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,

[2] Michael R. Gordon, “U.S. General Seeks “a Few Thousand” More Troops in Afghanistan, The New York Times, February 9, 2017,

[3] H. Cooper, “U.S. Says It Has 11,000 Troops in Afghanistan, More Than Formerly Disclosed”, The New York Times, August 30, 2017,

[4] Con Coughlin, “Afghanistan: the clock is ticking for Obama as the Taliban bides its time”, The Telegraph, April 12, 2009,

[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,

[11] Bill Roggio, “Taliban controls or contests 40 percent of Afghan districts: SIGAR”, Long War Journal, May 1, 2017,

[12] “The Taliban”, Council on Foreign Relations (!/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:

[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,

[19] Caitlin Forrest, Richard DeKold, “Warning Update: the Expansion of ISIS in North-Western Afghanistan”, Institute for the Study of War, February 22, 2017,

[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,; 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

[26] Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction,

[27] “A Survey of the Afghan People: Afghanistan in 2016”, The Asia Foundation,

[28] Full text of the government of national unity deal available at:

[29] Sameer Lalwani, “Ambling Blindly Back Into the Mountains: 5 Hard Questions for the Next Phase of Afghanistan”,, February 23, 2017,

[30] Pamela Constable, “Afghan President is under siege as violence, joblessness persist”, The Washington Post, August 13, 2017,

[31] R. Qobil, “At the mercy of Afghanistan’s warlords”, BBC, November 28, 2012,

[32] Ahmed Rashid, “Trepidation at the return of Afghan warlords”, Financial Times, May 31, 2017,; Shawn Snow, “Fortress Kabul and Afghanistan’s Warlords”, The National Interest, September 6, 2016,; Shawn Snow, “Afghanistan Still Hasn’t Recovered From the Soviet Invasion”, The National Interest, July 31, 2016,

[33] “A Survey of the Afghan People: Afghanistan in 2016”, The Asia Foundation,

[34] World Bank, “Navigating Risk and Uncertainty in Afghanistan”, Brussels Conference on Afghanistan, October 4–5, 2016, 9/28/2016, pp. 2, 5–6,; World Bank, Afghanistan Development Update, 10/2016, p. 13,

[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,

[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 “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 ignored war of the Middle East


Assessing the reasons why the world’s major powers pay little attention to what goes on on the Yemeni front


In the Middle Eastern geostrategic dynamics and in the international media establishment a dangerous phenomenon is steadily consolidating: while everyone’s attention is focused on crucial battlefields such as Mosul and Aleppo, Yemen continues to be the theatre of a forgotten –or rather ignored- civil war.

But why is it so? Why is a civil war that in just two years has caused one of the worst humanitarian emergencies of our time so little spoken of?

The reasons are essentially two.


First of all, there is the complexity of the Yemeni war that makes it difficult to give a clear reading of the conflict, to reach a true understanding of its political and sectarian causes, of its evolving dynamics, of its array of actors and interests, and of its regional impact.

Yemen’s conflict -broken out in 2014 when the Houthi rebels of the north forced President Hadi to leave the country and seek exile in Saudi Arabia- is indeed particularly challenging to be understood in all its dimensions because it lacks the black-and-white contraposition that characterizes other regional conflicts. Since its outbreak, the war has been defined by a wide multidimensionality: it is a Yemeni internal confrontation between the Houthi/Saleh front and Hadi; it is a regional proxy war between Saudi Arabia (with its GCC allies) and Iran; and it is a sectarian conflict between Shia and Sunni forces. Therefore, understanding the war in Yemen requires understanding these many intricate and at times overlapping levels of conflict, but since applying different keys of reading to a single theatre is not an easy task (neither for policymakers nor for analysts) this has contributed to Yemen’s marginalization in the global public debate.


Nevertheless, there is another, more explicatory, and more worrying reason why the world is paying so little attention to Yemen: unlike what we have been witnessing in places of the Levant such as Syria and Iraq, major international powers such as the US, the EU and Russia are simply little interested in Yemen and in Yemeni affairs. And this is so for three main reasons.


Since its emergence out of the unification of North and South Yemen in 1990, the Yemeni Republic has been one of the poorest countries of the entire Arab region.

According to the last report of the World Bank, even prior to the conflict Yemen was facing widespread poverty and economic stagnation: despite enjoying a crucial position with respect to the Mandeb Strait -which is the  fourth most important passage for international oil trade- Yemen always had to face economic difficulties because of the government’s poor management of resources and infrastructures; because of a widespread corruption curbing any entrepreneurial ambition; because of a dramatic and unsustainable population growth; and because of an economy that, unlike that of the other Gulf states, relied mainly on agricultural production rather than on oil export. Due to these economic weaknesses and vulnerabilities Yemen never attracted significant amounts of FDIs, which means that today there is no major world power with crucial and direct economic interests in Yemen to be protected.

Conversely, in countries such as Iraq and Syria, Western powers and Russia have cultivated economic and commercial interests since the late XIX century and the need to protect these interests is today one of the major reasons behind their direct involvement in those countries’ crises and behind the attention they pay to everything that happens in there.


Apart from economic considerations, though, there is also another factor that comes to explain the little interest foreign powers have in Yemen and it has to do with geo-strategy. In terms of geo-strategic considerations in fact, Yemen –with its position in the southern-westernmost tip of the Arabian Peninsula- has never been considered as a crucial player by foreign powers. Countries deeply involved in the region such as Britain and the US, in fact, have traditionally founded their involvement in the area on alliances with other more influential and more powerful countries. The only interest that foreign powers have in Yemen is that of avoiding the situations that might change the existing balance of power and create instability in the Gulf- and it is in the framework of this logic that the decision of the US and Britain to support the Saudi-led coalition needs to be placed.

Conversely, in the cases of Syria and Iraq foreign actors such as Washington, London, Brussels and Moscow have many and long-time geo-strategic interests because of those countries’ position in the heart of the Levant and because of their physical vicinity to the borders of Europe and Russia.


In addition to this, the issue of geographic position is also relevant to understand the final reason why foreign powers are little interested in Yemen and totally focused on Syria and Iraq instead.

Due to Yemen’s already mentioned position in the southernmost tip of the Arabic Peninsula, the war that has been tearing the country apart since Fall 2014 does not constitute a direct threat to the security of major foreign powers. Indeed, despite the number of refugees created by the conflict is dramatically high, most of them have fled to countries of the neighbouring region such as Djibouti, Somaliland, Oman and Saudi Arabia.

Conversely, the refugees created by the wars in Syria and Iraq have mostly attempted to seek asylum in Western countries – above all Europe, but also the US and Canada – which are more easily reachable for them than for poorer Yemenis.  These flows of refugees have put a burden on the capacity of Western countries to deal with increasingly multicultural, multi-ethnic, and multi-religious societies and have created security concerns that contribute to explain why the US, the UK and the EU focus so much on Syria and Iraq while ignoring Yemen.


On the background of this general lack of interest, it does not surprise that when Hadi last week refused the latest UN proposal for a peace negotiation few have paid attention to it.

And yet this is a huge mistake on part of the international community. Humanitarian considerations (the number of dead, displaced people and refugees caused by the war in Yemen cannot but deeply touch our human sensibility) and security calculations (the instability and power vacuum of Yemen has inflamed sectarian tensions that could easily spread to other regional countries and has played the game of terrorist groups such as AQAP that have seen their influence grow) call for the international community to use its influence over the Saudis in order to favour the reaching of an agreement capable of bringing about the inclusive government Yemen is desperately needing.


It’s time for the international community to start caring about Yemen.



[Picture rights: Reuters]

From Sykes-Picot to the Chilcot Report

The lessons that the West must learn when intervening in the Middle East’s complexities


Fifteen years after al-Qaeda’s attacks led the West to a “war on terror” that ended up creating more damages than those it had aspired to heal and taking more lives than those it had aimed to protect, the Chilcot Report -commissioned by the British House of Commons to assess the government’s decisions with respect to the war in Iraq – brought to light new evidence. The Report is an open (and due) condemnation of Blair’s foreign policy, but –more importantly- is a crucial document containing lessons that need to be learnt to develop more aware and informed foreign policies (especially when it comes to delicate regions that rest on ever more fragile balances such as the Middle East).


The UK, under the leadership of then-PM Tony Blair, intervened in Iraq in 2003 following the United States and remained in the country until 2009. Of the Report published on July 6th by Sir John Chilcot, two things particularly stand out. The first is that – contrary to what had been claimed by the USA and the UK governments at that time – the attack against Saddam’s Iraq was not a last resort; the second is that no clear nor informed planning had been made by Blair’s cabinet in terms of post-conflict reconstruction.


As far as the decision to go to war is concerned, the Report highlights how PM Blair decided to attack Saddam regardless of the fact that the international community was still trying to deal with Iraq’s putative WMD without resorting to war, regardless of the fact that the UN was still conducting its enquiry, and that the UN Security Council (as well as the majority of the EU partners) was not supporting military intervention.

According to the Report, the reason for Blair’s decision was that in the previous year the British PM had pledged to President Bush his country’s unshakable support, and that maintaining such pledge had therefore become unescapable to preserve the Anglo-American special relationship.


As highlighted by the Report, though, the mistake was not only the decision to intervene in a war that was not necessary nor unavoidable. The other major mistake (and one that proved to have a dramatic long-run impact) was that no clear plan had been conceived in terms of how to deal with Iraq in the post-intervention phase.  Rather than elaborating an aware and coherent plan of reconstruction before going to war, the UK government missed this crucial step on the basis of the (wrong and unjustified) assumption that Washington would deal with the issue and that the UN would play a major role once the military intervention was over.


After the toppling of Saddam, though, none of this happened: the UN revealed little inclination to intervention and the USA had no reconstruction plan.


After winning against Saddam’s Baathist forces in a matter of weeks, in fact, the USA created and led a Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) within which the UK had basically no relevant say and that failed to serve the interest of the Iraqi population (thus failing to win the people’s support). In a moment of delicate transition in which fair elections were needed to create a government that could give representation to all Iraqis and that could be accepted by Sunnis and Shias alike, nor the UN nor the USA succeeded in supporting the country through its delicate transition. A Shia government led by Nouri al-Maliki took power in Baghdad; the tensions between Shias and Sunnis and between Arabs and Kurds were exasperated; Sunni jihadist groups (such as al-Zarqawi’s Al-Qaeda in Iraq) managed to exploit sectarian divisions to increase their action capabilities; and former soldiers who found themselves unemployed after the army was disbanded became easy recruits for jihadist groups.


Thus, the result of the war that the Bush administration had pursued and that the UK had decided to support was not a mere regime change in Baghdad but the collapse of the Iraqi state as such.

What the Chilcot Report makes clear, in fact, is that, in the moment in which the UK and the USA intervened in the Iraqi theatre without a clear and informed strategy for the post-intervention/post-Saddam phase, they set into motion a chain of events that paved the way to the rise of ISIS in 2014 and that changed (perhaps forever) the geopolitical map of the Levant.


Forced to face the mistakes made by the West back in 2003, what lessons can now be drawn to avoid their repetition and develop more aware foreign policies?


If one major lesson can be derived from what is contained in the Report is that, when intervening abroad, three elements are especially crucial.

Firstly, it is necessary to understand the dynamics of the theatre of intervention from any point of view: geopolitical, geostrategic, ethnic and religious. This understanding –especially as far as the religious and ethnic complexities of the Iraqi state are concerned- was clearly lacking on part of the UK and the USA in 2003 and explains how it was possible for power to end up in the hands of a Shia-dominated and sectarian government such as al-Maliki’s.

Secondly, it is necessary to develop realistic objectives and to embrace a relevant strategy that deals not only with the military aspect of intervention but also with the political and civilian ones – two dimensions to which the UK and the USA gave little importance when planning their intervention in 2003 and which continued to underestimate thereafter.

Finally, the third necessary step is to elaborate a post-intervention strategy that deals with the long-term and that gives to the country in which intervention was carried out and to its institutions all the support needed in a phase as delicate and crucial as that of reconstruction.


With 2016 marking the 100th anniversary of the Sykes-Picot – the infamous Agreement with which France and the UK divided the Middle East into artificial states whose ethnic and religious contradictions have exploded over the past few years – we are now painfully reminded that there are mistakes we cannot afford to repeat anymore, and that our approach to the Middle East cannot be successful if History’s lessons are not learnt.