Sinne von: „Macht was ihr wollt, aber macht es ohne uns“. Daneben optierte nur Dänemark in gleicher Weise. Selbiges gilt für die europäische Grundrechtecharta, die 2009 für alle außer das Vereinigte Königreich und Polen rechtsverbindlich wurde.

Ob dieser vielen Ausnahmeregelungen erscheint es paradox, dass GB überhaupt einziehen wollte. Mehr noch angesichts der Tatsache, dass es kein geringerer als Winston Churchill war, der in einer seiner berühmtesten Reden bereits 1946 die Idee vorbrachte, dass sich alle europäischen Staaten vereinigen sollten. Im gleichen Atemzug verwies er jedoch darauf, dass man selbst natürlich nicht Europa angehöre.

Klare Entscheidung erwünscht

Nach Jahrzehnten des Zickzackkurses seiner Vorgänger hat sich David Cameron schließlich 2013 dazu durchgerungen, im Falle seiner Wiederwahl eine endgültige Entscheidung im Sinne eines „In-Out-Referendums“ herbeizuführen. Da der britische Premier am 7. Mai tatsächlich 24% der Wahlberechtigten, 37% der Wählerstimmen und gemäß dem Mehrheitswahlsystem knapp 51% der Mandate für sich und seine konservativen Tories gewinnen konnte, wird spätestens 2017 Klarheit darüber herrschen, ob das drittgrößte Zimmer in der EU-WG freigeräumt wird oder nicht. Vieles hängt dabei davon ab, wie Cameron kurz vor dem Referendum kampagnisiert und das steht im engen Zusammenhang damit, inwieweit die anderen bereit sind, auf ihren ohnehin schon unbeliebten Mitbewohner zuzugehen. Die Grundregeln seien gemäß dem ständigen Vorsitzenden der Hausversammlung nicht verhandelbar und auch eine grundlegende Vertragsänderung ist in so kurzer Zeit kaum möglich.

Am Ende bleibt die Frage, ob eine Beziehung, die schon so lange dermaßen zerrüttet ist, nicht einfach in gegenseitigem Einvernehmen aufgekündigt werden sollte – immerhin scheinen beide Seiten getrennt glücklicher zu sein. Doch so einfach ist es leider nicht. Auch wenn die Hausordnung seit 2009 jedem Bewohner das explizite Recht einräumt, die WG eigenmächtig zu verlassen, würden die Austrittsverhandlungen wohl viele Jahre in Anspruch nehmen. Die 27 anderen jedenfalls würden einen weithin enorm einflussreichen Partner verlieren, GB selbst wiederrum könnte die großen wirtschaftlichen Vorteile des WG-Lebens plötzlich nicht mehr nützen. Letztendlich wäre der Auszug aber auch der größte integrative Rückschritt seit der Errichtung der Gemeinschaft in den 1950ern und könnte ferner als Präzedenzfall dazu führen, dass zunehmender Individualismus und Egoismus das einst so stabile Zusammenleben gefährden. Eines ist deshalb ganz klar: Die Verhandlungen der nächsten zwei Jahre werden wegweisend für die Zukunft Europas!

The Turkish Elections and its Consequences

In regard to the loss votes for the AKP one must be fair: considering that the Turkish economy is stagnating, unemployment is rising, the region is in terrible turmoil – both politically and economically – and the appeal of the AKP’s version of conservativism is waning, the party did reasonably well gaining more than 18 million, or 40.7% of the votes1. For most parts this is due to president Erdoğan’s political skills, the governing parties almost monopoly on printed and televised information and the simple fact that the last decade and half was the politically most stable and economically most prosperous one in Turkey since the proclamation of the republic. Still, the party has the least seats in the National Assembly since coming to power in 2002 (arguably for arithmetical reasons the share has been shrinking ever since then from 363 to now 256 seats). Thus the elections constitutes a huge loss for the ruling party, dwindling their powers and making Erdoğan’s plans for a presidential system practically impossible.

The reasons for the huge losses are most likely manifold, ranging from disappointment about the economic and labour market performance to Erdoğan’s increasing authoritarianism and therefore unwillingness to listen to constituents concerns to the massive Kurdish empowerment going on in the region since the start of the inner-Turkish solution process that got further heated up by the battle of Kobanê. Other issues like the secularism debate, increasing human rights abuses and the dispute over turkey’s stance on regional conflicts are probably less important issues though. What surely played a certain role too was the bottom-down leadership change that disempowered leading moderate voices within the AKP, like Abdullah Gül, and led to the emergence of new, uncharismatic (and arguably unsuccessful) figures like the now Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu. In combination with Erdoğan’s (unconstitutional) almost day and night appearance in public to support Davutoğlu and his cabinet, this led to tiredness amongst traditional AKP supporters and strengthened the opposition.

This is particularly the case for the pro-Kurdish HDP which received a surprising 13% of the vote2 and can therefore be called the biggest winner in the elections. Many (again including me) doubted that the HDP would surpass the 10% threshold as they emerged from a rather far-left political tradition and has ties to the PKK. Furthermore the party has a very difficult legal background and was regularly shut down – before and after elections – for presumably having exactly the aforementioned ties with an underground terrorist organization. Also anything labelled “Kurdish” leaves a separatist aftertaste in Turkey and therefore is regarded illegitimate and to a certain extend a state-enemy. Yet the party cleared the hurdle and did so (contrary to many pundits arguments) because it scored massively in majority Kurdish areas, particularly the south-east. The HDP thus at the same time was able to capitalize on the AKP’s losses but more importantly was able to establish itself as a defender of particular Kurdish issues and representative of all Kurds. Stunning results in some Kurdish-majority provinces are a proof of just that – like the almost 90% in the province of Hakkari. Thanks to smart tactics, a charismatic leading figure (Salahattin Demirtaş) and the mentioned circumstances the HDP scored above expectations.

This cannot be said about the biggest opposition party, the Kemalists CHP, which has a smaller share of the vote and seats compared to the 2011 general elections. It would be an exaggeration to call the results a big defeat for the CHP though, as the party in my eyes still is in an ongoing opening process (as described in my latest blog entry) and cannot capitalize on leftist-liberal votes – something the HDP to a certain extend seems to be doing – and neither on liberal AKP voters. It is a defeat nonetheless, particularly since the other opposition parties seemed to have gained from the ruling parties losses. My answer to this is that the MHP profited from the nationalist votes the AKP lost, the HDP from the Kurdish vote and the CHP fishes in neither voting-pool. The basic constituency still sticks with the ruling party and in my eyes will do so as long as it is clear that Erdoğan himself wields the sceptre in the AKP. Personal networks and dependencies formed by him will – for now – stay as they are. The CHP though must engage with these constituents, try to represent a serious party of power with the appropriate economic knowledge.

The results are full of paradoxes indeed. For example the 10% threshold led to the very empowerment of the HDP (and disempowerment of the AKP) in the first place as conquest of that barrier provided the HDP with many legislative powers while at the same time costing the ruling party many seats. Thus the intended result of the high threshold which is strengthening larger parties led the exact opposition, namely the strengthening of the smallest faction in the assembly. Another paradox is that Erdoğan clearly emerged as the biggest loser in the elections but the results might strengthen his offices position, as he becomes the arbiter in possible future coalitions or early elections3. Also the new political powers of the Kurdish side of the solution process may have a weakening effect on them, as the other side (thus whomever forms the next government) might be less willing to compromise as the Kurds now constitute a real political competitor. This is particularly the case since the AKP has less political legitimization – or a smaller mandate – in the negotiations and the other two parties will most likely show less incentive to make compromises.

After all the election – as expected – will turn out as being the most decisive one in quite some time. And although most votes are already counted and the mandate distribution is more or less certain, who’s the winner and loser (and to which extend) is not so clear already. Until now it always proofed a mistake to underestimate the political skills and accumulated powers of president Erdoğan. At the same time his zenith has most likely already been passed and the constituents should start getting comfortable not only with a post-Erdoğan (at least in realpolitik terms) era but a less stable time in which coalitions have to be formed and compromises be found. So far that seems too difficult, not only for the political establishment but more so the international financial markets which reacted very sensitive to the elections results4.