By Kamran Bokhari
Media reports treat the story of the Taliban taking over districts all across Afghanistan as something that should not be happening. The underlying assumption is that the Taliban would not be resurging if mainstream forces were not corrupt and if they behaved democratically. There is a general tendency to overlook the reality that Afghanistan is afflicted by a much deeper problem – there is no mainstream to begin with, at least not one that is coherent. Indeed, the Taliban are fractious, but they are still the single largest coherent force in the country.
For the past several months, there has been no shortage of reports about Taliban fighters going on the offensive in various parts of the country. In the past few weeks, the situation has gotten grim. After surging forces in several districts of southern Helmand province, the Afghan jihadist movement is threatening the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah. But the province is in the Taliban’s core turf in the country’s south.
Even yesterday’s report that Taliban fighters have taken over the Jani Khel district in eastern Paktia province is arguably not such a big deal. After all, Paktia is situated on the eastern border with Pakistan – a country where the Afghan Taliban enjoy sanctuary. What is most striking, is that the Taliban have overrun districts in the northern Kunduz, Takhar and Baghlan provinces and are very active in every single province along the country’s border with Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Not only have the largely Pashtun Taliban demonstrated the ability to advance into areas dominated by the country’s ethnic minorities (Tajik, Uzbek, Hazara, Turkmen, etc.) they are doing so while simultaneously operating in their traditional strongholds in the south and east.
Many will attribute the Taliban gains to the U.S.-NATO drawdown that began in 2014. It is true that the insurgent group took advantage of the vacuum left behind by departing Western troops. But what does that say about the state of the Afghan government that the United States and its Western allies established after the ouster of the Taliban regime in late 2001? The conventional wisdom is that the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (which replaced the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan) remains weak.
What most observers do not want to admit is that the state constructed by the West, at the cost of at least a $100 billion, has really not taken root in the country. We are now 15 years out from the 9/11 attacks, after which the United States set about on a nation-building mission in the southwest Asian country. The performance of the Afghan government clearly shows that that effort has not succeeded. Yes, we have come a long way from 1996, when the Taliban were able to steamroll into Kabul.
That is not about to happen again, but it doesn’t really matter. The essence of Afghanistan has not changed much since the ouster of the communist government in 1992 – three years after the withdrawal of Soviet troops in 1989. In reality, the war that began in 1979 continues, and will likely go on for the foreseeable future.
Why? Because there has not been effective government in the country since President Mohammed Najibullah was overthrown in April 1992. Whatever remained of the state after a decade of war was eviscerated in the next four years of warfare between the Islamist insurgents who had been united against the communists. The Taliban movement, which emerged from this intra-Islamist war, was able to do so because there were no institutions to speak of – just chaos. This was followed by Taliban rule from 1996 to 2001, during which al-Qaida established its global headquarters in the country and planned and executed the 9/11 attacks. The rest is history.
The bottom line is that Afghanistan has not had a state since the late 1980s. The last state of any worth was a mixture of the Afghan monarchy that reigned uninterrupted for two generations (1933-1973), the short-lived republican regime led by President Sardar Mohammed Daoud Khan (1973-1978), and the communist regime of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (1978-1992). Those whose infighting demolished the last coherent Afghan state did not gain power till the West needed their help against the Taliban in the aftermath of 9/11 attacks. These factions have squandered the opportunity afforded by the last decade and a half.
So the Taliban remain the single most coherent force, while the jihadist movement’s opponents remain bitterly divided. Former President Hamid Karzai was able to rule for 12 years because of active support from Western military forces. His successor, President Ashraf Ghani, came to power when NATO was on its way out of the country. Moreover, he was not able to win a clear mandate. His challenger, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, claimed foul play in the 2014 presidential election.
As a result, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry brokered a power-sharing agreement between Ghani and Abdullah, which led to the former becoming president and the latter the chief executive. That arrangement hasn’t really turned out well, with the rival leaders feuding. Thus, those who are supposed to be united in their struggle against the Taliban are feuding with each other. In essence, there are two camps in the country, Taliban and anti-Taliban.
That division speaks volumes about the problems plaguing the country. The Taliban remain more or less coherent, despite their internal rivalries in the wake of the death of the movement’s founder, Mullah Mohammad Omar, and his first successor, Mullah Mohammed Akhtar Rasoul (who was killed in a U.S. drone strike a few months ago). This is not to say that the Taliban are poised to retake the country.
U.S. air power and the Afghan National Security Forces remain a bulwark against a Taliban takeover. What this means is that standing in between the Taliban and Afghanistan is a Western backed security arrangement. Both the Pakistani state and society remain conducive to the Taliban’s aims. But the cross-border assistance can only go as far as the Taliban’s influence in country will allow.
In the end, the problem is that there is no Afghan mainstream that can effectively combat the Taliban. Those who oppose the Taliban cannot agree to disagree. Therefore, what Afghanistan ought to be remains a highly contested issue.