In 2015, Afghanistan swung back and forth between several transitions. Insurgency reached levels insofar unseen since 2001. As late as December 2015, the Afghan Taliban, notwithstanding its internal problems, showed no signs of retreating for winters, as has usually been the case. Instead, their offensives intensified. The Islamic State (IS) too managed to establish itself as a player in the country. The incumbent National Unity Government (NUG) is struggling to convince the electorate of its efficiency, trustworthiness, and commitment to reforms, and rising insecurity, a bad job market, and declining confidence in the NUG prompted a massive outbound migration of 1,50,000 Afghans.
Nonetheless, in 2015, Afghanistan also witnessed some forward movement in important sectors such as women's rights and their involvement in decision-making processes – especially towards peace-building – and regional cooperation vis-à-vis trade, energy and connectivity.
In 2016, the country will face challenging tests in key sectors, and will have to carefully cross every bridge, on time.
In 2015, Afghanistan recorded almost 10,000 insurgent attacks. At present, two of the country's four key security establishments – the ministry of defence and the national directorate of security – do not have full time chiefs.
Although the splintering in the Afghan Taliban ranks appears to be waning, continued internal discontent with potential to escalate could be expected throughout 2016. The splintering slowed down primarily to deal with the challenges posed by the IS and others; achieving a stronger position during negotiations with Kabul; and Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) gaining relatively more influence on the group. If internal disgruntlement in the Taliban structure continues, one could expect intensification in localised warring. Increased collusion between local criminal gangs and insurgent groups – especially the Haqqani Network – for logistical and ancillary activities could be expected.
Peace negotiations with the Taliban, irrespective of the numbers of the meetings, can only succeed if vital divergences in endgames of the various involved parties – non-state and state – are resolved. Problematically, the Taliban is no longer the single, united entity it used to be. And Kabul cannot accommodate the demands of those Taliban open to talks either without squandering away the gains made since 2001 and any leftover credibility among the Afghans. Even if talks succeed, the chances and sustainability of the achieved success is unknown.
Grim times are ahead in the north and south unless fault-lines are addressed before the October 2016 election. The variety in the terrorist groups and their complex linkages and goals has further complicated matters. For instance, the Taliban is estimated at 1,300 members, but the presence and numbers of foreign insurgent groups such as the Junbish-e-Nasr-e-Tajikistan, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), the IMU-breakaway Jundallah, and the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and Haqqani Network are increasing, which presages a culmination in a grave situation by 2016 end. Developments in Kunduz's Dasht-e-Archi and Chahrdara districts warrant close monitoring.
In the south, a relative degeneration in the security set-up together with the Taliban's growing strength and network, particularly in Helmand and Kandahar, might test the government’s control over territory. Here, Spin Boldak district – strategically located and that houses a major crossing point for people and goods between Afghanistan and Pakistan – is squarely placed to be one of the prime Taliban targets for capture and control.
Last year, the IS expanded its presence in Afghanistan, and Nangarhar – which witnessed among the highest numbers of attacks in 2015 – became its stronghold. Security in the eastern and southeastern provinces, especially in Nangarhar, might witness deterioration. The IS presence increased in Kunduz, Logar and Ghazni provinces, as also reportedly in the outskirts of Kabul. It was also reported in the eastern, southern and western provinces, and in relatively fewer numbers in northern provinces such as Sar-e-Pul and Samangan. The splintering within the Pakistan-based Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan could become resourceful for the IS inside Afghanistan. The IMU's allegiance to the Afghanistan-based IS will make matters worse. Ominously, child soldiers are now part of the insurgency.
However, irrespective of the potential setbacks that may arise, the Afghan army – which is extremely stretched in finances, manpower, equipment and morale, and urgently requires aerial support – could be expected to prevent the insurgents from retaining if not capturing strategic connectivity links.
Both Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Abdullah Abdullah approach almost every issue divergently from the outset, and personal considerations towards their individual political and other calculations often take precedence. This has caused several delays in decision-making and reforms on key issues. Corruption is still high, and public confidence in the NUG is rapidly declining.
There has been some progress, as demonstrated via the passing of media laws, among others, but the pace is sluggish and the citizens' patience is running low. Even if Ghani and Abdullah intend to work towards the larger cause of Afghanistan, electoral and support-related compulsions of a coalition government of two competing parties prevent them from doing so substantially. Yunus Qanuni's candidature for the Afghan High Peace Council chief position is an example.
Chances are some reforms may be hurriedly carried out in an attempt to gain some credibility before the October elections and the convening of the Loya Jirga. Meanwhile, the political cleavage between Kabul and the north is growing and will become increasingly apparent. Warlordism is returning, and the inefficiencies in governance are working in the Taliban's favour towards consolidation of presence, especially in the border areas.
Parliamentary and district council elections were announced for 15 October 2016 but whether or not polls take place will depend both on the NUG and the pace of reforms. The Electoral Reform Commission's proposal to replace the current single non-transferrable vote (SNTV) system with a mixed-proportional representation system, in the upcoming elections, will be impractical to implement and violates Article 83 of the Afghan constitution. The SNTV is imperfect but is simple and practical at this point, given the country's low literacy, resource and stability levels.
The Loya Jirga has to be convened before the NUG completes two years this year. Any result or delay in either or both will challenge the NUG's legitimacy. Increasingly, both Ghani and Abdullah seem anxious about their futures for when the Loya Jirga convenes (or does not).
Unless Pakistan gets sincere about resolving the regional insurgency, Afghanistan's troubles will be far from finding an end. Although Islamabad is currently not in a position to dictate terms to the Afghan Taliban like earlier, the former still wields substantial influence over the group, in part due to its relationship with the Haqqani Network. The IS' entry has added a new dimension. The extent of Pakistan's support to insurgent groups ends where the chances of the former gaining an upper hand end. Unlike in the case of the Taliban, Haqqani Network, al Qaeda, LeT or JeM, Rawalpindi will be unable to influence or control the IS. And no terrorist group in the region is able to operate smoothly without Rawalpindi's support or assent. This equation will increasingly have a bearing on the regional security scenario where the Taliban are gradually being perceived as the lesser of the evils and as a counter to the IS.
The outcome of the 2016 US presidential elections will impact several key issues. There is a good chance Washington is seeking a presence in Afghanistan a la South Korea – but if this is formally actualised, it will not be met with enthusiasm from the Afghans or regional countries. Here, improvement in US-Iran ties may have a role to play in 2016.
Russia is seeking greater involvement, and reportedly views the Taliban as a counter to the IS. Moscow is already set to supply small arms to Kabul. In an event of escalation or spillover of insecurity into its strategic backyard, Central Asia, the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organiaation's Collective Rapid Reaction Force is likelier to be the choice of force deployed.
And, however low key it may want to project it as, an increasing Chinese involvement in Afghanistan can be expected in 2016.
India's cautious approach towards involving itself in the Afghan peace process is reasonable given the Taliban-Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) relations as well as past experiences. The new great game afoot in the region among various countries as well as among the insurgent groups may make a case for New Delhi's involvement too, but it would be wise for India to dodge the temptation and be measured, taking into account at every level that for any peace and reconciliation effort to be achieved and sustained, it will have to be Afghan-led and Afghan-owned. This is likely to be the case.
New Delhi will remain steadfast in its commitment to progress and stability in Afghanistan and like Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said, "India is here to contribute not to compete." India-Iran-Afghanistan cooperation can be expected in 2016. It will be interesting to see how New Delhi's engagements with Central Asian countries proceed.
Although the current condition seems portentous, a return to the Taliban era is unlikely in 2016. Also, the electorate is maturing at a pace quicker than several post-conflict societies. A pan-country ‘Afghan’ identity has somewhat consolidated itself alongside other identities. The country now requires a comprehensive leadership that is sincere, meticulous, coordinated and efficient. Afghanistan is capable of resolving its issues by itself. What it needs from the global community is steadfast support, and while at it, an end to meddling.