The year 2016 has been one of tumult and turmoil for Afghanistan. The Afghan government like the previous year i.e. 2015, kept grappling with multiple challenges the most daunting among them being the increasing terrorism incidents and futile efforts to find negotiated settlement to the country’s lingering crisis. The ongoing militancy in Afghanistan has claimed countless lives including those of civilians, militants and security forces throughout the year 2016. According to a report by United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), released in October 2016, a total of 2,562 civilians were killed from January 1 to Sep 30, 2016 and 5,835 civilians sustained injuries in the ongoing militancy and conflicts in Afghanistan over the said period.
An overview of the current situation in Afghanistan suggests that – given the gravity of situation in Afghanistan – it is hard to expect that there will be some improvement in 2017. The feeling is still that as a whole this year will be another crucial one for Afghanistan. Here are 8 key issues that would decide where Afghanistan will be heading in the coming years.
1. NUG Crisis
Afghanistan’s National Unity Government (NUG) has been in crisis in the recent months. The crisis that ensued from the US-brokered setup and the complex power-sharing arrangement, which has already hampered the governance in Afghanistan, is likely to continue with several other crises flaring up in 2017. Although in 2016, there were several attempts to reorganize the arrangement – most recently through the removal of ministers by parliament – any betterment in the situation is highly unlikely as Afghan parliamentary elections are expected to be held in 2017 and the campaign for the 2019 Presidential elections will also kick off.
In the meantime, the process of political positioning and alliance-building, that precedes every presidential election, had already begun in late 2016. This will continue, and increase, throughout 2017 and 2018, probably inspiring new – whether temporary or lasting – partnerships and rifts.
2. The War
The conflict in 2016 continued unabated, showing an increase in Taliban gains, both in terms of territory and influence, particularly in rural Afghanistan. The Taliban are likely to seek to intensify their war effort in order to further erode the territorial control and morale of Afghan National Security Force (ANSF). This intensification is likely to lead to further attrition of the ANSF. The lagging capabilities of the ANSF and the ambiguous role of pro-government ‘auxiliary’ forces in countering insurgency, remain points of concern. On both the government and the Taliban sides, there were huge casualties, with little prospect for a letup. It could lead to a further hardening of positions and the entrenching of violence and revenge or, more hopefully, encourage peace-making.
Whether the ANSF will be able to beat back the Taliban and prevent them from holding on to greater gains, such as key districts, roads or even provincial centres, will largely depend on the extent of sustained international military support. Vulnerable areas in this regard currently include Kunduz, Sar-e pul, Baghlan, Farah and Helmand. The increased recruitment of non-Pashtuns into the Taliban is also likely to continue. In addition the Afghan-Pakistani Daesh franchise (a.k.a. the Islamic State Khorasan Province, or ISKP) will seek to increase its foothold in the east of the country, as well as keep up its media-grabbing presence in the urban centres, particularly Kabul, by committing high-profile terrorist and possibly sectarian attacks.
3. Peace Talks
With the expected military escalation from the US backing up the ANSF and the continued ambiguity within the NUG toward a peace process, prospects for serious peace efforts in 2017 seem dim. Although there have been a series of informal direct discussions between the Taliban and the NUG in recent months, the effort could easily be offset by a more belligerent US approach. Some semi-governmental and independent initiatives for peace are likely to continue, albeit not in a very consistent or centralised manner. These efforts may or may not gain momentum, depending on the situation on ground and the quality of the initiatives. The increasing ethnic dynamics of Afghan politics may lead to a re-alignment (or deepening) of positions regarding peace talks.
The next step in the efforts toward ‘peace’ may be another largely inconsequential deal, this time with the (shrinking) splinter factions of the Taliban, which the government seems to be wooing. These factions may also demand formal representation and a cut of government appointments, as Hezb-e Islami did. All in all, these ‘peace deals’ are likely to strengthen the influence of Taliban.
4. Russian Redux
There are reports that Russia and Iran are in direct talks with the Taliban. Russia was reportedly assured by the Taliban that it was a strictly national movement that did not intend to spread beyond Afghanistan’s borders. Russian support fits in a wider policy of allying itself with local forces against Daesh (and against NATO, which Moscow accuses of supporting Daesh). The recent trilateral talks in Moscow between Russia, Pakistan and China, are being followed with interest in Afghanistan.
5. Rights and Freedoms
The crisis in the government and the intensification of the conflict may further erode the protection of human rights in Afghanistan – both in the area of civil and political rights, and economic, social and cultural rights. The right to education, especially for girls, in conflict-ravaged areas remains a cause of concern. The already precarious legal protection for girls and women may face specific challenges, as the ongoing efforts to subsume the Elimination of Violence against Women (EVAW) law into the Penal Code threatens to change or dilute important articles in the EVAW law. In addition, the President may not sign the Law on the Elimination of Harassments against Women and Children, which was recently passed by the Afghan parliament, as his government tries to combine all separate codes with criminal articles, into a single penal code.
6. Relations with the US
Changes in US policies on Afghanistan and, more broadly, multilateral cooperation within NATO and the UN, will have a direct bearing on the situation in Afghanistan and its region, and on policies in Europe. Trump-made changes in Afghanistan policy may include an intensification of fighting and targeted killing, in an effort to decisively ‘deal with’ or ‘contain’ the war. It could also result in a decline in funds or a lack of clarity on whether the US will keep its commitments, which will reverberate both in country’s national politics and on the battlefield.
Afghan-US relations may become further strained if the Office of the Prosecutor (OTP) of the International Criminal Court (ICC) decides to open an investigation in Afghanistan. A preliminary examination in 2016 showed that the thresholds of admissibility had been reached and that war crimes and crimes against humanity that meet the ICC gravity threshold had been committed in Afghanistan by all parties – the Taliban, US military and CIA, and the NDS and other parts of the ANSF – involved in the armed conflict, after 2003 (the ICC only has jurisdiction of crimes committed from 2003 onwards).
The economy is a subject that will be on the mind of Afghan leadership – both in terms of the sustainability of Afghanistan’s national budget, and the economic opportunities (or lack thereof) for Afghans in general. So far, for the general population, the trends have not been good; poverty and food insecurity rates over the last few years have risen, despite the post-2001 investments.
The government has strongly emphasised the importance of regional cooperation, infrastructure investments and job creation, and has proposed several programmes that aim to grow the economy and combat unemployment, although their effects may not be immediately felt.
Donors, in particular, expect Afghanistan’s revenue generation to steadily grow, as a reassurance that at some point in the future, the country will be able to fend for itself without massive international assistance. Experts, however, have noted that the recent increases in revenue collection are either not replicable or are unsustainable and that the economy is set to shrink rather than grow.
The beginning of 2016 saw unprecedented – at least in recent years – numbers of Afghans leaving their country and travelling toward Europe. This was fuelled by the declining hope of a politically and economically stable Afghanistan and the pull of the, temporarily, open route provided by the Balkans corridor (for about half a year, all Afghans who reached the western Balkans were ferried onwards into the EU). The fear of a sustained high influx prompted European countries to tighten their procedures and border controls. As a result, the numbers of Afghans travelling to Europe have returned to pre-2015 levels.
Mass returns of refugees from Pakistan and Iran are expected to continue in 2017. These returnees have been a heavy burden on the country’s economy and have overburdened the already-fragile services, particularly health and education, in the most-affected areas. This is exacerbated by the fact that many of them have not lived in Afghanistan for a long time (or, in many cases, ever). The large numbers of refugees returning from Pakistan and Iran, and to a lesser extent from Europe, are likely to result in a serious decline of remittances, both at the national and the household level.
European countries seem poised to continue to view migration as a key issue in their bilateral relations with the Afghan government, with a particular focus on ensuring Afghan cooperation with forcible returns. The miserable conditions in and on the road to Europe, however, mean that far fewer Afghans will now contemplate the trip. This is what Europe intended, but the diminishing opportunities for young people means that the country has lost an important pressure valve.