To say that Afghanistan’s security forces are weak is an understatement. But the country’s real problem is that it lacks a social contract between its various stakeholders and a government that’s able to govern. As a result, what exists is a chaotic situation in which the faction with the most power dominates the battlefield. Opposition to the Taliban is the only real factor that binds together the various factions of the current beleaguered political system, and that is not enough to prevent them from devolving into militias.
- Afghanistan has not had a functioning state for nearly two generations and is unlikely to have one for the foreseeable future.
- There are only two political forces within the country – the Taliban and the government, which is deeply divided. There are also other anti-Taliban factions and leaders that are aligned with the government, but not part of it.
- The anti-Taliban forces lack the ethos required to sustain a working modern polity, and on the battlefield the Taliban have the upper hand.
- The jihadist movement is the only force that has been able to circumvent the ethnic and tribal barriers, which explains why it is taking over districts all across the country.
As the security situation in Afghanistan deteriorates, the most reasonable question to ask is whether the Western-constructed regime is on the verge of total collapse. In many ways, the state never really took off, and civil war has continued uninterrupted for the past 37 years.
Not a day goes by without at least one report of Afghan government forces struggling to defend territory against Taliban insurgents in one part of the country or another. We have previously discussed how after 15 years and over $100 billion in expenses, the Western-backed Afghan state lacks the ability to stand on its own feet. In this Deep Dive, we will examine the state of affairs on both sides of this conflict. Through a comparative analysis, we will show how, even after decades of conflict, an end to the civil war is unlikely for the foreseeable future.
It is well established now that Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) cannot hold the line against Taliban forces without U.S. military assistance. According to an Aug. 28 assessment from the Institute for the Study of War (ISW), “the ANSF lacks the capability to engage in simultaneous operations in multiple regions.” This has allowed the Taliban to seize districts in multiple provinces. To a great extent, the government, while it remains at war with the Taliban, is also in conflict with itself.
The ANSF has never been militarily effective. The political infighting between the various factions within the Afghan polity makes matters worse. The insurgency is no longer only among the Pashtuns, the largest ethnic group in the country. In fact, the crisis of governance has come to a point where the insurgency has now spread across the country’s vast territory and includes various ethnic groups.
The State of the Taliban
When the Taliban first emerged as a force in the mid 1990s, their opponents banded together in a group called the Northern Alliance. This moniker was based on the fact that the anti-Taliban coalition was dominated by the country’s ethnic minorities (Tajik, Uzbek, Hazara, etc.), who inhabited the northern half of the country. The Taliban represented the Pashtuns, who are concentrated in the southern half. That divide quickly became meaningless. Within a few years of their seizure of Kabul in 1996, the Taliban were able to expand their control into the northern provinces.
From their capture of the largest northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif in 1998 till the toppling of their regime in 2001, the Taliban controlled large parts of the north. Badakhshan was the one province on the country’s northern periphery that remained out of their reach. Fifteen years after they lost power, however, the Taliban insurgency is raging in the north. At least three districts of Badakhshan are under their control and in nine others they remain on the offensive.
They could not have reached the northernmost province in the country, which borders Tajikistan, China and Pakistan, without a robust presence in other parts of the Uzbek- and Tajik-dominated northern provinces. The Taliban currently have an active presence in each of the provinces that lie between Kabul and Badakhshan. They control districts in Takhar, Kunduz, Panjshir and Baghlan provinces. A similar situation exists further west in the provinces that are located along the border with Iran, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
The jihadist insurgents have been making these advances at the same time that they have been extremely active in the east and in their core turf in the southern provinces. In some of the eastern provinces along the border with Pakistan, they face some competition from the Islamic State, which has established a presence there. However, IS has been unable to make any major headway in what is already a saturated jihadist market dominated by the Taliban and their allies. Over the past couple of years, some Taliban commanders have defected to IS. There is also a spillover effect from Pakistan, where a major military offensive has pushed elements from the Pakistani Taliban east. This group is now headquartered in eastern Afghanistan and some of its members have pledged allegiance to IS.
The biggest gains made by the Taliban are in the south in the adjacent provinces of Helmand and Uruzgan. In addition to holding many districts, the Taliban have laid siege to the provincial capitals of Lashkar Gah and Tarin Kot, which has forced the United States to redeploy a few hundred troops. This Taliban surge comes at a time when the movement has lost two of its leaders in rather quick succession.
In July 2015, the Taliban acknowledged that its founder, Mullah Mohammad Omar, had died of illness in April 2013. His successor, Mullah Akhtar Mansoor, managed to keep Mullah Omar’s death a secret for over two years. More important, he was able to consolidate power once he formally became the movement’s central leader. He faced considerable opposition from various factions but was able to win over a majority of them. Ten months after assuming leadership, Mullah Mansoor was killed in a U.S. drone strike in southwestern Pakistan as he was returning from Iran.
The Taliban now have a third leader, Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, in a short span of three years. Furthermore, the Taliban have a few splinter groups that do not recognize the founder’s successors. Mullah Mohammad Rasool leads the most prominent dissident faction. The emergence of these splinters and the leadership transition do not seem to have adversely impacted the Taliban’s advance across the country. Despite multiple leadership changes, the group has successfully executed surges, which speaks volumes about their organizational depth and structure.
The continued military prowess of the movement can be partly attributed to the fact that throughout the transition period Sirajuddin Haqqani, the leader of the powerful Haqqani faction active in the east and with massive influence in Pakistan, has acted as the group’s number two. Haqqani has a great deal of battlefield and leadership experience, which he has reportedly brought to bear to enhance the firepower of the movement. That said, any single leader needs an effective organizational structure to work with. The Taliban commanders and the fighters subordinate to them operating in different theaters have proved to be an effective fighting force.
Effective field commanders can easily turn into independent actors, especially given the wide geography and the distance from the political leadership – much of which is based across the border in Pakistan. For the Taliban, strong command and control between the military commanders operating in the various provinces and the apex military and political leadership is necessary. To a significant extent, the Taliban resurgence is a function of the support that the movement enjoys across the border in Pakistan. However, this aspect needs to be unpacked and put into perspective.
For a variety of reasons, there is a marked difference between the quality of support that the Taliban enjoyed from 1996 to 2001 and the support since the fall of their regime. After 9/11, Pakistan, under pressure from the United States, had to greatly scale back its support for the Afghan jihadist movement. During the years of the military regime under President Pervez Musharraf, Islamabad had to balance its commitment to Washington in the anti-jihadist war and its support of the Taliban insurgency. By the mid-2000s, this strategy became unsustainable and the Pakistanis were faced with their own Taliban insurgency.
Pakistan’s ability to support the Afghan Taliban shrank considerably when the areas along the border – particularly the tribal belt – that served as a launchpad to support the Taliban (and before them the anti-Soviet Islamist rebels) became a battlespace where it had to fight its own Taliban rebels. Certainly Islamabad turned a blind eye to the Afghan Taliban and concentrated on fighting those aligned with al-Qaida and waging war against the Pakistani state. Since 2009, when Pakistan began its first major offensive against jihadist rebels in the Swat region, the focus for Pakistan has been neutralizing the Taliban threat on its side of the border. However, the current civil and military leadership in Pakistan is increasingly cognizant that it cannot roll back the Taliban’s influence within Pakistan while the Taliban insurgency is raging next door in Afghanistan.
To this end, it has tried to use its influence with the Afghan Taliban to bring them to the negotiating table with Kabul, but has not succeeded. Much of this is because the domestic insurgency has weakened the Pakistani state. But to a large extent, the Pakistanis have lost control of the Afghan Taliban. In the past 15 years, the Taliban have reduced their dependency on Islamabad by cultivating deep ties within Pakistani society.
This is not to say that they do not maintain ties to elements within Pakistan’s military-intelligence complex. Those remain, along with the fact that the top leadership in Islamabad has an imperative to not fully cut ties with the Afghan insurgents for a variety of reasons. Islamabad needs its ties to the Afghan Taliban as it seeks to degrade the insurgency within its borders. Further, the Afghan state has increasingly weakened following the 2014 NATO drawdown, and Islamabad is hedging its bets.
Despite the fact that relations between Pakistan and the Afghan jihadist rebels have deteriorated, Kabul’s deep mistrust of Islamabad remains, and understandably so. As a result, the Afghan government has been increasingly gravitating towards Pakistan’s arch-rival India to try to gain support as NATO’s interest in Afghanistan has sharply declined. The growing Afghan-Indian alignment has the Pakistanis wanting to retain the Taliban card as much as possible.
In the end, Pakistan’s support of the Afghan Taliban will only benefit the insurgent movement if its intrinsic military capabilities in the country are good enough.
The State of the Afghan Government
In sharp contrast with the Afghan Taliban, the Afghan government has enjoyed massive Western and other international support. Afghan law enforcement and military and intelligence services have been built from the ground up, trained and armed by the United States and its Western allies. However, support from external patrons only works to the extent that the proxies themselves have the capability to make effective use of the assistance, which applies to both the Taliban and the Afghan government. The Taliban are a well-organized movement, which is why they are able to make use of far less support from a weak Pakistan and still perform well on the battlefield. In contrast, the Afghan government, given its incoherence, remains dysfunctional despite having far greater resources from the U.S. and the West at its disposal.
Even after nearly a decade and a half, the ANSF lacks the ability to operate in more than one region simultaneously, according to an ISW report. The report concluded that “the ANSF’s Operation Shafaq is too geographically constrained and insufficiently resourced to combat the Taliban militants’ dispersed, simultaneous offensives.” The Taliban’s 2016 summer offensive called Operation Omari (named after the deceased founder) continues to outperform the government’s defensive strategy. While the Taliban is still a long way from threatening the capital, this year has seen an increase in the number and frequency of Taliban attacks on both hard and soft targets in Kabul.
The Afghan intelligence service has performed far better than the army and police. However, the National Directorate of Security (Afghanistan’s primary intelligence agency) has not been able to infiltrate the Taliban to the same extent that the Taliban have been able to penetrate the Afghan state. Provincial and local security forces are no match for the Taliban militiamen, which is why they are constantly calling on the central government to send reinforcements to enable them to mount counteroffensives against the jihadists after a district headquarters has fallen. The government in Kabul can only do so much, as its bandwidth is stretched across a wide geography.
Consequently, the provincial governors and local councils are blaming Kabul for their security predicament. More critically, this situation has led to a decline in already sagging morale and confidence both at the regional and national levels. There has been a shift from the Taliban exaggerating their battlefield victories, which was the case for many years, to government officials now admitting their losses. Of course, there is a lot of blame to go around.
The government’s military weakness stems from a much deeper issue: the political incoherence of the state. At a time when the various anti-Taliban factions should be focusing on confronting the jihadists, they are busy fighting each other. The infighting between President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah is the most glaring example of the dysfunctionality of the state. But this conflict between the top two officials is just the tip of the iceberg.
Regional warlords who should have been incorporated into the political system are also at odds with Kabul. Ata Mohammad Noor, the fiercely assertive governor of the northern Balkh province who aspires to be a national-level leader, remains defiant of Kabul and accused the military leadership of corruption. Private Afghan broadcaster 1TV quoted him as saying: “There is need for reform among those who are busy stealing contracts, fuel and logistics. They only go to some areas to take pictures for Facebook or to be interviewed by the media. They sleep in warm rooms during winter and in air-conditioned rooms during summer. They leave the poor sons of this land alone on the battlefields.”
Former intelligence chief Rahmatullah Nabil also accused the president of inappropriately interfering in various government bodies, which he claims has led to political and security crises. Tolo News reported on Sept. 2 that Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum, the renowned Uzbek strongman from Jowzjan province, also accused Ghani of trying to centralize power. Ismail Khan, a prominent warlord from the western Herat province, has consistently warned that he will activate his militia against the Taliban if government forces fail to stem the Taliban tide.
After examining the state of affairs in both the Taliban and the anti-Taliban camps in Afghanistan, one thing is clear: The country lacks a government that can actually govern. The country remains a collection of sub-national forces. Of those forces, the Taliban are the strongest.
The Taliban are nowhere close to overthrowing the government. In fact, their propaganda notwithstanding, they are well aware that a repeat of what happened in the mid-1990s is highly unlikely. They need to gain as much of an upper hand on the battlefield as possible to be able to dictate the terms of a future settlement. The Taliban do not seek to take over the current state; rather, they wish to alter it – reverting it back as much as possible to the emirate they lost in late 2001.
Many areas where they gain control tend to fall back into the hands of government forces. In other words, the Taliban are not exactly a rival government. But that doesn’t matter. What does matter is that the government is unable to control territory – much less rule it.
There can be no effective state because the various stakeholders are essentially armed non-state actors and government forces are in reality just another militia. This is a country that has for decades only seen politics by other means. After a 40-year monarchy (1933-73), five years of republican authoritarian rule (1973-78) and 14 years of communist rule (1978-92) – much of this amid civil war – the country was dominated by jihadist groups. But expecting that these groups would enter into a power-sharing agreement and govern the country after toppling the communist regime was unrealistic at best.
This is why they fought one another in an intra-Islamist civil war, during which the Taliban were born and proved to be the most powerful militia. They established their jihadist regime, whose post-9/11 ouster only brought back the old jihadists who tried their hand at democratic politics under Western supervision. That experiment failed because there are no genuine democratic forces. Only warlords and militias who took on the garb of political and security officials. Those who are supposed to be the mainstream Afghan political elite have not evolved much beyond their insurgent roots.
If these forces are unable to agree to disagree, a negotiated political settlement with the Taliban is not going to happen. Civil war is the fate of Afghanistan for the foreseeable future. Put differently, the country is a large ungoverned space where transnational jihadists can regain safe haven. This is also troubling because the conflict in Afghanistan tends to spill over into neighboring nuclear-armed Pakistan, Iran, India and China. Its close proximity to Central Asia, which is destabilizing, further raises the significance of this conflict.