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U.S. B-2 Stealth Bomber, Two F-15Cs and Two RAF F-35Bs Integrate During Training Mission Over UK

The Aviationist Blog - Wed, 18/09/2019 - 14:58
While we don’t know what type of “integration” mission the aircraft flew, it turned out to be a great opportunity for some cool air-to-air photographs. The B-2A Stealth Bombers deployed to RAF Fairford, UK, as [...]
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Belgian F-16s Intercept two Tu-160s and two Su-27s During First Scramble In Support Of Current NATO BAP rotation

The Aviationist Blog - Tue, 17/09/2019 - 19:53
Interesting close encounter on the Baltic for the Belgian F-16s supporting NATO’s Baltic Air Policing. On Sept. 17, two Belgian F-16s deployed to Siauliai Air Base, Lithuania, in support of NATO BAP mission, were scrambled [...]
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Let’s Talk About Russian Test Pilot Sergey Bogdan’s Impressive Su-57 Display at MAKS 2019.

The Aviationist Blog - Tue, 17/09/2019 - 14:13
Hero of The Russian Federation, Top Sukhoi Test Pilot, Bogdan Thrilled in Su-57 Demo. It was the most perfect of conditions, Russia’s most famous test pilot and their most advanced new fighter. The results at [...]
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Raytheon unveils the development of the new Peregrine advanced air-to-air missile

The Aviationist Blog - Mon, 16/09/2019 - 22:13
The new missile will complement the AIM-120 and AIM-9 in the Air Force’s inventory On Sept. 16, during the Air Force Association’s annual National Convention in Washington, Raytheon unveiled the mockup of its new Peregrine [...]
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The Air Force’s New Advanced Jet Trainer, the T-X, Officially Named the T-7A Red Hawk

The Aviationist Blog - Mon, 16/09/2019 - 20:37
The name, Red Hawk, honors the legacy of Tuskegee Airmen, and pays homage to their signature red-tailed aircraft from World War II. On Sept. 16, acting Secretary of the Air Force Matthew Donovan announced the [...]
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Afghanistan’s 2019 Election (7): Dithering over peace amid a lacklustre campaign

The Afghanistan Analysts Network (AAN) - Mon, 16/09/2019 - 03:54

One ticket has fallen apart and one candidate has withdrawn his candidacy in favour of another. This has reduced the number of presidential candidates from 18 to 16 and left the two incumbents, President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Dr Abdullah, as the main contenders in the race. In this piece, AAN’s Ali Yawar Adili and Thomas Ruttig discuss the campaigns that started, the threats to boycott the election, the security concerns and the presidential tickets that have fallen apart. They conclude that the campaign that started on 28 July and will continue until 48 hours before election day has, so far, been uninspiring and marred by disbelief that the election will take place on 28 September.

Lacklustre start and uninspiring continuation of election campaign

When the official race for the Afghan presidency started on 28 July, two months before the polls, only three out of 18 candidates officially organised public campaign events. These included the two incumbents and main contenders, President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, and also Enayatullah Hafiz, a fringe candidate. Ghani’s electoral ticket, Daulat-Saz (State-Builder), was the first one. It launched its election campaign at the Loya Jirga tent in northwest Kabul. The president said that he had managed to undercut the “domination of gold, force and oppression” in Afghanistan’s political system during his first term and asked people to grant him another mandate to implement “law and justice.” Ghani said that he would put into practice “Omarijustice,” a reference to the second caliph of Islam and a shot at claiming religious legitimacy for his presidency. Ghani followed this by travelling to a few provinces, for example to Paktia on 8 August (media report here), to Herat on 23 August (media report here) and to Kandahar on 14 September (see the video here). Even before the official campaign started, he had toured the country to inaugurate infrastructure projects, which his opponents condemned as unfair and illegal electioneering. Abdullah and his Stability and Integration team was second, launching the campaign in the large Uranus Wedding Palace on the main road to Kabul’s international airport. This gave him the chance to refer to and criticise Ghani’s speech. He said, “Today, someone has said that he would implement Omari justice. Listen very carefully. . . . If our people think that Omari justice was like what happened in the last five years [of the Ghani presidency], their faith would be harmed.” Abdullah –a partner in the post-2014 National Unity Government (NUG) with Ghani – accused the president of double standards in fighting corruption. He referred to the corruption charges against former minister of communication and information technology Abdul Razeq Wahidi who had been acquitted two days earlier(he was acquitted by the appeal court seven days earlier, on 21 July, though, media report here) while someone being investigated by the attorney general had, again two days earlier, been appointed as acting deputy minister of finance for revenue and customs, one of the key revenue-raising positions in government. He was referring to Walid Tamim who announced his ministerial appointment in a tweet on 26 July. All this while waiting to receive India’s agreement to go there as Afghan ambassador (see AAN’s reporting here). Abdullah called it “appointing the wolf as shepherd.” The third candidate, Hafiz, chose a different method to open his run for the presidency. With a group of aides and supporters, he went to three areas in western Kabul predominantly inhabited by his Hazara ethnic community and cleaned roads there (see media report here). No other campaigns started on 28 July. Instead, as discussed below, the 13-member Council of Presidential Candidates decided to delay their campaigns and even warned they would boycott the election. Although some candidates finally began their campaigns, the campaigns have remained insipid and affected by insecurity and the uncertainties around the now stalled peace negotiations.

Boycott threats

On the same day the campaigns started, 28 July, the Council of Presidential Candidates issued a statement warning they might boycott the election, as they consider the poll “fraudulent, pre-engineered and crisis-generating.” The council comprises 13 candidates and was formed in April 2019 (then by 11 of the 18 presidential aspirants) in response to the delay in the presidential elections and what they saw as the unconstitutional extension of Ghani’s presidential term (see AAN’s reporting here and here). Its members gave the president and his team one week to address a number of problems, such as the protection of “the independence of the independent electoral institutions,” including those “related to procurement and recruitment”; the interference of “high-ranking government officials . . . in favour of the ruling teams”; threats against government employees who do not support the teams of the NUG leaders and “deliberate insecuritisation of areas where rival candidates to the ruling team are assumed to [receive] more votes.” If that did not happen, the council’s members would instead “focus on the struggle to make the peace process successful and build national consensus for developing an accountable administration so that such an impartial and national administration undertake the responsibility for holding a free and fair and credible election.” (1) On 1 August, the Council of Presidential Candidates met the Election Support Group, which comprises key donors (the European Union; Australia; Sweden, on behalf of the Nordic Plus group; Germany; Japan; the United Kingdom and the United States), NATO and UNAMA, to communicate their above-mentioned statement issued on the first day of the election campaign. (2) Ahmad Wali Massud, one of the candidates and a member of the council who shared the news of the meeting on his Facebook page, wrote that the council was determined to use all available resources for making the election transparent before launching their campaign, which fell short of a boycott declaration.

Facing a possible boycott by at least half the candidates, Abdul Aziz Ibrahimi, an IEC spokesman, told Hasht-e Sobh on 5 August that the IEC was prepared to hold the election even if it were between two candidates only. It did not come to a boycott. One by one, candidates began to launch their campaigns. Below is a timeline of the first campaign events of some of them:

  • Leader of Hezb-e Islami Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who is experiencing his first presidential election in post-Taleban Afghanistan after his deal with the government in 2016, launched his campaign on 1 August.
  • Former NDS chief Rahmatullah Nabil launched his campaign at the Loya Jirga Tent on 3 August, 7 days after the official commencement of the race.
  • Sayyed Nurullah Jalili launched his campaign at the Loya Jirga Tent on 4 August
  • Massud –not seen as one of the election favourites – (video here) launched his campaign, also at the Loya Jirga Tent, on 9 August, 13 days after the race had officially started. At that point, Massud’s ticket could have been ranked third among in terms of including powerful leaders of Jamiat-e Islami party, after Abdullah’s Stability and Integration team and that of former NSC Hanif Atmar (which included former interior minister Yunos Qanuni, another leading Jamiati, as a vice-presidential candidate). However, after the Atmar ticket collapsed (more on that below) and Amrullah Saleh (who originally belonged to the same political camp) joined Ghani, a number of Jamiat heavyweights (such as Qanuni, former Balkh governor Atta Muhammad Nur, Herat strongman and former minister of water and energy Ismail Khan, and former defence minister Besmellah Muhammadi – who had been with Atmar) have been weighing whether to back Massud or Abdullah. The latter is still seen by many in the party as having squandered the political chances linked to his powerful position in the NUG and has drawn harsh criticism for it, for example by Ismail Khan, who had urged him not to run again. However, he might appear to be the more likely choice, given Massud’s low-key performance.
  • Shahab Hakimi also launched his campaign on 9 August. Instead of talking about the election, he said that “There is no peace nor the possibility for holding a general election. Inshallah, interim government is coming. This administration [NUG] cannot hold general, fair and acceptable elections.”
  • Latif Pedram launched his first campaign event at the Intercontinental Hotel on 15 August in which he promised to create a “Federal Islamic Republic of Afghanistan-Khorasan” if he won the election.

The election team security factor

Hours after the inaugural ceremony of Ghani’s election campaign ended, the office of his first running-mate, Amrullah Saleh’s Green Trend movement (AAN background here) in Shahid Square north of Kabul’s city centre and near the airport, came under a complex attack. The attack included a car bombing followed by a gunfight involving at least four attackers. The attack left 20 dead, including 16 civilians, and as many as 50 wounded (media report here). No group, including the Taleban and the local Islamic State franchise, claimed this attack. It was widely condemned by officials and presidential candidates such as the president, the chief executive, Atmar and Nabil (see media report here) and UNAMA. The latter’s statement underlined, “Candidates are civilians. Violence has no place in Afghanistan’s presidential campaign.” However, it had a demoralising effect for the election campaign which had just kicked off. An attack by unknown gunmen on a Ghani campaign office in Mazar-e Sharif was also reported on 1 September 2019. It resulted in a 15-minute firefight, but no one was injured.

Ten days into the campaign period, on 6 August, the Taleban, writing in English, warned voters to “stay away from gatherings and rallies that could become potential targets,” saying that it instructed “all its Mujahideen to stand against this theatrical and sham of a process” and “prevent the enemy from succeeding in their malicious plans.” They also challenged the election’s legitimacy by saying voting would take place only in selected cities and even there most of the inhabitants would not be participating. They added that while negotiations were underway “to bring an end to the occupation and arrangements for intra-Afghan understanding are being put into place,” the elections would only serve to satisfy “the ego of a limited number of sham politicians, resulting in the waste of time, money and resources.” In reaction, on the same day the palace condemned “the Taleban’s threat against the people.”It argued it was the people’s legal right, including under Sharia, to elect their leaders (using the religious term “auli-l-amr) “through direct vote.” It said that the government had made “all the necessary preparations” to guarantee this through “free, transparent and general elections.” It also said that the country’s security forces were “instructed” and “fully prepared” and would not allow anyone “to stop their participation in determining their destiny.” Meanwhile, the commander of the US and Resolute Support forces in Afghanistan, General Austin Miller, also assured his Afghan counterparts of their “full support and readiness to work with Afghan security forces in all areas, especially in suppressing insurgents.”

On the first day of campaigning, Nabil’s team had already claimed that most of the “enemy’s threats” were against it and complained that its “security package” had not “yet been implemented” by the government. Nabil said it did not “pay much attention, and this deliberate negligence has caused serious problem for our public gatherings and provincial travels of the leadership members of our team.” He did not specify who were posing threats or their nature. (3) Later, on 10 September, a source from his election campaign who did not want to be named told AAN that threat reports came from the government,  and were mostly against Nabil himself and his first running-mate Murad Ali Murad.

The Council of Presidential Candidates also complained about insufficiency in the security measures on 24 August, saying “Security measures for the candidates are incomplete and worrisome, and the government has not provided services in accordance with professional standards. In the event of any unpleasant incident, officials at the top and Ghani should be held responsible.”

Meanwhile, after his 23 August campaign trip to Herat mentioned above, President Ghani suddenly stopped campaigning in the provinces. Instead, he started “virtual rallies” where he speaks to supporters in different provinces on the phone or through video conference. No reason was given for this measure. The New York Times Kabul-based correspondent Mujib Mashal wondered in a 30 August tweet whether this shift was reflecting “good use of technology” or a reaction to higher security threats. He said, “Politicians who at least during election times went to meet people in far away districts (away from their blast walls and armored vehicles) now talk to gatherings via Skype.” Afghan journalist Harun Najafizada, editor with Iran International, answered that question in another tweet on 2 September: “In Afghanistan security does not allow actual rallies [before] the Sept. 28th presidential polls.” The chief executive has had no provincial campaign trip yet.

It is worth mentioning that some of the election observer organisations (eg Afghan Amputee Bicyclists for Rehabilitation and Recreation (AABRAR), Afghanistan Civil Society Forum-Organization (ACSFO), Training Human Rights Association for Afghan Women (THRA)) conducted a pre-election assessment before the start of the election campaign. AAN was invited to attend the meetings. One official from the Ministry of Interior who did not want to be named told the assessment team that, even in Kabul, they had informed the candidates that the security forces could only secure campaign events held at the Loya Jirga Tent and a few other specific venues, which he refused to name.

Elections versus peace

Apart from technicalities and security threats, the campaign has been so slow for a much larger reason: it was simply not clear to the candidates and their political allies whether the election would go ahead. This uncertainty emanated from the – now defunct – negotiations between the US and the Taleban in Doha. The US made it clear that election might stand in the way of the larger aim, ending the war. For instance, on 24 August, US ambassador to Afghanistan John Bass, while visiting Mazar-e Sharif, said that while both elections and a peace accord were “important for the United States . . ., [p]eace is our highest priority because it is also the highest priority of the Afghan people. And every day, we have Afghans telling us that peace is their highest priority.”

Campaign posters on the airport road. Apart from incumbent President Ghani’s campaign, other candidates started their campaign reluctantly and put up their posters around Kabul city. Photo: Ali Yawar Adili, 14 September 2019

The widespread assumption was that these negotiations would culminate in a cancellation of the election in favour of an interim power-sharing arrangement. This was fuelled by media reporting of rumours, such as al-Jazeera reporting almost a month into the election campaign, on 24 August, that the US and the Taleban had agreed to an interim government that would be in charge for 14 months (media report here). While both US Special Representative Zalmai Khalilzad and the spokesman for the Taleban’s Qatar office, Suhail Shahin, rejected the reports on the very day in separate tweets (see here and here), it did not dilute the suspicion that both sides might be hiding something. As AAN has already reported, even Chief Executive Abdullah, who had consistently supported the holding of the election and accordingly started his electoral campaign, modified his position – and increased his options – saying that he was “fully ready to render sacrifices before and after election to reach a durable peace in the country.” According to this report this included “quit[ting] elections for the sake of peace.” While the election looks to be the only option for moving forward after President Trump declared peace negotiations as “dead,” there are no signs to indicate that the election campaigns have picked up enough steam.

Moreover, there is a trust deficit in the election itself, resulting from the deficient previous elections. Ghani himself has called the 2018 parliamentary elections “a catastrophe” (AAN reporting here), while the EU election observation mission called the 2014 presidential election, from which Ghani emerged as the president but in the unloved NUG, a “disaster.” The findings of a survey released by Transparent Election Foundation of Afghanistan (TEFA) on 8 August showed that only 42.87 per cent of the respondents (5,200 from all 34 provinces) said they would participate in the upcoming election and  the remaining 57.13 per cent of them had no interest in voting in the upcoming election. The reasons included: electoral commissions have no freedom or the required capacity to hold the election; citizens’ votes were sacrificed for a political deal in the 2014 presidential election; and severe security threats and challenges.  AAN has repeatedly reported that necessary electoral reform has remained embryonic, making the coming election as problem-ridden as the previous ones, with electoral institutions widely considered non-credible and partial, while reports surrounding the preparations for biometric verification suggest the likelihood of renewed chaos. In addition, the election has a significant problem with inclusiveness: many voters, particularly in rural Taleban-controlled areas, are already deprived of their right to vote due to lack of security, with 2,005 out of 7,378 polling centres remaining closed.

Out of the race

1. Collapse of Atmar’s team

Even before the start of the official campaign season, the ticket of one of three election favourites collapsed. Atmar’s candidacy would have transformed the duel between the two NUG heads Ghani and Abdullah (which repeated the one between Ghani’s predecessor Hamed Karzai and Abdullah in 2009) into a three-horse race with an unpredictable outcome.

Atmar (a Pashtun from Laghman who served as national security adviser to President Ghani until 2018 and before as minister of rural rehabilitation and development, education and interior under Karzai) had formed one of the strongest and most diverse tickets. His first and second running-mates were respectively former vice-president Muhammad Yunus Qanuni, a Tajik from Panjshir and a senior Jamiat member, and Muhammad Mohaqeq, the second deputy to Chief Executive Abdullah and the leader of Hazara-dominated Hezb-e Wahdat-e Mardom-e Afghanistan. Atmar had also fielded a third, informal, running-mate, Alem Sa’i, an Uzbek and a former governor of Jawzjan, to tap into the Uzbek voter base usually dominated by Abdul Rashid Dostum, who is supporting Abdullah. Sa’i is a member of the anti-Dostum New Jombesh party founded in June 2017 (AAN background here). In addition to Qanuni, Atmar had cultivated other influential Jamiat stalwarts who, Qanuni said on 18 January 2019, included Atta Muhammad Nur and Ismail Khan. (4) Qanuni particularly underscored Nur’s and Khan’s role in forming the ticket, without whom, he said, they would not have been successful (see AAN reporting here).

In the end, a row broke out in the Atmar ticket about Nur’s role and his claim to the future prime ministerial post. On 24 July, Nur told Tolonews in an interview that “I am the prime minister of this team.” Six days later, on 30 July, Radio Azadi reported, based on a source close to Atmar’s electoral ticket, that at the launch of the team’s election campaign Nur wanted to be introduced as the ticket’s candidate for this prospective position but that Atmar opposed it. The report said that Atmar wanted his plan to re-establish the prime minister’s post to be mentioned in his campaign charter but that it would be implemented only after being approved by a Loya Jirga after an election victory. Atmar had laid this approach out himself in an interview with Tolonews a few days earlier, on 20 July, in which he said:

The agreement of our team is that if we win, we will maintain the presidential system hundred per cent [but] under this system, for the betterment of governance affairs [and] considering the successful experience of His Majesty’s reign [referring to the same system in place under King Muhammad Zaher [1933–73], we will create the post of sadr-e azam [prime minister] by amending the constitution who will be appointed and dismissed by the president.

What really happened might have been a bit more complicated, at least according to Sayyed Muhammad Ali Jawid, the head of one faction of Harakat-e Islami party that was part of the Atmar team. In this position, he had some insight into the team’s internal dealings. In a Facebook post on 9 August, he alleged that Atmar had signed a secret agreement with Nur to create the post of prime minister and introduce him as his candidate to the post. According to Jawid, Atmar informed the leadership council about the agreement on 6 Asad (28 July), only after the disagreement between him and Nur became serious, and asked the council members to mediate. Jawid claimed that members of the team’s leadership council, including himself, tried to do so but to no avail. Jawid also said that Atmar had accepted to announce Nur’s prime-ministership but refused to yield to his demand that the prime minister also would pick his ministers after the election victory, which Atmar considered as rendering himself powerless as the prospective president. (5) Before, on 3 August, Jawid had announced his party’s separation from Atmar’s team, citing Atmar’s and Nur’s unrelenting stances regarding the prime-ministership issue, with the result that the credibility of this team in the public opinion had “decreased to zero.” 12 days later, on 15 August, Jawid announced that his party would support Ghani’s State-Builder team.

In any case, Atmar’s team declared its election campaign “halted and suspended” on 8 August. His statement gave three reasons, but did not mention the Atmar-Nur ruckus about the prime ministerial post and the imminent implosion of the team. It rather:

  • blamed the continuing “naked interferences by the Palace’s apparatus” in the election preparation and its own lack of “confidence in the transparency of the elections and guarantees for a free and fair setting” for it;
  • blamed the deteriorating security threats to the electoral teams and their campaign activities as well as the voters; and
  • said that it had prioritised “efforts at peace” over the election.

It also said that it would reserve all Atmar’s election ticket’s legal rights and would review its “role constantly and take necessary decisions in accordance with the future political situation and developments.” This hinted at a possible resumption of his campaign. This seems to be very unlikely, though, in particular as two weeks later, on 23 August, Atmar’s second running-mate, Mohaqeq, officially joined the Abdullah team (see the video here), though he still insisted there was no discord among the team members.

On 15 August, already, Ghani’s campaign manager, Muhammad Omar Daudzai, posted a photo of himself shaking hand with Sulaiman Kakar who had been Atmar’s deputy in the office of the National Security Council until September 2018 when he resigned ten days after his boss (media report here) saying that an “experienced and patriotic personality” joined Ghani’s State-Builder campaign. Kakar, he said, would work as the deputy campaign manager. Before, Kakar was crucial to Atmar’s team and had been described as the “executive arm” of his election team. This led to media reports (see one here) that Atmar would also join Ghani’s State-Builder team. However, five days after the suspension of his campaign, on 13 August, Atmar denied these reports. Atmar replied in his short media notice:

Since last night, reports indicating that the leader of the Peace and Moderation team Muhammad Hanif Atmar, senior members of the team and in general the Peace and Moderation team plan to join another electoral ticket have been published in the media and on social media. The news is absolutely inaccurate and untrue. The Peace and Moderation team pursues its goals and programmes with full strength.

However, AAN had heard that Ghani’s national security adviser, Hamdullah Moheb, had met Atmar to persuade him to join the president’s team and that Atmar had, instead, asked to be appointed as the chief negotiator in the possible upcoming intra-Afghan negotiations.

2. Withdrawal of Rasul

Meanwhile, Zalmai Rasul withdrew from the race and also announced his support for Ghani’s team in a ceremony held on 6 August in Kabul (media report here). Rasul, who served as foreign minister and national security advisor under Karzai, did not provide any specific reasons for his withdrawal. Rasul’s running-mates, Abdul Jabbar Taqwa (a Tajik from Farkhar district of Takhar) and Ghulam Ali Wahdat (a Hazara from Bamyan), did not follow his suit and, on the same day, announced their separation from him. Unlike in 2014, when Rasul was one of the most viable candidates and came third in the first round of the election (he supported Abdullah in the second round), this time around his team was not considered as among the frontrunners.

One IEC commissioner wrote in response to AAN’s written query on 4 September that no candidate had officially written to the IEC to withdraw from the race, the ballot papers had been printed and were now being dispatched to the provinces, and that all the (18) candidates who had been cleared to contest the election are on the ballot. According to the electoral law, candidates could withdraw until 25 April when the IEC published the final list of candidates. Should they want to withdraw from the contest after this date, their names will remain on the ballot, but any votes cast for them will not be counted and their deposits will not be returned (the money would go into state coffers).

With the collapse of Atmar’s team and withdrawal of Rasul, the number of candidates has decreased from 18 to 16, leaving the two incumbents, Ghani and Abdullah, as the main contenders in the race.

Some extra institutional arrangements

As Atmar’s ticket, with its busted plan to build up one of its key members as the prospective prime minister – a position not envisaged in the current constitution – Abdullah’s team also came up with some innovation. When he launched his election campaign on 28 July, Abdullah said (his video here) that his team’s leadership had decided that his ticket would include three, not two, deputies for the position of chief executive, the quasi-prime ministerial position invented under the NUG. He then introduced the Pashtun politician Anwar ul-Haq Ahadi, a former finance minister and head of New National Front of Afghanistan coalition as chief executive candidate. He named a Hazara, Ghani Kazemi (the leader of one Hezb-e Harakat-e Islami faction) as his first deputy and Roz Muhammad Nur (a Turkman) as the second, while the third position would go to a – not yet announced – woman. (6) Abdullah’s move addressed what is seen as a necessity in Afghanistan’s highly factionalised and ethnicised political landscape: to have a representative of each major ethnic group on a ticket to appeal to voters of these particular groups. His ticket was still missing a Pashtun, while the Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara slots were taken by himself, Enayatullah Babur Farahmand and Asadullah Sadati.

Ahadi’s acceptance of the position is remarkable insofar as he had broken away from a large political coalition, the Grand National Coalition of Afghanistan (see AAN’s reporting) in November 2018 in protest against exactly the same issue – the coalition’s plan to create the post of a prime minister.

Abdullah has also promised to form another political body, called the Supreme Leadership Council, composed of leaders of major political parties. This has in particular been reflected in his agreement with Hezb-e Wahdat-e Mardom leader Mohaqeq. When he left Atmar’s team and joined Abdullah’s, he was promised the post of deputy to the leader of the council. This council is to advise the president “about fundamental issues in the country,” according to Muhammad Nateqi, Mohaqeq’s deputy in the party, who himself has been promised a post as a special representative of the president in the case Abdullah wins.

Nabil appointed a Turkman, Abdul Majid Sattari, as his third vice-presidential candidate on 28 July. (7) In this, he follows Ghani, Atmar (see AAN’s previous reporting here) and Abdullah who have now introduced informal third vice-presidential candidates, so far introduced as “special representatives” of the president. These additional posts are not covered by the current constitution. According to article 60, only two (first and second) vice-presidents are envisaged and must be declared by the presidential candidates when registering to run, not during the campaign.(8) Consequently, the Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) warned in its 30 July 2019 decision that none of the candidates and electoral tickets could use titles such as prime minister, third vice-president or vice-presidential candidate in their election campaign.

Campaign violations

Two days into the campaign, the ECC, in its 30 July decision quoted above, issued warnings for the first electoral violations, which occurred during Ghani’s and Abdullah’s campaign launches. The ECC cited the illegal use of government’s money and facilities, such as using the Loya Jirga tent (a government venue), government equipment and vehicles and the participation of high-ranking government staff in the gatherings. The ECC said that this had violated article 98 (paragraph 1, section 31) of the electoral law, article 5 (paragraph 5), article 6 (paragraph 2) and article 7 (paragraph 1, sections 4 and 7) of the amended regulation regarding the 2019 election campaign as well as article 6 (paragraph 4) of the regulation for management of financial affairs of the election campaign of candidates. It said that the ECC members unanimously decided to issue serious warnings to both Ghani’s “State-Builder” and Abdullah’s “Stability and Integration” teams in accordance with article 30 of the electoral law (paragraph 1, section 3)and urged them to observe the procedures of the electoral commissions and other electoral regulations.

A day after the official commencement of the election campaign, on 29 July, Atmar’s team issued a “statement about illegal appointments by Dr Ashraf Ghani.” The statement said, “Former president and 2019 presidential candidate, Dr Muhammad Ashraf Ghani, in continuation of [his] illegal actions, has appointed a number of people to the important government positions . . . as heads of customs (from Herat to Nangrahar and from Kandahar to Farah) on the first day of the start of the election campaign.” It said that all these appointments had “political, electoral and campaign dimension and are in direct conflict with the electoral law, the principle of rule of law, political morality and sound competition which in turn can deal a heavy blow to the credibility of the government and irreparable harms to the election.” (9)The appointments came despite the Independent Directorate of Local Governance’s announcement on 21 July that it had halted all “new appointments and recruitments related to the agency until the end of the election” (AAN’s reporting here). Presidential spokesman Sediq Sediqi, however, insisted on 30 July that all the appointments, firings and hirings that had taken place within the government institutions were “needs-based” and covered by law.

On 9 September, the Kabul provincial ECC announced that foreign minister Salahuddin Rabbani had been charged with a cash fine of 15,000 afghanis (almost 200 US dollars) for participating in Abdullah’s campaign events. It also fined two presidential advisers, Abdul Rahim Azizi and Shah Hussain Murtazawi, and the chancellor of Kabul University, Hamidullah Faruqi, with a fine of the same amount for campaigning in favour of Ghani’s team. Murtazawi was also penalised with a ban from voting. Kabul-based Pajhwok News Agency also compiled a long list of examples of the use of “foul” and “aggressive” language, which is against the electoral law.


The campaign for Afghanistan’s 28 September 2019 election has been lacklustre because of the uncertainty resulting from the – now collapsed – US-Taleban talks and US pressure to further delay the poll to not stand in the way of an agreement on troop withdrawal and intra-Afghan negotiations envisaged for after the conclusion of the deal. This and the precarious security situation even forced the incumbent – the only candidate fully committed to the election – to suspend his campaign travels outside Kabul (which he resumed only on 14 September).

AAN’s count of the IEC’s official figures from the 2018 parliamentary election shows less than 3.5 million (3,467,541, to be exact) valid votes (in private meetings, election observers have been saying that the number was even much lower). With this uninspiring campaign, AAN has heard concerns that the turnout might be much lower, especially given that there is no local election to help get the voters to polls. It is feared that the election might fail to deliver a legitimate mandate to the next president.

Even so, the little campaigning so far has been marred by accusations of irregularity and manipulation which reflect the mistrust in the unreformed electoral institutions seen by his opponents to work in the incumbent’s favour.

With the disintegration of the Atmar ticket, the election is expected to become a two-horse race between the incumbent, Ashraf Ghani, and his estranged NUG ‘partner,’ Abdullah Abdullah. Together with the lack of electoral reform promised after the 2014 ‘disaster’ – an election without an official result and a compromise unloved by the two ‘partners’ who largely cancelled out each other – this constellation might increase the danger that the post-2014 election chaos might repeat itself. Under these circumstances, any result could easily be challenged – again.


Edited by Thomas Ruttig and Sari Kouvo


(1) Presidential hopeful Muhammad Shahab Hakimi, a member of the council, told a local newspaper, daily Hasht-e Sobh on 30 July that eight candidates had so far agreed to boycott the 28 September elections and that consultation in this regard continued. He did not provide the names of those planning to boycott.

The council’s statement listed the following as “plausible reasons of the Council of Candidates to boycott the presidential election”:

First: our recommendation for establishing a committee comprising representatives of presidential candidates, political parties and representatives of civil society organisations related to the election to assist and support holding a free and fair election to protect the independence of the independent electoral institutions and forge national and international cooperation to hold a free, transparent, fair and credible election in accordance with the law has been ignored.

Second: the organisational changes in the government not only were not cancelled but also two new ministries named State Ministry for Peace Affairs and State Ministry for Human Rights Affairs have newly been established. These have fully political dimensions and are against the basic state structure.

Third: the appointments and dismissals of senior government officials and employees which have taken place since the leaders of the National Unity Government registered as presidential candidates have not been reversed.

Fourth: the real independence of the IEC and ECC in decision-making related to procurement and recruitment of provincial staff and secretariats has not been clearly and transparently ensured. Non-transparent appointments have not only not been cancelled but have also been maintained.

Fifth: high-ranking government officials in the centre and provinces directly interfere in the election affairs in favour of the ruling teams. New posts are created in districts for this purpose.

Sixth: the head of the National Unity Government and the ruling team in the centre and provinces have launched cosmetic and campaign activities by using government resources such as inaugurating projects and celebrating independence, which are considered fully political and campaign activities.

Seventh: the National Television of Afghanistan and other government media have been provided to the ruling candidates unfairly and against the legal documents.

Eight: abuse of the national budget, especially codes 91, 92, and 95 and operative money, for campaign activities of the leaders of the National Unity Government, especially of the president intensely continue.

Ninth: abuse of government projects by the head of the National Unity Government, especially by the first lady and her office which has in essence been created against the law continue.

Tenth: Abuse of the National Procurement Commission and signing contracts through single-source method, including the contracts signed by the Presidential Protection Unit not only have not been cancelled but have also continued.

Eleventh: the relevant government institutions have not provided the necessary and appropriate resources to meet the legal and legitimate needs of other candidates and their team members, including security facilities, in accordance with the law and their needs.

Twelfth: psychological and career threats against government employees who support non-ruling electoral teams have not been prevented.

Thirteenth: unfortunately, deliberate de-securitisation of areas where the candidates rival to the ruling team are assumed to have more votes continues.

Fourteenth: unfortunately, the IEC has not had the necessary coordination with electoral tickets about the purchase and maintenance of biometric devices, training of staff in how to use the devices, cleaning the fake tazkeras, cleaning the voter list, questionable mobile polling centres and existence of hundreds of polling centres in insecure areas and other important instances which has caused serious concern for the candidates.

Fifteenth: rejecting the recommendations by credible international organisations to improve the 2019 presidential election.

(2) The commencement of the election campaign received only a lukewarm welcome from the international community. The European Union Delegation in Afghanistan tweeted on 28 July, “Today starts the presidential election campaign.” It called on Afghans to “seize this historical opportunity [and] make candidates accountable of their vision of post-conflict” Afghanistan. It also called on “candidates to make this campaign a moment of transparency [and] integrity.” A day later, on 29 July, UNAMA issued a statement saying that “all candidates and supporters are expected to engage in a fair campaign as outlined” in the electoral law, IEC’s code of conduct for the candidates and other regulations enacted by the IEC. It also called on all the stakeholders to “work toward building trust and confidence in the election process.” UNAMA reiterated its “continued commitment and support for an Afghan‐led and Afghan‐owned election” and acknowledged “the efforts made by electoral management bodies, the government and other stakeholders to hold a timely, transparent and credible presidential election.”

(3) In its statement, Nabil’s “Security and Justice” election ticket accused the government of “double standards.” It accused“the government led by the Palace” of acting “in an extremely biased, narrow-minded and selfish way in the management of the election.” Later on the same day, Nabil repeated his accusations, saying a in tweet that they were worried about “the interference and engineering of the upcoming election by the ruling team and Ashraf Ghani.” However, he said that his team would not boycott the election “at this stage.”

(4) Others include Kalimullah Naqibi, deputy head of Jamiat; Abdul Satar Murad, head of the political committee of Jamiat and former minister of economy; Engineer Aref Sarwari, former head of NDS; Abdul Malek Hamwar, former minister of rural development and rehabilitation and Baz Muhammad Ahmadi, deputy minister of interior for counter-narcotics.

(5) Jawed also gave other reasons for the disintegration of Atmar’s team:

  • broken promises, including to pay those officials of the Ghani administration who had joined his team and were subsequently fired by Ghani who also cancelled their benefits;
  • Atmar inaccessibility: “I . . . tried for more than one month through different ways to meet Atmar but he did not take time to meet. So I said to myself: He ignores people while he has not even become the president yet; if he becomes the president, meeting him would be impossible”;
  • broken relations with two former mujahedin parties, the National Liberation Front of Afghanistan of late Professor Sebghatullah Mojaddedi and the National Islamic Front of Afghanistan led by Sayed Hamed Gailani;
  • Atmar forming a special circle of close aides, “mostly” Pashtuns, where all main decisions were taken and not sufficiently shared in the leadership council.

(6) Below are short bios of candidates for chief executive and its deputies under Abdullah’s ticket. We only provide biographical detail of politicians who newly appeared on the presidential tickets. For the originally 18 tickets and their members, refer to this AAN dispatch.

  • Ahadi, a Pashtun born in 1941 in Kabul, holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in economy and political science from the American University of Beirut, a master’s degree in financial and administrative affairs and a PhD in political sciences from Northwestern University, US. He served as the head of Afghanistan’s central bank from 2002 to 2004 and finance minister from 2004 to 2008 (see his bio on the Stability and Integrity website here). Ahadi backed Ghani in the 2014 presidential election, but in January 2016 established an opposition group called the New National Front of Afghanistan (see AAN’s reporting here).
  • Kazemi, born in Lashkargah of Helmand province on 26 April 1963, has served as a military commander of Hezb-e Harakat-e Islami-e Afghanistan in Helmand, head of the party’s provincial council in Helmand and member of the central council of the party, representative of Harakat to the Supreme Military Council of Islamic State of Afghanistan and United Front. With changes to the structural organisation of the party, he was elected as the head of the central council of the party on 15 Jawza 1388 (5 June 2009). After entry into force of the amended political party law in 2009, he registered Hezb-e Harakat-e Islami based on the new conditions enshrined in the law. Kazemi has also served as deputy secretary general (2004) and then secretary general (2005–2010) of the Afghan Red Crescent Society. He worked as presidential adviser on disaster management from 2012 to 2015 and as an adviser to the chief executive from 2016 onward (information is extracted from his bio shared by one of his campaigner with AAN).
  • Roz Muhammad Nur was born in 1339 (1960) in Mardian district of Jawzan province. He graduated from Balkh Agricultural High School in 1359 (1980) and holds a bachelor’s degree in economy from Turkey. He served as second secretary at the Afghan embassy in Turkey from 1373 to 1381 (1994-2002), governor of Jawzjan from 1381 to 1384 (2002-2005), and then as the councillor in Afghan embassy in Turkmenistan until 1388 (2009). Since 1389 (2010), he has been active in political activities and is now picked as the second deputy to the chief executive in Abdullah’s Stability and Integration team (information is taken from his short bio shared by one of Abdullah’s campaigner with AAN).

(7) Sattari, ethnically Turkman, was born in Qurghan district of Faryab province in 1977. He holds a bachelor’s degree in economy from Selcuk University, Konya, Turkey. He has worked with the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs (2002–2003), international military forces (NATO) (2011–2014), civilian trainer for officers of the Ministry of Interior (2015–2016) and Turkish consulate in Jawzjan (2016–2018) and as logistics officer and then acting head of RET International (2018–2019). He has now been nominated by Turktabaran (Uzbeks and Turkmans) as the third vice-presidential candidate on Nabil’s election ticket (the information is obtained from his biography which AAN received from one of Nabil’s campaigners on 4 August).

(8) Article 60 of the constitution says:
The President shall be the head of state of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, executing his authorities in the executive, legislative and judiciary fields in accordance with the provisions of this Constitution.

  • The President shall have two Vice-Presidents, first and second.
  • The Presidential candidate shall declare to the nation names of both vice-presidential running mates.
  • In case of absence, resignation or death of the President, the first Vice-President shall act in accordance with the provisions of this Constitution.
  • In the absence of the first Vice-President, the second Vice-President shall act in accordance with the provisions of this Constitution.

(9) This statement apparently referred to a letter of appointment which was posted (see here) on social media on 29 July. The letter number 3710 was issued by the recruitment section of human resources of the Ministry of Finance and signed by the acting deputy minister for administration on 6 Asad 1398 (28 July) to the Customs Department of Herat Province. It approved the following appointments:

  • Muhammad Akbar, head of Kandahar customs, as head of Herat Customs (replacement)
  • Feruz Khan as head of Nangarhar customs
  • Zaherullah Jilani, son of Abdul Dayan, employee of general department of customs, as head of Kandahar customs
  • Ahmad Nawid as head of the general department of customs for operation
  • Sanaullah Ibrahimi, the technical head of the general department of customs, as head of Farah customs
  • Shams Alekozai, the head of the general department of customs, as airport customs officer.


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Searching for the Afghan Snowfinch: Memories of a birdwatching journey fifty years ago

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The bearded vulture, the rich diversity of wheatears and, above all, the Afghan snowfinch – found nowhere else in the world – are what drew a young ornithologist, Voislav Vasić, to travel from Yugoslavia to Afghanistan in the summer of 1972. In this guest dispatch, Vasić, now the retired head of the national Natural History Museum in Belgrade,* recalls his journeys in search of birds, by bus, truck, taxi, jeep, as well as on a bicycle, horse and camel through almost all parts of Afghanistan. He recalls the birds he saw, the actor-friend he made and the ornithological scandal he heard about.

Why Afghanistan?

Ever since AAN published a dispatch on the lizards of Afghanistan based on a collection of lizards I brought back from Afghanistan to Europe in 1972, I have felt the need to write about the main purpose of that journey – to discover more about the birds of Afghanistan. I also wanted to share some recollections about my journey, which was in itself highly unusual. The ‘hippy trail’ through Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India was well-trodden by youngsters from western Europe in those years, but few from Tito’s Yugoslavia made that journey. Moreover, I was not a hippy. I was a naturalist driven to head east by a desire to see the particular and very special birds of Afghanistan. I knew there would be exciting birds, but in 1972, there was no pocket field guide with illustrations of the birds of Afghanistan or the region.

At the time, I was passionately interested in ‘zoogeography’, the branch of zoology that deals with the geographical distribution of animals. I had graduated in biology from the University of Belgrade in 1967 and was working at the Institute for Biological Research, Siniša Stanković. I thought that traveling from the Bosporus to the heart of Asia would give me a great opportunity to get to know and truly understand the wildlife of ‘real’ steppe and desert. Up until then, I had only encountered its miserable and modified fragments in the Balkan Peninsula. In addition, although I had climbed almost all the highest mountain peaks in Yugoslavia, my mountain climbing record was Triglav peak in Slovenia, barely 2,870 metres high. In Afghanistan, the Hindu Kush, which averages an altitude of 4,500 metres, was awaiting me.

My choice of destination was greatly influenced by the emergence of a remarkable book – a handbook on the birds of the Middle East, “Les Oiseaux du Proche et du Moyen Orient” by two famous French researchers, François Hüe and Robert Daniel Etchécopar, with incredibly good illustrations by Paul Barruel. It encompassed Afghanistan, but only to a certain extent. This book inspired me to see what more I could find in this, for bird-lovers, under-researched country. There was more, of course. My classical secondary education meant the idea of visiting cities founded by Alexander the Great, which still lay scattered like a strange constellation, and the prospect of being in the presence of the great Greco-Buddhist monuments only fed my curiosity to travel more. My decision to embark on this rather uncertain zoological exploration was buoyed up my having just finished my year-long national service in the Yugoslav People’s Army. I felt strong and confident.

Voislav’s visa, issued in Belgrade, 1972. Photo: Author

Three great expectations

Of my many ornithological ‘great expectations’, I will name just three – and how I came to see them all in Afghanistan. Third-ranking was my desire to observe spectacular birds of prey, above all, the Bearded Vulture (Gypaetus barbatus), also known as the Lammergeier, which I had only seen once before in Macedonia, the most southerly of the six republics then making up Yugoslavia. Even 50 years ago, such large predators had already become rarities in most of Europe. In Afghanistan, on the contrary, I was to encounter a few more species of eagles and falcons that I had never seen before. Before setting out, I carefully wrote notes and glued thumbnail pictures of the raptors I hoped to see into one of my two field notebooks (the grey notebook).

Afghanistan was to be full of ornithological surprises and I was certainly not disappointed by the raptors. After the Egyptian Vulture, the Lammergeier was the most common type of vulture throughout Afghanistan, and was especially common in the central mountainous areas, where I saw it daily. It was somewhat less frequent in the lower parts in the districts of Qala-ye Naw and Bala Murghab of Badghis province. By any measure, the Lammergeier is a huge, amazing bird that feeds almost exclusively on the marrow bones of dead animals. It is attracted to carcasses that have been previously gnawed away at by jackals and feathered scavengers.

However, the most abundant vulture in Afghanistan was the Egyptian vulture (Neophron percnopterus), which was found especially around villages and nomad camps, as it feeds on the worst kinds of waste. Once, in the Dara-ye Ajdahar, the Dragon Valley in Bamyan, two men suddenly appeared before me with rifles and one freshly-killed Egyptian Vulture. They offered it to me to buy. They mimed and gestured to say that it would taste great when cooked. I instantly recalled the street urchins in Kabul who had gathered around me as around any other stranger, mocking me with: “Mister Kachaloo, Mister Kachaloo!” (Mr Potato), for reasons I could never discern. Likewise, I believe these vulture murderers also thought strangers were completely ignorant and worthy of any sort of deceit. (1)

The vultures Voislav hoped to see in Afghanistan as seen in his Grey Notebook. Photo: Author

My second great desire was to get acquainted with as many as possible of the species of wheatears of the genus Oenanthe. Central Asia is the centre of diversity of these largely desert-steppe dwelling passerines (ie birds with claws adapted for perching)  with their characteristic white rumps. Every wheatear species looks similar to at least one other and it is especially difficult to identify females and youngsters in their transitional seasonal plumages. I was to encounter this problem throughout Afghanistan. I had to deal with an extraordinarily wealth of varieties of wheatear and cope with the serious problem of how to reliably identify them without a guidebook.

That is why as soon as I got to Kabul (overland from Herat), I went to the Kabul Zoo that then and now hosted a small zoological museum. It was founded by the German zoologist Jochen Niethammer, son of the even more famous Günther Niethammer, the curator-zoologist of the Berlin, Bonn and Vienna Natural History Museums. Niethammer Jr was in Kabul from 1964 to 1966 as part of collaborative programme between Bonn and Kabul Universities, where he studied mammals and birds. (2) At that time, the museum had a collection of birds whose specimens had been identified personally by Niethammer Jr.

When I got there, the zoo and museum were being run by two other German zoologists, Günther Nogge (assistant professor at the Kabul University and later long-time director of the Cologne Zoo, author of “Afghanistan, Zoologically Considered”) (3) and M Bokler (about whom I know nothing), to whom I had previously announced myself by a letter. They welcomed me in and allowed me to inspect the entire collection of birds in detail and to use the museum’s library.

A ticket to the Zoo. Photo: Author

For two weeks, I studied the stuffed birds of Afghanistan held by the museum and learned how to identify the living ones in the field. I recorded all of the information in the first of my two notebooks, the grey one, from which I was never parted. My companion for those weeks was an orphaned chimpanzee who, while I was studying birds, sat on my lap, embracing me tightly with her long arms. Thanks to that self-study at the Kabul zoo and the museum in July 1972, I was able to identify as many as eight different species of wheatear in the field. That might sound easy, but those eight species appeared to me in at least twenty different ‘morphs’, ie having different physical features, such as variations in colour and pattern of plumage, but belonging to the same species.

Voislav’s grey and red notebooks. Photo: Author

Finally, the third and most important reason for me visiting Afghanistan was my desire to see the Afghan snowfinch (Pyrgilauda theresae), a species endemic to Afghanistan. I should say here that birds fly long distances with ease so, compared to animals and plants, bird species whose overall distribution remains within the borders of one country, particularly one as small as Afghanistan, are rare. This is true unless the country is an island when the barrier of the ocean encourages distinctive evolution. Therefore, it is not surprising that the Afghan snowfinch is the only endemic Afghan bird. However, Afghanistan is a place where two biogeographical regions meet, regions known to biologists as the Palearctic, which stretches across all of Europe and Asia north of the foothills of the Himalayas, as well as North Africa and the northern and central parts of the Arabian Peninsula, and the Indomalaya, which extends across most of south and southeast Asia and into the southern parts of East Asia. It Is such places that biodiversity is born. (4)

About the Afghan snowfinch and a wicked historical, ornithological scandal

The Afghan snowfinch is a grey-brown passerine bird that lives in the mountains about 3,000 meters above sea level. Despite its standard English name, it is not a finch but a species that belongs to the sparrow family, the Passeridae. It is very similar to the White-winged snowfinch (Montifringilla nivalis), which lives in the summer snow zone of the high mountains of southern Europe (Pyrenees, Alps, Apennines, Balkan Mountains), as well as in Afghanistan.

Perhaps a better alternative name in English would be the Afghan ground-sparrow, since the most striking feature of this species is the way it nests in the burrows of rodents, most commonly, ground squirrels. As it makes its nest of hairs and feathers deep underground, at the end of the tunnel farthest from entrance, we can really consider it a subterranean sparrow.

For science, the Afghan snowfinch was a relatively late discovery. It was identified in 1937, on the Shibar Pass between Kabul and Bamyan, and described under the name Montifringilla theresae that same year by a British army colonel, Richard Meinertzhagen (1878–1967). Meinertzhagen was a controversial character, not only a miles gloriosus, a ‘boastful soldier’, a master of espionage and an adventurer, but also an ornithologist-researcher. Such combinations are not uncommon among ornithologists and other naturalists.

At the time, 47 years ago, Meinertzhagen was considered one of Britain’s greatest ornithologists, finding many new species and subspecies on expeditions across continents, around the world. However, he has since been exposed as a fraudster, a writer of fake diaries and reports, a forger of findings and a thief of bird skins from other people’s collections. One by one, all his scientific discoveries were discredited. The only one that has actually been authenticated is our Afghan endemic, the snowfinch, which he named ‘Teresa’s sparrow’.

But who was Theresa? She was also a zoologist (and according to some sources, also a member of Britain’s intelligence service during the Second World War). Theresa Rachel Clay (1911–1995) was Meinertzhagen’s cousin, thirty years his junior. She became his favourite and goddaughter at the age of fifteen, and after the mysterious death of his second wife, also his housekeeper, caretaker, associate, secretary, confidante and inseparable companion. Meinertzhagen dedicated many of his false ornithological discoveries to his cousin Theresa, including the only one that was genuine – the species known as Afghan snowfinch.

I had the opportunity to see the endemic ‘Theresa’s sparrow’ in several places along the massif of the Hindu Kush. On 8 August 1972, I also sighted it on the Siah Koh mountain in Herat province, on a 3,000 metre-high pass between Shahrak and Jam. This was then its most westerly-ever sighting. My happiness had no end and I boyishly believed that, with this discovery I had done a great thing for Afghanistan and ornithology. However, as will be seen below, I was mistaken. (5)

Minaret of Jam near where Voislav sighted the Afghan snowfinch in 1972, then the most westerly-ever sighting. Photo: Author

The red notebook

I recorded everything I observed about birds that summer into another notebook, my ‘red notebook’. This was my field diary. I then published my observations in French in an article for the international ornithological journal “Alauda” (Skylark). (6) The editor-in-chief at the time was a French ornithologist Jacques Vieillard. Like some other French and Germans of the time, Vieillard himself was also interested in the birds of Afghanistan. (7) Alas, like many ornithologists, he died of a disease while birdwatching – in his case, malaria caught in Brazil in 2010. Publishing in English scientific journals back then was not as compulsory as it is today. So, my choice to publish the article in French was not surprising at the time. (8) However, now I see that my paper “Observations Ornithologiques en Afghanistan” (Ornithological Observations in Afghanistan) and that exciting, then most-westerly record of the Afghan snowfinch is almost forgotten, and that today’s authors almost exclusively quote English sources.

Thanks to the Afghanistan Analysts Network, many memories from that journey to Afghanistan have returned to me. I took a peek at my notebooks and diaries for the first time in many years. I remembered the first bird that caught my eye. On my very first day in Afghanistan near the border with Iran in Herat province, I was fascinated by the common mynah (Acridotheres tristis). This lively, curious and noisy, colourful bird of the starling family is, as its name suggests, familiar to many, but I had never seen a living specimen before. Mynahs were originally Middle Eastern residents, but have invasively spread across the subtropical and tropical zones of the world.

I also remembered my then companion asking me what the common mynah’s Latin name, ‘Acridotheres tristis’, meant. I said it was actually a Greek-Latin name that translated as ‘Sad locust-hunter’. “Why did it hunt grasshoppers?” she asked. “It feeds on them,” I replied. “It eats them.” Ah,” she said, “Now I see. If it has to eat grasshoppers, I understand why it’s so sad.” During July and August of that year, I managed to travel to the most important (for me) parts of Afghanistan, observing and keeping notes on birds everywhere I went. I also collected some specimens of reptiles and amphibians to take back to a zoologist colleague in Belgrade. I took paths that none of the earlier naturalist explorers had travelled, not even my predecessor and unofficial role model, Knud Paludan of Denmark. (9) By all accounts, none of the ornithologists had traversed the vast Black Mountain (Siah Koh) in Herat province or visited the Hari Rud Valley, upstream of the village of Farsi, in the same province, or explored the surroundings of the minaret of Jam in neighbouring Ghor province. By bus, truck, taxi, jeep, as well as on bicycle, horse and camel, I travelled through almost all areas of Afghanistan except the Wakhan and Nuristan, which were prohibited zones at that time. At the Yugoslav Embassy in Kabul, I had been warned that almost all rural parts of Afghanistan were unsafe and it would be better to give up some of the remote stages of my planned itinerary. But at 27, not every warning can be taken seriously.

Some observations of daily life

While riding Afghanistan’s busy highways, but also the roads less travelled, I could not help noticing, as in neighbouring Iran, the striking presence of armed ‘askars’ (soldiers) both from army and the police. This fitted my general impression that the crown had difficulties managing the entire country. The soldiers had interesting hats with some sort of ears or horns on the side.

Everywhere outside the cities, I saw groups of turban-wearing civilian men, not only armed but also proudly decorated with bandoliers and cartridge belts. I liked the fact that, since the traditional costume does not have any strap over the shirt, revolvers and pistols were worn on a belt slung over the left shoulder. I was less comfortable with how they sometimes treated strangers and travellers. Typically, instead of a ‘hello’,  these men, with looks of hatred, bulging eyes and bared teeth, made two hand gestures: the first was a hand cutting the throat with the edge of the palm and the second was a sudden movement with the same hand extended upwards – meaning “There goes your head!” Later, I stopped paying attention.

In those seemingly still relatively-peaceful times in non-aligned Afghanistan, the influence of the great powers was visible to the naked eye. In Kabul and in the north of the country, along the border with the USSR, the streets were dominated by Soviet GAZ-24 Volga cars, while in the south, especially around the US hydropower plant construction site on the Helmand River, large General Motors vehicles prevailed.

A teacher acting as a taxi driver took me in his huge 1960’s Chevrolet from Lashkar Gah to Kajaki, where the Americans were then building the famous Kajaki Dam. The taxi driver asked me for 1,500 Afghanis (then the equivalent of 40 US dollars), a huge amount. The driver boasted that he was a serdar, meaning he was a tribal leader. As soon as we hit the road, he stopped by his house to bring three of his relatives with him, just in case. They all sat in the front seat, next to the driver. My companion and I were sitting in the back. Yet that trip, which started so strangely, also brought me, among other things, my first encounter with the most beautiful species of swallow – the wire-tailed swallow (Hirundo smithii) chasing insects above the waters of the Helmand River.

A straw hat for Afghanistan

Finally, I must mention my great driver-mechanic-interpreter Matin who, for three weeks drove the Toyota Land Cruiser I had rented from Hertz in Kabul. He found the things I did very strange and it was hard for him to grasp why I would expose myself to so much expense, effort and risk. Initially, he was suspicious of me, keeping a close eye on my every move. It happened once, somewhere in the middle of a mountain desert, that I sneaked cautiously, hidden behind rocks, actually towards some very timid lizard I had never managed to catch before. I was so focused on my potential prey that I was not even aware that the planned path of my attack was passing right next to Matin who was standing in the shade, resting against a boulder. Matin, however, followed my slow advance and wrongly concluded that I was preparing to strike him. Of course, he had not even noticed the lizard. I later learned that he was remembering our sharp debate that morning about the direction of that day’s journey and thought I wanted to settle accounts or just get rid of him without a witness.

Voislav’s “great driver-mechanic-interpreter Matin.” In 1971, Matin took part in John Frankenheimer’s The Horsemen, starring Omar Sharif (photo taken at the Noh Gumbad, Afghanistan’s oldest mosque, in Balkh). Photo: Author

When I estimated that the unfortunate lizard had moved far enough from his retreat among the rocks, I rushed at it with all my might. The stones at my feet shattered, and poor Matin thought his darkest fears had come true. Believing it was his doomsday, he screamed and started running away. I only became aware of all this when, after a goalkeeper’s dive, I found myself on the ground, covered in dust, but firmly holding the wriggling lizard in my hand.

Later, when I explained everything to the good-natured Matin, he felt bad. For a while, he was upset and refused to answer even basic questions. I then presented him with my straw hat which I knew he longed for. It was a perfect fit for him. In return, he gave me a shirt. It was too tight for me, but it had a secret pocket under a sleeve. What was it for? “For the hidden dagger (khanjar),” Matin answered.

It was unequivocally established and recorded (10) that for several years, Matin remembered the eccentric young man chasing and catching lizards, snakes, geckos and frogs, while only watching birds with binoculars. Matin, in his own words, was an actor. In 1971, he took part in John Frankenheimer’s The Horsemen, starring Omar Sharif, a movie based on the French novel, Les Cavaliers, by Joseph Kessel.

I am not sure, if, beyond one straw hat, I left any trace on Afghanistan. However, Afghanistan, for sure, left a very deep impression on me.

Edited by Jelena Bjelica and Kate Clark


*Voislav Vasić is a Serbian ornithologist and former head for over 20 years of the national Natural History Museum in Belgrade. He is an expert in biodiversity, editor and the author of the first book on biodiversity in Yugoslavia, published in 1995, as well as of The Red Data Book of Birds in Serbia in 2018. He is specialised in the biogeography, taxonomy and the faunistic study (distribution) of birds. He is also still teaching ornithology, ecology and zoology and writes television scripts, popular books and articles on natural history and the environment. He regularly publishes about his travels and adventures on a blog (in Serbian).

(1) Note from the editor: Such scams continue, as we reported in 2013 in the dispatch “The ‘Bagram Duck’: Migrant bird killed north of Kabul and offered as game

(2) That programme resulted in these publications. 1966: Der Zug von Kranichen (Gruidae) bei Kabul, Afghanistan. Vogelwarte 23: 308–309. 1967: Zwei Jahre Vogelbeobachtungen an stehenden Gewässern bei Kabul in Afghanistan. J. Orn. 108: 119-164. 1967: Störche in Afghanistan. Vogelwarte 24: 42–44. 1967: Neunachweise für Afghanistans Vogelwelt. J. Orn. 108: 76–80. 1967. Hochgebirgs-Vogelzug in Afghanistan. Zool. Beitr. 13: 501–507. (G. Niethammer & J. Niethammer) 1970: Die Flamingos am Ab-i-Istada in Afghanistan. Natur und Museum 100: 201–210. 1976: Die Vögel auf den Basaren von Kabul und Charikar. Afghanistan J. 3: 150–157. (G. Nogge & J. Niethammer).

(3) Afghanistan zoologisch betrachtet, Scientia Bonnensis, Bonn 2012. Revue internationale d’ornithologie.

Again a note from the editor:

We mentioned another article by Nogge, “Beobachtungen an den Flamingobrutplätzen Afghanistans”, (Observations at Afghanistan’s Flamingo Breeding Grounds), in this dispatch from 2010, “Afghanistan Bird Watch.

(4) For more on Afghanistan as a centre of plant diversity notes the editor, see our two dispatches “Plants of Afghanistan 1: Centre of Global Biodiversity and Plants of Afghanistan 2: the Koh-e Baba Foraging Top Ten”.

(5) Note from the editor: On Meinertzhagen’s frauds and his relation with Theresa Rachel Clay, read this fascinating story from the New Yorker, “Ruffled Feathers.”

(6) Revue internationale d’ornithologie.

(7) Données biogéographiques sur l’avifaune d’Asie occidentale, I. Afghanistan. Paris: Alauda 37: 273–300.

(8) Paris: 1974: Alauda 42: 259280.

(9) Knud Paludan: On the birds of Afghanistan. Zoological results, The 3rd Danish Expedition to Central Asia, 25. Videnskabelige Meddelelser fra Dansk Naturhistorisk Forening i København, bd. 122. København: C.A. Reitzel, 1959.

(10) In the book: Tout Sur l’Afghanistan by Anne Yelen. Guide reportage Nathan. Fernand Nathan, Paris: 1977.

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U.S. State Department Formally Approves Polish F-35 Procurement

The Aviationist Blog - Thu, 12/09/2019 - 14:57
Poland to buy the F-35 Lightning II aircraft, becoming first ex-Warsaw Pact member to get the stealth jets. The US State Department issued a clearance for Poland to acquire the F-35 fifth-generation aircraft in a [...]
Categories: Defence`s Feeds

Strategic Russian Strategic Decision-Making in a Nordic Crisis

Russian Military Reform - Wed, 11/09/2019 - 13:59

Here’s the second in a series of policy briefs on Russian strategic culture and leadership decision-making, written for a collaborative project organized by the Marshall Center with support from the Russia Strategy Initiative. This one is on Russian strategic goals in a Nordic crisis. With permission from the Marshall Center, I am posting the full text here, though please go to the Marshall Center website if you would prefer to read a PDF version. The first of these briefs, focusing on the Baltics, was posted last April.

Executive Summary
  • This policy brief examines how Russian strategic culture operates in the distinct geographic and geopolitical environment of the Nordic region. This analysis is based on a model of Russian decision-making in crisis situations that describes Russian leaders as prospect theory players who take greater risks to prevent anticipated defeats than they do to pursue potential opportunities. They seek to prevent foreign policy defeats that could translate into a loss of power in the region, a loss of great power status, or, in some cases, political defeats at home.
  • Russia’s strategic objectives in the Nordic region are thus focused primarily on maintaining the status quo rather than changing the strategic environment or expanding Russian influence in a significant way. The primary objective is simply to maintain Russian influence in the region. Russia is also working to prevent the formal admission of Sweden and Finland to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and to deter Sweden and Finland from joining NATO in fighting against Russia in the event of a conflict.
  • We can expect Russia to act cautiously in the Nordic region because it is not facing a loss situation. Russian leaders will tend to pursue their goals through nonmilitary means and will be careful to avoid unintended escalation. The one exception to their preference for nonescalation would occur in the event of an attack on Russian territory, which would create a loss situation for Russia and therefore allow for a robust defense and/or counterattack.

 This policy brief, the second in a series that addresses how Russian strategic culture can explain Russian foreign policy behavior, examines how Russian strategic culture operates in the distinct geographic and geopolitical environment of the Nordic region. The Nordic region is presented as a case study to generate conclusions with regard to the drivers of Russian strategic behavior, especially the factors that incentivize or constrain risk-taking.

Overview of Russian Strategic Decision-Making

This analysis is based on a model of crisis decision-making developed by the Russian analysis team at CNA. As an abbreviated version of this model has already been presented in a previous article in this series, what follows is a brief summary. The model presents Russia as a prospect theory player on the international scene that takes greater risks to prevent anticipated defeats than it does to pursue potential opportunities.

Russian strategic objectives are rooted in and derived from the following three principal Russian foreign policy motivations:

  • Maximizing security, which results in the pursuit of extended defense and has been the main driver for Russian aggression in its near abroad and Russia’s military modernization at home.
  • Russia’s desire for a privileged sphere of influence as an effort to achieve regional hegemony based on the goal of maximizing its overall power.
  • Maintaining great power status in the international system by ending U.S. primacy and thereby upending the unipolar nature of power distribution in the international system in favor of a multipolar one. However, this motivation does not necessarily mean that Russia wants to challenge the United States directly, given the power disparity.

Russian leaders prefer to achieve their political goals through coercion and threats of violence, rather than actual violence. Russian strategy in a conflict seeks to establish escalation dominance over potential adversaries by convincing them that Russia is able and willing to use force in pursuit of its objectives. When pressed to use force, Russia tends to use the minimum amount of force required to achieve its objectives in order to minimize losses and costs. This approach also allows Russia to maintain the threat of bringing in additional force if the adversary does not accept Russian objectives. Russia is happy to use force multipliers, such as local militias and mercenaries, to absorb the bulk of combat losses. Ambiguity is used to maintain plausible deniability and thereby slow adversary decision-making. Finally, Russia seeks to deter external actors from interfering in a conflict in order to prevent escalation.

Russia’s Strategic Assessment of the Nordic Region

Russia’s strategic calculus suggests that in the event of a crisis in the Nordic region, Russia will focus on the geographic and political environment in the region in determining its strategic objectives and minimum and maximum goals for the situation.

The geography of the Baltic Sea would play a particularly important role in Russia’s assessment of a potential maritime conflict scenario. The geography of the Baltic Sea in many ways mirrors that of the Black Sea, except that the geography favors NATO and its partners, rather than Russia. Like the Black Sea, the Baltic Sea is enclosed, with passage restricted by the Danish Straits. Although the Oresund and Fehmarn Belt are considered international straits, as governed by the Copenhagen Convention of 1857, they could easily be closed by NATO forces in the event of a conflict, effectively preventing Russia from bringing naval reinforcements to the Baltic Sea from the Northern Fleet or the Mediterranean. In addition, a series of islands can provide effective control over the sea itself. Bornholm (controlled by Denmark), Gotland (Sweden) and the Aland Islands (Finland), can be used to control the sea lanes in the Baltic Sea as well as the entrance to the Gulf of Bothnia. These islands thus can play the same role in the Baltic as Crimea does in the Black Sea. Furthermore, Estonia and Finland effectively control entrance to the Gulf of Finland and therefore to St. Petersburg.

Although Western analysts often paint Russia’s Kaliningrad enclave as a militarized territory that threatens the security of the NATO member states in the region, Russian planners view the region as a vulnerable outpost surrounded by potentially well-armed NATO states. As a result of these factors, Russia feels that the region’s geography is relatively negatively set up for Russian forces to act in the event of a conflict with NATO and its partners.

Russia’s political assessment also emphasizes the potential challenges of a military conflict in the region. Although Sweden and Finland are ostensibly neutral, Russian leaders fully expect them to be involved on the side of NATO in any conflict between NATO and Russia. They point to statements that the two countries have made, such as the European Union (EU) solidarity clause and the EU Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) effort joined by Sweden and Finland in 2017, that strongly imply such a scenario. They also note that the two countries have been strengthening their military forces in recent years and have increasingly integrated these forces with NATO. Both Sweden and Finland have increased their frequency of participation in NATO exercises. These developments are seen in Russia as clear signals that neither country will stay out of the fight in the event of a conflict.

On the other side, Swedish planners fear that Russia might preemptively attack Gotland in a conflict in order to take control of the middle section of the Baltic Sea. They have responded by placing troops on the island for the first time in over a decade. Although the force is only the size of a regiment, it is meant as a symbol of Swedish intent in combination with the reintroduction of military conscription. Russia has decried this move as a step toward the further militarization of the region.

Finland’s history of relations with Russia makes its leaders cautious about exacerbating tensions with Moscow. They point to their losses in previous wars with the Soviet Union in the 1930s and 1940s, which resulted in the policy of “Finlandization” that effectively meant that Finland did not have full control over its foreign policy orientation until the end of the Cold War, a period of over 40 years. As a result, Finnish leaders have generally avoided hostile rhetoric against Russia while retaining more contacts with Moscow than other countries in the region. Furthermore, most of the Finnish population remains opposed to their country joining NATO. Although Finland has supported EU sanctions against Russia in the aftermath of the Ukraine crisis, it has retained significant trade relations and has a sizable expatriate Russian population in Helsinki. Russia has proved adept at using trade links and expatriate Russian populations in other European countries to undermine anti-Russian policies. Similar tactics could be used in the Nordic region.

Russia’s Strategic Objectives

Russia’s strategic objectives in the Nordic region are thus focused primarily on maintaining the status quo rather than changing the strategic environment or expanding Russian influence in a significant way. The primary objective is simply to maintain Russian influence in the region. To this end, Russia has undertaken a propaganda effort to show the citizens of these countries that Russia does not threaten them. Russia has pursued political influence operations to prevent the growth of negative political attitudes toward Russia. To this end, there are concerns that it has used the Russian expatriate population and other pro-Russian activists in the region, especially in Finland, as a supportive element. It has also provided support to political parties and societal organizations critical of the EU and especially of NATO as a way of limiting the trend toward closer cooperation between NATO and the two nonmember Nordic states. Russia has also sought to maintain and enhance economic linkages with Nordic states, most notably through the strategic use of its role as an energy supplier to Finland. It is estimated that forty percent of Finland’s energy comes from Russia, and Russia has taken steps in recent years to make the import of electricity cheaper for Finland in order to maintain that connection.

In regard to military issues, Russia has worked to prevent the formal admission of Sweden and Finland to NATO. To this end, it has used a classic carrot-and-stick approach. Russian media has highlighted popular opposition to NATO membership within these countries, noting the likelihood of negative political consequences for any government that chooses to pursue NATO membership. Russian officials have threatened political, economic, and military consequences for Sweden and Finland should they choose to formally join NATO. The implicit threat is that not only would cheap energy supplies end and trade be negatively affected, but Russia could use tactics it has pursued elsewhere, such as cyberattacks and funding of antigovernment groups, to undermine political stability in these countries. Russian media have also suggested the possibility that Russia might offer inducements to Sweden and Finland for remaining neutral or at least not joining NATO formally.

In the event of a regional crisis, Russian leaders would seek to deter Sweden and Finland from joining NATO in fighting against Russia. They would seek to preempt the threat by neutralizing Nordic militaries through a Russian military buildup in the region combined with the threat that Russia would target these countries’ territories should fighting break out. Russia’s minimum goal in a Nordic crisis is thus to maintain and exacerbate existing divisions in the Nordic states that prevent them from seeking to join NATO and to inhibit further integration of their military forces with NATO forces short of membership. Russia’s maximum goal is to reverse the existing close integration of the military forces of the Nordic states with those of the United States and NATO and ideally to have these states recommit to neutrality in deed as well as in word.

Russia’s Vulnerabilities

Russia’s vulnerabilities in a Nordic crisis are to a large extent the same as its vulnerabilities in other regions, though there are some aspects particular to this region. The Russian military has relatively few forces in northwestern Russia because its main focus in recent years has been on securing the Caucasus, reinforcing its border with Ukraine, and building up forces in the Arctic and the Far North. Russian forces in northwestern Russia are not equipped for a short-notice conventional conflict, with relatively few mechanized units and a command structure not set up to fight a war in this region. As noted above, the geography of the region makes a maritime conflict relatively complicated for Russia, though that disadvantage may be mitigated in a broader engagement due to the Nordic region’s proximity to Russia and the relatively long border with Finland.

Russia is hampered by its lack of allies in the European theater. Although Belarus is a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and a Russian military partner, it would be unlikely to actively participate in a Russian military campaign. It might, however, reluctantly allow Russia to use its territory as a staging area in a conflict with NATO. Recent political tensions about the extent to which Belarus can be expected to integrate with Russia have highlighted the limits of the relationship between Moscow and Minsk. Other allies are even less likely to get involved. Neither Russia’s other CSTO allies nor China will want to get involved in a fight with NATO and (with the exception of China) would not be able to contribute significantly to the effort.

As with any conflict with a powerful but distant adversary, Russian leaders would be concerned that the overall force balance between Russia and NATO would become highly unfavorable in a longer-term conflict. For this reason, they would want to keep the conflict short and ensure that any conflict in the region would not result in horizontal escalation, which could expose Russian territory to defeat by the much larger and stronger U.S. military in a regional or even global conflict. They would be particularly concerned about the possibility that the conflict could spread to other theaters, especially the Mediterranean, which would cause Russia’s forces to be stretched thin in a fight on multiple fronts.

Finally, Russian leaders may be concerned about the impact of any kind of extended or costly intervention on Russian domestic politics. They will want to make sure that they avoid costly and long-lasting entanglements that might result in the Russian public turning against the intervention. Such a situation would be especially likely if Western states pursued strong economic countermeasures that had a direct negative effect on the Russian economy or on Russians’ ability to travel to Europe. In particular, this scenario would be a problem in a conflict that the Russian public might see as a war of choice rather than of necessity, especially one that becomes costly in either financial or human terms. For this reason, Russian leaders will seek to avoid both defeat and long-term entanglement in a Nordic conflict, as these circumstances would increase the likelihood of a strong negative effect at the domestic level.

Red Lines and (De-)Escalation Drivers

As in the Baltics, Russian leaders would view a crisis in the Nordic region primarily as a potential opportunity to realize strategic gains rather than as a threat to Russia’s vital interests. As a result, they would consider the stakes to be relatively low in most situations. This assessment would lead to a strategy of managing the crisis carefully in order to keep costs low and avoid triggering a vigorous response by NATO. Although it is important for Russia to keep Sweden and Finland out of NATO, Russia would not be likely to mount a military response if the two Nordic states take steps toward that goal. Concerns about the vulnerabilities described above, especially the danger of horizontal escalation to other theaters and the risk of loss of popularity at home due to high casualties or serious financial impact from a conflict, would encourage Russian leaders to de-escalate hostilities in the event of a crisis in the Nordic region.

The one exception to this calculus would occur in the event of a NATO attack on Russian territory. Such an attack would lead to escalation as it would pose a direct threat to the homeland and regime survival while uniting the Russian population in defense of their homeland. The Russian people have shown repeatedly that they are far more likely to accept sacrifices to defend the country than to engage in a war of choice, so Russia should be expected to escalate any conflict where control of its own territory is at stake.


Russia’s main peacetime goals in the Nordic region involve preventing further military integration of the Nordic states with NATO. The primary means to carry out these goals are political and cyber in nature, rather than military. In a conflict, Russia’s main goals would be similar: to keep the Nordic states out of any conflict with NATO or to keep NATO out of any conflict with a Nordic state. Escalation poses serious risks to Russia, so Russian leaders would be unlikely to initiate a conflict in the region. Russia would be much more willing to defend itself if threatened or attacked but otherwise would limit itself to using indirect means to weaken the Nordic states and to undermine their unity with their NATO partners.

Taleban attacks on Kunduz and Pul-e Khumri: Symbolic operations

The Afghanistan Analysts Network (AAN) - Wed, 11/09/2019 - 04:04

In the last week Taleban have attacked and entered three provincial centres, Kunduz city, Pul-e Khumri in Baghlan and Farah city, before being pushed back. This dispatch focusses on the offensives against Pul-e Khumri and Kunduz, considering them in the context of the regional security of northeastern Afghanistan. It finds that key lessons from earlier attacks on Kunduz were not learned. The dispatch was largely written before President Trump decided to scrap the talks with the Taleban. AAN’s Obaid Ali and Thomas Ruttig had thought that, whether or not it was the Taleban’s intention, it seemed they were sending a strong signal that they would not stop fighting even after a deal with Washington. With talks now – according to President Trump – off the table and the future seeming even more uncertain, it seems that an assessment of how the Taleban have been able, yet again, to menace provincial capitals seems even more pertinent.

For the first time during the post-2001 conflict, the Taleban simultaneously attacked, entered and held positions in two provincial centres of Afghanistan, Kunduz, the capital of the eponymous province, and neighbouring Baghlan’s capital Pul-e Khumri. Both attacks were also the first large scale offensives against any provincial capital in 2019.

A few days later, the Taleban staged a third attack, on Farah city, in the west of the country, also not the first such occurrence there. There, the Taleban made a large-scale attack in 2018 (see AAN analysis here and here). The last fighting in Farah city was reported on 6 September 2019 near the provincial police headquarters, since when government forces managed to push the attackers back. On 7 September, however, the Taleban took most parts of the Anardara district centre of in the same province, including the governor’s compound and the police headquarters while the government forces held on to an army base. According to local sources, the Taleban attack on the base was ongoing.

The first of the provincial capital attacks was launched on 31 August in Kunduz, followed by Pul-e Khumri on 1 September. In Kunduz’s case, it was the third attack in a span of four years (read AAN’s previous analysis here, here and here). Both of the recent attacks occurred during the final stages of diplomatic wrangling to finalise a US-Taleban withdrawal agreement that had been negotiated since October 2018 (AAN analysis here) but seem to be off the table now, and, notably, during the presence of US chief negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad in the Afghan capital. In Pul-e Khumri, some fighting was still on-going on 4 September, while the Kunduz clashes continued only for a day. The Kunduz offensive, however, was followed by a suicide attack on a police station two days later (more about this below). In both provincial centres, as well as in Farah, fighting continued in the outskirts and then moved to the districts.

How the attack unfolded: Kunduz

In Kunduz, Taleban fighters entered the city from three different directions and began targeting security forces. They moved from positions to the immediate north (police district (PD) 2), northwest (PD 1) and west (PD 3) of the city where they have maintained a strong presence over at least four years. Those areas administratively are part of Kunduz city, but are rural in character. The Taleban enjoy backing from the mainly Pashtun population in those areas. Taleban attacks from the west usually receive reinforcements and logistic support from Chahrdara district of Kunduz, where they have strongholds.

The Taleban started their attack in PD 1, in the early morning of 31 August. Their large presence in Zakhel-e Khomdan and Alikhel villages, in the west of PD 1, had helped them swiftly overrun police checkpoints and enter close to the city’s main chowk (roundabout), which is the acknowledge symbol of controls the city, and areas around Kunduz’s main hospital. They reportedly took control of that hospital; the defence ministry in Kabul accused them of taking the patients “as hostages.”

Attacking from PD 2 to the north of the city, the Taleban targeted police checkpoints in the city’s ancient castle area, the Bala Hessar, one kilometre to the north of the provincial governor’s office. The Taleban also have a strong presence in the outskirts of this police district and were able to quickly gather forces from Qala-ye Kow and Hazrat Sultan, rural areas further to the northeast of Kunduz city that are largely under Taleban control.

The third prong of the attack was directed against the PD 3 compound, located one kilometre to the west of the provincial governor’s office, but this offensive failed. There, the Taleban fighters had come through the Bagh-e Sherkat and Old Zakhel areas, both part of the provincial centre and located three to five kilometres away from the main chawk. These two areas have been largely controlled by the Taleban since 2015.

On the same day, 31 August, acting defence minister Asadullah Khaled, who had hurried to the city, said in an interview for Tolo News (video here) that security forces had carried out clearance operations and the Taleban had been pushed back from the city as well as from areas around it. However, Haji Zaher, a local resident from PD 2, said the Taleban had already left the area before the Afghan forces started their operations.

After the 31 August offensive on the city ended, the Taleban changed their attack plan. Instead of face-to-face fighting, they used suicide attackers to target security officials and installations in the city. In the evening of 31 August, when the security forces had almost fully cleared the city of Taleban fighters, a suicide attacker targeted Manzur Stanakzai, the provincial police chief, when he was briefing the media. As a result, at least three members of the police media section, including Sayed Sarwar Hussaini, the police chief’s spokesman, were killed, along with six other civilians. The police chief and dozen others, police and civilians, were wounded. On 1 September, another suicide attacker targeted a police check-post in the north of the city, killing six police and wounded a dozen others (media report here).

Initially, the Afghan security forces failed to prevent the Taleban from entering the city. Local journalists and civil society activists told AAN that the Taleban managed to take control of some parts of the provincial centre for at least several hours. There were, however, no reports of house searches to capture government officials or of Taleban edicts ordering people to attend mosque prayers and to avoid working in the government offices as they did in 2015 when they ruled the provincial centre for two weeks. Zabihullah Majedi, a local journalist and civil society activist in Kunduz, told AAN that by mid-day the Taleban had taken control of some parts of the city in the west and northeast, where the provincial departments of anti-narcotics and mines and petroleum are located. He confirmed that they were pushed back after several hours only.  Speaking to AAN, Haji Abdul Aziz, a school teacher in Kunduz city, said the situation quickly turned unusual; the city was empty with the only noises heard shooting on the ground and helicopters in the air.

AAN contacts in Kunduz, including journalists, stated that the Taleban continue to surround the city and remain a serious threat to its security. There were reports of continued skirmishes in the rural outskirts of all four Kunduz police districts between 3 and 8 September, of anti-Taleban airstrikes and of further fighting on 10 September to the east of the city, halfway to neighbouring Khanabad district. On 5 September, fighting in PD3 lasted several hours.

Starting on that day, fighting also moved to the province’s districts. There was heavy fighting reported near the district centre of Khanabad, some 20 kilometres east of Kunduz city, temporarily closing the roads to the northern Kunduz district of Imam Saheb and to neighbouring Takhar province. Next day, on 6 September, the centre of this district fell to the Taleban after government forces had to abandon it due to a lack of supplies, while on 8 September, the district centres of Qala-ye Zal and of Dasht-e Archi also fell to them. Government troop reinforcements took both back the following day but fighting in both areas continued. Imam Saheb’s district centre was attacked by the Taleban on 9 September.

AAN’s contacts also said that the Taleban continue, after the offensive, to set up frequent mobile check points on various parts of the highways that connect Kunduz to Takhar province to the east and Baghlan province to the south, searching vehicles for government officials. This happened as close as four kilometres to the east of Kunduz city’s main chawk, on the Kunduz-Takhar highway, and to the south of the city, in Angur Bagh village, about six kilometres away on the way to Baghlan.

Landscape at the Kunduz-Qala-ye Zal road with grazing flocks.

How the attack unfolded: Pul-e Khumri

A day after the Kunduz attack, in the early hours of 1 September, the Taleban followed up with an attack on Pul-e Khumri, the capital of Baghlan province and one of Afghanistan’s major industrial hubs. The city is located on the main highway between Kunduz and Kabul, at a point where the strategic route leading north from Kabul over the Salang Pass forks into two major roads, one leading northeast to Kunduz and the other leading northwest to Mazar-e Sharif. Fighting, including in residential areas, lasted several hours and then continued to flare up over the following days.

Taleban fighters attacked security posts in two areas, Band-e Du, in the west of the city, and Diwar-e Madan in the southwest. Jawed Besharat, the spokesman for Baghlan police chief, said the Taleban attacks were repelled and the Taleban had suffered serious casualties (read media report here). Afghan media quoted an interior ministry official admitting that “security forces have surrendered the area [singular in the original].” According to Safdar Mohsini, head of Baghlan’s provincial council, “the whole city [was] closed” by the fighting. An Afghan media report said that armed residents had supported government forces against the attackers. According to AAN sources, the armed residents were members of several different local popular uprising groups led largely by Jamiat-e Islami affiliated-commanders.

Local journalists in Pul-e Khumri said it took almost two days to repel the Taleban from the city. Fighting to the north went on even longer, till 5 September, when several Afghan Air Force raids pushed the Taleban out of positions there. There was still sporadic fighting reported on 10 September.

Speaking to AAN, Rahmatullah Hamnawa, a local journalist in Baghlan province, stated that during two days of fighting, ten people, including three policemen, were killed and 35 civilians and security forces wounded. On 4 September, another Afghan journalist reported that, similar to Kunduz, the city was “still surrounded” by the Taleban. Also, traffic north to Kunduz was partly interrupted by Taleban check-posts in Baghlan-e Jadid district, at least for government reinforcements. The insurgents reportedly allowed civilians to pass. On 8 September, the Taleban claimed the capture of Baghlan’s Guzargah-e Nur district, on the border with Badakhshan; there was no independent confirmation of this report, and claims it had been recaptured by government forces.

Kunduz river, south of Pul-e Khumri.

Regional context

Both offensives followed Taleban attacks and Afghan security forces conducting what are called ‘clearance operations’ and dubbed “Operation Pamir 207”  in neighbouring Takhar and Badakhshan provinces (see interior minister Andarabi speaking about this here). The government forces’ operations had commenced in mid-June and are still on-going, also as a result of Taleban attacks on several districts centres. In Takhar, government forces concentrated their efforts on areas around the provincial capital Taloqan and the district centre of Baharak over several weeks. As a result, the Taleban were pushed back in both areas but remain a threat to Baharak’s centre (read media report here).

Only on 30 August, the Friday prior to the Kunduz and Pul-e Khumri attacks, Taleban fighters took over Chahab district centre in Takhar for a few hours, before they were pushed out again by government forces – but not before they set fire to the district compound. Fighting continued in the area, and another airstrike was reported on 4 September. There was also fighting in Baharak and Darqad districts on the same day and in Yangi Qala district on 3 September. Earlier, on 10 August, an airstrike was reported from Eshkamesh district, allegedly killing 15 Taleban, continued by more fighting that forced 400 families to flee the area. UNOCHA spoke of over 4,000 newly-displaced persons from this area in the last week of August alone.

In early September, Taleban forces attacked the districts centres of Khwaja Ghar and Yangi Qala, according to government sources. Khwaja Ghar was apparently partly captured during the third attack on 9 September. Government sources denied that the Taleban had taken the entire town while they said they were sending additional forces and that the situation would “soon be back to normal.” Yangi Qala was reported as taken by the Taleban on 10 September.

In most parts of Takhar province, the Taleban have expanded their presence over the past few years and, in 2019, carried out several offensives against security forces to further expand their territorial control towards the provincial centre, Taloqan. In June 2019, reports emerged in the media that the Taleban were active in Qulbarz, 12 kilometres north of the provincial centre of Takhar. In the same month, the Taleban targeted the district centre of Baharak, 15 kilometres to the north of Taloqan, but failed to overrun the district centre. On 28 August, a suicide bomber was reportedly caught before he could blow up the district compound of Rustaq.

In neighbouring Badakhshan, Operation Pamir 207 aimed at recapturing the Taleban-held districts of Warduj and Yamgan before the arrival of winter. The two centres were taken in the first week of September but, according to analysts, not without a preceding “massive US bombing campaign“ that forced parts of the local population to flee (see here and here). Both districts had been in Taleban hands for the past four years; they were captured on 1 October 2015 and 18 November 2015. In mid-July 2019, the Taleban captured a lapis lazuli mine in Keran wa Munjan district, and then the district centre. Keran wa Munjan was also targeted by airstrikes in late August. (More AAN background on the Badakhshan Taleban here, here, here and here.)

Leading up to the Taleban attack in Kunduz, Afghan and US forces killed a number of Taleban commanders in drone attacks and night raids. (1) These operations scattered the Taleban in the province, as they forced key commanders to change their locations several times per night in order to avoid becoming targets. The government believed these security measures sufficiently reduced the Taleban’s ability to gather forces and carry out large-scale operations, at least temporarily. It is possible that this contributed to the Afghan government forces feeling too secure, and therefore underestimating the Taleban ability to regroup and strike against the provincial capital.

Casualties and disruption of people’s lives

The Taleban attack on Kunduz caused serious casualties to members fighting on both sides, as well as to civilians. According to the Ministry of Interior, 20 security service members and five civilians were killed and 80 others wounded on the first day of the fighting (see media report here). Local journalists in Kunduz told AAN that 30 security forces and six civilians were killed and 90 others wounded during the fighting in the city.

Local sources confirmed that most casualties were the result of the two suicide attacks reported above. For the Taleban, local journalists in Kunduz said most casualties were caused by Afghan and US forces airstrikes that, in order to minimise civilian casualties, targeted only those Taleban fighters who were clearly visible in the streets. For example, a school teacher from PD3, told AAN that an airstrike targeted a group of Taleban in his area killed 14 fighters and a civilian on the first day of their attack. A local journalist said that, altogether, 40 Taleban fighters were killed and 30 others were wounded.

During the fighting, Taleban social media activists circulated video footage of a group of Highway Police that had surrendered to the Taleban in the north of Kunduz city, in an attempt to psychologically affect the security forces and locals’ morale. But in fact, apart from one security checkpoint, the rest of the forces in Kunduz successfully repelled the Taleban attacks.

Local sources in both provinces told AAN that the Taleban attacks had severely disrupted people’s lives. In Kunduz, shops, schools and government offices were shut. There was neither electricity, nor water and mobile networks were down for two days. Speaking to AAN, a local journalist from Kunduz said he had faced serious difficulties reporting about the situation because telecommunication networks were disconnected and the internet was down. Another journalist said that many people had fled because of their fear that the city could fall to the Taleban once again, as in 2015 and almost again in 2016 (read AAN’s previous reports here and here).

Hamnawa, a journalist from Baghlan, described a similar situation in Pul-e Khumri. He said the Kabul-Baghlan highway was blocked, schools and shops shut, electricity and water cut off and the prices of food items had shot up sharply. Ajmal Popal, a taxi driver in Pul-e Khumri, told AAN he had to pay 40 afghanis (USD 0.50) for a piece of bread that usually cost 10 afghanis (less than USD 0.10).

How were the attacks assessed?

The initial Taleban attack on Kunduz city continued for more than ten hours. Only Afghan special forces reinforcements, including NDS units, and possibly US special forces, tipped the balance. But Taleban groups were still holding out in parts of the north and south of the city for another half day.

Abdul Hadi Jamal, the spokesman for the Pamir Corp 217 based in Kunduz, insisted when speaking with AAN that the Taleban had failed to take over parts of the city for anything more than a brief moment. He said he considered it “more of a guerrilla attack than an attempt to take over the provincial centre.” The Minister of Interior said in the Tolonews interview already quoted above that the Taleban targeted Kunduz city to reduce the pressure on Taleban forces in neighbouring Takhar and Badakhshan.

The fact that the acting ministers for defence and interior, Asadullah Khaled and Masud Andarabi, and top US/NATO commander General Austin Miller visited the city on the first day while clashes were ongoing in other parts the city showed the enormous importance the government attached to repelling this attack and to demonstrating that all was well there. Their statement in a joint press interview with Tolo News, that security forces had been aware of the Taleban’s attack plan and security forces had been ready to defeat them, sounded hollow,  however, given the time taken to move in reinforcements and go on the counter-offensive.

The government official quoted above said the attack on Pul-e Khumri was not as heavy as the one on Kunduz. Initial casualty reports from the government side on 2 September – four civilians, two members of the security forces and 21 Taleban fighters killed, and 20 more civilians and two members of the security forces wounded– and an Afghan media report saying it was a group of only 30 to 40 Taleban who had launched the attack seemed to confirm this assessment. However, fighting there stretched over five days.

Whatever the size of this attack, it was special insofar as – in contrast to earlier attacks on Kunduz – the Taleban not only blocked the Kabul-Kunduz road in Baghlan province (usually this is done only their stronghold, Baghlan-e Jadid district), but also attacked its provincial centre.

Kunduz main road and chowk (in the background). Text photos: Thomas Ruttig (2007)


It is not clear whether the Taleban attacks on Kunduz and Pul-e Khumri (and later on Farah) were aimed at capturing the cities or rather were regular harassment attacks of the hit-and-withdraw type. The latter are often undertaken to keep defenders of government-controlled districts or provincial centres under pressure while avoiding the larger-scale concentration of forces necessary for a permanent occupation of an urban centre, that would likely provoke a powerful backlash, involving airstrikes and large-scale damage. This was seen, for example, in Ghazni in August 2018 (AAN analysis here and here). The attacks can also be read as a signal that the Taleban capabilities to launch effective attacks have not been diminished by airstrikes on their commanders and by government clearance operations.

Kunduz, a strategic province in the northeast, whose provincial capital also serves as the centre of this region of five provinces (together with Baghlan, Takhar, Badakhshan and Samangan), has also been the most insecure province in this region over the past five years. The Taleban took control of Kunduz city for two weeks in 2015, overran most of the city in 2016 (read AAN’s previous analysis here and here) and launched another, albeit weaker attack in 2017. However, this was not the beginning of the province’s troubles; security in the province began to erode around 2010 (see our 2015 dossier on this). In 2017, the US government’s Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) categorised Kunduz as the Afghan province with the largest percentage of districts under Taleban control or influence (five of seven); by October 2018 – the last time such data was provided – all seven districts of Kunduz, including its provincial capital, were in that category (here,  p246).

Baghlan followed in this same pattern, with only some delay; it has been plagued by insecurity since at least since 2013 (see also here and here).

Looking at the recent Taleban attacks on Kunduz and Pul-e Khumri, it is become clear that both cities remain vulnerable and that the Taleban presence in their outskirts, just some kilometres away, both was underestimated by local officials – and this presence has not diminished after the recent counter-attacks. If minister Khaled’s claims that he had information about the pending attack was true, preventive measures had clearly not been taken quickly enough. Lessons from earlier attacks had still not been learned, including the lack of, or ignorance of, the Taleban presence around the city, as well as weaknesses in the security belt surrounding  the city with its  insufficient number of soldiers. The major issue, however, appears to be the lack of coordination – yet again – among local security forces, the national police and army, the public protection forces and the provincial National Directorate of Security. That lead to insufficient measures being taken that could have preempt edTaleban attacks in the first place.

The recent offensives indicate that Taleban forces are still well-placed in Kunduz province and continue to pose a serious threat to the local Afghan security forces. As the two surprise attacks showed, their abilities must not be underestimated.

Farah is following the negative security trend of Kunduz and Baghlan. Abdul Samad Salehi, a member of its provincial council, told the German Press Agency (dpa) on 5 September, that government forces only control security forces bases in three districts of the province outside its capital while there was no even a check post in seven others. In the January 2019 SIGAR report (with data from October 2018), only six of 11 districts in Farah were considered ‘contested’ – the middle one of five SIGAR categories – with the other five under government influence or control. Baghlan then had 13 out of 15 districts as ‘contested’, one under government influence and one with ‘high insurgency activity.’

The attacks were also perceived by most media as a show of strength during what was expected to be the final stage before a US-Taleban withdrawal agreement. They underlined the Taleban’s repeated statement that even the then about-to-be signed agreement with the US, which was reported to include a ceasefire with the western forces, would not have covered Afghan government security forces. Now that talks with the Taleban are off, there are fears about a possible intensification of violence and a continuing uneasiness about the lack of preparedness among Afghan government forces to protect the population.

Edited by Christian Bleuer and Kate Clark


(1) Reported examples were of Qari Wasem, in Khanabad district, in August 2019 (media report here); Qari Muhammad and Mullah Najibullah, in March 2019, and Mullah Abdullah, in November 2018 in Dasht-e Archi. On 3 September, government sources claimed that the Taleban’s general commander for the province, Qari Mansur, had been killed in an Afghan commando operation. However, we use these reports with caution, as there have been cases of misreporting (see for example this AAN analysis).

Categories: Defence`s Feeds

Trump Ends Talks with the Taleban: What happens next?

The Afghanistan Analysts Network (AAN) - Sun, 08/09/2019 - 21:27

United States president Donald Trump has called off talks with the Taleban and cancelled signing of an agreement with them. The trigger, he said, was a suicide bomb which killed one US soldier and “11 other people” carried out “seemingly [to] strengthen their bargaining position.” However, voices against the ‘agreement in principle’ deal had already been mounting in Washington and Kabul, especially since the Afghan leadership was shown the text of the deal last week. Trump’s cancellation of the agreement has allowed the Taleban to promote themselves as peacemakers, and President Ghani to restate his vision of elections followed by ‘wise and precise’ peacemaking. Kate Clark (with input from the rest of the AAN team) has been looking at today’s events and their implications. She observes that, even though the prospective US-Taleban deal did not look very promising as a path to lasting peace in Afghanistan, the collapse of negotiations has left everyone wondering – what now?

After almost one year and nine rounds of negotiations between President Trump’s special envoy on Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad and the Taleban, with a deal talked about as ‘imminent’ for weeks, President Trump has now tweeted the cancellation of the deal:

Unbeknownst to almost everyone, the major Taliban leaders and, separately, the President of Afghanistan, were going to secretly meet with me at Camp David on Sunday. They were coming to the United States tonight. Unfortunately, in order to build false leverage, they admitted to..

….an attack in Kabul that killed one of our great great soldiers, and 11 other people. I immediately cancelled the meeting and called off peace negotiations. What kind of people would kill so many in order to seemingly strengthen their bargaining position? They didn’t, they….

….only made it worse! If they cannot agree to a ceasefire during these very important peace talks, and would even kill 12 innocent people, then they probably don’t have the power to negotiate a meaningful agreement anyway. How many more decades are they willing to fight?

As we recently reported, talks to finalise the last details of an agreement between the Taleban and the US had been ongoing since January. In the last few weeks, it had seemed the deal was almost in the bag: on 30 August, AAN quoted several news agencies saying the deal was at the stage of  language-checking, as well as Taleban spokesman Suhail Shahin saying, “We hope to have good news soon for our Muslim, independence seeking nation.” Then, on 2 September, Khalilzad told TOLOnews the two sides had reached an “agreement in principle,” although contingent still on Trump signing off on it.

Last minute twists and turns

Then, on Thursday (5 September), the US general in charge of international forces in Afghanistan, Scott Miller, flew to Doha with Khalilzad to talk to the Taleban negotiators and the following day, it was announced that a trip by President Ghani to the US for a meeting with Trump on Monday (9 September) had been cancelled, with no explanation given (see reporting here and here). Matters appeared to be coming to a head, but it was not clear which way they were going. What Trump’s tweet has now revealed is just how far along things were, at least from an American point of view. He divulged that a secret meeting had been planned for today (8 September) at the president’s retreat in Camp David between himself and “major Taleban leaders” and “separately” with Ashraf Ghani.

That the suicide bombing in Abdul Haq Square on Thursday (5 September) claimed by the Taleban (reported on here), the second in the capital in two days, was the proximate cause of the cancellation of the deal is seemingly matched by events: the sudden trip by Miller and Khalilzad to Qatar immediately afterwards, and the cancellation of the Afghan president’s trip to Washington. Taleban violence has indeed sharpened in the last week. In a forthcoming dispatch on the Taleban’s attacks on three provincial capitals last week, (Kunduz, Baghlan and Farah), a publication which has been delayed by today’s events, we wrote that whether or not it was intentional, the attacks were “a strong signal” sent by the Taleban “that they will not stop fighting even after the pending US-Taleban agreement.”

Yet, US and Afghan government forces have not let up or diminished the ferocity of their fight, either, especially air strikes and night raids. Both sides have fought and talked. Moreover, Afghan civilians and soldiers and, albeit in far fewer numbers, members of America’s armed forces, have all continued to be killed throughout the negotiations, including in egregious attacks. So, Thursday’s attack as the trigger for calling off the deal would have to have been either the straw that broke the camel’s back, or a result of President Trump suddenly noticing what was happening on the ground, or a pretext if he had got cold feet about the nature of the deal.

It seems probable that the last possibility is the correct one. Concerns and opposition to the deal in Washington have been mounting. Prominent among those voicing fears were nine former ambassadors (read the text of their letter here). They said they “strongly support[ed] a negotiated peace in Afghanistan,” but expressed doubts that the current deal would actually lead to peace. They pointed out that the Taleban had made “no clear statements about the conditions they would accept for a peaceful settlement with their fellow Afghans, nor do they have a track record of working with other political forces.” Following on from that, the ambassadors warned about the possibility of a situation far worse than the status quo, a return to civil war, as in 1992:

… [C]ould follow a breakdown in negotiations if we remove too much support from the Afghan state. If the State totters, those with nasty memories of life under the Taliban will fight on. That disaffected group would include Afghanistan’s minorities, which together comprise a majority of the Afghan population.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had also, Kim Dozier for Time reported, declined to sign the agreement because of concerns that it would amount to him effectively recognising the Taleban as a legitimate political entity, given that they were reportedly named the ‘Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’ in the text.

A somewhat different version of why the deal was ditched has been reported in The New York Times by Mujib Mashal. Blaming Thursday’s suicide bombing was a pretext, he reported. “The main sticking point was the Taliban’s resistance to the American terms for how a peace deal should be finalized and announced.” Trumps’ plan, reported Mashal, according to Afghan, Western and Taleban officials “with knowledge of the peace talks,” had been to fly both Taleban and Afghan government teams to Camp David, have separate meetings with each team and then “have a grand announcement” of the deal by Trump. The Taleban had reportedly compared this proposal to “political suicide.”

The movement’s response to Trump’s tweets, more on which below (see AAN translation of their statement in Annex 2 of this dispatch) does say that after receiving the invitation to the US, they “had delayed the mentioned travel to the US till after the signature of the agreement in Doha.”

What was in the agreement?

What exactly Khalilzad and the Taleban had agreed between themselves is still not known because the text of the putative agreement is not public. However, Khalilzad had four topics for the talks, which he had said (earlier AAN analysis here) all had to be agreed for a deal to go ahead. However, as AAN reported in August, they were by then already watered down. They were:

  • withdrawal of US (and other foreign) troops;
  • anti-terrorism guarantees by the Taleban;
  • inclusion of the Afghan government in the negotiations; and
  • permanent, Afghanistan-wide ceasefire.

While topics one and two have apparently remained in the deal, although it is not entirely clear in what form, topics three and four were downgraded to a second set of negotiations which would be conducted, in Khalilzad’s words, “after we conclude our own agreements” and would involve “an inclusive and effective national negotiating team consisting of senior government officials, key political party representatives, civil society and women,” rather than specifically the Afghan government (tweets from Khalilzad on 28 July here and here).

According to Khalilzad speaking to TOLOnews on 2 September, the US would withdraw 5,000 troops from five bases in Afghanistan within 135 days if conditions in the agreement were addressed by the Taliban. That withdrawal, it seems was to be the start of a full, gradual of all US troops, although the exact details of what was agreed is still unclear. That two-stage timing was potentially very problematic, as the nine ambassadors’ letter concluded:

[A] major troop withdrawal must be contingent on a final peace. The initial US drawdown should not go so far or so fast that the Taliban believe that they can achieve military victory. In that case, they will not make compromises for peace with other Afghan political forces. 

Because Khalilzad has kept his cards close to his chest, it is not known what he said or promised to the various parties, the Taleban in Doha, President Trump and President Ghani, or whether he said the same things to everyone. It may be that when the text of the deal was available to all the principals, this is when it came unstuck. Various potential problems with the deal (from an American and Afghan government point of view) have been made public since it was shown to the Afghan leadership on 2 September (reported here and here).

They include, according to Time, quoting an Afghan official, that the agreement “doesn’t guarantee the continued presence of U.S. counterterrorism forces to battle al Qaeda, the survival of the pro-U.S. government in Kabul, or even an end to the fighting in Afghanistan.” The New York Times, also quoting a government official, reported that the agreement: “would not have assured national elections on Sept. 28, as Mr. Ghani has demanded. Rather than requiring a nationwide cease-fire, it calls for a reduction of violence in Kabul and Parwan.” The Taleban were also apparently reluctant to specifically name al-Qaeda in their guarantee that Afghan soil would not be used by foreign jihadist forces to launch attacks. They were also reportedly insistent that any agreement would name them the ‘Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’, which, for some looked to be a step too far in legitimising the movement.

If Khalilzad had conceded any of these points, possibly after failing to force enough concessions from the Taleban (as officials told The New York Times), that could have upset his boss. It certainly upset the presidential palace, as the anti-deal briefings to journalists show. Ashraf Ghani spoke out strongly against the agreement on Thursday after seeing the text and after the Abdul Haq Square bombing: “Seeking peace with this group who is still pursuing the killing of the innocent people,” he said in a statement “is meaningless.”

Responses to the ditching of the agreement

Trump’s cancellation has allowed the Taleban to present themselves as peace-makers. In a statement, they said they had been intent on a peace deal all along, and had been about to sign the agreement and were preparing for intra-Afghan talks on 23 September. Trump’s decision to pull out of the agreement had shown the Americans to be untrustworthy and would only bring them more financial damage, more casualties and a ‘jihad’ until the invasion ends.

In the Palace, meanwhile, there must be a strong sense of relief that a deal which the president was so against has been scuppered by another party. (See the text of Ghani’s statement in Annex 1 of this dispatch). After reiterating his stance that Taleban violence is the main obstacle to peace, Ghani must feel he has regained the upper hand: the deal is off, all talk of an interim government will be off and elections can now go ahead untroubled by the peace process:

The government of Afghanistan reiterates its stance on holding the presidential elections on September 28 to make sure the establishment of a legitimate government through the ballot box and to move forward the ongoing peace process with full wisdom and precision.

Structural problems with the talks

Whatever the facts of who was responsible for the scrapping of the agreement and the end to the talks – although it is still not clear from all sides’ statements whether they are indeed completely over – it seems there were always structural problems with them. There are three direct parties to the Afghan conflict and three parties which have to make peace. Only two were involved in the talks. It has also seemed all along that negotiations were driven primarily by the US and its president’s desire to get troops out of Afghanistan ahead of US elections in 2020. Meanwhile, those in the ‘Islamic Republic of Afghanistan camp’ – the government, opposition figures, women’s activists and others – were marginalised from the start because of the US decision to accede to Taleban demands for a two-way-only negotiation.

Yet, it was also never really clear that the Taleban, especially those in the Quetta Shura and field commanders were ready to make the compromises needed for peace. Certainly, there have been none of the preparations with cadre on the ground that one would expect of an organisation negotiating an end to fighting. US interlocutors told AAN that the Taleban speaking in Doha appeared to see the current negotiations through the prism of the 1980s and believed the US, like the USSR before it, was toppling in the face of a concerted Afghan ‘jihad’. The possibility was always that getting a deal for the Taleban was a way of getting rid of their main adversary on the battlefield and that they believed they could then walk into Kabul as military victors. This may have remained their main aim all along, rather than negotiating peace with their fellow Afghans.

In the ‘Islamic Republic of Afghanistan’ (IRA) camp, meanwhile, many fears have been voiced, but there has been no real effort to rally behind a unified stance to try to give their side more clout. Apart from the president’s stage-managed peace jirga (analysis here), designed mainly to stop calls for an interim government, President Ghani’s main actions have been to push for elections. All this means that, although the Palace may be breathing a sigh of relief that the US-Taleban talks are over, there is little unity or consensus on the IRA side of what should happen next.

It was always difficult to see how the agreement, or what we have seen of it, would lead to peace, but what follows now is even less clear. It is not certain, for example, what Trump does next: double down on the war or order unilateral troop withdrawals. The Taleban still have the upper hand militarily but it is difficult to see anything certain arriving via the battlefield with the exception of more violence. Presidential elections should now go ahead. However, Khalilzad’s talk of an interim government has dented confidence that the poll would actually happen. The result is that most candidates have yet to really start campaigning. Whether it can even approach being a representative and fair election is questionable.

Most importantly, what looks to be the failure of these particular talks makes a negotiated end to the war, for now, less likely. Trust has been lost; finding a way for the parties of the conflict to talk to each other again has been made more difficult. No wonder many Afghans are confused about what they should think about the Trump tweets and the apparent end to the ‘peace deal’ – and fear that a further intensification of the violence will be the major result.

Edited by Jelena Bjelica


Annex 1: The Government Of Islamic Republic Of Afghanistan’s Statement Over The Peace Negotiations

8 September 2019

The people and the government of Afghanistan pursue a dignified and sustainable peace and are committed to putting any effort into ensuring peace in the country. However, the government considers the Taliban’s obstinacy to increase violence against Afghans as the main obstacle to the ongoing peace negotiations. We have consistently stressed that genuine peace is possible when the Taliban stop the killing of Afghans, embrace an inclusive ceasefire, and enter into direct negotiations with the Afghan government.

The government of Afghanistan as the main initiator, advocate and executor of the peace process, respects the decision emanated from the Consultative Loya Jirga on Peace and is responsible to follow its mandate with the Afghans playing the central role and the government owning and leading the process. 

The government of Afghanistan praises the earnest efforts of its allies and is committed to working together with the United States and other partners to ensure honorable and enduring peace in the country.

The government of Afghanistan reiterates its stance on holding the presidential elections on September 28 to make sure the establishment of a legitimate government through the ballot box and to move forward the ongoing peace process with full wisdom and precision.

Annex 2: The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan Declaration about the Tweet of Donald Trump Regarding the Negotiations

8 September 2019

We had fruitful negotiations with the American negotiation team and the agreement was finalised. The American negotiation team was happy with the progresses made and we ended the talks in a good atmosphere. Both teams were busy with preparations for the announcement and signing of the agreement. We had selected 23 September as the first day for the intra-Afghan talks [to begin] after the agreement had been signed and announced.

The region and the countries of the world and international organisations have backed the process. Now, the announcement by the president of the United States, Donald Trump, of an end to negotiations with the Islamic Emirate will harm America more than anyone else; it will harm its credibility, and further expose its anti-peace stance to the world; it would [result in] an increase in financial damage and casualties to its forces; it would demonstrate its political interactions as untrustworthy.

Keeping going with the negotiations, the Islamic Emirate has proved to the world that the war was imposed by others on us, and if the way of understanding is chosen instead of war, we are committed to the end of this [the negotiations].

Reacting to just one attack, just before the signing of the agreement, shows neither patience nor experience. Despite that, a little time before the mentioned attack, the US and its domestic supporters [the Afghan government], martyred hundreds of Afghans and burnt their properties. Doctor Khalilzad, gave us the invitation of Donald Trump in late August. We had delayed the mentioned travel to the US till after the signature of the agreement in Doha.

The Islamic Emirate has had a constant policy and a consistent stance. We have voiced understanding 20 years ago, and we have the same stance today as well. We believe that the American side will turn back to this stance [of negotiations]. Our past eighteen-year long policy would have proved to America that, without a complete end to the invasion and so long as the Afghans are allowed to make their own decision, we will not be satisfied by any other thing. We will keep going with the jihad because of this big aim and believe in our final victory.


Categories: Defence`s Feeds

One Land, Two Rules (8): Delivering public services in insurgency-affected insurgent-controlled Zurmat district

The Afghanistan Analysts Network (AAN) - Wed, 04/09/2019 - 03:43

The Taleban’s military dominance in Zurmat district of Paktia province has allowed them to assert their will over how government and NGO-provided public services are delivered. Their motivation varies from ideological control (education and media) to revenue generation (taxes on telecommunications and public infrastructure projects). In this district, the Taleban have expanded into tax collection to fund minor roads and irrigation canals in rural areas. Despite these Taleban advances into governance and public service delivery, they have left the hardest and most expensive work – health and medicine – to the Afghan government and NGOs. Here, AAN’s Obaid Ali, Sayed Asadullah Sadat and Christian Bleuer have conducted ten interviews with individuals and groups in Zurmat district to provide an up-to-date analysis of this specific form of Taleban governance (with input from Thomas Ruttig).

Previous publications in the series are: an introduction with literature review and methodology, “One Land, Two Rules (1): Service delivery in insurgent-affected areas, an introduction” by Jelena Bjelica and Kate Clark; four district case studies: on Obeh district of Herat province by Said Reza Kazemi; Dasht-e Archi district in Kunduz province by Obaid Ali; Achin district in Nangrahar province by Said Reza Kazemi and Rohullah Sorush and Nad Ali district by Ali Mohammad Sabawoon; Andar district in Ghazni province by Fazal Muzhary and; a case study on polio vaccinations by Jelena Bjelica; 

The context

Zurmat district is located to the southwest of the provincial capital Gardez and borders: Kharwar district of Logar to the north; Shwak district of Paktia to the south’ Mata Khan district of Paktika and Deh Yak district of Ghazni to the west; and Barmal and Sar Hawza districts of Paktika to the southwest. The district is ethnically dominated by Pashtuns from a variety of different tribes and sub-tribes, such as the Daulatzai, Suleimankhel, Salukhel, Mamozai, Ander, Uryakhel, Dzadran, Stanikzai and Mangal. They make up 90 per cent of the population, with the remaining ten per cent known as ‘Tajiks’, from the Marsangkhel and Khodayarkhel tribes. These are formerly Farsi-speaking Mohsenkhel Pashtuns who relocated from Ghor province some generations ago (for more background details read this and this AAN report). (1) Zurmat district , with its district centre, Tamir, has 164 villages, 55 of them large. According to Afghanistan’s Central Statistics Office, it has a population of 94,865, 51,000 male and 43,865 female.

The Taleban have a very strong presence in Zurmat, with the government only in control of the district centre and some areas close to it. The Afghan National Police (ANP) is largely based in the district centre while the Afghan National Army (ANA) has a main base there, too, as well as a presence in areas close to the district centre, such as Sahak, seven kilometres to the north; Mamozai, around five kilometres to the east and Sorkai, ten kilometres to the south of the district centre. TheCIA-led Khost Protection Force (KPF) and NDS-supported local Uprising Forces have posts along the Gardez-Tamir road (AAN reporting here). In 2018, the government disbanded the Afghan Local Police (ALP) unit in Zurmat after they committed abuses against local civilians. For defensive purposes, local government officials live close together in one particular area of town, called Khwajagan village, near the ANA base in Tamir (for a longer description, see AAN’s 2018 election dispatch from Zurmat). In mid-2018, the government also closed an ANA base in Kulalgo as part of its strategy to give up scattered bases and concentrate on securing district centres.

Background and History (1980 to 1990s)

Zurmat is one of the Taleban’s regional strongholds, as it was during the Emirate, described in a 2018 AAN dispatch, thus:

For historical reasons, Zurmat is sometimes called Little Kandahar, as a number of prominent Taleban leaders came from the area. For Greater Paktia – the three provinces of Paktia, Paktika and Khost – Zurmat was as important for the insurgents, as Kandahar was for southern Afghanistan. Two different networks of the Taleban are active in the area: the Haqqani network, led by Qari Shams, and the Mansur network, locally called the ‘Mansurian’ – led by Abdul Latif Mansur, a member of the Taleban leadership and relative of the network’s founder, the late Nasrullah Mansur.

Map: © Roger Helms for AAN

The local power structures in Zurmat are an exception to elsewhere in the province of Paktia. Conrad Schetter and Rainer Glassner (2) argued that:

In Paktia most of the tribes aim to stand apart from the conflict between the insurgents and the government and international troops. The tribes had successfully followed the same strategy during the Soviet occupation, whereby they allowed the insurgents and the government (as well as the international actors) to cross their tribal territories as long as no one challenged the tribal order. […]  In general, most tribal leaders just observe this ideological conflict and maintain their networks with influential actors on all sides. […] In other words, the tribal system in Paktia obstructs or at least constrains the emergence of warlordism as well as the influence of the state.

Schetter and Glassner, referring to the work of Sébastien Trives, then contrast the rest of the province to the district of Zurmat (3):

By contrast, in the southern district of Zurmat, where the tribal system with its myriads of tribes and clans is rather fragmented and tribal codes are weakened, the insurgents have gained more support than in those parts of the province, where tribal structures are more stable.

The Zurmat exception could be seen in the emergence of the powerful Mansur family network. Maulawi Nasrullah Mansur, an Andar Pashtun was born in a small village in Zurmat. He rose to prominence after he received a “religious education at Nur ul-Madaris, the madrasa founded by the Mojaddedi family, one of the best-known (and conservative) abodes of Muslim learning in Afghanistan.” (4) The Mansurs were elevated beyond their local power base in 1995 when they joined the Taleban. Their reward became evident in the number of high-ranking Taleban posts given to family members and others from Zurmat, most prominently Abdul Latif Mansur as Minister of Agriculture. He had followed in his brother’s position as the network’s leader after the latter’s assassination in 1993. In the post-2001 insurgency phase, he was reportedly appointed to the first post-Taleban regime Leadership Council in June 2003 and later,from early 2009 till mid-2010, was the head of the Taleban Political Committee, responsible also for peace talks. Subsequently, he was reported to be acting as the Taleban provincial governor for Paktia. It is also believed that he is a member of the Taleban Leadership Council (Rahbari Shura – more in this AAN paper). Currently, he serves as a member of the Taleban political office in Doha and is taking part in the ongoing Taleban-US talks there(5) Beyond the Mansur family, two other Zurmat locals have served at different times as Taleban ministers for Finance, Economy and Agriculture, and four more served in deputy minister posts. (6)

RFE/RL journalist and author Abubakar Siddique argues that the power of this family, and the way in which they have “enriched” themselves, has “undermined tribal solidarity.” (7) In terms of their relationship with the Taleban, the Mansurs and allied Zurmat locals have maintained their autonomy, run the district independent of the overall Taleban hierarchy and locally are rooted well enough to keep other Taleban branches among them the Haqqani network, out of ‘their’ area. (8) According to sources close to the Taleban, the group remains strong enough to maintain a large presence in northern parts of the district, such as Dawlatzai, Haibatkhel, Abikhel, Durunk and Muqarabkhel areas. The sources said that the head of the Taleban’s military committee for Paktia province and the shadow district governor post for Zurmat are in the hands of Mansur family members. The Mansur and Haqqani networks jointly run other posts in the Taleban’s structure at the local level.

Conflict and Security 2001-19

Saif ur-Rahman Mansur, the elder son of Nasrullah Mansur, was a leader in the fight against US troops immediately after the overthrow of the Taleban regime. In 2002, he led the resistance of over a thousand fighters, including his own men, those from the Haqqani networks and al-Qaeda-linked Arab and probably Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan-linked Central Asians, against a large US military operation, codenamed Anacondaaimed at ‘cleansing’ the mountainous Shahikot area of Zurmat from what the US considered to be forces allied with al-Qaeda, and he gained fame in the process. (9) But it was not until three years later that the Mansur network again became relevant locally. In 2005, the leaders of the Mansur family reignited the insurgency. Family leaders directed operations from across the border in Pakistan, ordering operations as far away from Zurmat as Ghazni and Logar. (10)

Local Shura discusses security-related issue in Surkai village of Zurmat province

By 2007 the Mansur network was causing serious problems for the Afghan government and the US military. Thomas Ruttig, citing a UN official, gave the following reasons for the growing success of insurgents in Zurmat: “the corruption in local government, the district’s function as a major transit corridor for Taleban fighters moving from Pakistan to Ghazni province and more central Afghan areas, intra-tribal conflicts, and the strong position of conservative ulema in the area.” (11) Corruption has continued to alienate many tribes and their leaders from the provincial and central government. Meanwhile, local intra-tribal conflict has opened the way for the Taleban to support certain tribal elements against others, while ulama from within the large number of madrassas, among them some prestigious (and conservative ones) both in Paktia and neighbouring Ghazni, have given them ideological backing.

However, the Mansur network has only had a sub-regional presence, not a national one. Its operations have been confined to north-eastern Ghazni, south-western Paktia and parts of Logar province. (12) By 2009, local observers believed that the power of the Mansur network, relative to overall Taleban command, had diminished as they lost many of their best commanders. (13) However, the power of the insurgency in Zurmat has not followed the same trajectory of the Mansur network. By 2019, the Taleban’s various local sub-networks had gained control of the entire district outside of the district centre.

There have been repeated abuses by government and US forces of Afghan civilians in the district. They include a night raid in December 2018 against a prominent local family that had been part of local, non-governmental forces that had repeatedly blocked expansion by the Haqqani network and their foreign allies from the network’s base in the Shahikot highlands into the rest of Zurmat district (the Khost Protection Force, accompanied by a least one American, killed six family members, see this AAN dispatch from January 2019). In another night raid in Zurmat in August by NDS special forces, which like the Khost Protection Force appear to answer to CIA command, eleven civilians were killed.

Afghan government forces have also killed civilians during their operations against Taleban forces, afterwards accusing the Taleban of using civilians and their homes as human shields (see accounts of civilians casualties in 2018 here and here).

The Taleban continue to easily exploit the locals’ resentment towards the Afghan government and international forces. One schoolteacher interviewed by AAN complained of the worsening security and gave government forces’ “fruitless night raids” as an example of bad government actions (see AAN reporting the latest case in Zurmat here). Another interviewee noted how quick the Taleban are to respond after this type of event, stating that they “meet elders when there is a night raid or drone attack in Taleban controlled-areas. This is largely to gain locals support and sympathy.” The civilians affected do not always follow the Taleban’s suggestions, as was the case after the Kulalgo killings.

Security and Governance Provision

A Zurmati elder described the Taleban’s powerful local presence in late 2018, adding that the insurgents control the majority of territory in the district:

Power lies in the hands of the Taleban. The government controls the district centre and some villages near the district centre. The Taleban are active in all other areas and they attend to all people’s problems. The Taleban have an active district governor. In their power structures, they have different kinds of committees that are active in every sphere.

The same elder remarked on the limited numbers and weakness of government forces in Zurmat. All other informants described the power balance similarly (Taleban control at ‘about 80 per cent’ of the territory), with two interviewees adding that the government had recently created five security checkpoints on the Zurmat-Gardez road. The exact government area of control in this district is a mere few kilometres’ radius around the district governor’s office.

The power of the Taleban and the relative weakness of the Afghanistan government was seen in the 2018 elections, when voting was only possible in the district centre (19 of 22 polling stations in Zurmat remained closed). The Taleban’s threats against potential voters worked, and the only people voting appeared to be members of the security forces, government workers and shopkeepers near the voting station in the centre (for a long voting election analysis of Zurmat, see AAN’s 2018 dispatch)

The interviewees described Taleban fighters and officials as being mostly local. One local civil society activist noted that the Taleban have been able to recruit even well-educated local young men, due to hopeless employment prospects in Zurmat.

Interviewees agree that Taleban from outside the district make up a small number of their forces, mostly from Paktika, Logar and Ghazni, with some Waziri kuchis from the border areas. However, they said it is some of the higher-ranking Taleban who are the outsiders, while the lower ranks are local. This is in clear contrast to the era when the Mansur network dominated the ranks of the insurgency from top to bottom. Almost all the interviewees described the ‘outsiders’ as being from neighbouring districts or provinces, but two noted that there are also some foreigners among the Taleban, including Pakistanis, Arabs and some Central Asian fighters.

Service Delivery

Public services in Zurmat district are delivered and monitored by the Afghan government and by NGOs, such as the International Rescue Committee, Medical Refresher Courses for Afghans (MRCA) and Hewad. In 2019, Hewad took over MRCA’s part, after it ended its presence. Respondents agree that the Taleban, controlling most of the district, have a very strong role in controlling how these services are delivered. A school teacher described the Taleban shadow administration as having “established a parallel government system that operates in the district. The Taleban’s district governor and heads of the military, education, and public outreach committees operate outside the district centre.” He said there were also are Taleban offices in the Kulalgo bazaar, Sahak, Koti Khel, Dawlatzai, Makawa and Haibatkhel areas, as contact points for the population. However, the main base for the Taleban, where most of the decisions are taken place, is in Spin Jumat (White Mosque) located in Makawa area in the north of the district that borders Kharwar district of Logar province. This means decisions largely take place in Mansur’s territorial areas.

One local elder described the arrangement:

The Taleban have various committees, each separately functioning in different spheres. Some are active in the health sector, some in education, some in conflict [resolution] and politics, and some are active in the development sector. When the government wants to implement a project, it has to have the Taleban’s permission and cooperation. The Taleban have to be involved in the project, but most of the time they prevent the implementation of projects. They do not give permission because they demanded a huge amount of money, and the government gave up and transferred the project to another district.

One key source, a local tribal elder in Zurmat, described how the Taleban allow or do not allow, government projects to implemented:

Elders and Taleban meet each other and discuss the project. If the Taleban get money, then they allow the government to implement the project, but leave their men to monitor its implementation. If they do not get their money, then they do not allow the project to be implemented.

As an example of what the Taleban do not allow to be implemented, the interviewee mentioned the Citizen’s Charter programme, which funds projects for water, sanitation, tertiary road construction and renewable energy through grants and implemented by the Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development implement). Another local tribal elder gave an example of a specific type of project:

Some small projects, which are initiated by the Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development, for example, the restoration of water canals in the agriculture sector, are controlled and monitored by the Taleban. Elders always have a mediatory role between government and the Taleban insurgents.

Almost every interviewee agreed that the Taleban are regularly available for the public to meet to air their concerns. A few respondents added that the Taleban do not meet any shuras. They told AAN the Taleban do not have any respect for them, even though these shuras are local and not government initiatives, but prefer to communicate directly with community elders.

As for the failure to deliver services, a tribal elder in Zurmat stated that the government claims they cannot deliver services in many parts of the district due to insecurity. Meanwhile, the Taleban say they cannot deliver services because they have no money for development projects.


Respondents put the number of schools in Zurmat district at about 63 to 64, a number that includes primary, secondary and high schools, plus a teachers training centre. Out of these schools, 36 (20 primary schools and 16 secondary schools) are without buildings. In these cases, the students study either in the local mosque, or private houses that serve as schools, or in tents or in open areas. One informant, highly placed in the local government, noted that this number includes 13 girls’ schools that are all permanently closed. As for the boys’ schools, one teacher reported that the Taleban control most of these schools.

Ongoing construction work of a school building in Zurmat district

The Afghan government provides education services (salaries, school construction, as well as text book and stationery), while the provincial and district government, as well as the Taleban’s Education Committee, monitor the system. Several informants stated that the district government monitors schools in Taleban-controlled areas only with prior Taleban permission. As for the teachers, one key informant in the district government said “without the Taleban’s approval it is impossible to serve as teacher in most parts of the district. Before attending the education department’s exam for teacher appointment, one has to get the Taleban’s approval and agreement to serve as teacher in their areas of control.”  The Taleban have their own monitoring and control system, as described by one school teacher:

Their monitoring system is similar to the provincial education department. However, the Taleban have their own attendance records for school teachers. They interfere in school curriculum and replace school books with [others on] religious subjects. For instance, the Taleban replaced the culture study classes (based on a government-provided school book) with [Islamic] jurisprudence. They also replaced another school subject, sport, with religious studies. In general, there are no [alternative] school books for these additional subjects. In fact, it depends on teacher’s skills and knowledge of religious norms to teach the Taleban-supported subjects in schools. In a few cases, the Taleban have assigned their own mullahs to teach students.

One key informant in the district government described the work of the Taleban Education Committee:

The committee is made up of local Taleban religious figures. […] The Taleban’s education committee monitor the schools sometime once a week and some other times once a month. The committee looks at teachers’ and students’ attendance records, teaching mechanism, and the curriculum. The Taleban interfere in the curricula and appointments of teachers. For the curriculum, the Taleban added additional religious subjects. When it comes to teachers’ appointments, they also interfere in it and without their approval it is not possible to serve as teacher in Taleban controlled-areas.

Another interviewee revealed that the Taleban monitors teacher attendance and deduct teachers’ absent day’s wages. This money is allocated against their own accounts. Another key informant in the district government described something similar: “If a school teacher doesn’t appear for a day, the Taleban deduct (a day’s salary) from their monthly salary, this amount then goes to school expenses or is kept by the Taleban.” He added that the Taleban’s education committee made its own attendance records for school teachers in areas they control. He added that, usually, the local education department’s representative distributes the salaries to teachers at school in the presence of a member of the Taleban’s education committee. If a teacher’s attendance record shows that he missed classes, then the Taleban’s representative deducts a day salary immediately after the distribution of the teachers’ salaries. The same informant stated that the Taleban “regularly encourage younger students to Jihad. They sometimes carry out propaganda against the government during school visits.” Another key informant also stated that Taleban monitoring visits to schools serve another purpose, and that they “use this as a platform to talk with students and to encourage them to join the Taleban.”

There were schools for girls in Taleban-controlled areas of Zurmat up until 2016 to at least the third grade. In 2015, a local teacher predicted the Taleban would totally ban girl’s education the following year. (14) But whether or not the closure of girls’ school was a Taleban order or not, the education of girls faces many cultural and practical obstacles in Zurmat. The government informant stated:

There are a number of issues that prevent families from sending children to schools. For example: schools are far away from some villages, the lack of female teachers, some schools are out in the open, the culture issue, the negative campaign against girls’ education by some mullahs. These are the issues that have dissuaded families from sending their girls to schools.

One local elder noted that the lack of girls’ education is not the only problem. The quality of boys education is also low and “there is a lack of professional teachers.” Other informants stressed the low quality of buildings, the lack of good textbooks and, in some cases, the lack of buildings.

For graduates, there are few prospects to use their education. One well-educated interviewee said that “Zurmat has many educated youths,” but that they have few employment opportunities in the district. In most cases, the educated people either leave the district to search for jobs in Gardez, the provincial centre, or Kabul. Those that remain work as farmers or are unemployed.


According to local health workers and other informants, Zurmat district has one 50-bed hospital in the district centre, and, elsewhere in the district, two Comprehensive Health Centres (CHC), three Basic Health Centres (BHC) and one sub-centre. A local elder stated that the Afghan government (the Zurmat Heath Department) and one NGO, MRCA/Relief International deliver and pay for these health services. In December 2018, after MRCA’s contact ran out, Hewad took over this task. The NGOs currently supporting medical services in Zurmat, according to a local hospital administrator, are ICRC and Hewad.

A local elder and another key informant said that the Taleban do not interfere with the clinics and hospital, but that the Taleban’s Health Committee visits the health centres in Taleban-controlled areas. A local doctor described the relationship with the Taleban:

The Taleban don’t interfere in our work. We are allowed to run the health clinic without any issue. In fact, if there is an issue of concern, the Taleban’s health committee and the provincial health department help us out.

A local elder described a more one-sided relationship, while mistaking NGO-delivered services for government services: “health services are delivered by the government but the Taleban should be informed because without their permission nothing can be done.”

This relationship can be seen in the polio vaccinations campaigns. A local civil society activist described the situation:

The Taleban banned the polio vaccination in August 2018, for more than a month. This was only for those mobile teams that carry out the door-to-door campaign. The health centres, however, were open for those who could bring their children for vaccination there. After elders’ mediation, the Taleban allowed the polio campaign in the district, but this was only for few months. The Taleban banned the polio vaccination again in the end of April 2019 in Zurmat (read AAN’s analysis on polio vaccination here).

Women’s access to health services is problematic in Zurmat due, not just to “traditional issues”, as stated by one informant, but also due to an insufficient number of female medical workers. A local doctor said in an interview that there are 80 health workers in the district that include twenty female ones working as midwives, nurses and vaccinators, but that there is no female medical doctor in the district. The same doctor claimed that men and women have equal access to health care. However, a local elder emphasised the lack of a female doctor in the district, and that “in the absence of gynaecologists, most of the time either patients die or they face major issues.” The best that can be done, according to one interviewee, is for the female patient to be transported to Gardez for treatment. However, the lack of a good road to Gardez and the absence of an ambulance make this a difficult operation.

Electricity, media and Telecommunication

Zurmat district is not connected to the national electricity grid. Residents rely mostly on solar power and, to a lesser degree, on generators. The solar power is enough only to light rooms, charge mobile phones and watch TV. However, those who own televisions are mostly in the district centre, as the Taleban prohibit watching TV in their territory. A school teacher from the Taleban controlled-area described the Taleban’s TV policies:

Most people watch TV programmes. They use satellite dishes because of the variety of channels the dishes can broadcast. They watch news, political debates, sports and other entertainment programmes. In most cases, people hide their dishes and TV antenna from the Taleban because the Taleban prohibit watching TV programmes. If the Taleban notice that people place dishes or TV antenna on the top of their roofs, then they search the house and smash the television.    

Radios are far more widespread, with almost every household having one. The available stations broadcast news, music, cultural and entertainment programmes. The Taleban make use of the population’s radio use, broadcasting the Taleban’s official “Voice of Jihad” station.

Mobile phone ownership is widespread throughout Zurmat. Smart phones are only used by those few educated youths who can afford them, as they are, according to several interviewees, too expensive and complicated. Mobile internet is described as very slow and, in some cases, non-existent.

The mobile phone signal only works in the daytime as the Taleban force the mobile companies to turn off their services between 6pm and 7am. Roshan, Etisalat and Afghan Wireless all operate in Zurmat. MTN also had a presence until last year when the Taleban destroyed one of their towers. The Taleban have completely prohibited the state-owned Salaam Network from operating. For all other companies, they need to follow the rules (turn off the service at night) and pay the Taleban tax. A key informant described the relationship:

… telecom companies pay tax to the Taleban. If they do not pay the tax, then the Taleban will shut down their network coverage. For example, sometimes ago, the MTN Company did not pay tax, so the Taleban set its towers on fire.

Agriculture, Water and Irrigation

As might be expected with a rural Afghan district, most of the key informants cited – unprompted – the importance of the agricultural sector.

One key informant credited the government and what he called an ‘NGO’ (in fact, the World Bank-funded National Horticultural and Livestock Project) with providing services in the agriculture sector, including the provision of higher-quality seeds, seedlings, storage facilities and the digging of new wells. However, he noted that all of these projects can only be implemented with the Taleban’s “cooperation and permission.” An elder described also that projects implementedthrough the Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Developmentare controlled and monitored by the Taleban. For example, some construction projects, such as bridges, irrigation water canals and cold-storage rooms for fruit, were funded by the government, but monitored by the Taleban. He added that the local Taleban even suggest through local elders to specify places where the project should be implemented. He said that, “Without the Taleban’s approval the government won’t be able to implement these projects.”Another informant noted that this is also the case with maintenance and construction of irrigation canals, which are paid for by the locals and implemented with permission from the Taleban.

There are also some other smaller construction projects for water irrigation canals in Korchi, Makawa and Menzi villages that the locals funded and constructed, but which the Taleban designed and monitored.


In 2011, the US military, based out of the Provincial Reconstruction Team in Paktika, cited the economic and security benefits of high quality roads in the region and announced the imminent completion of several key transport corridors, including a road connecting Zurmat to Gardez. This asphalted road was never constructed, but is still being demanded by the local population. Nearly every interviewee in Zurmat cited the need to asphalt the current low-quality road. Several key informants stated that the Taleban had prohibited its improvement, but that they would allow construction of smaller village roads and bridges, in some cases even collecting taxes to fund the construction.

The Taleban do not have a special team to implement construction projects. Therefore, projects are implemented based on traditional construction methods and with the support of local elders. In general, these projects are of very poor quality and they need maintenance every month. In most cases, the local Taleban only monitor the implementation of such projects, rather than providing technical assistance.

The Taleban also sometimes organise public services projects. In these cases, they mobilise local financial and human resources, ie they call on locals to donate money or to provide construction material, such as cement, sand, stones or construction machinery. Then, the work is mainly carried out by locals, but monitored by the Taleban.

The largest construction project in the Taleban controlled-areas of Zurmat was the rehabilitation of parts of the 52 kilometre-long Gardez-Ghazni road. This road, leading through the Sahak area, was the main link between the two provincial capitals in the past. When US forces had a base in Sahak, they asphalted a 20 kilometre stretch between Gardez and their base to make it easier to supply it. After the US withdrawal, the base was handed over to the ANA who also use only this part of the road. The Taleban and locals also use the old road’s remaining 32 kilometre stretch that leads from Sahak via Dawlat Khan village on to the border of Ghazni’s Deh Yak district and further to Ghazni city. The Taleban organised funding by local population and called on them to take part in the primary construction work, ie using soil, sand and stone aggregates, but not yet asphalting it. The completion of this project enabled the Taleban to collect taxes from truck drivers transporting goods from Paktia to Ghazni.

Another example of a Taleban public works project was the primary construction of a 30 kilometres road that connects Sahak and Kulalgo villages, again funded by locals.

When it comes to taxes in general, the Taleban collect ten per cent of farmers’ income at the end of harvesting season. For businessmen, such as shopkeepers and market owners, taxes are payable at the end of the year or in advance at the beginning of the year. This depends on the Taleban financial committee’s decision. The Taleban’s financial committee estimate the amount payable based on the income of their business. However, the money collected is not allocated to construction or public services, but instead used to cover the Taleban’s own operational costs.


An interviewee described the justice sector as the only area that is fully controlled and implemented by the Taleban in their territory: “The only service that Taleban provide is justice. People register their cases in a Taleban court – because it is fast and without corruption.”

In September 2014, the Taleban sentenced to death and executed three men who kidnapped and murdered a child after failing to receive their ransom demand in a high-profile case. The Taleban made the execution a public event, and over 1,000 people in Zurmat watched the sentence being carried out. The Taleban ordered the bodies to be displayed for three days as a warning to others. There are no reports of other similar cases. (15)

Over the course of a few years, the Taleban have provided a much wider array of court services and justice. One local government committee member stated that the Taleban courts play “a key role in the district, where different cases are registered daily in their court.” Interviewees described most cases as being either land disputes or family conflicts.

Two interviewees, one highly placed in the district government, stated that, if a local Taleban court fails to reach a resolution or, if they refer the case to a local religious scholar and he fails to issue a verdict, then the case can be referred to a Taleban court based in Pakistan. One interviewee added that this usually does not happen as local Taleban courts resolve most disputes that come before them. Sometimes, smaller cases, such as disputes between two families, are referred to local Jirga for a solution. In these cases, if the Jirga fails to solve or if the Jirga’s decision is not acceptable, then the case can be registered to the Taleban court.


It is clear from the interviews conducted for this project that the Taleban have a powerful local presence in Zurmat that has translated into a control over public services that is stronger than that of the government. The Taleban’s presence in more than 80 per cent of the district has marginalised the government to a role as a monitor in certain sectors. This is particularly notable, for example, in education. Here the Taleban assert its will over this government-funded service, but still need the input of funds, materials and the know-how of the government-trained teachers. Here, the Taleban play a dominant ideological role – influencing the education curriculum – and a ‘law-and-order’ role – checking the teachers’ attendance records and, if necessary, deducting salaries for non-attendance. Their influence also allows them to appoint their own members as school teachers, to deny girls the right to an education, and to recruit students as fighters, as well as to deliver anti-government speeches in a state-run education centres.

The only public service that the Taleban fully deliver is the justice sector – an important part of asserting their control over the population, and also not an expensive public service (compared to the health sector, for example). The Taleban also have begun to collect money in support of public works, such as minor secondary roads and agricultural irrigation canals. This is usually project-related and not a regular payment used to build up a steady revenue from which funding could then be allocated for future projects. This demonstrates that the Taleban are in an on-going process of evolution from an all-out insurgent group to an operational quasi-government administration, also locally.

The Taleban have turned other sectors into revenue generation activities to fund their operations. Several telecommunications companies pay taxes directly to the Taleban, while improved road quality is used as a justification to collect taxes from truck drivers. Furthermore, projects must not just provide revenue to the Taleban, but this must take a form that the Taleban will not object to.

The extent of their control also has enabled the Taleban to decide where infrastructure can and cannot be constructed and to impose rules on telecommunication companies as to what times their service may be scheduled and provided.

The Taleban in Zurmat have created a system in which they can control and monitor when they need to for ideological reasons, to extract revenue for their operations, and to collect taxes to fund smaller construction projects that are important to the rural populations, such as minor roads and irrigations canals. The Taleban do all of this, while avoiding responsibility for the more expensive and complex public services, such as health. This leaves in doubt the ability of the Taleban to function in the future as a full-fledged government that is capable of delivering a full spectrum of public services without outside funding and technical assistance.


Edited by Thomas Ruttig and Kate Clark



(1) The use of this term here is controversial. Some former Dari speakers, for example, in the large village of Kulalgo, called ‘Tajiks’ by other local groups – and ‘Dehgan’ (village dwellers) by others –, insist they are originally (Mohsenkhel) Pashtuns who relocated from Ghor province some generations ago.

(2) Conrad Schetter and Rainer Glassner (2011), “Local configurations of violence: Warlords, tribal leaders and insurgents in Afghanistan,” Sicherheit und Frieden, Volume 29, No. 4, p235.

(3) Schetter and Glassner, “Local configurations of violence,” page 235.

(4) Thomas Ruttig, ‘The Haqqani Network as an Autonomous Entity’, in Decoding The New Taliban: Insight from the Afghan Field, ed. by Antonio Giustozzi (2009) London: Hurst, p78.

(5) Abubakar Siddique (2014), The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key to the Future of Pakistan and Afghanistan, New York: Hurst, p175.

(6) Ruttig, ‘The Haqqani Network as an Autonomous Entity’, pp79-80.

(7) Siddique, The Pashtun Question, p175

(8) Ruttig, ‘The Haqqani Network as an Autonomous Entity’, pp79-80.

(9) Siddique, The Pashtun Question, p175.

(10) Ruttig, ‘The Haqqani Network as an Autonomous Entity’, pp79-80; Siddique, The Pashtun Question, p175.

(11) Ruttig, ‘The Haqqani Network as an Autonomous Entity’, p79.

(12) Ruttig, ‘The Haqqani Network as an Autonomous Entity’, p78.

(13) Ruttig, ‘The Haqqani Network as an Autonomous Entity’, p78.

(14) Barnett Rubin and Clancy Rudeforth (2016), ‘Enhancing Access to Education: Challenges and Opportunities in Afghanistan,’ Center on International Cooperation, New York University, p14.

(15) Vasja Badalič, The War Against Civilians: Victims of the “War on Terror” in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, p243.

Categories: Defence`s Feeds

US-Taleban talks: An imminent agreement without peace?

The Afghanistan Analysts Network (AAN) - Fri, 30/08/2019 - 03:00

News coming out of the latest round of US-Taleban negotiations suggest that an agreement is imminent, but that in the desire to meet the White House’s 1 September 2019 deadline, the US have made concessions that may well complicate an actual peace agreement in Afghanistan. It appears that the US have dropped the “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed” principle and have relegated two of the four original topics of the negotiations to future “intra-Afghan negotiations” including the all-important ceasefire. The on-going dilemma of what should come first – peace negotiations or presidential election – continues to complicate matters. AAN’s Thomas Ruttig and Martine van Bijlert lay out what can be gleaned so far from the fog of leaks, rumours and conflicting statements.

There are indications that US-Taleban negotiations in Qatar’s capital Doha have been finalised and a bilateral agreement will be announced soon. In this ninth round of the Doha US-Taleban, which started last week and went into its fifth day on Wednesday (28 August 2019), involved heavy wrangling to solve what Washington’s special peace envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, had called “remaining issues” to be “closed.” In January 2019, both sides had reached a “framework” agreement about the withdrawal and the anti-terrorism guarantees, and stated that only details needed to be hammered out. This took seven more months.

According to several media reports (here a summary of AFP, AP and Reuters reporting), the agreement has been finalised and is now going through a last round of language checking. (When Afghan politicians, Taleban and civil society activists met in July 2019 for an intra-Afghan dialogue, there had been inconsistencies in the different versions of the final declaration, see here). The document is expected to come out in English and the two official Afghan languages, Pashto and Farsi/Dari. Taleban spokesman Suhail Shahin said on 28 August that “We hope to have good news soon for our Muslim, independence seeking nation.”

Khalilzad is expected to travel to Kabul, and then to Islamabad, to familiarise the Afghan and Pakistani governments with the latest version of the agreement. The Afghan government has not been party to the Doha talks, as the Taleban refuse to hold direct negotiations with the government of President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Dr Abdullah and rejected the US plan to bring it into the on-going talks. According to a Taleban source quoted by AFP (see media summary linked above), all members of their Leadership Council (Rahbari Shura, also known as ‘Quetta Shura’) “have received the draft and they are reading it carefully [while]no go-ahead signal has been given to the Taliban negotiating team” in Doha yet.He said their response may “take a day or two.”

There are indications that, if all goes as planned, there will be two ceremonies to mark the conclusion of the agreement and to present it: one in Doha or Oslo and one in Kabul, possibly as early as the coming weekend of 31 August/1 September (see here).

This would mean that the 1 September 2019 date set by the White House could still be met. The date – set as former US negotiation team member Barnett Rubin put it, in a “rush to make Afghanistan’s peace process conform to the U.S. electoral calendar”– was most recently communicated by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Contours of an agreement

So far, only contours of the agreement have emerged. The talks have been accompanied by a whirling rumour mill, particularly since US diplomats started to indicate during the eighth round of talks in the first half of August that the agreement was nearing finalisation. Expectations of an imminent deal have recently been raised twice before: once in the run-up to Eid al-Azha (11-13 August) and once before Afghanistan’s independence centenary a week later. TV teams, which had already travelled to Doha before Eid al-Azha, found that they had travelled for nothing. The expectations may have been raised in an attempt to put additional pressure on the Taleban, although they seem to be unfased by such considerations.

The nature of the talks, which were held behind closed doors, meant that there is still very little solid information. Both sides have agreed on confidentiality, and have largely stuck to this agreement. Much of what has been officially stated came as scattered snippets on social media, in particular Twitter (the favoured means of communication for both the US president and his Afghan envoy). Details that are leaked often muddy the water rather than provide clarity and sometimes seem geared to either mislead or paint an overly positive picture of the talks and their progress. More confusion is created by media chasing and quoting sources “close to the negotiators” or anonymous Taleban sources, who may or may not be informed about the talks.

The picture is further complicated by the likelihood that – despite denials – talks have included subjects that both sides do not want to publicly admit to (for instance the issue of an interim government which would include the Taleban, reports which both sides have denied, see here and here).

A further key feature in these negotiations was that the Afghan-born US envoy has not kept allies, the Afghan government or the Afghan public fully abreast of the proceedings (despite assurances over the last decade that peace talks would be “Afghan-owned and Afghan-led”). This is partly due to the sensitive nature of such negotiations and partly due to the immense time pressure Khalilzad had been put under by his president. President Trump’s desire to end an involvement he considers too expensive and his impatience to withdraw US troops was echoed by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in a 20 August TV interview where he said:

Our desire is to create conditions on the ground where we can achieve what President Trump laid out, which is to reduce what is 30, 35 billion dollars a year in taxpayer money and the loss of American lives…

It now appears that this pressure, to swiftly come up with something to show for, has pushed Khalilzad to shepherd in a deal that does not meet the criteria he set out in the beginning.

A “four topic package” becomes ‘everything – minus two’

Khalilzad’s stated position at the beginning of the negotiations was that there were four topics to discuss and that these topics were tied into a package. The principle was reflected in the phrase “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed” (earlier AAN analysis here).

The four topics were:

  • withdrawal of the US (and other foreign) troops;
  • anti-terrorism guarantees by the Taleban;
  • inclusion of the Afghan government in the negotiations; and
  • permanent, Afghanistan-wide ceasefire.

The first two topics would be a quid pro quo: US withdrawal in exchange for Taleban guarantees that it would not allow groups such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS) – including its Afghan franchise, the ISKP – to operate from Afghan soil against other countries (and implicitly in Afghanistan). While Khalilzad has indicated that he is satisfied with the Taleban’s guarantees (on which no details are available yet) and is discussing ways for the US to verify them, there are serious doubts that the Taleban would be in a position to deliver on them, as well as to the viability of close monitoring (see here and also this New York Times op-ed).

With regard to the withdrawal, it has always been clear that this was as much a wish on the side of the US, as on the Taleban’s. (In late 2018, it even appeared that the US President had to be persuaded not to announce a unilateral troop cut in Afghanistan, see here.) It is however on the details that they differ. The Taleban insist that the withdrawal must be complete and that the agreement must include a timeline – which indicates that it will probably be phased. They have apparently also asked for some form of international third party guarantees and/or monitoring. AAN heard from sources in contact with the Taleban team that this may involve a combination of technical and on-the-ground monitoring from Afghan, Pakistani and Central Asian territory. Within the US however discussions are on-going as to whether, and in what shape, to leave behind a ‘residual force.’

The Taleban have never publicly subscribed to Khalilzad’s principle that “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.” Over the months following the January ‘framework agreement’ – a term that sounded more and more euphemistic – they consistently refused to make any concession on the remaining two issues that the US wanted as part of the agreement: direct talks with the Afghan government (before signing an agreement with the US), and ceasefire. Khalilzad intended to discuss a “comprehensive”, ie countrywide, and “permanent” ceasefire, including the armed parties to the conflict – ie both US and Afghan government troops and the Taleban (but not ISKP which is not involved in the negotiations). The Taleban however has insisted that after this agreement there will be a ceasefire only with the US troops. (1) Reuters quoted a “diplomat who has monitored the Qatar talks” as saying, “The U.S.-Taliban agreement will stop U.S. from conducting air strikes on the Taliban, and the Taliban will stop insider attacks on the U.S. and other foreign soldiers. … A ceasefire between the Afghan forces and the Taliban requires a separate agreement and deliberations are yet to begin.”

It thus seems that practically, Khalilzad has bowed to the Taleban blockade and has relegated two of the original four topics – Afghan government participation and ceasefire – to a second set of negotiations: the “intra-Afghan negotiations.” It also seems he has agreed on US, not Afghan priorities.

The idea of intra-Afghan negotiations builds on the intra-Afghan dialogue, which was jointly organised by Germany (2) and Qatar in Doha in July 2019 and – without Afghan government representatives – in two rounds in Moscow in February and May 2019. Khalilzad has also suggested, in response to the Taleban’s refusal to talk to Kabul, that these negotiations should not be carried out by a team of the Afghan government alone, but by an “inclusive and effective national team” (quoted here). This team would comprise of government, opposition and civil society, including women’s representatives, as in the Moscow and Doha ‘dialogues.’

Such a construction, on one hand, realistically reflects the fragmentation and notorious disunity among Afghanistan’s political forces (even within the government), and the fact that the post-2014 National Unity Government never managed to create a genuine national consensus about the contents and direction of peace negotiations with the Taleban (see AAN analysis here and here). A negotiating team only made up of government representatives would not be able to credibly speak for all of Afghanistan’s political and social forces.

Relegating a final peace deal back to the Afghan ‘factions’ also formally restores the West’s previous mantra that peace talks with the Taleban must be “Afghan-led and Afghan-owned.” But if such intra-Afghan talks happen while the troop withdrawal (or a substantial part of it) is already taking place, this obviously deprives the Afghan government of guarantees that it is protected during these complicated negotiations and leaves them with little to bargain with.

Such a two-negotiation or two-deal construction also puts a large question mark behind the credibility of Khalilzad’s reassurances about the US intentions with the upcoming agreement, despite his tweet on 19 August that “We [the US] are not cutting and running. We are not looking for a withdrawal agreement. We’re looking for a peace agreement.” (see here)

A government in the margins agrees to a 15-member team

The shift in Khalilzad’s approach further undermines the position of the Afghan government, which in the original idea of the four-topic package deal would have come into the Doha talks as a full third party.

The position of the government had already become precarious due to internal political wrangling and mounting controversy with the US over the place of the presidential elections, scheduled for 28 September, in the current process of talks. Starting in late 2018, Khalilzad repeatedly said the election could stand in the way of peace, since a peace deal would require changes in the political system (this based on the idea that the Taleban would view joining the existing political system as an unacceptable form of ‘surrender.’) Ghani, in response, offered the Taleban ‘reform’ of the system, in his speech at the February 2018 Kabul Process meeting (AAN analysis here). When Ghani insisted on still holding the elections, Khalilzad called the government the ‘biggest obstacle‘ to peace.

The idea of intra-Afghan negotiations through an ‘inclusive team’ has watered down the government’s status to that of just one among the Afghan ‘factions’. The Afghan government has, however, agreed – albeit reluctantly – as it realised it might otherwise be confronted with a done deal. The government has now agreed to – in coordination with other domestic players – nominate a 15-member team to participate in the planned intra-Afghan negotiations. The government insists it has finalised the list of the team members, but has not released the names. In the meantime, the government has tried to keep its leverage by insisting that negotiations could begin soon after the US and the Taleban sign their agreement.

According to various sources, Khalilzad has submitted the 15-member list (or earlier versions of it) to the Taleban, which seems to suggest they have been given a veto over its composition (see also Taleban spokesman, and member of the Doha negotiations team, Sohail Shahin quoted on 21 August as raising “questions regarding the inclusiveness of the team” and its authorities to take a final decision, and more directly in pro-Taleban media here).

The government has also tried to make sure it has a say on the contents of the US-Taleban agreement. In mid-August, a “top Afghan security official, who … did not wish to be named,” indicated that Kabul was seeking guarantees from Washington and that the agreement, once announced, would “redirect all talks to [the] Afghan government.” Ghani further upped the ante in his 22 August interview with Tolonews (video here), by stating that a US-Taleban agreement would have no “legal character” as it was an agreement with a non-state actor. On the next day, Ghani stated that his government will give the final draft of the agreement a “comprehensive discussion” before it is signed.

Without Kabul’s consent and buy-in, a bilateral agreement will lack legitimacy among large parts of the public, particularly in Afghanistan, but also abroad. This provides the Afghan government with some leverage, if not something amounting to a de facto veto. This is also reflected in Khalilzad’s announcement that he will travel to Kabul after this round of the Doha talks to “consult with the leadership of the Afghan government on the peace process and encourage full preparation for intra-Afghan negotiations”. He did not confirm, however, that the Afghan government would be allowed to review the agreement and possibly suggest changes.

No effective ceasefire

The insistence of the Taleban that after the agreement there will be a ceasefire only with the US troops means that the initial fourth topic of the agreement and key demand of the Afghan population – an agreement leading to an immediate cessation of the fighting – has been shifted to the rather precarious “intra-Afghan negotiations.” A key question then is how these will relate to and be synchronised with the troop withdrawals. US government members have repeatedly stated that a withdrawal would be ‘conditions based’, ie dependent on whether the intra-Afghan negotiations make progress. But Afghanistan has experienced various ‘condition-based’ processes in the past, only to see conditions watered down beyond recognition (for example, see this AAN paper on the security transition).

If indeed, an announced agreement will have little or no consequences on the battlefield in terms of reduced violence, this will be a huge disappointment for many Afghans. It will also represent a squandered opportunity, as the issue the Taleban cared about most will already have been conceded.

Interior Minister Wais Barmak stops on the road into Kabul to meet Taleban who have come into the capital during the 2018 Eid truce (Photo: taken by someone in the crowd and posted on social media)


What might withdrawal look like

The biggest overlap between the US and the Taleban interests has always been on the issue of US troop withdrawal: both parties want the US (and other troops – some 14,000 US and 8,500 allied troops) out as soon as possible, albeit for very different reasons. The Taleban moreover have hoped, and probably still do, that Trump would lose patience and order a premature pull-out (ie before intra-Afghan negotiations result in a second settlement). They can be assumed to calculate that, once the foreign troops are out, they will have a relatively free hand on the battlefield as well as great leverage in the negotiations.

Internally, in their Qatar office and to their fighters, the Taleban have presented the upcoming US agreement to withdraw as a “victory” over an opponent “on their knees” (see this recent video released on pro-Taleban media outlets here and here). Theyare framing this as the Afghans’ third victory over a superpower, after the 19thcentury British retreat and that of the Soviets in the late 1980s. The Taleban also seem to bank on the habit of Afghan factions to change sides and join the apparent winner when the balance of power is shifting. (Afghans familiar with the July intra-Afghan dialogue, and its follow-up, have told AAN about the on-going outreach by Afghan leaders and subsequent Taleban assurances that they would not have to fear their return to power.)

It is not yet clear what timeframe for the US troop withdrawal will be. Several options have been discussed in the media, with reports that the Taleban initially insisted on a maximum of nine to twelve months period, but meanwhile have possibly agreed to 14 months (see here and here), while the US initially suggested 18-24 months (even though this clashes with the assumption that Trump wants this to be wrapped up before the November 2020 US election). The Taleban have reportedly asked “major powers, the United Nations and representatives of Islamic countries” to act as “guarantors” of the assurances that all foreign troops will leave Afghanistan. According to this statement, ‘major powers’ would include “Russia, China, Pakistan and other neighbors of Afghanistan.”

If the agreement is announced, some form of withdrawal is indeed likely to happen in the range of these intervals, given that there are only 15 months left before the next US presidential election. The extent and speed, however, remained a question for a long time. But now Trump said in a media interview that US troop strength will be “going down to 8,600 and then we make a determination from there as to what happens” – the latter apparently a reference to the caveat of progress in the intra-Afghan negotiations. This means a reduction by some 5,400 soldiers. This is at the lower end of the options US media had reported earlier (here and here) that a first phase of withdrawal could reduce the current number of US troops by a range of 5,000 to 7,000 soldiers. General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the US military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, was quoted as saying a day earlier “I am not using the withdrawal word right now.”

The complex attack on the American University of Afghanistan (AUAF) in Kabul started around 7 pm on 24 August 2016 with an explosion followed by armed assailants storming the campus. Photo: Tolonews

Anti-terrorism guarantees and the possibility of a ‘residual force’?

The main demand of the US towards the Taleban was a guarantee that groups such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS) – inclusing its franchise in Afghanistan, the ISKP – would not be allowed to act against any other country using Afghan territory (or, more specifically, the territory under Taleban control). With regard to IS, there seems to be, for now, no problem. The Taleban consider the group an unwanted competitor in the Afghan jihad and are actively fighting it.

This is less clear when it comes to al-Qaeda. The US, for that reason, may wish to include a clause in the agreement by which the Taleban explicitly distance themselves from their former ally. With their control over parts of Afghan territory and population, which allows them to tax income, businesses and other economic activity across the country, the Taleban are less dependent on the group than they used to be, economically as well as militarily. According to US estimates, there are currently a few hundred al-Qaeda fighters in country at best (the estimate was increased in 2015). Nevertheless, publicly denouncing al-Qaeda may still prove controversial, as it could put off Taleban sponsors in Islamic countries and at least some of its own fighters.

In the US, there have been discussions whether the Taleban might agree to a sustained military US counter-terrorism mission in Afghanistan, and/or an intelligence presence in Afghanistan, that would focus on counter-terrorism (CT), ensure that the Taleban complied with their promises, and possibly give “advisory support to an Afghan-led counter-terrorism force”. President Donald Trump also referred to this, saying “We have to have a presence, yes. The Taliban does not respect the Afghan government. … It is a dangerous place and we have to keep an eye on it. … We’ll always have someone there” (here). The Pentagon recently reiterated that “the United States, the international community, and the [Afghan National Defense and Security Forces] ANDSF“ need to maintain a “robust CT force” in the country. Secretary Pompeo, on the other hand, recently tried to smoothen the waves, saying at a veterans’ meeting that “America has never sought a permanent military presence in Afghanistan, and all sides recognize that time moves on.”

The Taleban have so far repeated their position that it would be out of the question for even a single foreign soldier to be left on Afghan soil (see Taleban spokesman Shahin in Pashto here). It is quite likely that the language in the agreement will be somewhat vague or will defer the final decisions to allow an agreed position to be reached. (It is also unclear whether secret annexes may be a possibility, to provide the US what it insists upon, while providing a face-saving solution to the Taleban.) The presence of General Austin Miller, the US and NATO troop commander in Afghanistan, at the Doha talks seem linked to this topic, among other technicalities.

A remaining CT force may involve US soldiers on Afghan soil, but may not be necessary. One form how this could be done, from a US point of view at least, how it was done in Iraq where a ‘residual force’ that was left behind after the withdrawal was relabelled US embassy staff. Altogether, it was reported that the US Embassy had 17,000 staff members at that time, including “military and security contractors [with] diplomatic immunity” (which can be assumed to have represented a large proportion of the 17,000).

The CIA has also established a number of anti-Taleban militias in Afghanistan (see here and here) that will most likely continue to exist after an agreement. A commander of the Khost Protection Force was quoted as saying“If America leaves, we will remain.” The US may seek to still remotely, or directly, use such forces. It is, in that respect, not clear whether the US-Taleban agreement will also cover the presence of armed US intelligence members and private security and military contractors. (3)

An important indication of the strength of a Taleban-US agreement will be whether the US-Afghan BSA (Bilateral Security Agreement) is formally annulled, revised or kept after the signing of an agreement. It is difficult to imagine that sceptics in the US will be satisfied without at least a public replacement of the BSA. The Afghan government certainly expects it to be maintained. President Ghani told personnel of the Afghan defence ministry on 13 August that “all security agreements” will be retained after the US and the Taleban sign an agreement (in Pashto here).

On the non-US troops, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has confirmed that the alliance would withdraw all its forces together the US soldiers. He said in mid-July, “We went together to Afghanistan and we leave together.” The US had earlier assured its allies that there would be no unilateral withdrawal.The allies have, so far, however not been part of any of the negotiations that will shape the conditions and timelines for the apparently joint withdrawal. Currently, there are still around 8,500 non-US soldiers in Afghanistan.

It not clear whether the agreement will contain specific provisions on what to do with the foreign fighters associated with the Taleban (see a discussion of their role in this AAN analysis). For the same reasons as with al-Qaeda, the Taleban will likely refuse to hand them over to US or Afghan authorities or to send them back to their home countries where they would likely be imprisoned or worse. The World Bank has recently started consultations with “stakeholders” on post-agreement programmes to “sustain peace after a political settlement.”

ISKP, the second largest, but by far smaller insurgent group in Afghanistan is not part of the negotiations, but the agreement might contain provisions about future counter-terrorism operations that affect them. There are widespread concerns in the US and Afghanistan that the group might become the address for Taleban defectors who do not support the agreement or are not ready to go back to civilian life. (4)

Ballot boxed delivered to Gardez (Paktia) in Afghanistan’s 2009 presidential election. Photo: Thomas Ruttig


The elections vs. negotiations dilemma

A stumbling block that may prevent intra-Afghan negotiations from commencing after the US-Taleban deal is signed, is the presidential election scheduled for 28 September 2019. Preparations have already advanced. Sensitive election material has started to be shipped to the provinces, although there are delays due to defect biometric voter verification devices. Campaigning has largely been slow, except for the incumbent. The process seems to be too advanced to be stopped and the elections to be postponed for a third time, at least not without further loss of face for president Ghani who has strongly insisted on holding the poll. In his view, his political legitimacy and future depend on the win he is envisaging.

Chief Executive Abdullah who has emerged as Ghani’s main competitor again, as in 2014, (5) has supported the holding of the election. On 28, August, however, he modified his position – and increased his options – saying that he was “fully ready to render sacrifices before and after election to reach a durable peace in the country.” According to this report that included “quit[ting] elections for the sake of peace.”

The US still has a number of means at hand to achieve another delay, including leveraging their influence among allies in the Ghani and opposition camps and delaying or withholding of funding (including for the elections). At the same time, the US is also trying to use the elections as leverage against the Taleban. Their Kabul Ambassador John Bass said on 25 August, during a visit to Balkh province, that the election should be held on its scheduled time, if there were any hurdles in the way of the peace process and the Taleban refused to sign the bilateral agreement soon.

The Taleban have made clear that they oppose these elections, which they consider held under “occupation” and therefore without legitimacy. In a statement in early August, they declared a boycott, called on voters not to participate in what they called “a ruse by the invaders and their hirelings to gain validity” and warned them to stay away from campaign rallies in order “to prevent losses”. If the elections do go ahead, the Taleban may opt for a full-blown attempt to violently interrupt them. UNAMA had already called the 2018 parliamentary election the most violent since 2001, but most Taleban-attributed incidents seemed comparatively minor to what could be unleashed this time, given recent bloody attacks. Obviously, such an escalation would amount to a complete discrediting of the Taleban’s intentions, as well as a war crime.  

If the election does take place under the current conditions, it is will again lead to controversy and consternation. The electoral framework is still practically unreformed framework, the electoral institutions widely considered non-credible and partial, and the reports surrounding the preparations for biometric verification suggest the likelihood of renewed chaos. Under these circumstances, any result could easily be challenged. Delaying the election would deprive Afghan voters of the chance to make their preference known, but going ahead among controversy is also problematic. And many voters, particularly in rural Taleban-controlled areas, are already deprived by the further increasing number of polling stations that will remain closed on election day due to lack of security

Conclusion: An agreement without peace?

Starting the bilateral negotiations was arguably the only realistic way to get around the Taleban blockade on direct talks with the Afghan government. But as a means to persuade the Taleban to engage in actual peace negotiations it appears, for now, to have failed. Instead of taking more time and pushing for engagement on the full four-point package deal, Khalilzad has given in to Taleban pressure and has relegated the vital negotiations on Afghanistan’s future political system to intra-Afghan negotiations, which may or may not take place. The Afghan government has, moreover, been forced to swallow the bitter pill of being downgraded, as an internationally-recognised and -funded government, to being considered just one of the Afghan ‘factions’ in those negotiations.

Two Afghan analysts, quoted here, seem to echo the view of many Afghans when they say that

… reaching a US-Taliban deal before establishing a solid intra-Afghan [negotiations] framework where the voices and demands of the Afghan people are translated into a workable agenda, negotiated by legitimate and competent representatives of the people, cannot, and should not be supported.

Such a deal, they say, risks freezing out “the only comparatively democratically [legitimised] entity in Afghanistan” which could have represented the majority of Afghans and their desire for peace. Already there is widespread concern among Afghans that their future is being decided behind their back in a rushed and hasty manner as dictated by the political calendar in the US.

Unfortunately, the ‘Kabul side’ also does not offer much hope. Both the government and the opposition have so far been unable to overcome their notorious disunity and to grasp the chance to represent Afghans’ hope for peace.

It is clear that the US-Taleban agreement, whether it will be signed in the coming few days or whether last-moment problems delay it further, will be insufficient to bring down the violence and usher in peace – which is what counts most for most Afghans. The agreement may even lead towards greater escalation, further empowering the Taleban and increasing their options while they have still not proven that their priority is peace, not power. The Taleban’s insistence that a ceasefire will for now only involve the leaving western troops indicates that their focus is still firmly on a military ‘solution’ with possibly a power-sharing deal. The later could allow them to push out their adversaries by force, after US troops are withdrawn and a decent interval of cooperation has elapsed.

How keen the Taleban are on a withdrawal agreement has been shown by the fact that even the 16 August bomb attack in a mosque in Kuchlak, near Quetta, where a brother of Taleban leader Mawlawi Hebatullah Akhundzada was killed, did not derail the talks. This despite the fact that the bomb may have been meant for Hebatullah himself and was generally seen as an attempt to sabotage the dialogue with the US.

Long-standing Afghanistan observer Michael Semple said he has found no evidence that the Taleban leadership is preparing for anything other than a march into Kabul:

They are telling their people: ‘We have defeated the Americans, the Americans are fleeing, and as they are fleeing they are handing us the keys to Kabul. We’re taking over.’ There is no reconciliation message…

At the same time, there have been signals over the years, not least during the 2018 Eid ceasefire, that many fighters – most of whom fight in the areas they have been born and where their families live – might be ready for peace, although probably not at a cost of a perceived ‘surrender’.

The shifts in the US’s negotiation strategy have made it plain that the agreement – once signed – will be, at best, only one step toward the long-awaited peace in Afghanistan and, at worst, a step towards further escalation of the conflict.

Edited by Martine van Bijlert, Sayed Reza Kazemi and Kate Clark


(1) So far there has been one recent successful ceasefire – or actually, two as both the government (tacitly joined by the US forces) and the Taleban both observed unilaterally proclaimed ceasefires in June 2018 that overlapped on the three Eid days. (The government’s truce was a few days longer.) For the first time, this allowed Afghans “to imagine their country in peace” after a long time, as AAN wrote. It fostered contacts and allowed fraternisation between Taleban and pro-government fighters. Many Taleban visiting government-held cities made it clear that the ceasefire did not mean they were willing to surrender (there was some slogan-shouting and many of them carried the movement’s white flag). At the same time, the government claimed that many Taleban fighters quit the movement on that occasion, which seems to have made its leadership wary about their fighters’ commitment. A recent article in the British media illustrated, in a number of interviews, the ambiguous positions vis-à-vis a possible peace deal of many fighters: “tired of war, and at times suspicious of their leaders [b]ut … also often uncompromising in their demands for an American defeat and Islamic government, with little sign they wanted to sign up to share power with the Kabul government or sign up to the country’s democratic constitution.”

(2) German foreign minister Heiko Maas said on 27 August in Berlin that his country would continue supporting “US efforts to broker a peace agreement between the Government of Afghanistan and the Taliban… even though we know that success is by no means certain – considering everything that has happened in the country in the last decades.”

(3) The number of – declared – armed private security contractors in Afghanistan has increased more than 65 per cent since President Donald Trump took office, according to a review of Pentagon statistics (see here). The Pentagon’s most recent report on contractor personnel numbers, for the third quarter of Fiscal Year 2019, cites 2,639 (slightly down from 2,847 in the first quarter) armed private security contractors supporting the Operation Freedom’s Sentinel mission in Afghanistan, up from the 1,722 armed contractors it reported in Jan. 2017.

(4) Large-scale defections to ISKP have not happened so far, and the group is cornered in some parts of some eastern districts. Deeper ideological and religious rifts between the (Sunni Hanafi) Taleban and the IS Salafi stand in the way. But there is no guarantee that economic problems and grievances over the US-Taleban agreement might not bridge this gap. On the other hand, the Taleban dropping out of the armed conflict with the US might narrow ISKPs’ room to manoeuvre, as it might become the main target of an internationally-backed onslaught, possibly coordinated with the Taleban.

(5) This happened after the disintegration of former national security advisor Muhammad Hanif Atmar’s ticket, after his candidate for second vice-president, Muhammad Mohaqqeq, and his campaign manager Jailani Popal defected to Abdullah’s team.


Categories: Defence`s Feeds

Why has Rural Poverty in Afghanistan Got Worse? New AAN paper on post-2001agricultural policy

The Afghanistan Analysts Network (AAN) - Tue, 27/08/2019 - 09:57

A new AAN paper seeks to understand why agricultural policy since 2001 has failed to increase production, lift rural Afghans out of poverty or secure their food supply. It finds the answers in the stories agricultural development planners tell themselves about how to ‘modernise’ agriculture, even as they ignore evidence from the field. AAN guest author Adam Pain (*) traces how planners have kept doggedly focussing on production, supply and markets, even as people in rural Afghanistan and research on markets and labour relations tell a different story, of lack of work and households locked into debt relations. Here, Adam Pain introduces his paper, “Growing Out of Poverty? Questioning agricultural policy in Afghanistan” which outlines what has not worked in the last two decades, and what might.

The Helmand scheme . . . came under American supervision in 1946 and continued until the departure of the last reclamation expert in 1979, outlasting all the theories and rationales on which it was based. It was lavishly funded by U.S foreign aid, multilateral loans, and the Afghan government, and it was the opposite of piecemeal. It was an “integrated” development scheme, with education, industry, agriculture, medicine, and marketing under a single controlling authority. Nation building did not fail in Afghanistan for want of money, time, or imagination. In the Helmand Valley, the engines and dreams of modernization had run their full course, spooling out across the desert until they hit limits of physics, culture, and history. – Nick Cullather (1)

Rural development, of which agricultural development is an important part, is a genuinely uncertain activity. One of the ways that both policy makers, bureaucrats and practitioners deal with that uncertainty is to create stories or accounts that simplify that reality so that they can be clear about what they must do. In the 1950s it was all about river basin development. Now it is about liberal market development. The ‘will to improve’ (2) is enormous, the desire to claim success overwhelming and policy and practice proceeds often almost in defiance of what is happening on the ground.

So it has been in Afghanistan. I remember back in 2001 how quick policy makers from the international and bilateral agencies with little attention to the past were to formulate the solutions they thought were needed to respond to how they saw the problems and needs of Afghanistan. Of course the solutions were largely framed in terms of what were seen to be the deficiencies and ‘lacks’ of Afghanistan. It was not difficult to construct a policy story whereby Afghanistan’s largely rural economy – at least that is where most people live – would provide the means by which Afghanistan would be economically transformed through market based agriculture and poverty reduced.

The story drew its rationale by an appeal to history, both distant and recent, of how other countries had undergone such transformations in the past. All Afghanistan had to do, the narrative went, was to follow that route – except that it was a very simplified history and account and more of a case of ‘do as we say’ rather ‘than do as we did’ or even ‘as we do’. The policy instruments used in the past by the west, and more recently in particular Asian countries, included a whole range of tariff barriers, investments in public goods, and public support to agriculture. Western countries still protect and subsidise their agriculture. Yet Afghanistan was expected to transform itself in the face of the full winds of free trade and global agricultural markets.

A village in Sar-e Pul that feels left behind, although nationwide, rural poverty rates have risen since 2001 (Adam Pain 2010)

Not surprisingly, it has not worked. Agricultural productivity has not grown, or at least not it has not grown yet. Poverty and food insecurity rates in Afghanistan, however, have grown since 2002. Is it a case of try again, try again better and fail again better? Or is the policy story fundamentally wrong and we need a better one?

My answer to that question is that the policy story is wrong and we do need a better one. This is what this paper is about. It draws on long-term fieldwork in rural Afghanistan and critical engagement as a teacher in theories and evidence of agrarian change, rather than any specific engagement in the agricultural policy-making processes

Attempts to generalise about rural Afghanistan, of course, raise real challenges, given its diversity of cultural and geographical landscapes. It remains largely unknown, statistically: the absence of universal cadastral records, showing the extent, value and ownership of land, for example, reveals the limits of the state’s ability to make ‘legible’, to see and therefore tax, its rural population. Even knowledge of existing villages and their locations is patchy. Superimposed on this is an intervention landscape where multiple agencies and NGOs have meddled in village life, sometimes in contradictory ways, leaving few records and, often, few traces. A funding landscape where donors have favoured some provinces over others, leading to profoundly uneven allocation of resources, has compounded this heterogeneity.

So this paper has drawn its arguments from specific locations in seeking to develop a more general account of Afghanistan’s rural economy over the last 15 years or so. It has used a household panel approach drawing on an overall sample of over 300 households in different locations, a subset of which have been revisited over three rounds of study, held in 2003, 2009-10 and 2014-16. The locations have provided contrasts in terms of reconstruction funding, conflict, changing access to public goods and levels of inequality. In its final round, it included studies of village institutions and the navigation of economic life in key commodity markets.

The evidence from the field is compelling and consistent. Two key aspects are noted here. First are the accounts by informants – farmers from Sar-e Pul, Herat and Kandahar provinces – of the lack of work in agriculture:

First there is no work available in this village especially in winter time. If [a person] finds work at the village level it is not a regular job. They are able to find work for only up five days in a month in winter time. However, in summer time, jobs increase at the village level, but still it is only for two months and the wage is not sufficient. (3)

 [if I were to rank the income for people in the village] I would say working in Iran comes first, then working in construction .. and lastly agricultural income. We don’t have [so much] land in the village that people [can] totally depend on it. (4) 

The money sent… from Iran is the only source of income for the household. The harvest of wheat… is not sufficient for the household itself. From our lands, we get three kharwar [1 kharwar = 560kg] while our annual consumption is six, so we are buying three kharwar every year. (5)

Now the labour market has come down and about 65 per cent of people at the village level are free and they are not able to find work for themselves. About eight years ago, this percentage was about 10 per cent , and these 10 per cent  people were busy in agriculture activities at the village level. The other 90 per cent  of people were busy in work outside of the village. (6)

The second aspect of evidence from the field speaks to the nature of rural poverty: households locked into debt relations, forms of debt bondage and patron-client relationships offering dependent security and not much else.

People have to continue with the jamadar [labour broker] for the next year as well… Therefore, continually, people are working in the brick kilns for the jamadar to cover their loan. (7)

If I do not cook their bread and my son does not graze their cow, they will take that house from us. After that, someone else will come and live here. Because there are a lot of people that want to have such an opportunity. (8) 

Thus, while one can often find in many but not all villages a few farmers with larger landholdings who are more market-oriented, in nearly all villages, most households have little or no land and cannot secure sufficient income either in kind from the harvest or agricultural work to feed their families. They are in a sense a ‘surplus ‘population, who will probably never find work in the rural economy and are deeply constrained in the choices they have. Evidence from the field shows how strongly Afghanistan’s rural economy is governed largely by social rather than market relations. That is likely only to persist under the current conditions of conflict. What the country’s rural population needs is work and the assurance of food security. Yet, this has not been a priority in agricultural policy. Instead it has focused on commodities and markets.

A harvest of melons in Badakhshan (Adam Pain 2011)

In sum, the modernisation narrative that has driven agricultural policy-making in Afghanistan needs to change. It cannot just focus on production and supply, but must address much more structural constraints and risk. These aspects are central to the creation and perpetuation of poverty. Markets are not the solution. Indeed, as the evidence shows, they may well amplify the risks. Dreams of agricultural modernisation are just that and like the Helmand scheme before it, are foundering in their encounter with Afghanistan’s rural reality.


Edited by Thomas Ruttig


(*) Adam Pain has worked on Afghanistan’s rural economy since 2001, which he first visited in the last months of the Taleban era. This led to the establishment of the household lpanel inBadakhshan, Faryab, Ghazni, Herat, Kandahar, Laghman and Sari-i-pul and he led the three rounds of the  livelihood trajectory study between 2003 and 2016. He is a visiting professor at the Department of Urban and Rural Development at the Swedish University of Agricultural Science, Uppsala, and co-author of a recent textbook on rural development: A Pain and K Hansen, Rural Development (Abingdon: Routledge, 2019).


(1) Nick Cullather, “Damming Afghanistan: Modernization in a Buffer State.” Journal of American History 89:2 (2002), pp512–37.

(2) Tania Murray Li, The Will to Improve: Governmentality, Development and the Practice of Politics, Durham, Duke University Press, 2007.

(3) Danielle Huot and Adam Pain, Afghanistan livelihood trajectories: life on the margins in Sar-i-Pul Province. SLRC/AREU Working Paper 54, 2017, p11.

(4) Danielle Huot, Adam Pain and Ihsanullah Ghafoori, Afghanistan livelihood trajectories in Afghanistan: evidence from three villages in Herat Province, SLRC/ AREU Working Paper 54, 2016, p21.

(5) Hout, Pain and Ghafoori, see FN 4, p38.

(6) Adam Pain and Danielle Huot,Life in the time of ‘late development: Livelihood Trajectories in Afghanistan 2002-2016, SLRC/AREU, 2017, p23.

(7) Pain/Huot, see FN 6, p27.

(8) Pain/Huot, see FN 6, p26.


Publication date: 27 August 2019

The full report can be downloaded here: Agricultural Policy in Afghanistan



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Past as Prologue? What the parliamentary election results tell us about the September presidential election

The Afghanistan Analysts Network (AAN) - Fri, 23/08/2019 - 03:57

To better understand the influences that will shape the outcome of the upcoming presidential election, guest author Scott Worden (with input from Colin Cookman)* analyses recent voter registration patterns, as well as voting patterns from the last parliamentary election, in October 2018. He found large differences between provinces and regions – in security conditions, rates of voter registration and the proportion of the population that cast their votes – meaning that some areas have a much greater potential influence on the outcome of the presidential election than others. This analysis seeks to provide a useful insight into which areas of the country may have greater relative weight in the 2019 presidential election and which may not.


Comparing past registration and voting patterns provides indications as to which areas of the country will have greater or less potential to influence the outcome of the upcoming presidential election. This is the case even though the risk of fraud will dominate election concerns: the impact of fraud depends significantly on a foundation of registration and turnout. As candidates and voters consider whether there is a ‘level playing field’ in the upcoming election, voting and voter registration patterns reveal several slopes in the landscape.

  • Based on parliamentary vote totals by province and region, the lowest proportion of registered voters showed up in the southeast (21%) and south (27%). Ironically, this is where registration was highest compared to population. In other words, many voters in these regions were registered, but comparatively few voted. The highest voter participation rates were in the Central Highlands and the north, where registration per capita was lowest, ie while relatively few registered, those that did were more likely to vote.
  • Overall, more votes were cast in ‘urban’ than rural areas during the parliamentary election. Candidates that appeal to urban voters are likely to have a structural advantage in the presidential race. A big question is whether urban voters have different candidate preferences than rural voters – or whether other factors like ethnicity, education, or age matter more.
  • More than half of the parliamentary votes were cast in seven out of 34 provinces, all of which contain large cities: Kabul province alone comprised 16.5 per cent of the total national vote, followed by Herat (9%), Nangrahar (8%), Balkh (6%), Takhar (5%), Baghlan (5%) and Kandahar (5%). Together, these provinces made up 53 per cent of the vote cast, although they contain only 47 per cent of the country’s population. Candidate preferences in these provinces may play a dominant role in choosing the next Afghan president, particularly if the contest is close.
  • The 15 lowest-voting provinces (Uruzgan, Zabul, Nuristan, Logar, Farah, Paktika, Nimruz, Panjshir, Kapisa, Badghis, Laghman, Paktia, Kunduz, Jowzjan and Wardak) together made up only 15 per cent of the national vote in the 2018 parliamentary election. If these 15 provinces had voted in proportion to their population, they would have comprised 29 per cent of the vote. Most of these provinces are significantly affected by the insurgency. In that sense, the Taleban significantly disrupted the parliamentary elections and have a lot of leverage to do so again in September.
  • The Central Highlands significantly over-performed in terms of votes per population in the parliamentary election. Daikundi cast 3.9 per cent of the parliamentary votes, but makes up only 1.4 per cent of the population – a ratio of 2.5 to 1. Bamyan had more than twice its share of votes cast compared to population, at a ratio of 2.1 to 1 (it has 1.9 per cent of the population, but cast 3.6 per cent of all votes). If participation rates are similar in the presidential election, the Central Highlands will represent a valuable vote block.
  • While fraud undoubtedly occurred during the parliamentary elections, it appears that the scale of ballot stuffing was lower than in past elections – helped by new biometric voter verification processes and polling station voter lists. None of the 2018 provincial level vote totals are demographically implausible. Yet with dozens of candidates running for each parliamentary seat, only a few hundred votes determined winners from losers. Large-scale fraud is more necessary in presidential elections, and high voter registration in some insecure areas preserves the risk for a return of mass fraud in the upcoming vote.
  • The biggest wildcards in the presidential election are the east and southeast. Voting for the parliamentary election there was anaemic, with only 569,000 votes or 16 per cent of the total votes cast (although these regions have around 28 per cent of the registered voters). The potential vote is much larger. Over 40 per cent of the population in these two regions registered to vote, equalling 23 per cent of total registration in the country and comprising a maximum potential two million votes. If turnout significantly increases between 2018 and 2019, this could be the biggest vote block in the presidential election.

The difficulty of electoral predictions

Electoral predictions are a dismal science in Afghanistan – both because of widely shifting political preferences and the murky data that underlies all planning and prediction efforts. To better understand the influences that will shape the presidential election, this report examines both where voters are registered and where votes were cast in the October 2018 parliamentary elections. This combined information offers an indication of which vote banks may be more potent in the upcoming presidential election.

Significant differences in security across the country have created an uneven landscape for voter participation and this will affect results. A new voter registration system, implemented in the run-up to the 2018 election, has placed further limits on who can vote, as will be seen below.

Pre-election polling would normally provide the means for predictive analysis based on voter populations. But there are few reliable political polls in Afghanistan and it is difficult to separate likely voters from the general population when creating a polling sample population. In 2014, the few public polls of presidential election preferences were met with accusations that the pollsters were biased and, in one case, threats against the international organisation conducting the poll.

The next best thing, therefore, is to examine geographic differences in voter participation, which can indicate where candidates may have political advantages. This is particularly relevant since ethnicity is probably the most salient feature of politics in Afghanistan right now and in many areas ethnicity correlates strongly with geography. The second round of the 2014 election showed that Abdullah won more votes in non-Pashtun areas and Ghani won the most votes in Pashtun areas, including in areas that did not overwhelmingly vote for him in the first round.

Generally speaking, Pashtun populations are more concentrated in the southern and eastern regions bordering Pakistan; Tajik populations are generally higher in the north, west and northeast; Hazara populations are generally higher in the Central Highlands; and Uzbek populations higher in a few northern provinces surrounding Jowzjan. Kabul province is probably the most ethnically diverse and has the largest share of population of any province – an estimated 16 per cent of the national total.

In addition to ethnicity, candidates and vice presidents will likely attract more supporters from provinces where they grew up or have tribal affiliations. Piecing this puzzle together for a particular presidential ticket is beyond the scope of this report. But the data here can be applied by others to estimate where vote blocs are stronger and weaker.


The electoral data analysed in this report has been taken from the Independent Election Commission (IEC) website. The final results of the parliamentary vote were posted station by station here and laboriously downloaded by Colin Cookman (accessible as a downloadable data file here). Cookman’s data site enables comparisons of voting and registration at the polling centre level, as well as past population estimates at the district level.

Prior to the 2018 elections, the IEC published a preliminary set of voter registration figures by province here. Although never publicly released, the IEC subsequently updated its final pre-election voter registration figures after a brief clean-up process in early October 2018 to remove duplicates and other erroneous registration. That final voter registration list was obtained from an election observer and used for calculations in Cookman’s electoral dataset.

Population figures are taken from the Central Statistics Office’s (CSO) published population dataset for 2018-19. CSO population statistics are the official source used by the government and the IEC, although historically they have been lower than other estimates (such as Flowminder, iMMAP and LandScan, which are satellite-based estimates). If the CSO population estimates are indeed lower than the actual population figures, it means that an even smaller share of the population has registered and voted than cited in this report.

For the purpose of this report, the voting patterns in the 2018 parliamentary election are treated as a ‘floor’ for the presidential election, on the assumption that at least most of those who voted in the parliamentary election will do so again for the presidential vote – and more will probably do so. The voter registration patterns, whose numbers include ‘top-up’ registration this year, are considered the ‘ceiling’ for this report, since only those who have registered will be able to vote.

National parliamentary election participation trends

An analysis of the 2018 parliamentary vote shows a historically-low turnout and significant differences in turnout between the provinces. It also showed unequal voter registration.

Low turnout in the 2018 parliamentary election

The overarching story of the 2018 parliamentary elections is one of historically-low turnout according to every metric. Based on the IEC’s final results, fewer valid votes were cast than in any previous election, both in absolute terms (3.6 million vs 4.2 million in 2010) and as a percentage of the population (11% vs 17%). Fewer polling locations were open and there were fewer reported results than ever before (4,600 vs 5,200 polling centres in the 2014 presidential election). More districts saw no voting than ever before (51 out of the 421 districts and urban centres that the IEC uses for its polling centre plan).1 Also, for the first time, an entire province had no election (Ghazni, which includes 19 of the 51 districts mentioned above). In previous elections, Ghazni cast respectively 275,000 (second round of the 2014 presidential election) and 179,000 votes (2010 parliamentary election).

It is difficult to say whether this low turnout in the parliamentary election will be repeated in the presidential election because the political dynamics are different. In parliamentary elections, local candidates and local rivalries can inspire people to vote to address local patronage demands. Presidential politics are more consequential for the nation, but can seem more remote to local constituents. This year’s presidential election will be the first not to have a local component in the form of provincial council elections since 2004. That ‘standalone’ presidential election was marked out by high levels of participation, but it took place under unique transitional circumstances and with far better, countrywide better security; it cannot be a template for what will happen this year. The lack of a local poll alongside the presidential ballot in September, some argue, means the election will attract fewer voters.

With these factors in mind, the overall low turnout in 2018 can be considered as a floor of participation that illustrates a ‘worst case scenario’ for voting participation in the presidential election.

Provincial winners and losers in the 2018 parliamentary election

There was wide variation in relative participation – votes per capita – between the provinces in 2018. Overall, the parliamentary election saw more votes per capita in the Central Highlands and fewer in the south, southeast and east. Daikundi, for example, had 132,000 votes recorded in 2018 (26 per cent of its estimated 499,000 population), while, combined, Paktia, Paktika and Khost cast 159,000 votes (just eight per cent of its estimated combined 1,955,000 population). Kandahar province cast 157,000 votes, which was only 11 per cent of its estimated population. Only 12,000 of Uruzgan’s 420,000 citizens voted in the parliamentary election – less than three per cent. Translated into a nationwide election, this would suggest that areas with high insecurity and a largely rural population would be significantly under-represented in terms of the vote.

Different levels of access to voting is significant because geographic regions have distinct political characteristics that may favour some candidates over others. Therefore, suppression of the vote in one area will tilt the playing field toward others. The constitution addresses this problem for the parliament by requiring that seats are allocated to provinces proportional to their population – thus seeking to ensure that voters in different provinces are represented in relatively equal proportions in the national legislature. In the presidential election, however, the whole nation is one constituency and all votes are weighted equally. Therefore, a province or region with more voters registered compared to its population, potentially has a greater influence on who becomes president.

To illustrate the case, in the parliamentary election, the number of votes in Uruzgan amounted to 0.3 per cent of the total number of votes cast in the country, whereas the Uruzgan population is 1.3 per cent of the national total and Uruzgan has 1.2 per cent of the seats in parliament. If this pattern were repeated in the presidential election, the influence of Uruzgan citizens in choosing the President would be roughly four times less than their population would suggest. Kunduz and Helmand are also highly insecure and also significantly under-performed on a per capita basis in the 2018 election. Together, they cast 128,000 votes, amounting to 3.8 per cent of the national total, whereas their combined population is 8.7 per cent of the national total and their parliamentary seats 6.8 per cent of the total.

While small and insecure provinces will likely have reduced influence in the presidential election, several large and more urbanized provinces will likely dominate the national presidential vote. A majority (53 per cent) of the votes cast in the 2018 parliamentary election were from seven out of 34 provinces: Kabul, Herat, Balkh, Nangrahar, Takhar, Badakhshan and Kandahar, which contain only 47 per cent of the population.

Greater urban participation

Looking more closely at the population map, one of the most salient distinctions between the 2018 election and past elections is a shift toward more ‘urban’ participation. In the 2010 parliamentary election, districts that contained a provincial capital (in most cases, the largest city in the province) contributed 30 per cent of the final vote, in line with their estimated 30 per cent share of the national population. In 2018, 38 per cent of the final vote was cast in districts containing the provincial capital, which were estimated, by then, to comprise around 32 per cent of the population.2Thus, in 2018 these urban voters had a greater influence over results than more rural areas.

At the provincial level, there is more variation and there are some extreme outliers. In Farah, 87 per cent of votes came from the capital district (21,952 of 25,200 votes for the whole province). Yet the Afghan Central Statistics Office estimates the capital district has only 23 per cent of the population (123,135 people out of a total provincial population of 543,257.) Farah, Helmand, Jowzjan and Zabul all had at least 40 per cent more of the vote coming from capital districts than the percentage of population that lives there. It is notable that each of these provinces has high levels of Taleban control outside the capital, which could explain the relative lack of votes from those districts.

Another way to measure ‘urban’ versus ‘rural’ voting influence is to look at polling centres that are closest together, based on IEC GPS data (close proximity indicates they are located in cities or villages with higher population densities) and to compare them to polling centres that have the greatest distance between them (indicating a more rural and sparse population). Overall, 41 per cent of the vote in the country was cast in the top 25 per cent most densely-concentrated polling centres. Only 16 per cent of votes were cast in the bottom 25 per cent of polling centres, that are furthest apart.

Unequal voter registration

Since the adoption of the 2018 Electoral Law, eligible citizens can only vote in the specific polling centre where they registered prior to the election. Therefore, voter registration data paints a clear picture of the maximum  vote that may occur in a given area during the presidential election.

Voter registration figures for the 2018 election indicated that only 60 per cent of estimated eligible voters (Afghan citizens age 18 or older) registered to vote (see also this AAN dispatch).3

Within that low figure, there were large disparities between provinces and regions. In seven provinces, less than 40 per cent of the estimated eligible population was registered; 43 districts had no registration at all (including all 19 districts in Ghazni, where in 2018, no election was held) and; 16 districts conducted voter registration, but no women registered to vote. The least represented provinces were Farah (6% of those over 18), Uruzgan (7%), Kunduz (8%) and Badghis (8%). Helmand, Logar and Wardak are also areas of high insecurity and had below average voter registration. Jowzjan, one of the provinces where First Vice President Dostum has ‘delivered’ the vote in previous elections to Hamed Karzai and then Ashraf Ghani, also significantly under-performed in voter registration, with only eight per cent of those of voting age registering. In neighbouring Sar-e Pul, only nine per cent registered.4  The fall in registration rates in some northern provinces due to the Taleban capture of large areas was so marked that the United Nations Secretary General in his 10 September 2018 report on Afghanistan to the General Assembly highlighted the “discontent” there and said that “some opposition figures accused the Government of a deliberate plot to disenfranchise northern communities.” (See also AAN reporting) on registration and voting in Faryab in 2018.)

Registration as a percentage of CSO population estimates was highest in the Central Highlands and the east. The eastern provinces of Nangrahar, Nuristan, Khost and Kunar also significantly exceeded the national voter registration average. Bamyan, Daikundi and Ghor in the Central Highlands registered above average as well. Kandahar in the south and Baghlan in the north were also in the top ten in of registration rates.

It should be noted that there were several strong indicators of fake registrations in insecure provinces such as Kandahar and Paktia (described in this AAN guest analysis). In Paktia, for instance, registration exceeded the estimated voting age population by five per cent. Even if the population estimates are inaccurate, this is such an extreme result that some form of fraud is indicated because that would mean 100% registration occurred in a province with significant security obstacles – well above national averages and rates in developed democracies.

Regardless of fraud, areas that have high registration numbers, like many southeastern provinces, have a high potential influence in the presidential election. Areas with low registration numbers, as in several southern provinces, are capped in the number of votes they are able to cast.

New voter registration for 2019

In August 2019, the IEC released new provincial voter registration figures, following a month-long ‘top-up’ exercise aimed at registering or updating voter rolls since the parliamentary elections last autumn. According to these figures, this brought the 2019 voter registration to 9.6 million, which includes 235,000 registrants in Ghazni – where no registration was conducted in 2018. Setting Ghazni aside, this roughly 565,000 increase from 2018 registration surpasses an earlier press-release that claimed only 317,395 new voters had been registered in the process, not including voters in Ghazni. Since then, IEC officials also stated that they had removed approximately 400,000 duplicate or erroneous voter registrations from the national list. The IEC has not yet reconciled these discrepancies.

Comparing the detailed 2019 consolidated voter registration numbers with the 2018 numbers shows that several provinces gained considerably more than others. Several small and/or insecure provinces, including Nuristan (35%), Faryab (16%), Badghis (16%), , Paktika (14%), Kunduz (13%), and Uruzgan (14%) saw the largest percentage increases in voter registration between 2018 and 2019 – although in some cases like Nuristan, this was from a low baseline and the absolute number of voter registrations involved is not that large at the national scale. Kabul, Nangarhar, Kandahar, Herat, and Faryab saw the largest net changes. These five provinces collectively added 207,000 votes to their 2018 voter registration. Within these provinces, the majority of that increase coming from polling centres in their capital districts, increasing the power of urban voting in the presidential election.

Voter registration as a ceiling on participation

As difficult as it is to predict where people will vote, it is easier to determine where people will not vote.

First, people will not be able to vote in areas where voter registration was unavailable Out of the known universe of roughly 7,400 polling centres from past elections, only 5,106 opened for registration, the deficit largely due to insecurity. Out of these, only 5,066 had registration data posted on the IEC website (representing 69 per cent of the ideal coverage). Overall, 43 out of 421 districts had no registered voters in the 2018 election, including the 19 districts in Ghazni. Moreover, during 2019, top-up voter registration was largely limited to district centres – although voters who made it to a district centre could choose any polling centre in the province to vote in. This meant that voters in more remote areas faced greater challenges to register due to a lack of affordable or safe transport and, for women, cultural norms that restrict them from traveling.

Second, people cannot vote if they chose not to register even where there was access. With a relatively short time to register in 2018 and almost no public outreach, participation was low even in areas that were accessible and secure. In Kabul province, for example, only 32 per cent of the estimated eligible voters registered. In very safe Bamyan province, only 30 per cent registered (although here there were also complaints that the IEC did not open enough registration sites). Choosing not to register is an individual voter’s choice. But cumulatively, it affects the size of voting blocs that candidates hope to draw on for electoral support.

Third, during the 2018 election, many poling centres that planned to open on polling day were closed – largely due to poor security but also administrative and staffing problems. Of the roughly 5,100 polling centres that had registered voters, only approximately 4,600 locations actually opened based on reports of valid results. Given that people are required to vote in the centre where they registered, closing a polling centre where registration occurred bars those citizens from voting.5

The consequences of uneven representation

All this means that, even if one assumes maximum participation, several provinces and regions will have more opportunity to vote than others. The lowest registration rates per population tended to occur in areas with a more active insurgency. Each of these provinces will have a significant structural disadvantage when it comes to choosing the next president.

Looking at the registration ceilings, if the same proportions of registered voters turn out in all provinces in the presidential election as they did in the parliamentary election, the east and southeast have the greatest advantage, whereas the south, west and north will have the lowest participation. This means that candidates relying on votes from the north, south and west are at a structural disadvantage when it comes to getting out the vote.

The above graph shows the difference between a province’s share of the national population and its share of national voter registration. If each province has the same voter turnout rates in the presidential election, the provinces on the left would have more influence on the choice of a president than their population would indicate. Provinces on the right would have less influence than their population would indicate.



This graph illustrates the range of potential voter participation in the presidential election by province. The top line shows per-capita registration, which is effectively a ceiling of votes that may be cast. The bottom line shows the percentage of the population that actually voted in the 2018 parliamentary election. Provinces on the left side of the scale have the most uncertain vote banks. Provinces on the right already maximised their opportunities to vote in the 2018 vote.

Based on parliamentary vote totals by province and region, the lowest proportion of registered voters showed up in the southeast (21%) and south (27%) – ironically, where registration was highest. In other words, relatively-speaking, many voters in these regions registered, but comparatively few voted. The highest voter participation rates were in the Central Highlands and the north, where registration was lowest. Both the north and the west made up for their relatively low registration rates with relatively high participation, ie while relatively few registered, those that did were more likely to vote. Jowzjan had 59 per cent of registered voter turnout and Herat had 60 per cent. Badakhshan, Balkh, Parwan, Baghlan, Panjshir and Samangan were all above the national average.

There may be several reasons for the contrast between voter registration rates and voting rates. Security conditions may have changed in the six months between registration and voting. Enthusiasm for registering to vote may be greater than the appeal of voting for particular candidates, if a person does not see a favourite they like.

Fraud is another possibility. It is possible that areas with fraudulent registration amassed potential vote banks that were not used in the parliamentary election – either because the last minute introduction of biometric voter verification upset ballot stuffing plans, or because fraudulent registration was intended to be used for presidential elections and not the parliamentary elections. If this last theory is true, then extra vigilance is needed to prevent fraud in areas that have high registration and low parliamentary voting.

Ultimately, whether a particular province or region’s electorate will make the most of the possibilities provided by its level of registration is the most difficult question to answer and relies on a combination of candidate campaign mobilisation and prevailing security conditions. The turnout for the parliamentary elections may, however, provide some important clues.


* Scott Worden is Director of Afghanistan and Central Asia Programmes for the US Institute of Peace. He served as an international member of the Electoral Complaints Commission during the 2009 Afghanistan presidential elections.


(1) See attached annex listing the 51 districts where there was no registration.

(2) The 2018 figures are derived from this summary table. (specifically the national total rows for the variables “capital_district_votes_pct” and “capital_pop_pct_CSO_18_19”). The 2010 population data was calculated based on the CSO’s 2010-11 population estimate, accessible by Internet Archive here.

(3) The IEC registered 8.8 million voters for the 2018 election. Election officials have historically estimated that around 50 per cent of the population is 18 years or older, and therefore eligible to register to vote. The most recent statistics from the CSO now estimate that 54% of the population (17.4 million people) is under 18. Therefore, if the national population is approximately 32.2 million (according to current CSO data for 2019), then the estimated eligible voter population is around 14.8 million, meaning that 40 per cent of potentially eligible voters had not registered and were not be able to vote in 2019.

(4) Population / registration figures by province are included on this constituency summary table, which is also the source of the regional participation calculations in the following sections. Registration data by polling center (not rolled up into district-level in the file, but that’s where these no-registration figures came from) is here (checked against the district list here).

(5) In the 2018 election, there were also eight districts that had collectively registered 94,000 voters, but had no votes recorded on election day. The overall population of these 51 districts was 2.9 million (representing approximately 1.45 million potentially eligible voters).




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