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Afghanistan: the elusive endgame

Since the bulk of NATO military forces withdrew from Afghanistan in late 2014, the security situation has steadily worsened. The absence of critical foreign enabling support and constant intense warfare has left the Afghan National Security Force (ANSF) depleted and worn out. The 23,712 security incidents reported in 2016 were the highest number on record for a single year. The first quarter of 2017 resulted in 2,181 civilian casualties (715 killed and 1,466 injured). Other challenges include the reportedly ‘paralysed’ National Unity Government (NUG), stalled peace talks with the Taliban, and the ongoing high levels of internally displaced people.

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported that from 1 January to 14 May 2017, around 101,308 people ‘fled their homes due to conflict’ and 29 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces ‘recorded some level of forced displacement’. Returning refugees are a further burden on Afghanistan’s struggling social and economic conditions. More than 700,000 refugees returned to Afghanistan in 2016, mostly from Pakistan (often not voluntarily) and some analysts predict that over the next 18 months, around 2.5 million more will return.

Threat assessment

The US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) reported in April 2017 that ‘security is the most obvious and urgent challenge’ hindering Afghanistan’s reconstruction efforts. SIGAR noted that if ‘the military and police cannot provide honest and effective protection against insurgents, the result is to undercut non-military initiatives in health care, education, rule of law, commerce, governance and counternarcotics’.

The Taliban continues to pose the greatest threat to Afghanistan’s security, having taken control of 14 districts in Afghanistan. In addition to the Taliban insurgency, around 20 US designated terrorist groups are believed to be operating in Afghanistan. US military officials claim this is the ‘highest concentration of terrorist groups anywhere in the world’. This includes al-Qaeda and the emergence of Islamic State-Khorasan.

Dealing with this is the beleaguered ANSF, which the UN reports is struggling with ‘shortcomings in the areas of command and control, leadership and logistics, and high attrition rates, [which] have a significant impact on morale, recruitment and sustainability’. In November 2016, the total military strength was 168,327, some 26,673 below the 2016 objective. The strength of the Afghan National Police force had reached 147,635, but was 9,365 below the 2016 objective. The Afghan security forces continue to suffer an ‘unsustainable’ level of combat deaths with more than 6,700 personnel killed in 2016; this is more than double the number of US military personnel killed in Afghanistan from 2001 to 2017.

The US Director of National Intelligence, Daniel Coats, told a Senate committee that the ‘overall situation in Afghanistan will very likely continue to deteriorate, even if international support is sustained’. His military counterpart, however, was marginally optimistic, stating that the military believes the Afghan security force ‘will incrementally improve its capabilities to challenge the Taliban, but military operations will not be decisive’.  

Future international commitments

At the end of 2014, the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) transitioned into the Resolute Support Mission. As of May 2017, there are 39 contributing nations totalling 13,576 personnel, more than half of which are US forces.

In a meeting on 19 May 2017, NATO reaffirmed its commitment to last year’s NATO Summit in Warsaw, which vowed to ‘keep the mission and its configuration under review’. NATO is shortly expected to make a decision about updating force levels, and current estimates are that NATO will commit around 1,500 additional military personnel, along with the expected 3,000 additional US forces. It is not clear what role these additional forces might play.

On 29 May, the Turnbull Government boosted its existing contribution with an additional 30 military advisors. This decision, which the Opposition supports, raises Australia’s overall commitment to approximately 300 military personnel and maintains Australia’s military support to Afghanistan until at least 2018.

Successive governments have largely reflected the Howard Government’s original intent, to prevent Afghanistan from serving ‘as a base from which terrorists can operate’. Indeed, the Defence and Foreign ministers recently reiterated that terrorism should not ‘take hold in Afghanistan again’ and that the Government would be ‘stopping terrorism wherever we see it’. If a reasonable level of stability is to be achieved in Afghanistan, significantly more than just a focus on terrorism is needed. The Chief of the Defence Force (CDF) made this point during Senate Estimates, when he emphasised the importance of including governance in the overall strategy to better support and develop the ANSF. CDF stated that it is not just about developing long-term capability, but also refining governance ‘to get better governance across government. So this is far broader than just a military strategy’.


The challenges highlighted above raise questions about the approach that would best fulfil Australia’s stated goals in Afghanistan and feed into a cohesive strategy. Defence strategist, David Kilcullen, recently highlighted some concerns facing decision makers, noting that they:

…are right to be concerned about the emergence of Islamic State in Afghanistan. But before launching another surge—even a miniature one—we need to consider the strategic goal. Is it to crush Islamic State, defeat the Taliban or bolster Afghan forces so they can stabilise the country while governance and economic reforms can be implemented?

Anthony Cordesman (Center for Strategic and International Studies) suggests ‘significant changes to the US military mission in Afghanistan that shift from a deadline-driven withdrawal strategy to a conditions-based strategy that provide the resources needed to help Afghan forces until they are truly ready for transition’. While NATO has already adopted a conditions-based approach, Cordesman recommended that the approach needs to assert that should Afghan reforms and performance continually fail, the US and allies should ‘seriously consider ending aid and withdrawing from Afghanistan’. In the meantime, the Afghan Government developed its own National Military Strategy in 2016 that aims to extensively reform the ANSF over the next five years.