A door to Kabul opens for the Taliban

Ashraf Ghani has made to the Taliban an offer they cannot refuse. If they want to be part of the Afghan game.

Last Wednesday, during the latest international conference to achieve peace in Afghanistan that is usually characterized by many expressions of concern but no changes in political thinking, the Afghan President Ashraf Ghani broke with the tradition and offered to recognize the Taliban as a legitimate political organization that can take part in the country’s political life. In turn, he asked for the Taliban to recognize the government and to accept and respect the Afghan constitution.

After a military confrontation that has seen Kabul fight against the Taliban for more than sixteen years, Ghani’s announcement on Wednesday marked a remarkable new approach on part of the Afghan government. But why did Ghani shift his attitude and why did he do it now?

Firstly, to achieve a fair degree of security in a country where the dramatically high number of terrorist attacks and violent casualties registered over the past year is frustrating the generosity of donor countries and driving away aid workers. Secondly, to retrieve some legitimacy in the eyes of an ever more disaffected and disillusioned Afghan people in view of the parliamentary elections to be held this year and the presidential elections due next year, in which the Pashtun élite close to Ghani is likely to fare badly and abstention is expected to be high. Thirdly, to ensure stability at a time in which the construction plan of the TAPI (the pipeline that should bring gas from Turkmenistan to India passing through Afghanistan and Pakistan) is making important advancements that can bring needed economic benefits to Afghanistan.

As of now, the Taliban have not replied to Ghani’s offering and have just recognized the mounting pressure put on them on part of countries throughout the region (most likely, a reference to their bakers in Islamabad). Nonetheless, the ball is now in their field and they should better not scrap the game. Just as the government in Kabul has recognized that a definitive military victory is no longer (if it ever was) a credible option and that a shift of attitude was necessary to get out of the stalemate and hopefully end the confrontation, the Taliban leadership should examine rationally the cards on the table and recognize that:

  • A military victory against Kabul and its Western allies (whose forces on the ground were incremented by President Trump last August for an indeterminate period) is impossible to achieve;
  • Pakistan is under constant pressure to cease its decade-long support for the Taliban insurgency;
  • Turning to legitimate and peacefully-competitive politics and acting within the framework of the constitution is the only way to reach their ultimate goal of reviving a Taliban-led government.

In this sense, the Taliban leadership should undergo the same process of re-think and re-invention experienced by the FARC in Colombia when they agreed to end the military confrontation with the government in Bogotá and to transform into a legitimate political party. Having abandoned violence and having entered the political realm, the FARC have gained the right to run in the country’s electoral competition and have acquired the chance to influence policy-making in a way that would have been impossible for them through weapons.

Now that Kabul has acted rationally and pragmatically, it is time for the Taliban to accept that they have nor the watches nor the time – to paraphrase their old saying – and that they must rethink themselves if they are to exert any long-term political influence on Afghanistan.


[Photo credits: SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images]



Stabilizing Afghanistan: The Need for a Comprehensive Approach

INSS Strategic Assessment, Vol.20, No.4, January 2018



Since the end of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mission in December 2014, the security situation in Afghanistan has been deteriorating dramatically. On this background, President Trump has advanced a “new Afghan strategy” that focuses on sending more troops, “killing terrorists” and eschewing “nation-building” in order to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a safe haven for terrorists. Following the adoption of this militaristic approach, it becomes necessary to analyse the problems that have plagued Afghanistan over the past two years so as to identify the most appropriate strategy to stabilize the country. After offering a thorough analysis of Afghanistan’s current situation, the present paper argues that a comprehensive approach that merges military, political and economic measures is the only path to long-term stability.


A far-sighted “new strategy” for Afghanistan?

On Monday the 21st of August, during a speech delivered at the Fort Myer military base in Arlington (VA), President Trump disclosed a revised vision for the American war in Afghanistan[1]. Reconsidering his initial “instinct” to withdraw troops from a war that has become America’s longest (it began in October 2001 after the dramatic events of 9/11) and costliest (it has cost American taxpayers more than $100 billion), Trump announced a “new strategy” for Afghanistan that he says is rooted in “principled realism”.

The first pillar of Trump’s “new strategy” is the decision to increase the number of American troops in Afghanistan. Claiming to be learning from the experience in Iraq –when in 2011 the American forces withdrew too prematurely, leaving behind a vacuum that was promptly exploited by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) to gain terrain and supporters- the President has welcomed the recommendations[2] coming from the Commander of the U.S. Forces Afghanistan (USFOR-A) and NATO’s Resolute Support Mission General John W. Nicholson and from the Secretary of Defence James Mattis and has decided to add more American troops to the 11,000 already deployed in Afghanistan[3]. Linked to this decision, is the second pillar of the “new” strategy: while the core aims of the American troops in Afghanistan will remain training the Afghan forces and conducting operations of counter-terrorism, the rules of engagement will be loosened and more flexibility in responding to security threats will be allowed. The third pillar is that decisions will no longer be taken on the basis of pre-determined deadlines but exclusively on the basis of the actual conditions on the ground, in the attempt to contradict the Taliban’s argument that “Americans have all the watches but we have all the time”[4]. Finally, but perhaps most importantly, the American engagement will fulfil the promise made by Trump since the earliest days of his electoral campaign: prioritize American national interests vis-à-vis the interests of foreign countries. In fact, despite arguing that the “new strategy” will witness an integration of all the military, economic and diplomatic instruments of American power, Trump has made no mention to non-military measures and has rather emphasized that the United States in Afghanistan will eschew any effort at “nation-building” and will limit its involvement to “killing terrorists”.

According to Trump, this strategy (if such term can indeed be accorded to the President’s confuse listing of intentions) will succeed in achieving victory. However, as far as “victory” is concerned, the definition provided by the President has remained largely vague: “attacking our enemies, obliterating ISIS, crushing al-Qaeda, preventing the Taliban from taking over Afghanistan and stopping mass terror attacks against America before they emerge”. From this phrasing, it seems that the U.S. end-goal is to stabilize Afghanistan so as to prevent the country from becoming again a safe haven for terrorist groups, as it was throughout the 1990s when the Taliban government offered a sanctuary to bin Laden’s Al Qaeda[5].

A question, though, arises at this respect: is the militaristic approach adopted by Trump an effective “strategy” to solve the problems that have been afflicting Afghanistan over the past two years and bring stability to the country?


Afghanistan: trapped between volatile security, fragile politics and a bleak economy

Since the end of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mission in December 2014 and its replacement with the more modest Resolute Support mission, Afghanistan has witnessed a deteriorating security situation, as the reduction of international forces deployed on the ground has created remarkable opportunities of action for both old and new violent groups.

Already in the early 1990s, when they moved their first steps from the Deobandi madrasas of Pakistan where they had received their indoctrination to the southern regions of Afghanistan with which they shared the Pashtun ethnic identity, the Taliban proved extremely able to exploit the deteriorating security environment, the inefficiencies of the state and the disaffection of the people towards the central government[6]: launching effective military attacks against local warlords; referring to a shared identity and system of values based on a peculiar fusion between the Pashtun tribal code (Pashtunwali) and Sunni Islam; and replacing Kabul in the provision of public services by means of building schools, mosques, roads, clinics and sharia courts, the Taliban managed to obtain territorial control and popular support in the southern part of the country[7]. From there, they expanded towards the north through a brutal military campaign and in 1996 proclaimed their Taliban Emirate over approximately 90% of the country[8]. However, the Taliban Emirate was a short-lived experiment of jihadi state-building that ended in 2001, when the American intervention under the banner of Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) defeated the Taliban and led the remnants of the group’s leadership to relocate in the Pashtun tribal area between Afghanistan and Pakistan. In this new haven in the AfPak area, the group re-organized itself and got prepared for a resurgence when new opportunities of action in Afghanistan would emerge[9].

Those opportunities emerged in 2015, when the reduction of the international commitment in Afghanistan encouraged the Taliban to believe that the time for their return had come. Since 2015, Afghanistan has thus become the theatre of an impressive Taliban resurgence that has seen the group achieve its most significant military successes and territorial gains since 2001. By means of their renewed military campaign, in fact, the Taliban have succeeded in bringing an increasingly large portion of Afghan territory under their control or influence: according to what transmitted by the group[10] in its official site Voice of Jihad, the Taliban enjoy today “full control” over 34 districts, “partial control” over 167 and have a “significant” presence in other 52. These data do not seem to be too distant from what reported by other sources such as SIGAR, that reports a “full” Taliban control over 33 districts and “partial” control over 116 districts[11].

In these areas, the Taliban not only have imposed their presence by using force and spreading fear but they have also drawn on their past experience to win the “hearts and minds” of the people by providing the security and the public services that Kabul does not seem always able to guarantee. As a matter of fact, the introduction of structures of “shadow governance” has enabled the Taliban to consolidate and legitimize their presence and to reap discrete levels of popular acceptance, especially in the southern Pashtun tribal belt that is the group’s traditional stronghold and in those rural and isolated areas that the governing arm of Kabul struggles the most to reach[12].

This resurgence on part of the Taliban has been accompanied by a parallel resurgence of the threat posed by Al Qaeda. The bonds linking Al Qaeda and Afghanistan have to be traced back to the foundation of the group at the time of the Afghan-Soviet conflict: it was indeed after his military experience alongside the Afghan mujahedeen and the exposure to the politico-religious narrative promoted in that context by the fundamentalist ideologue Abdullah Yusuf Azzam, that bin Laden founded Al Qaeda in 1988. Yet, it was not until 1996, when the Taliban Emirate opened its doors to a bin Laden who had been exiled from the Sudan of al-Turabi and al-Bashir, that the linkage between Al Qaeda and Afghanistan gained an indissolubility that not even the U.S.-led OEF could rescind[13]. This “special relationship” between Al Qaeda and the Afghan territory is in fact still evident today in the presence of the group in the de facto ungoverned area stretching across Afghanistan and Pakistan, where bin Laden and al-Zawahiri succeeded in relocating Al Qaeda after the defeat of 2001 thanks to the weakness of Kabul and the connivance of Islamabad. From there, Al Qaeda has continued to project its power over the Afghan militancy and to influence the Afghan insurgency. More recently, then, exploiting the reduction of the international military presence and the subsequent Taliban resurgence, Al Qaeda has managed to reconstitute also a physical presence in Afghanistan by means of opening new training camps in the country’s south-east[14].

Besides the resurgence of the Taliban and the physical reappearance of Al Qaeda, the security of Afghanistan has been negatively affected by another development: the emergence of ISIS-Khorasan as new terrorist group active in the Afghan theatre.  At the apex of its expansion and power in early 2015, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) decided to expand to Afghanistan in order to gain a wilayat of high strategic value and stretch the borders of its self-proclaimed Caliphate[15]. Moved by this intent, in January 2015 ISIS proclaimed the creation of its Afghan branch under the name ISIS-Khorasan (a reference to an ancient name used to designate the easternmost region of the Persian Sassanid Empire) and established its safe haven in the north-eastern province of Nangarhar. From there, the group carried out its first attacks with the aim of expanding its influence over Afghanistan.

Interestingly, at the onset of its Afghan experience, ISIS-K saw its capacity of penetration impaired  by two obstacles: firstly, the fight waged against it by a Taliban  group determined to preserve its credibility as leader of the Afghan insurgency and not disposed to share territory and influence with a new-come group; secondly, the resistance of the Afghan population that regards ISIS-K as an entity that does not belong to the Afghan reality, that  promotes a purist Salafi interpretation of Islam incompatible with the Hanafi doctrine prevailing in Afghanistan and that does not understand nor respect the country’s complex tribal and ethnic mosaic.  Notwithstanding these obstacles, though, ISIS-K has revealed an impressive capability to perpetrate large scale terrorist attacks[16]. This has been especially true over the past year, as the loss of territory in the traditional Jazira region[17] has encouraged ISIS to invest ever more resources and efforts in the preservation and growth of its Afghan province[18].

Additionally, the group has proved able to exploit the aura of brutality gained in the Syrian-Iraqi arena to attract to its ranks some of the most radical members of Tariq-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) who were frustrated by years of unsuccessful jihad and fascinated by the unprecedented military accomplishments of ISIS[19]. Even more relevant, though, was ISIS-K’s ability to co-opt into its ranks all those disappointed Taliban who defected the group in Spring 2015, when the death of the founding father Mullah Omar was disclosed and the leadership was transferred to Mansour among several controversies and bitter discussions[20].

With the resurgence of old terrorist groups and the emergence of new ones, Afghanistan is today a country characterized by an ever-deteriorating security environment that has seen a dramatic rise in the fights between the insurgents and the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), in the number of terrorist attacks and in the number of casualties. As reported by the UN Secretary General, in fact, from the 18th of November 2016 to the 31st of  May 2017 there has been a total of 11,412 security incidents, including armed clashes, improvised explosive devices, targeted killings, abductions, suicide attacks, criminal acts, and intimidations[21]. On the same line, the United Nations Mission for Afghanistan (UNAMA) has reported that from the 1st of January 2017 until the 30th of June there have been 5,234 civilian casualties, which amounts to a 1% increase with respect to the same period last year[22]. Of these casualties, UNAMA attributed 43% to the Taliban, 19% to unidentified anti-government elements, and 5% to ISIS-K[23].

Additionally, the revived insurgency mounted by the Taliban and the arrival of ISIS-K has led the government to suffer a considerable and increasing loss of territorial control: as reported by USFOR-A, as of May 2017 45 districts in 15 provinces were under insurgent control (11 districts) or influence (34 districts), which amounts to a 2.2% increase with respect to the situation observed in the same period last year. The number of contested districts, instead, has remained unchanged. As a consequence, today 3 million Afghans live under insurgent control or influence and another 8.2 million live in contested areas[24].

This bleak situation reveals how the NATO and American missions that have been operating in Afghanistan for sixteen years have not been able to cancel the threat posed by terrorism and how the ANSF are still not trained and equipped adequately to fight against insurgents. Called to deal with problems such as the low sophistication of the weapons at their disposal and the lack of access to the most advanced military technologies; the absence of a national strategic culture capable of bringing together uniformly in the army’s ranks all the different components of the Afghan social texture; and the necessity to leave several areas outside of Kabul’s protective umbrella in order to concentrate the forces in the major urban centers and in the regions where the threat to security is most serious, the Afghan National Army (ANA) and the Afghan National Police (ANP) have often revealed their inadequacy and  their dependency on external military support[25].

To this limited competency and autonomy of the Afghan security forces, it is then to be added further problems such as the endemic corruption among the highest ranks of the military establishment that often impedes the efficient and rapid transfer of weapons, food and munitions from one outpost to the other; the widespread phenomenon of the so-called ghost soldiers who figure in the government’s payroll but de facto do not serve in the army; the high number of defections that creates a climate of mutual suspicion within the army’s ranks; and the threat of infiltrations on part of individuals linked to terrorist groups who penetrate the army to conduct their attacks against military targets[26]. Importantly, these factors not only hinder the efficiency of the ANSF but also compromise their credibility in the eyes of the local people, thus creating a worrying climate of distrust[27].

Besides the deteriorating security environment, Afghanistan’s stability is obstructed also by the weakness of the central government in Kabul and the fragility of Afghanistan’s democratic experiment. When in September 2014 the National Unity Government (NUG) was formed[28] with the Pashtun Ashraf Ghani acting as President and the Tajik Abdullah Abdullah acting as Chief Executive Officer (CEO), it seemed that the country was transitioning towards full democracy and stability. However, hopes were soon contradicted: the patronage, corruption, nepotism and factionalism that have historically characterized the country’s politics, and that find their roots in the predominance of tribal and ethnic associations over national identity, have not spared the NUG[29] and have fostered within Ghani’s government ethnic-tribal frictions and personal rivalries that have often paralyzed policy-making. Hindered by these problems, in many occasions the government has failed to implement on time the reforms promised, to hold the overdue parliamentary elections, to fill all the vacant governmental posts, and to deliver public services consistently and uniformly across the country[30].

In particular, the rural areas geographically distant from or badly connected to Kabul have seen themselves excluded from the government’s reach and have become either dominated by a de facto anarchy or victims of the political games, abuses of power and personal interests of corrupt local governors over which Kabul has no effective system of check and monitor[31]. Similarly, the governing performance of the NUG has been extremely disappointing in the northern regions where warlords like Abdul Rashid Dostum, Ahmad Zia Massoud and Atta Muhammad Noor[32] exercise their power undisturbed thanks to historical clan bonds, as well as in the southern and eastern regions where –as seen above– insurgent groups have managed to assert their territorial control and influence.

On this background, it is not surprising that according to the latest poll conducted by the Asia Foundation[33] the perception of the Afghans of how well governmental institutions are doing their job reached historically low levels in 2016, with only 49.1% of the people saying that the NUG is doing a good job. Satisfaction rates are also low for provincial governments (52.9%), municipal governments in urban areas (42.4%) and district governments in rural areas (50.7%).

Finally, Afghanistan’s internal instability is also to be linked to the weakness of the country’s economy. According to the World Bank[34], from 2015 to 2016 the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) increased by a mean 0.4% due to a decline in the industrial and manufacturing activities that counterweighed the rise in the agricultural production. Furthermore, over the same period the population grew by 3%, which led to an inevitable decline of the overall per capita income. In this context of increasing poverty, domestic demand and private investments have declined; business sentiment has remained largely suppressed; no new firms have been registered and unemployment has remained dramatically high at 24%, leaving many youngsters with no other or better option than joining insurgent groups and criminal networks. Also, the collection of domestic revenues on part of the government has declined by 25% in the past year, leaving the country dependent on foreign aid to finance its public expenditures and balance its budget.

On the same line, the IMF has underlined how poor infrastructures, an inadequate development of the country’s human capital, a weak trade performance due to the temporary border closing with Pakistan, rampant corruption, and the thriving of the illicit narcotics sector are some of the main obstacles to the country’s economic development[35].


The need to look beyond the military

From the analysis above it emerges how Afghanistan’s instability is linked to security as well as political and economic factors. In front of this complexity, the militaristic approach adopted by President Trump appears profoundly inadequate to stabilize the country: while the increase in the number of troops is to be welcomed because it can strengthen the military capabilities of the ANSF and reduce the military threat posed by insurgent groups, a strategy that eschews “nation-building” and does not couple military measures with political and economic ones will fail to bring lasting stability to Afghanistan.

On the political level, it is necessary to address the low legitimacy that impairs the government of Kabul and that has driven many Afghans to support the alternative structures of “shadow governance” established by tribal leaders, warlords and insurgents. This can be done by ensuring a more balanced division of powers through the introduction of a quota system whereby the appointment of governmental officials and institutional figures guarantees a proportionate and fair degree of direct representation to all of the country’s diverse ethnic groups. Doing so is crucial to encourage all Afghans to trust the national government regardless of their subnational ethnic identities. Secondly, it is necessary to fight the corruption, nepotism and patronage that are eroding the credibility of the Afghan political system. This requires establishing clear requirements of transparency for all the nominations to official positions through ad hoc regulations and creating anti-corruption agencies in charge of ensuring that those requirements are respected and that punitive measures are enforced in case they are violated. Finally, it is crucial to pursue reconciliation between Kabul and those many powerbrokers and insurgents that act outside of the legitimate institutions of the state and whose military and proto-governance activities pose a serious challenge to the credibility of the central government. Following the precedent set in 2015 by the Quadrilateral Coordination Group composed of the Unites States, China, Russia and Pakistan[36], efforts should continue to be made to help Kabul to identify potential partners of dialogue among its current opponents and initiate negotiations with them.

On the economic level, a crucial measure is the launch of development projects aimed at modernizing agricultural production and incentivizing industrial activities in order to stimulate economic growth and create new jobs. Equally important is the promotion of trade between Afghanistan and regional as well as international partners. This can be done by means of reducing the current regulatory and operational barriers and investing in the improvement of Afghanistan’s infrastructure system. Finally, it is necessary to counter the production of narcotics by resorting to a mixture of interdiction (prevent narcotics from reaching their destination) and eradication (physical destruction of the illicit crops). On the one hand, Afghan law enforcement agencies and police have to be trained, equipped and provided technical support to detect and seize the shipments of illicit drugs; on the other hand, the Afghan state must offer material incentives for the abandonment of poppy cultivation and develop economic projects that can offer licit and profitable alternatives to farmers.

Unlike what suggested by President Trump, engaging in similar measures of nation-building is not “dictating” Afghans how to live, but rather helping them to govern themselves effectively and to live the peaceful life to which every human being is entitled. However, moving from the theoretical definition to the actual implementation of these measures is especially problematic since Kabul lacks the ability, Washington lacks the willingness and Brussels lacks both. As it was the case in other contexts of nation-building from Kosovo to East Timor[37], the only way ahead for a long-term stabilization of Afghanistan seems thus to lie in the cooperation among a variety of actors that have a shared interest in making the “heart of Asia” a safe, prosperous and self-sufficient country. This multiplicity of actors includes regional states such as India, China and Russia; international powers such as the United States and the European Union; Afghan officials and experts; transnational organizations such as the United Nations, NATO and the World Bank; aid and development agencies such as the United Nations Development Program (UNDP); international and regional NGOs. Until a similar multilateral and multidimensional cooperation in nation-building is achieved, the hopes that war in Afghanistan will end remain an illusion.

[1] For the transcript of President Trump’s speech: “Full Transcript and Video: Trump’s Speech on Afghanistan”, The New York Times, August 21, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/21/world/asia/trump-speech-afghanistan.html?mcubz=1

[2] Michael R. Gordon, “U.S. General Seeks “a Few Thousand” More Troops in Afghanistan, The New York Times, February 9, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/09/us/politics/us-afghanistan-troops.html

[3] H. Cooper, “U.S. Says It Has 11,000 Troops in Afghanistan, More Than Formerly Disclosed”, The New York Times, August 30, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/30/world/asia/afghanistan-troop-totals.html

[4] Con Coughlin, “Afghanistan: the clock is ticking for Obama as the Taliban bides its time”, The Telegraph, April 12, 2009, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/barackobama/6724196/Afghanistan-the-clock-is-ticking-for-Obama-as-the-Taliban-bides-its-time.html

[5] For an account of the relationship between Al Qaeda and the Taliban, see for instance: L. Wright, The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 (New York: Alfred A. Knop, 2006)

[6] Ahmed Rashid, Taliban (London, I.B. Tauris, 2010) Ch.1-3

[7] Ibi.

[8] Ibi., Ch.3

[9] Ibi., Ch.17

[10] Bill Roggio, “Afghan Taliban lists ‘Percent of Country under the control of Mujahedeen’”, Long War Journal, March 28, 2017, https://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2017/03/afghan-taliban-lists-percent-of-country-under-the-control-of-mujahideen.php

[11] Bill Roggio, “Taliban controls or contests 40 percent of Afghan districts: SIGAR”, Long War Journal, May 1, 2017, https://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2017/05/taliban-controls-or-contests-40-percent-of-afghan-districts-sigar.php

[12] “The Taliban”, Council on Foreign Relations (https://www.cfr.org/interactives/taliban?cid=marketing_use-taliban_infoguide-012115#!/taliban?cid=marketing_use-taliban_infoguide-012115 ); A. Giustozzi, “Hearts, Minds, and the Barrel of a Gun: The Taliban’s Shadow Government”, Prism, Vol. 3, No.2, March 2012

[13] See: L. Wright, The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, (New York: Alfred A. Knop, 2006)

[14] Katherine Zimmerman, “Al Qaeda’s Strengthening in the Shadows”, Statement before the House Committee on Homeland Security Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence
on “The Persistent Threat: Al Qaeda’s Evolution and Resilience”, American Enterprise Institute, July 13, 2017

[15] Seth G. Jones, “Expanding the Caliphate: ISIS’s South Asia Strategy”, Foreign Affairs, November 6, 2015

[16] Global Terrorism Database: https://www.start.umd.edu/gtd/search/Results.aspx?perpetrator=40371

[17] Literarily “island”. The term designates a region mainly comprised between the Euphrates and the Tigris rivers. Today the area is divided in two halves by the Syrian-Iraq boundary. It roughly coincides with the Syrian governorates of Raqqa, Hasakah and Deir el-Zor and with the Iraqi provinces of Nineveh and most of Salah al-Din and al-Anbar. It is the area upon which ISIS proclaimed its Caliphate in June 2014.

[18] M. Torfeh, “ISIL in Afghanistan: a growing threat”, Al Jazeera, August 20, 2017, http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2017/08/isil-afghanistan-growing-threat-170813133122968.html

[19] Caitlin Forrest, Richard DeKold, “Warning Update: the Expansion of ISIS in North-Western Afghanistan”, Institute for the Study of War, February 22, 2017, http://www.understandingwar.org/backgrounder/warning-update-expansion-isis-northwestern-afghanistan

[20] Ibi.

[21] UN, Report of the Secretary-General, The situation in Afghanistan and its implications for international peace and security, June 15, 2017, p. 4.

[22] UNAMA, Afghanistan Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict: Midyear Report 2017, July 2017

[23] Ibi.

[24] USFOR-A, response to SIGAR data call, 5/15/2017, 3/01/2017, and 5/28/2017; SIGAR analysis of USFOR-A provided data, 6/2017

[25] Caitlin Forrest, “Afghanistan Partial Threat Assessment”, Institute for the Study of War, November 22, 2016, http://www.understandingwar.org/backgrounder/afghanistan-partial-threat-assessment-november-22-2016; John F. Sopko, Testimony Before the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, Committee on Armed Services, U.S. House of Representatives, “Assessing the Capabilities and Effectiveness of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces”, Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, February 12, 2016 https://www.sigar.mil/pdf/testimony/SIGAR-16-17-TY.pdf

[26] Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, https://www.sigar.mil/interactive-reports/high-risk-list/index.html

[27] “A Survey of the Afghan People: Afghanistan in 2016”, The Asia Foundation, https://asiafoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/2016_Survey-of-the-Afghan-People_Exec-Summary.pdf

[28] Full text of the government of national unity deal available at: https://www.afghanistan-analysts.org/miscellaneous/the-government-of-national-unity-deal-full-text/

[29] Sameer Lalwani, “Ambling Blindly Back Into the Mountains: 5 Hard Questions for the Next Phase of Afghanistan”, warontherocks.com, February 23, 2017, https://warontherocks.com/2017/02/ambling-blindly-back-into-the-mountains-5-hard-questions-for-the-next-phase-of-afghanistan/

[30] Pamela Constable, “Afghan President is under siege as violence, joblessness persist”, The Washington Post, August 13, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/afghan-president-under-siege-as-violence-joblessness-persists/2017/08/12/f85d680e-779b-11e7-8c17-533c52b2f014_story.html

[31] R. Qobil, “At the mercy of Afghanistan’s warlords”, BBC, November 28, 2012, http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-19983266

[32] Ahmed Rashid, “Trepidation at the return of Afghan warlords”, Financial Times, May 31, 2017, https://www.ft.com/content/b7beff98-3e3d-11e7-82b6-896b95f30f58; Shawn Snow, “Fortress Kabul and Afghanistan’s Warlords”, The National Interest, September 6, 2016, http://nationalinterest.org/feature/fortress-kabul-afghanistans-warlords-17582; Shawn Snow, “Afghanistan Still Hasn’t Recovered From the Soviet Invasion”, The National Interest, July 31, 2016, http://nationalinterest.org/feature/afghanistan-still-hasnt-recovered-the-soviet-invasion-17196

[33] “A Survey of the Afghan People: Afghanistan in 2016”, The Asia Foundation, https://asiafoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/2016_Survey-of-the-Afghan-People_Exec-Summary.pdf

[34] World Bank, “Navigating Risk and Uncertainty in Afghanistan”, Brussels Conference on Afghanistan, October 4–5, 2016, 9/28/2016, pp. 2, 5–6, http://pubdocs.worldbank.org/en/933791475512010365/WB-Brussels-ConfAF-Presentation-FINAL.pdf; World Bank, Afghanistan Development Update, 10/2016, p. 13, https://www.openknowledge.worldbank.org/bitstream/handle/10986/25350/109890-WP-P160737-PUBLIC-ENGLISH-ABSTRACT-SENT-AFG-Development-Update-Oct-2016-final.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y

[35] IMF, “Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, Request for a Three-Year Arrangement Under the Extended Credit Facility”, IMF Country Report, No.16/252, July 2016, https://www.imf.org/external/pubs/ft/scr/2016/cr16252.pdf

[36] J. Boone, “Afghanistan and Taliban peace talks end with promise to meet again”, The Guardian, July 8, 2015

[37] J. Dobbins et al., The Beginner’s Guide to Nation-Building (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2007)

Photo credit: NOORULLAH SHIRZADA/AFP/Getty Images

The wave of Afghan refugees infringing against Europe’s unwelcoming shores


How the EU should frame a new approach to Afghan asylum seekers starting from a better understanding of Afghanistan’s history and Afghanistan’s diaspora


In the century-long history of migration crises that have interested the European continent, 2015 marked the latest turning-point: in that year alone, as reported by the European Parliament and the UNHCR, over a million refugees attempted their way to Europe in search of better lives, of more opportunities, or simply of a chance at survival. With the war in Syria sowing ever more destruction; with the situation in Afghanistan deteriorating under the Taliban resurgence; and with the security in Northern and Sub-Saharan Africa threatened by brutal jihadist terrorism and bitter civil wars, an increasing number of people found themselves with no better –and no other- option than risking everything they still had to flee the desperateness of their countries and reach the security of the European Union.

Among those flows of refugees that suddenly reversed upon Europe’s borders, according to the UNHCR Afghans were (and remained throughout 2016 and in early 2017) the second largest group after the Syrians. In 2015, about 200,000 Afghans –who according to the interviews conducted by the Afghanistan Analysts Network (AAN) were mainly young men travelling alone along the land gateway known as Balkan route that goes from Turkey to Europe via the Aegean Sea and Greece- were amongst those seeking a new beginning in the “old continent”.

However, faced with a sudden and ever increasing number of asylum seekers, the “old continent” that had sparked so many hopes in so many people did not prove able to stand up to the salvific mission that History was entrusting upon it. At the transnational level, the EU failed to pursue the coordination among its member states that should be at the basis of its decision-making and policy-making: EU member states –each driven by its own internal concerns and political considerations- failed to reach an agreement for an equal and fair distribution among them of migration quotas that could give a new home to the refugees while preserving the internal equilibriums of hosting countries and the stability of hosting societies.

As a consequence of this failure at the EU level, European countries and governments had to address the problem at the national level, where they found themselves exposed to a two-pronged challenge: on the one hand, the requirement for all signatories of the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees not to return refugees to a country where their life and freedom are threatened; on the other hand, the anti-immigration protests coming from European populist, nationalist, and right-wing parties and from ever wider fringes of the public opinion. In most countries, in fact, a climate of suspicion towards migrants took root and sparked fears about migrants depriving the locals of jobs. These fears at the national level compelled EU governments to take restrictive measures towards migration, such as tighter border controls and the setting of daily quotas. In September 2015, Germany increased its controls along the border with Austria and soon afterwards Hungary started sealing and fencing its border with Serbia and Croatia. Similar measures were also taken by Slovenia and restrictive policies on border controls were enforced by France, Switzerland, Sweden, the Netherlands, and Norway.

On the background of the incapacity of coordinated action at the EU level and of the growing opposition to immigration at the national level, the situation worsened further with the agreement ratified in March 2016 between Brussels and Istanbul. According to the deal, all new irregular migrants crossing the Aegean Sea from Turkey to Greece would be returned to Turkey, that in turn would receive financial support from the EU. In this way, the agreement brought about the closure of the Balkan route and thousands of migrants saw their situation becoming ever more desperate and uncertain. In particular, Afghan migrants who had been largely reliant on the Balkan corridor were amongst the worst hit: as reported by the AAN, thousands of them got stuck in the makeshift refugee camps of the Balkan states and Turkey and entered a stalemate made unbearable by the coming of winter. Moreover, their prospects of a future improvement were crashed by the voices of several European leaders claiming that Afghanistan has “safe areas” and that therefore Afghan migrants cannot be equated with Syrians, Iraqis, and Libyans.

The truth is that Afghanistan is in a situation as complex and tough as that of Syria, Iraq, and Libya, but being it geographically further from Europe’s borders it is less of a concern to Europe’s politicians and less of an object of sympathy to Europe’s media and Europe’s public opinion. As a consequence of this general disregard for the plight of Afghans who are perceived as being too far from us for their situation to shake our humanity, the EU signed a re-admission agreement with Kabul (known as Joint Way Forward) whose aim is to return to Afghanistan those Afghans asylum seekers who are not recognized the refugee status. As reported by the AAN, after the agreement was reached last October, 580 Afghans were sent back to their country of origin and many more forced deportations are likely to be observed this year.

The measures implemented towards Afghan asylum seekers by the European Union result from a general disregard and disinformation over the current situation in Afghanistan and over the intricate and painful history of the Afghan diaspora. Promoting a better knowledge of them is therefore essential to encourage the EU to frame more appropriate policies towards Afghan refugees.

 The different waves that have characterized the Afghan diaspora are inextricably linked to the different chapters of the country’s modern history, and it is by looking at the latter that we can understand the flows of Afghan refugees throughout time.  In the modern history of Afghanistan, 1979 represented a major turning-point: after the Saur Revolution that had overthrown King Daoud Khan, the USSR’s Red Army intervened to establish and maintain a government that would be a de facto satellite of Moscow. What ensued from the Russian invasion of the country and from the Russian manipulation of its political dynamics was a ten-year conflict that saw the USSR fighting against the Afghan mujahidin. During the conflict, a first wave of Afghans began to abandon the country and to settle in the neighbouring countries of Pakistan and Iran. As reported by the UNHCR, between 1979 and 1989, about 2.6 million Afghans crossed the border to Iran and 1.5 million Afghans fled eastwards to Pakistan.

In 1989, the Soviet Union –by then on the brink of implosion- left Afghanistan and its withdrawal encouraged most Afghan refugees to return to their country. However, the situation was again reversed after 1992, when a new chapter in the history of Afghanistan and its diaspora began. In that year, the fragmentation among the mujahidin front led to a civil war among the different factions of mujahidin and the country was once again suck into bloodshed and destruction. In the framework of these events, a second wave of Afghan refugees emerged and spilled over Pakistan and Iran as it had before. This time, though, Afghans were particularly unwelcomed in the hosting countries and the Afghan diaspora began to take on bleak and desperate shades. The situation, then, worsen further after 1995, when the recently-emerged but rapidly-spreading Taliban movement managed to bring several regions under its control until occupying Kabul in 1996. With the ascent of the Taliban and the religious extremism embodied by them, the wave of refugees –especially of non-Pashtun and non-Sunni Afghans- rose again, to the point that the UNHCR reports a net migration rate of -6.5/1000 over the period 1995-2000.

This Taliban-caused wave of emigration stopped in 2001, when the US-led invasion led to the removal of the Taliban Emirate. In the renewed climate of confidence that spread after the defeat of the Taliban, a large wave of voluntary repatriation interested Afghanistan: assisted by the UNHCR, 2.7 million of Afghan refugees returned from the camps where they had been hosted in Pakistan and an additional 800,000 returned from Iran. However, the climate of confidence that encouraged this wave did not last much. After 2005, as the war between the international forces and the insurgent groups within Afghanistan embittered, a new wave of Afghan refugees left the country. Peculiar of this post-2005 wave is that asylum seekers began to seek refuge not only in Pakistan and Iran -where Afghans were generally treated as second-class citizens- but also in the United States, Canada, Australia, and Europe – where hopes of a better life were higher.

As mentioned at the beginning, after 2015 –with the Taliban regaining considerable terrain following the decrease in the number of US and NATO forces deployed in Afghanistan- this tendency has been strengthening and Europe has increasingly become the aspired destination for the hundreds of thousands of Afghans whom the lack of security is driving away from their homeland.

Interviews to the families of Afghan refugees conducted by the AAN have in fact shown how the main drivers behind this latest wave of immigrants are security concerns. Even if some Afghans come to Europe for economic reasons, most of them do so to escape war and terrorist threats. Therefore, they qualify as refugees under international law and they should be recognized as such by the EU.

TWith respect to Afghan asylum seekers, the EU should adopt an approach that is more reflective of the values on which it claims to be founded and frame policies that stem from a sound knowledge of the recent history of Afghanistan’s refugees and of Afghanistan itself. As reported by SIGAR’s latest quarterly report, Afghanistan continues to be one of the most unstable countries worldwide, where war and terrorism are daily reality, and this is something of which the EU must be aware and cognizant. In front of Afghanistan’s tough reality, in fact, denying to Afghans the status of refugees and claiming the existence of safe areas within the country to where they can return means denying the truth. On the contrary, the EU should recognize the tough plight in which the Afghan people verse and use its channels of intra-EU cooperation not to create mechanisms that send back Afghans asylum seekers but mechanisms capable of hosting them and giving them the safe haven that they are entitled to and that they came to us to find.


[Photo: Radio TNN]

The return of the “Butcher of Kabul”


As Hekmatyar returns to Afghan politics, what hopes are there for an improvement of the country’s political stability?

Saturday the 29th of April was a crucial day in the dynamics of Afghan politics: Hekmatyar –the controversial leader of the Pashtun group Hizb-i-Islami- returned to the Afghan scene and addressed a crowd of around 200 supporters in the eastern province of Laghman where he has maintained his traditional power-base.

During the speech he delivered, which in a way is the rehearsal of the more important speech he is supposed to deliver in Kabul in the upcoming weeks, Hekmatyar touched on delicate topics such as peace, war, national unity and expressed his commitment to the first, his condemnation of the second, and his support for the third.

Hekmatyar’s return to the country’s political theatre is the result of the peace deal which was reached last year by Hizb-i-Islami and Kabul. As of the terms of the agreement, Hekmatyar committed to the acceptance and respect of the Afghan constitution, to the rejection of violence, and the abandonment of any military and financial linkage with terrorist groups such as the Taliban and Al Qaeda (with whom Hekmatyar has a long history of collaboration behind). On its part, the Afghan government accepted to grant impunity to the north-eastern warlord (who is accused of committing several war crimes during the years of the Afghan civil war), to encourage international actors to lift any sanction and restriction against the group, to release several members of Hizb-i-Islami who are currently in jail, and –the most important clause of all- to allow Hizb-i-Islami to run in Afghanistan’s elections.

Many Afghans, though, are sceptical about Hekmatyar’s new discourse of peace and concerned about his return and the impact that this can have on the country’s political stability (or, rather, what remains of it). Since last autumn, when the deal was signed, the country has thus been deeply divided on whether inviting Hekmatyar to join the political process was a wise move that testifies Ghani’s political acumen or rather a hazardous gambling that proves Ghani’s political weakness- and this divergence of opinions could indeed be seen clearly on Saturday on the streets of Laghman’s major cities, where jubilant crowds of Hekmatyar’s supporters alternated with crowds of opponents tearing his posters apart.

The absence within Afghanistan of a united stance regarding Hekmatyar and, more in general, the role to be reserved to former warlords like him reveals how delicate the entire issue of political integration is and how difficult it is to assess the implications of encouraging controversial figures to take part in the country’s political process.

Obviously, if the terms of the deal were respected by both sides, then Afghanistan would have nothing but benefits to reap: a former warlord giving up his weapons for the sake of the country’s constitution; a more stable central government challenged by opponents through elections rather than through weapons; a better functioning political system made of legitimate competition, inclusiveness, and broad representation.

Yet, reality is never as easy as it is written in agreements and several problems make the road that goes from paper to reality an impervious one.

Firstly, there is the problem of implementation: no matter how brilliantly framed a deal might be, if it is not implemented it is nothing more than a precarious sandcastle. The challenge ahead for Ghani, then, is to ensure that the deal is enforced and that Hekmatyar respects his commitments and embraces the project of a modern and democratic Afghanistan. This challenge, though, is feared by many Afghans to be an extremely tough one since Hekmatyar is renowned for having betrayed all of his allies during the civil war’s years. Ensuring his unrelenting compliance will thus require to Ghani continuous checks, political firmness, and zero toleration of deviations.

Secondly, there is the already mentioned problem of divergence of opinions regarding the deal, as a considerable number of people rejects the idea of seeing the “butcher of Kabul” (as Hekmatyar is known for shelling Kabul with thousands of rockets in the early ‘90s) being granted immunity and running in electoral lists. Until the population remains divided on whether or not the reconciliation between the government and the Pashtun leader was a positive turning-point for the country’s political future, it is difficult to expect a smooth implementation of the deal. For the deal to be enforced effectively and positively, a climate of general support for it needs indeed to be created and, in order to do so, the government should promote honest and informative public debates and encourage a nationwide propaganda capable of explaining to the Afghan people the rationale that lays behind the deal and that calls for its backing.

Thirdly, the impact of the deal will largely depend on the use that Ghani and Hekmatyar will make of it. In the optimal scenario (that though is often the most utopian one) both leaders will rely on the deal’s effective implementation to cancel their previous rivalry and work towards the common objective of a more peaceful and democratic Afghanistan. In the worst scenario (that, unfortunately, is often more likely) both leaders will use the deal for their own interests. Ghani would use it to strengthen his powerbase vis-à-vis the Tajik Abdullah with whom he is forced to share powers and his other political rivals such as former President Karzai. Exploiting the support and influence that Hekmatyar enjoys within the Ghilzai Pashtuns, Ghani could easily succeed in widening his base of supporters and bringing weight in his favour – which would be especially relevant in the case in which a Loya Jirga (national assembly) on the NUG was convened. On his part, Hekmatyar would use the deal to access the political system and the channels of power in a way that his Hizb-i-Islami is no longer capable of doing by means of arms. Exploiting his entrance in the political system and his presence in the highest spheres of politics, he could pretty easily amass power and influence in his hands at the disadvantage of the central government and undermine his non-Pashtun opponents.

As Hekmatyar returns to the forefront of Afghan politics, the consequences of his return are not clear yet since much will depend on whether and how the deal will be enacted now that the “butcher of Kabul” is back.   We cannot but follow him on his upcoming trip to Kabul and see what happens next in the Ghani-Hekmatyar rapprochement’s tale.

The “mother of all bombs” is daughter of no strategy

The US dropping of its largest non-nuclear bomb in Afghanistan reveals all the weaknesses of Washington’s Afghan policy and the need for a more comprehensive strategy capable of responding to the country’s many security challenges and political problems


One day after ISIS-Khorasan (the Afghan branch of ISIS) claimed responsibility for an attack near government offices in Kabul that killed five people and wounded ten, the United States dropped a GBU-43 bomb in the eastern province of Nangarhar, where ISIS-K is based. The GBU-43 bomb is a 9,797kg GPS-guided munition that was first tested in 2003, before the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom. It is the largest non-nuclear bomb that the US has ever used in combat, and because of its destructive potential it has gained the nickname “mother of all bombs”.

After the bomb was dropped on Thursday, the head of American and international forces in Afghanistan Gen. Nicholson said that the operation was intended to damage the operational capabilities of ISIS-K and to increase the protection of international and Afghan forces against its terrorist attacks. On the same line, spokesperson within the Pentagon stressed the efficiency that deploying such a powerful weapon can have in the framework of countering terrorism in Afghanistan and the contribution that it can give to ending a “war on terror” that begun sixteen years ago and that still lacks a clear winner.


However, the massive military attack of Thursday does not seem to be part of any broader US Afghan strategy and it is difficult to see how a similar show of military might on part of Washington can respond to the exigencies and the challenges of the Afghan war. The bombing in Nangarhar might perhaps respond to Trump’s foreign policy narrative of an assertive and credible American military power and to the expectations of those voters who supported his project of making America “great again”, but it certainly does not respond to the needs of Afghanistan. Indeed, the problems in terms of terrorism, security, and stability that Afghanistan is facing are too complex for a mere militarist approach to be sufficient.


Firstly, there is to consider the weakness of Afghanistan’s democratic experiment and the stalemate that continues to paralyze policy-making in Kabul. Despite the important and undeniable step forward that the instalment of the NUG in 2014 under the leadership of Ghani and Abdullah represented, the country is still characterized by a political system made of patronage and ethnic rivalries/alliances that find their roots in a culture traditionally dominated by tribalism. In this context, it is necessary to embrace a strategy that encourages –as the NUG tried to do, but in a more credible and effective way- the development of a political system based on actual (not merely fictional) power-sharing across ethnic groups, so as to give equal representation to the country’s diverse realities. Only in this way it will be possible to make of the government in Kabul an inclusive one, in which all Afghans can recognize themselves and which all Afghans can come to trust and respect.

Secondly, adding to the NUG’s limited inclusiveness and worsening its low credibility, is the rampant corruption within the government and the military that has created over the years a wide gap between government officials and security forces on one hand, and the population on the other. This gap has eroded the trust of Afghans in the political class and the security apparatus, since they regard both of them as distant, detached from people’s grievances, and exclusively focused on furthering their interests and broadening their privileges. Unsurprisingly, this has helped groups such as the Taliban to gain a considerable degree of popular support, or at least connivance. What the Taliban (and more recently, though to a lesser extent, also ISIS-K) managed to do, in fact, was to exploit the Afghans’ distrust in the government, in the army, and in a political system perceived as corrupt and inefficient, in order to present itself as a viable and better alternative. It is on this background that a battle for the hearts and minds of the Afghan people –especially in those rural areas that Kabul struggles the most to reach and control- ensued, and no strategy in Afghanistan can successfully deal with the country’s internal conflict without addressing this major challenge. It is indeed crucial to replace the existing political culture of favoritism and nepotism with one of accountability and responsibility that –together with better systems of checks and balances- might restore the Afghan people’s trust. Unless this trust is restored, in fact, non-state groups such as the Taliban and ISIS-K will easily exploit the situation at their advantage, giving to people what corrupted politicians and security forces fail to give and gaining in this way their support.

Finally, there is an exogenous factor to be taken into account when attempting to frame a successful strategy for Afghanistan, and this is the role of Pakistan and its historical use of Afghanistan to gain strategic depth vis-à-vis India. In the specific, since the early ‘90s Pakistan has been doing so by backing the Afghan Taliban in their struggle to control Kabul, and the continuation of this policy up to this date reveals the necessity of a strategy that uses diplomatic and economic leverages to encourage Islamabad to change its traditional Afghan policy. At this respect, though, the picture is made more complex by the need to consider two other major players: China, that has recently supported Pakistan’s economy with investments for $57 bn, and Russia, that is tightening its ties with Pakistan in the attempt of increasing its influence in South Asia. An effective Afghan strategy is thus one that looks not only at what happens within the country but also at the broader set of actors that rotate around it and whose influence on the conflict’s prosecution/ending is of primary relevance.


In conclusion, Afghanistan is a country facing an extremely wide array of problems and challenges and if the US is determined to address them in order to bring an end to the conflict, a mono-dimensional and militarist approach such as embodied by Thursday’s attack is not viable nor effective, and a broader and multi-dimensional strategy is required in its stead.


[Photo: AP]



The Afghan-led peace process: reality or illusion?


How to read the just reached agreement between Kabul and Hekmatyar in the framework of a broader Afghan-owned peace process


When looking at a map of Afghanistan, the first geographic feature that comes to one’s attention is the mountainous landscape. Especially in the North East of the country –there where the high peaks of the Hindu Kush are- the landscape is made of harsh mountain passes, hidden caves, and isolated provinces where tribal allegiances still regulate daily life and where Kabul’s arm cannot reach.

Since the civil war that tore the country apart in the ‘90s, these geographic features have rendered the north-eastern regions of Afghanistan an attractive hideout for terrorist groups and warlords seeking a secure base. After 1989, many political and military leaders who refused to recognize the government established in Kabul managed to exploit the physical isolation and the political tribalism of the country’s North East to settle there.


Among those warlords, a special role was played by Hekmatyar, a powerful Ghilzai Pashtun who in 1977 had founded the group Hizb-i-Islami and who was one of the most prominent and most controversial protagonists of Afghanistan’s civil war. As many other warlords, when in 1996 Kabul fell to the Taliban Hekmatyar left the capital and found a secure base for his group in the Eastern regions of Kunar, Paktia and Laghman. Since that moment on and even after the Taliban’s fall, Hizb-i-Islami became one of the many groups that, exploiting secular ethnic-tribal ties and the disaffection of the local people with a central government incapable of providing security, compete with Kabul for influence and power.


Yesterday, though, a turning-point was reached as Kabul and Hizb-i-Islami reached a peace deal.

According to the agreement, Hekmatyar commits to the acceptance and respect of the Afghan constitution, to the rejection of violence, and the abandonment of any military and financial support to terrorist groups such as the Taliban and Al Qaeda (with whom Hekmatyar has a long history of collaboration). On its part, the Afghan government accepted to grant impunity to Hemkatyar (who is accused of committing several war crimes during the civil war’s years), to encourage international actors to lift any sanction and restriction against the group, to release several members of Hizb-i-Islami who are currently in jail, and to allow Hizb-i-Islami to run in elections.


As soon as the agreement was announced, it was met with enthusiasm and optimism worldwide. Spokespersons for the EU and the US praised the agreement as a crucial step towards Afghanistan’s stability and the defeat of terrorism, and as a proof that “peace is possible” and that a “new narrative” is now being created in the country.

However, within Afghanistan, voices were less optimistic and many protesters took to the streets to denounce the agreement. Many Afghans, in fact, regard the deal as the unjustified forgiveness of one of Afghanistan’s bloodiest warlords and as the dangerous inclusion in the country’s politics of one of Afghanistan’s most controversial political figures.


As in most such cases, the truth lies probably in between.

Over the past few years, Hekmatyar and his Hizb-i-Islami have played a limited role in the Afghan insurgent dynamics, that were rather dominated by the Taliban’s re-emergence and by ISIS’s appearance. In this context, Hizb-i-Islami did not expand beyond its powerbase in the North East and limited itself to giving support to one warring group or the other according to the moment’s convenience. Due to this limited active role on part of Hektamyar’s group, it is difficult (and somewhat naïve) to think that yesterday’s agreement will bring Afghanistan closer to stability and peace.

Nevertheless, the agreement cannot and should not be dismissed as Ghani’s latest vain effort at peace.

Firstly, the deal is important because it was reached without any UN or international mediation and was the result of a long-waited Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peacebuilding effort.

Secondly, the agreement has a crucial symbolic value: in the eyes of the Afghan people, the deal strengthens the credibility of Ghani as security provider and his image as President capable of healing the factionalism of the Afghan politics and of pursuing inclusiveness; in the eyes of the international community, the deal reinforces the perception of Ghani as reliable partner of a peace process centred on dialogue and negotiations.

Finally, the agreement is especially commendable because granting immunity to Hekmatyar and allowing Hizb-i-Islami to participate in the political process it might encourage other insurgent groups to put down the arms and seek dialogue with Kabul.


For this to happen, though, a simple signature on a sheet of paper is not enough and the real challenge lying ahead for Ghani is the implementation of the deal. In order to make the rapprochement to Hizb-i-Islami acceptable to all Afghans and attractive to other insurgent groups, in fact, Ghani will have to follow a two-pronged action: on the one hand, give to Hekmatyar’s faction the promised access to the country’s political system; on the other hand, prevent the delicate -and by some contested- inclusion of Hizb-i-Islami from turning into a further cause of instability and stalemate.


The above challenge is a crucial one, since a failure in implementing the deal fully and smoothly will translate into a loss of credibility for Ghani and his government, and into a consequent increase of support for those insurgent groups that still reject talks with Kabul and pursue armed struggle.

Reaching the deal was thus just the first step of that Afghan-led peace process that the country desperately needs.

Two years later: Afghanistan and its National Unity Government

Assessing the security, economic and political situation of Afghanistan two years after the NUG of Ghani and Abdullah was installed in Kabul and thinking of a way out of the chaos



Two years ago -in September 2014- the months of stalemate, violence and fraud that had characterized until then the Afghan presidential electoral process were brought to an end by an agreement that established a National Unity Government (NUG). According to such agreement, the government would be led by the two frontrunner candidates: Ashraf Ghani – former Minister of Finance and exponent of the Pashtun electorate – was appointed President; Abdullah Abdullah -former Minister of Foreign Affairs and Tajik candidate- was appointed Chief Executive Officer.

When the agreement was signed, many –within Afghanistan, in the region, and in the international arena- saw the NUG as the concretization of the long-held hope that through an inclusive government politically legitimate and truly representative it would have been possible to adopt the reforms necessary to address (and eventually solve) the country’s problems.


Yet, two years after Ghani and Abdullah signed the agreement in Kabul, much of that optimism has now faded: most people in Afghanistan have lost any trust in the future of a country where they feel there is no life worth living, and most people abroad have retrieved the usual narrative of Afghanistan as a hopeless country defined exclusively by terrorism, death, corruption and poverty.


To be fair, the picture we can trace of Afghanistan on the second anniversary of its current government is not a rosy one, nor one that (for now) leaves much room to hope for upcoming and dramatic improvements.


On the security level, the past two years have been extremely worrying: Ghani’s attempt to cooperate with Pakistan and dialogue with the Taliban has ultimately failed, because in Pakistan too many officials still see support to the Afghan Taliban as a way to gain strategic depth and because too many Taliban have not abandoned yet the dream (or rather the utopia) of re-building a Taliban Emirate by means of war; the NATO and the US have reduced the number of forces deployed in Afghanistan without the Afghan Army and the Afghan Police being ready to take over; ISIS has managed to take control of part on Nangarhar and entered into a bloody competition with the Taliban; many Taliban fighters defected to ISIS after the rumour of Mullah Omar’s death was confirmed; the Taliban leadership passed in the hands of new leaders (Mullah Mansour before and now Hibatullah Akhundzada) who see in war and terrorism the most effective ways to retain credibility and thus preserve the group’s unity and support.

On the background of this gloomy security environment, it should thus not surprise that 2015 became the death toll reached record high levels and the Taliban achieved their maximum territorial expansion since 2001.


On the economic side, the situation does not look anything better: the data released by the World Bank in the Spring of 2016 report an economic growth of 0.2% only and a youth unemployment at record high levels.

The deteriorating security environment, coupled with the NUG’s failure to deliver reforms capable of developing sources of growth and fostering production, is undermining the confidence of the private sector and of foreign investors. To be sure, some economic and trade agreement has recently been signed by Afghanistan and regional neighbours – such as the agreement with India and Iran on the development of the port of Chabahar and the agreement with China for the inclusion of Afghanistan in the Chinese One Belt One Road project. However, despite these agreements entail the potential of attracting investment in Afghanistan and promoting a regional trade of which Afghanistan is part, the security threats to which the country is continuously subject constitute a major concern and a likely deterrent in the eyes of regional trade partners.


On the background of this scenario of rising insecurity and lack of economic opportunities, in which daily life is rendered a struggle and violence leaves no room nor time for any hope to flourish, another tragedy has worsened over the past two years – that of the Afghan refugees and internally displaced people.

According to the UN, in Spring 2016 almost 1.000 Afghans every day were forced to leave their homes and almost 180.000 Afghans applied for refugee status in Europe – a data that makes of Afghans the second biggest group of refugees in Europe.


All the above-presented crises, though, are the direct expression of what is perhaps Afghanistan’s biggest problem: the NUG’s weakness.

Since coming to power two years ago, the NUG of Ghani and Abdullah has failed to bring about the promised political and economic reforms and has on the contrary remained slave to the paralysis caused by the traditional factionalism of the Afghan politics. Both Ghani and Abdullah, indeed, have been constantly trying to make the interests of their respective constituencies and have proved disposed to sacrifice national good for that of their own groups.

Moreover -as if this factionalism internal to the NUG was not enough to condemn the country’s politics to stalemate- in many rural and isolated regions (especially in the country’s North) there are political and military leaders such as Dostum and Atta who exploit ties of tribal allegiances and long-established networks of local support to compete with Kabul in the exercise of power.

The NUG’s internal factionalism, the ethnic and exclusionary politics it fuels, and the existence of many powerbrokers who act outside the legitimate institutions are all elements that have inevitably reduced the government’s governing capacity and consequently undermined its credibility in the eyes of the Afghan population.


Unsurprisingly, the weakness to which the NUG is currently (self) condemned is the country’s most pressing challenge, from which a great deal of the other problems stems. Indeed, it obstructs security, since the people’s little faith in the central government is easily exploited by non-state groups such as the Taliban who offer effective alternative forms of shadow governance; it obstructs economic development, since it affects the capacity of implementing reforms and measures that might create jobs, encourage private entrepreneurship, foster