Afghanistan’s Coming Darkness

March 21, 2014

The ongoing presence of ISAF troops is now of little consequence to the people of southern Afghanistan. Their fate was decided in 2011, writes Christopher Johnston.

The withdrawal of coalition soldiers from southern Afghanistan has been marked by silence, spreading almost imperceptibly below the Hindu Kush. Most International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) troops have already left or withdrawn “behind the wire.” making it difficult to measure the unfolding violence, let alone stop it. While the 2009 surge shifted tactical momentum against the insurgency, forecasting its ultimate conclusion meant the strategic contest was lost. Once the pre-ordained drawdown commenced in 2011 the Taliban shifted their primary focus away from coalition forces to erode the remnants of Afghan central government.

This ferocious campaign continues. Attacks against coalition forces have diminished, and will continue to decrease as operational risk is reduced. But the governors of Kandahar, Helmand, Uruzgan, and other provinces have been repeatedly targeted for assassination, along with less prominent, more vulnerable government functionaries. A small legion of suicide bombers and Taliban fighters have executed increasingly complex attacks, mostly repelled by Afghan and coalition forces. This was notably demonstrated in July 2011, when suicide bombers and armed insurgents launched an unprecedented assault on the governor’s compound and other government installations in Tarin Kot.

This attack was successfully repelled by Afghan and coalition troops. But even if a status of forces agreement is concluded, the ISAF rump left in Kandahar will not be equipped to stop such violence. Once indigenous security eventually falters most district and provincial governors will be coerced or killed, as in Logar last October, and Jalalabad last week. Others will simply vanish, or join an exodus of “collaborators.”

No coalition officer is likely to venture too far from Kandahar to determine the fate of provincial or district governance. ISAF might never even hear about it. Communication between agencies in Kabul and the southern provinces is as tenuous as the link between coalition and Afghan troops: usually reliant on cellphones.

The expansion of mobile telephony has been a useful test of Taliban influence, as insurgents commonly target cellphone towers for destruction. Most Pashtuns live in irrigated farming communities reminiscent of the Old Testament; where motorcycles, cellphones and automatic weapons are the sole intrusions of modernity. As coalition forces withdraw, this will be one way to measure Taliban resurgence: watching swathes of countryside slip back into electronic silence.

There may be other ways to maintain situational awareness. The historically persecuted Hazara minority has long been a bellwether of conflict. In recent years, many ventured down from their mountainous redoubts in Dai Kundi and Bamiyan to establish Shiite communities in the relatively peaceful and prosperous Uruzgan, a southern province with historical ties to the Taliban movement. As security and economic activity recede, this population will probably retreat north of the Helmand River, or become refugees.

It might even be possible to monitor the progress of the insurgency from space. Despite the vast sums invested in power generation, most Pashtuns still access electricity from small diesel generators. The increased urbanisation of local economies has been nourished by large military bases, and will dissipate with ISAF’s departure. As local economies decay, it will become harder to find cash, fuel and machine parts. Slowly, surely, the lights are about go out across southern Afghanistan.

ISAF operations always followed a tense double-track. Civilian agencies and conventional forces invested everything in the legitimacy of a wobbly indigenous government: funding and guiding the line ministries; building security checkpoints, schools and hospitals; overseeing disastrous elections; training and equipping the army and police forces. Meanwhile, intelligence and Special Forces carefully cultivated warlords of choice to pursue their objectives. This latter approach promises more enduring utility. Warlords are probably the most resilient aspect of coalition strategy. Their ongoing influence and freedom of action may even be enhanced by ISAF withdrawal; in potent contrast to the efficacy of Afghan central government.

Arteries carrying government monies from Kabul to the south are already sclerotic with corruption. When they seize completely, who will fund the schools, hospitals and checkpoints? The Afghan Army is largely comprised of Farsi speakers from northern Afghanistan, and still subject to debilitating turnover. What will motivate them to face gathering dangers in the south? Soon, warlords (and drones) will be the primary instruments of U.S. policy.

It will be equally difficult to monitor development initiatives. Inspection of ongoing projects, created at such painstaking cost, must now be abandoned or subcontracted to third parties of dubious credentials. Much of southern Afghanistan is already off limits to all but Special Forces and the most intrepid foreign correspondents.

Soon the West can turn a blind eye to the tribal reckonings, the burning schools and squalid hospitals, the violent subjugation of women. Our approaching ignorance is a melancholy solace for those who served there. Southern Afghanistan’s future will unfold in silence, and in darkness.


Christopher Johnston served with the Australian Army in southern Afghanistan (2010-2011). He is now a fellow at Georgetown University’s Institute for the Study of Diplomacy.


Image: USMC photo, Cpl. Reece Lodder