A cousin of Afghanistan's president, Hamid Karzai, was hosting a celebration of the Eid al-Fitr festival at his home in Kandahar province on 29 July 2014. A smartly dressed man joined the celebrations, detonated an explosive vest and killed himself and the cousin, Hashmat Karzai.
The other Mr Karzai was also a highly influential man, and not always in accord with the presiden. His most prominent recent role had been as an advisor to one of the two leading candidates in the presidential election (and likely next holder of the office), Ashraf Ghani.
The assassination of Hashmat Karzai is just one example of the targeted attacks that have often threatened the usually well-protected elites of Kabul. It is also an indication of how much seems to be going wrong across Afghanistan as the withdrawal of the great majority of foreign troops - scheduled for the end of 2014 - draws near.
Among the problems, two of a directly military character that bear on the crucial United States-Afghanistan relationship have come to the fore. The first, revealed by the well-connected US publication Defense News, is that a key component of the Afghan army may be unable to operate as planned. This is a large rapid-reaction force of seven kandaks (each roughly equivalent to a battalion in western army parlance. Overall, the kandaks have been established in two brigades based respectively in Kabul (containing four) and Kandahar (with three), amounting to 7,000 or so soldiers in all. The US has trained and equipped the force in order to counter, and meet the demands of, sudden upsurges in attacks against the army by the Taliban and other armed opposition groups (AOGs),
The crucial element in the kandaks' make-up is the provision of over 350 mobile strike-force vehicles (MSFVs), which are made by the US company Textron. The vehicles, each costing more than $1 million, are well protected and more than adequately armed; but the entire programme has been bedevilled with inadequate logistics support, so much so that there are doubts as to the viability of the whole force (see “Afghan Quick Reaction Force Slowed by Logistics Failures”, Defense News, 29 July 2014).
An indication of this is that the failure appears to involve more than any inefficiencies on the part of Textron. Army inspectors, quoted in the Defense News piece, state that “Textron, ‘through no fault of its own’ has been unable to ship spare parts in part because US forces have been unable to provide personnel to provide the security it was promised under its contract”.
The second problem is that the provision of American weapons and equipment to the Afghans has been riddled with mistakes and woefully inadequate oversight, to a degree that the Pentagon's poor record-keeping - according to an official US report - could have allowed some 200,000 weapons supplied to the Afghan forces to go missing (see Thomas Gibbons-Neff, “Afghanistan may have lost track of more than 200,000 weapons”, Washington Post, 28 July 2014). This would be a worry at any time. Today, amid concerns that the Afghan armed forces may have been repeatedly penetrated by Taliban and AOG sympathisers, there is real fear that forces opposed to the government in Kabul will have acquired and be able to use them.
A long aftermath
These two cases reflect a much wider dilemma for the Americans and their Afghan allies: namely, that the Taliban and other groups are making gains across much of the country, even the bulk of foreign troops withdraw (see Azam Ahmed, “Taliban are scoring victories in Afghanistan” (New York Times, 28 July 2014). The successes of the Taliban, in particular, mean that they are extending their reach beyond their traditionally held areas in the south and south-east of the country, putting markers down in two areas close to Kabul, and threatening important supply-lines.
In the process the Taliban are inflicting serious casualties on Afghan government forces, though (as the NYT report says) "[their] advance has gone unreported because most American forces have left the field and officials in Kabul have largely refused to talk about it”. There was a surge in deaths among police and army personnel in 2013, eventually averaging more than a hundred a month.
Since then, it has become much more difficult to establish secure casualty figures, because the defence and interior ministries have simply stopped publishing them. United Nations statistics on the matter suggest a 24% rise in civilian casualties for the first six months of 2014 compared with a year ago. Furthermore, the highest number of casualties came from fighting between Taliban and government forces rather than from roadside bombs.
There is little doubt that the Taliban and other networks are now gaining in power in Afghanistan. At the same time, there is evidence that they will not push this too far in what is colloquially termed the “fighting season”, for fear of provoking the Pentagon to delay or slow the withdrawal. Instead, they will bide their time until 2015.
If the anticipated escalation in armed activities does then happen, the remaining US troops are likely to concentrate on the use of special forces and armed-drones to maintain a semblance of control and help ensure the survival of whatever Afghan government is finally formed. Neither task will be easy and the former is likely to be protracted, stretching - like the conflict since late 2001 - over years not months.
Indeed, the events of 2014 show that US involvement in Afghanistan is nowhere near finished and may yet last many more years. Islamist paramilitary groups everywhere will take great satisfaction from that. Indeed, in the longer term Afghanistan's paramilitary curve may well become as significant as the ISIL takeover of parts of Syria and Iraq, with effects on the region comparable to events there and over Gaza. Even as the latter conflicts dominate the news agenda, Afghanistan's own remains acute.