The Civil Challenges to Peace in Afghanistan

By Anthony H. Cordesman

The Afghan War has entered a critical period in which the U.S. is actively seeking a peace settlement with the Taliban, and doing so in spite of the fact that it is negotiating without the full participation of the Afghan government. Its options now consist of finding some form of peace, leaving the country without any form of victory or security, or fighting indefinitely in a country whose central government has no near or mid-term capability to either defeat its opponents or survive without massive military and civil aid.

Peace is a highly uncertain option. There are no official descriptions of the terms of the peace that the Administration is now seeking to negotiate, but media reports indicate that it may be considering a full withdrawal of its military support within one to two years of a ceasefire, and other reports indicate that it is considering a 50% cut in U.S. military personnel even if a peace is not negotiated.

As of late-August 2019, the Taliban continued to reject any formal peace negotiations with the Afghan government, and its military activity and acts of violence while it negotiated with the United States. Terrorist groups like ISIS-K add to the threat, as do the many splits within the Afghani government and political structure. The Taliban has not encouraged further ceasefires, or shown any clear willingness to accept a lasting peace on any terms but its own. It may well see peace negotiations as a means of negotiating a withdrawal of U.S. and other allied forces and a prelude to a peace that it could exploit to win control of Afghanistan.

At the same time, the other options are no better. They either mean leaving without a peace and the near certain collapse of the Afghan government, or continuing the war indefinitely with no clear timeframe for victory or the emergence of an Afghan government that can fight on its own or act as an effective civil government.

Much of the analysis of these three options has focused on the possible terms of the peace, the immediate progress in the fighting, and/or the coming Afghan election and Afghanistan’s immediate political problems. These are all important issues, but they do not address the basic problems in Afghan security forces that will limit its military capabilities indefinitely into the future, or the scale of the civil problems in Afghanistan that have given it failed governance and made it the equivalent of a failed state, and that will shape its future in actually implementing any peace or in attempting to continue the war.

Understanding the Trends in the Fighting

Much does depend on current trends in the war, and the extent to which the Afghan Government or the Taliban are winning control and influence over the country. Much also depends on the degree to which the Afghan government forces can stand on their own if a peace negotiation leads to the withdrawal of U.S. and Resolute Support forces, or if the U.S. makes major further force cuts.

The Burke Chair at CSIS has already circulated a report that draws on recent official reporting by the Resolute Support Command, the Office of the Secretary of Defense (1225 Report), the Lead Inspector General for Overseas Contingency Operations (LIG-OCO), the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR), the United Nations, and a variety of outside sources.

That report is entitled The State of the Fighting in the Afghan War in Mid 2019. It is available on the CSIS web site at This report compares the key data and conclusion in each recent official report to show their assessments of the threat, and the problems in estimating Government vs. Taliban influence and control. It examines key problems in the reporting on the levels of violence and civilian casualties, and in the estimates of the terrorist threat.

It is important to note that it also addresses the cost of the war, the changing size of the U.S. and allied commitment, and the fact that total military manning is a terrible measure of the role the U.S. must play if the war continues. The Afghan forces are not making anything like the progress needed to stand on their own.

They are not, however, dependent on some total U.S. military manpower figure. They are dependent on massive increases in U.S. combat air support of Afghan troops – much of it coming from remotely piloted strike and IS&R systems; on direct U.S. land combat support of elite Afghan Army and Police units, and on changes to the train and assist effort that now operate down to the Afghan combat unit or Kanak level. It is this U.S. support that its critical to the survival of Afghan force and the Afghan government – if a peace is not reached or successful and to enforcing a peace if it is challenged by the Taliban.

Understanding the Civil Challenges to Peace or Supporting a Continuing War

The fighting and Taliban threat, however, are only half of Afghanistan’s problems. The second half consists of its massive failure in governance, in economic and social development, in coping with the its rapidly growing population, and in dealing with the fact that it has become a “narco-economy” to a significant extent.

The problems are described in detail in a second study entitled The Civil Challenges to Peace in Afghanistan. This report is available on the CSIS web site at

The report is divided into the following major sections:

Uncertain Afghan Popular Perceptions of the War (pp. 7-13)

The polling metrics in this section, and those that follow, present significant problems. Afghan perceptions are difficult to poll. Direct interviews involve serious risks, and efforts to poll by telephone present the problem that most Afghans do not have phones, and those that do are likely to be wealthier and more urban.

The Asia Foundation has, however, established a long record of success in polling Afghan perceptions. These polls still indicate that most Afghans hope for a successful outcome of the war, but this year’s poll shows a sharp drop in popular confidence that Afghanistan is moving in the right direction, and far less optimism among every other ethnic group than among Pashtuns.

The key reasons for this pessimism are broadly based. Some 61% of the population felt pessimistic, and more than 70% cited security, 30%-48% cited the economy, and 30%-34% cited governance as among the top two reasons.

The polls also show that the percent of Afghans who fear for their safety has increased by 31% since 2006. It also shows a high rate of fear when traveling, and when encountering International forces, and an even higher rate when encountering ISIS/Daesh and Taliban forces.

Broad popular perceptions of the ANA and ANP are relatively good, however, although most Afghans recognize they are still heavily dependent on outside support. The same is not true of perceptions of the Afghan government – which are shown later in this report. Satisfaction with the government has dropped steadily since 2007, as has confidence in the government.

All levels of government and the justice system are seen as corrupt, although perceptions of corruption have improved since 2016. To a lesser degree, key elements of the ANSF are also seen as corrupt – in spite of the generally favorable attitudes towards the security services.

Incompetent, Divided, and Corrupt Governance (pp. 14-35)

The reporting and metrics in this section show the weaknesses and level of corruption in the Afghan government, and that the World Bank ranks Afghanistan as one of the worst governed countries in the world. They show that nearly two decades of reform efforts have only had a marginal impact in developing the kind of central government that Afghanistan needs, as much because of its ethnic, sectarian, and tribal divisions – and its fractured and divisive politics – as because of the weaknesses in the structure of Afghan governance.

Work by the World Bank shows that the Central government is making progress in raising its revenues, but no source indicates that there is clear evidence that it is using its funds more effectively or with less corruption. The World Bank and SIGAR also show that the Government remains critically dependent on massive outside aid to fund its overall security and civil budgets, and no source indicates that this dependence will drop sharply in the near and mid-term.

Work by SIGAR shows that the central government is to some extent the government of “Kabulstan,” rather than the entire country, and that provincial, district, and local government all have serious problems. SIGAR also reports that the role of the Taliban in providing de facto governance and rule of law continues to expand.

It is clear that many Districts have no central government office. SIGAR quotes reports that 64 Districts (16%) have no central Government office of any kind, and many more only have a meaningful Central Government presence in – or near – the capital.

As of August 20, 2019, the Long War Journal estimated that 66 (17%) of 398 Central Government Districts throughout the country are under Taliban control and 192 (48%) are contested. The government does control a larger share of the population. The same estimate indicates that only 3.7 million (11%) of a total of some 33 million people are under Taliban control, and 13.5 million (41%) are contested.

The Afghan Police and the Rule of Law (pp. 36-42)

Reliable data are lacking on the extent to which Afghanistan provides a functioning rule of law. It is clear, however, that many courts and aspects of the legal system are not fully functional. Corruption and power brokering have a major impact at every level of law enforcement and court proceedings, and that courts do not function effectively in a number of areas and districts – including those controlled by the Taliban, although no reliable maps or detailed analyses seem to exist of how serious these problems are.

What is clear is that LIG and SIGAR reporting indicate that the Afghan National Police and Afghan Local Police currently suffer from serious problems with corruption and political influence, and a series of reform efforts has not prepared them to be properly effective in ether paramilitary operations or law enforcement.

These problems will present new challenges if the ANP are tasked with helping to enforce the peace, and if the Afghan government is to create an truly functional legal and law enforcement system.

Economics, Civil Order, and Poverty (pp. 43-73)

The reporting in this section shows that Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries in the world, and one of the least developed. It also warns that many past estimates of future progress – including many official estimates issued by the U.S. government — have proved to be grossly over-optimistic or wrong. This makes some key issues hard to address. A substantial amount of the reporting on progress in medical services, life expectancy, women’s rights, and education is uncertain at best, and probably sharply exaggerated for political reasons.

The reporting is far more reliable in showing that much of the population lives in dire poverty and faces serious problems in terms of health. The data also warn that national economic growth in PPP terms is often overestimated, and that some reporting on Afghan development, health, and education has been heavily politicized to exaggerate what has been real progress since the fall of the Taliban.

The reporting also highlights the fact that exaggerated estimates of the future impact of major shifts in the mining, petroleum, “new silk road,” and pipeline aspects of the Afghan economy have consistently proven to be unrealistic.

Afghan perceptions and expectations are generally shaped by these realities, and are far lower than those in fully developed nations. At the same time, demands for jobs, less corruption, and economic progress that actually reaches broadly in terms of benefits is still real. There are no major indicators that the Afghan government is yet taking adequate steps to meet these hopes.

Demographic Pressures and the “Youth Bulge” (pp. 74-82)

The final section in this survey addresses problems in population growth, and a resulting level of pressure on the Afghan economy and stability that already approaches crisis levels.

The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that the population has risen from 8.2 million in 1950 to 15.0 million in 1980, 22.5 million in 2000, and 35.8 million in 2019. It is estimated to rise to 45.7 million in 2030 and 63.8 million in 2,050.

These pressures have created a youth bulge that will create a massive demand for new jobs for at least the next decade, and one that the Afghan economy currently cannot possibly meet. Youth unemployment and underemployment are already at a crisis level. They are also raising the dependency ratio of children and the aged on the active members of the work force to levels that present serious problems.

More is also involved than population pressure per se. The Afghan population is deeply fragmented along sectarian, ethnic, and tribal lines, and any effort to achieve more support for the central government, a working peace and some form of stability must address these differences and meet the needs of all the major factions in Afghan society.

These problems are compounded by a rising level of urbanization that has been accelerated by the desire to join a more modern economy than is present in rural areas, and by the need for security. Afghan cities cannot adequately support or employ this level of urbanization. At the same time, the pressure to leave the agricultural sector is compounded by droughts, and the fact that market-oriented agriculture needs investment and machines more than added labor.

Narcotics Exports Keep Growing and are the Critical Foreign Currency Earner in the Afghan Domestic Economy (pp. 83-92)

Afghanistan plays a critical role in the global supply of opiates. It is clear that massive U.S. efforts to make major cuts in Afghan production have only had sporadic success, and have become less successful with time as Afghanistan has become more dependent on opiate exports as a key source of income and hard currency. It is also clear from UNDOC and SIGAR reporting that weather, plant diseases, and demand have been far more important in determining the size of the opium crop than efforts at eradication and persuading farmers to find substitute crops.

The metrics in this section highlight both the growth of opium production and the issues surrounding its role in shaping Afghan macroeconomics. The work by SIGAR on this subject is particularly important because it indicates that opium is a major source of Afghan economic growth, and is Afghanistan’s most important export. It also shows a high correlation between opium production and Taliban control and influence and indicates that opium plays a key role in financing the war as well as in areas where power brokers still operate with some degree of independence from the central government.

Anthony H. Cordesman

Anthony H. Cordesman

Former Emeritus Chair in Strategy