Wednesday, December 05, 2018

Lifos report: The security situation in Afghanistan

Conflict related casualties (both combatants and civilians) that are registered by UCDP during the years 2007 to 2017. Source: UCDP (Afghanistan).

Lifos is the Swedish Migration board's center for country information and country analysis within the migration domain. On Dec 4, 2018, a new report on the security situation in Afghanistan finally was released. The next step is that the Migration board makes a new legal position.

The full report, with references, is found here.

English summary

The general security trend in Afghanistan is one of continued successive deterioration, according to Lifos’ assessment. The US’ new South Asia strategy has resulted in an escalation of the military involvement in the country, including thousands of more US troops on Afghan soil and a significantly intensified air offensive, in order to defeat the insurgents and ultimately force the Taliban to the negotiating table, since a definitive military solution to the conflict seems futile.

The Afghan government forces, who have long been on the defensive against an increasingly offensive Taliban movement, aim to have control or influence over territory covering about 80 percent of the country’s population by the end of 2019. However, the government has not shown any success reclaiming areas from the Taliban during 2018. In July 2018, the government had control/influence over approximately 65 percent of the population, which meant that no real change had taken place during the first seven months of the year.

The escalated military campaign by the government, with all time high air strikes, targeted attacks on Taliban leaders at various levels, and various search operations, has however affected the Taliban’s military operations. In contrast to the two previous years, during the spring offensive 2017, the Taliban did not undertake large-scale attacks against the provincial capitals but instead shifted focus to coordinated attacks on police and army posts around the country. During these operations, a limited number of fighters were deployed in order to protect their human resources while still inflicting considerable loss on the government part.

However, the changed warfare of the insurgents should not be interpreted as a sign of weakness, according to Lifos’ assessment. It should rather be considered as an adaptation to current conditions. The large-scale insurgency attacks on provincial capitals in Farah and Ghazni in 2018 show a continued high capacity to mobilize a large number of fighters to carry out large-scale attacks in urban centers, without regard of own losses. These attacks probably mainly serve as a show of strength and relevance, to undermine the government’s legitimacy, and to get more and more Afghans to lose confidence in the current regime and the national government, which the Taliban consider a puppet government controlled by the US.

There has been no significant change in the situation in the country as a whole in 2018, but the violence between the conflicting parties has intensified. The Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP) has recorded significantly more conflict-related deaths (civilians and combatants) in the first eight months of 2018 than during the corresponding period of 2017. UNAMA, which only records civilian casualties (killed and injured) of the conflict, had by 30th September 2018 documented marginally fewer casualties in total compared to 2017. Likewise, the number of new conflict-related internally displaced persons as well as the number of security incidents, has decreased in 2018 in comparison to 2017. However, according to Lifos’ assessment, the decrease in these three conflict indicators cannot be explained by improved conditions for civilians, although some actions have been taken by the conflicting parties to avoid causing civilian harm. For example, UNAMA has received reports during the year that the parties of the conflict have warned the civilian population ahead of upcoming ground operations in some populated areas, and the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) has also avoided the use of heavier weapons in such areas to a greater extent than before.

Other trends in 2018, such as the increased use of suicide bombings and other IEDs by the insurgents, the insurgents’ targeted attacks on civilians, and the government’s intensified air operations, indicate however that the method of warfare used in 2018 has not reduced the risk of civilians being harmed.

An increased risk for civilians to suffer from targeted violence is, rather, a trend. In addition to the civilian profiles that are regarded by the insurgents as part of the government side, and thus legitimate military targets (for example various government representatives), the Shia minority in Afghanistan has increasingly become target of attacks with sectarian motives. This wave of violence is showing an upturn and during the first nine months of the year, more casualties have been claimed as a result of sectarian violence than throughout 2017. In particular, Shiites in the western parts of Kabul have been affected by this targeted violence, but sectarian attacks against Shiites have also taken place in for example Herat.

The security situation in Kabul city is characterized by increased violence and with increasingly frequent suicide bombings. Although the incident level in Kabul is relatively low, each individual attack can potentially claim a large number of casualties. After the first seven months of this year, almost as many suicide bombings occurred in the capital as in the whole of 2017. Although Kabul is under stable government control, the frequent attacks have a great impact on people’s perceived security in the capital, and many Kabul residents limit their movement in the city to only necessary travel, avoiding traveling at times when many military convoys and other government targets are moving about the city.

In regards to the situation in different provinces, Lifos notes a significant deterioration of the security situation in the Nangarhar (east) and Ghazni (southeast) provinces. Moreover, the province of Faryab in the north is highly contested and afflicted with violence, and is among the provinces where most civilian casualties were claimed in 2018 (along with Nangarhar, Kabul, Helmand and Ghazni). There is also a great deal of uncertainty about the future development of Kandahar since the Taliban, by way of an “insider attack”, killed the province’s influential police chief Abdul Raziq. He has been largely attributed the fact that the authorities have a relatively strong position in the province. It is too early to say what Raziq’s demise may entail, but in a worst case scenario it may destabilize the whole of the southern region if his successor fails to maintain the unity of the Afghan security forces in the province.

Despite the negative security trend in 2018, the probability of a more positive future scenario in the slightly longer term has increased somewhat during the year, according to Lifos’ assessment. There is widespread war-weariness within the Afghan nation and an insight among the fighting parties that there is no military solution to the conflict. A spontaneous grassroot movement for peace conducted a peace march during the year which received considerable attention, and the parties of the conflict have shown a greater willingness to approach each other than in the previous years. Previously locked positions have eased, which has led the US to engage in direct talks with the Taliban, something that the movement has long demanded but which the US has opposed on the grounds that peace talks should be held between the two main parties: the Taliban movement and the Afghan government. The fact that the two, during the year, managed to bring about a ceasefire, albeit briefly, also constitutes a unique development. This ceasefire was the first of its kind since the Taliban regime fell 17 years ago, and the fact that it was respected as well as it was indicated that both parties have significant control over their respective forces, something that has previously been viewed as an obstacle to the counterpart’s ability to uphold agreements.

Despite this positive event, there is a deep mistrust between the parties, and many potential obstacles to a possible negotiated solution and peace agreement. For example, the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) is an actor that has no interest in a peace process, the group has for example taken responsibility for an attack on both the government part and the Taliban during the ongoing ceasefire. Thus, ISKP is likely to disturb a possible peace process, and also exploit it to try to recruit more hardline insurgents who oppose a negotiated agreement. The influence and interests of external actors in Afghanistan is also an important factor that complicates the situation and impedes a solution to the conflict. Lifos’ assessment is that the establishment of a peace agreement between the internal parties to the conflict has a low chance of success without at least some involvement from influential external actors.

Although the trend in 2018 has increased the likelihood of a more positive scenario in the longer term, Lifos’ assessment in the short term is that the levels of violence in Afghanistan will escalate. This is due, inter alia, to the government’s goal of pushing back the insurgents and regaining control over more territory, while the insurgents on the other hand are likely to accumulate strength in order to, as much as possible, disturb the forthcoming important presidential election scheduled for April 2019. Next year is therefore likely, according to Lifos’ assessment, to continue to be characterized by a high level of activity on the insurgents’ part, but also by an increasingly offensive government side that will try to regain territory lost to the Taliban over the years through intensive air and ground operations.

There is also a risk of an even more negative scenario, should the ISKP’s sectarian violence spread with the emergence of violence between different ethnic groups as a result. Despite two years of sectarian violence, this has not happened yet. However, increasingly stronger voices have raised demands that the Hazara population in Kabul should “take security into their own hands”, as they have lost confidence in the government’s ability to put an end to the sectarian attacks in the capital. Recent occurrences of violence and the Taliban movement’s attacks on the former peaceful Hazara-districts Jaghori and Malestan in Ghazni Province, as well as Hazara villages in the neighbouring province of Uruzgan, threatens to further drive this development. The Hazara population has largely been supportive of the central government, but there is a risk of a development where this minority considers it necessary to take arms themselves for their own security. There is also a risk that Afghans who have fought in Syria will return home, bringing with them a sectarian mindset, which could also have a negative effect on the development. In addition, a greatly disputed presidential election next spring could lead to a collapse of the government and throw the country into a political chaos where the population would completely fall back on their protection networks, often based on ethnic divisions, with possible sectarian violence as a consequence.

The forthcoming presidential elections in April 2019 constitute an important event that may potentially be of great importance for the continued development of the country, according to Lifos’ assessment. It is therefore difficult to predict what direction the conflict may take in the second half of 2019. However, even if the presidential election does not lead to political collapse, immense challenges remain for Afghanistan in addition to the ongoing violence. These challenges concern the weak Afghan state and its very limited ability to meet the needs of the population. The humanitarian situation is difficult, with over one million internally displaced persons and over three million people who are deemed to be in need of vital assistance. The economic and humanitarian situation is also at risk of further deterioration, partly due to developments in Iran. The recently reintroduced US sanctions have hit hard against the many Afghan labour migrants who for a long time has had Iran as an alternative labour market. The lack of opportunities in Iran means that many of them must return home and compete for insufficient labour opportunities, which furthermore means loss of important remittances from Iran to families back in Afghanistan. This situation can also be expected to drive migration towards Europe, as Afghans no longer see any potential for livelihood in neither Afghanistan nor Iran.

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