Afghanistan After America: Competition for the Roads to Kabul

Afghanistan After America: Competition for the Roads to Kabul
Photo: A scenic view from an Army UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter flying over Regional Command-East, Afghanistan, Aug. 18, 2011 (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Michael O’Connor).
Editor’s note: This is the fourth of a seven-part series examining conditions in Afghanistan in the last year of U.S. military operations there. The series runs every Wednesday and will examine each of the country’s regional commands to get a sense of the country, and the war, America is leaving behind. You can find the Series Introduction here, Part I here and Part II here. Regional Command East encompasses Afghanistan’s most populous region. The territory extends from Afghanistan’s mountainous eastern border with Pakistan to the central provinces surrounding Kabul, an area characterized by wide variation in terrain, ethnic groups, political dynamics and armed actors. Among the latter are an estimated 50-100 fighters claiming allegiance to al-Qaida, representing what is thought to be the last remnants in Afghanistan of the group that provoked the international invasion of the country in 2001. But the more dangerous dynamic for the region is the alternately competitive and cooperative relationship among its other armed groups, which fight against each other as well as the central government. The Taliban, the strongest among the three main groups, runs shadow governments in a number of districts, complete with their own tax and judicial systems. The Haqqani network, whose leadership is thought to be based in the Pakistani tribal agency of North Waziristan, has since 2010 expanded its presence from Afghanistan’s eastern border and pushed for territory in Wardak and Logar, two provinces bordering Kabul. Finally, Hizb-i-Islami, led by the former mujahedeen commander Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, exerts influence from within the government through its political wing even while its fighters remain active. The combination of competing insurgent groups and the heavy concentration of Afghan and international security forces make Afghanistan’s eastern and central regions among the most violent in the country. At the same time, the region’s population centers and proximity to the capital make it a strategic center of gravity for Afghanistan as a whole. “Just given its diversity,” says Matthew Sherman, a political adviser to the U.S. military in Kabul, Regional Command East is “probably the hardest nut to crack of all the regions.” The “elements competing for a lot of the trade routes that go in and out of Kabul,” he says, contribute to the region’s “amalgam of challenges.” Taxing the movement of goods along these routes, from apples and minerals to weapons and drugs, has been profitable for the region’s insurgent groups. The roads to Kabul are also politically valuable, offering insurgents the ability to strike the capital and get out quickly, says Candace Rondeaux, currently an independent political analyst based at Princeton. As senior analyst for the International Crisis Group in Kabul, Rondeaux wrote the group’s 2011 report on the insurgency in central and eastern Afghanistan. The past three months have seen a number of major attacks inside Afghanistan’s capital city, which is in a separate regional military command, Regional Command Capital. One, a suicide attack on a Lebanese restaurant popular among Kabul’s expatriate community, killed 21 people, including 13 foreigners, representing the highest death toll for foreign civilians in the country since 2001. As insurgent groups including the Taliban focus on trying to intimidate the international community into leaving Afghanistan entirely, Rondeaux says, “we can look forward to an increase in these kinds of attacks inside the city for political gain.” Outside the city, in the neighboring provinces of Regional Command East, insurgents have shown a growing reliance on assassinations of government figures or their perceived collaborators. In Logar province, which lies south of Kabul, the United Nations documented 14 deaths from targeted killings in the first six months of 2013—compared to three over the same period in 2012. Logar’s provincial governor was killed by a bomb in a mosque in October 2013. Yet the lines between government and armed groups are not always clear. Hizb-i-Islami’s political wing is represented in Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s Cabinet—Karzai’s chief of staff, for one, is a member—as well as in parliament and on provincial councils in the central and eastern region. At the same time, the group’s militant wing has fought against the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) as well as the Taliban; last year, Hizb-i-Islami claimed responsibility for an attack in Kabul that killed 16 people, including six American military advisers. Hizb-i-Islami’s influence was also reportedly behind Karzai’s decision last year to ban U.S. special operations forces from a Hizb-i-Islami stronghold in Wardak province. Neamatullah Nojumi, author of the 2008 book “After the Taliban: Life and Security in Rural Afghanistan,” argues that politics, and in particular a lack of local autonomy, generates violence in Afghanistan’s eastern and central regions. As an adviser to the U.S. Agency for International Development in both regions from 2008 to 2010, he observed some districts’ ability to enforce security by means of local pacts banning the Taliban. He says those security gains deteriorated when the central government failed to fulfill its promises to local community leaders to provide resources for economic development. “We just put all our eggs in the basket of the Afghan government,” Nojumi says. “The Afghan government in many of these districts is the problem.” The eastern provinces’ proximity to Pakistan poses problems beyond just the presence of insurgent safe havens over the border. Cross-border shelling from Pakistan continues to result in civilian casualties, according to the United Nations; Afghan and Pakistani forces have also skirmished along the border. The incidents have highlighted the remaining tensions over a border Afghanistan has never recognized and point to dangerous regional dynamics that will persist after most international forces leave Afghanistan at the end of 2014. Regional Command East’s wide range of complicated challenges meant that the easternmost provinces were among the last to be transitioned to Afghan forces. With all provinces having been transitioned to Afghan security lead as of summer 2013, Sherman says that the Taliban has not been able to return to and hold district centers in the eastern and central region, and that ANSF’s capabilities so far seem adequate to the enemy they are likely to face. As for local governance, while a great deal of international attention is focused on the upcoming presidential election in April 2014, the provincial council elections scheduled for the same time may drastically change the local balance of power in eastern and central Afghanistan. Given the region’s localized security arrangements and its strategic importance, the results of those elections will be felt in Kabul and the rest of the country, for better or worse.

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