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Spike of violence across Afghanistan

May 4, 2022

Summary: The Taliban are being confronted with two distinct strands of violence – terror attacks from Islamic State and ambushes from an emerging collection of local anti-Taliban groups.  They will struggle to find the capacity to deal with either.

There has been a surge of violence in Afghanistan over the last few weeks.  This has two main forms, terrorist and guerrilla.  Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) emerged in eastern Afghanistan in late 2014.  They struggled to gain territory and influence, having to fight both the Taliban and the Ghani government.   By 2020 they had suffered significant reverses.  Since the return of the Taliban, they have made efforts to return to the fray – with, by their definition, some success.  Women, children, schools, mosques and civilians going about their daily lives are dream targets for ISKP.[1]  They have claimed responsibility for some recent bloody attacks against Sunni and Shia mosques.  The Shia Hazara community look to be bearing the brunt.[2]  ISKP thrive in failing states.  Their ambition in Afghanistan is to trigger inter-factional fighting between Sunni and Shia. 

The Taliban have no love for Shia Muslims either.  Their security forces, impressively equipped with US Army booty, but poorly schooled in the complex arts of counter-insurgency, do not look capable of dealing with terrorism.  They will struggle to convincingly demonstrate that they are protecting Shia citizens of Afghanistan.[3]  The Taliban appeared keen to minimise media reporting of security incidents by targeting journalists to preventing them from accurately reporting.[4]  If the Taliban are unable to protect Afghan citizens, Afghans may arm themselves.  Some Hazara groups look to be doing this, with the intention of defending themselves from ISKP and the Taliban.[5]

The second strand of violence comes from armed groups opposed to the Taliban’s seizure of power.[6]  Often these bands include former members of the Ghani government and its armed forces.  The National Resistance Front (NRF) declared itself as an anti-Taliban movement within days of the Taliban taking Kabul.  It is led by Ahmad Massoud, son of the legendary Tajik leader, Ahmad Shah Massoud and supported by Amrullah Saleh, a former government intelligence chief and a Vice President at the time of the government collapse.  The NRF have claimed several ambush-style attacks against the Taliban, with a centre of gravity around the provinces of Panjshir and Baghlan, in ideal guerrilla terrain just to the north of Kabul, but sometimes further afield.[7]  Other smaller local anti-Taliban groups appear to be emerging.[8]     

It is very early to gauge where this is going or whether either form of violence will cause the Taliban to falter.  After their own experience with rapid collapse, in late 2001, the Taliban took several years to emerge with a credible insurgency capability tied to a political and propaganda platform.  They had the crucial advantage of a safe haven in western Pakistan.  ISKP do not have any innate popularity in Afghanistan and have always struggled to dominate ground.  Their methods, always brutal, will work against them.  Local Afghan resistance groups may generate more credible momentum in the longer-term, particularly if the Taliban leadership maintain a highly oppressive reliance on religious stricture.  However, if history is any guide, resistance groups will lack focus, bickering over local issues and squabbling over resources.  This will likely dissipate their potential.  And this time, at least, it looks as if the appetite of international powers to invest in and sustain a long-term insurgency is minimal.    


[1] https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/10/25/afghanistan-surge-islamic-state-attacks-shia

[2] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-61174991

[3] https://www.vox.com/2022/4/23/23038561/afghanistan-terror-attacks-targeted-afghan-minorities

[4] https://twitter.com/Reporterlyaf/status/1520635865089085440

[5] https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/2/3/hazaras-fear-for-future-as-afghanistan-likely-to-slip-into-chaos

[6] https://gandhara.rferl.org/a/taliban-resistance-former-government-factions/31823881.html

[7] https://8am.af/eng/attack-claim-by-nrf-forces-on-taliban-base-near-balkh-international-airport/

[8] https://www.voanews.com/a/afghan-fighting-season-ushers-in-new-anti-taliban-groups/6542148.html

Taliban house to house searches intimidate the population

March 10, 2022

Summary:

Six months after the Taliban’s seizure of power, the Taliban techniques for ability to enforce law and order are based on aggression, coercion, violence and intimidation.  Many social groups appear to be deliberately targeted, including women, activists and journalists.  Disappearances and killings remain a feature of life under the Taliban.  In late February the Taliban initiated an aggressive series of house to house searches in Kabul.

House to house searches

Since the Taliban’s seizure of power in August 2021, many house to house searches have been undertaken by Taliban fighters looking for those they believe oppose them, including former government officials and former security personnel. 

“The Taliban have stepped up their search for people who worked for Nato forces or the previous Afghan government, a report has warned.  It said the militants have been going door-to-door to find targets and threaten their family members…The warning the group were targeting ‘collaborators’ came in a confidential document by the RHIPTO Norwegian Center for Global Analyses, which provides intelligence to the UN.

‘There are a high number of individuals that are currently being targeted by the Taliban and the threat is crystal clear,’ Christian Nellemann, who heads the group behind the report, told the BBC.  ‘It is in writing that, unless they give themselves in, the Taliban will arrest and prosecute, interrogate and punish family members on behalf of those individuals.’

He warned that anyone on the Taliban’s blacklist was in severe danger, and that there could be mass executions.”[1]

In late February 2022, the Taliban launched a new wave of extensive house to house searches.[2]  The Taliban operation came as a surprise and was large-scale, involving armed fighters, use of multiple checkpoints and aggressive tactics. 

“The Taliban have been carrying out extensive house searches around the Afghan capital, according to residents, a policy the group’s spokesman said was to detect criminal activity but that some Western diplomats said had targeted ordinary citizens.  Taliban administration spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said the searches were part of a ‘clearing operation’ and that houses were only raided if there was a specific report of possible criminal activity…Reuters spoke to seven residents around Kabul, whose names are not being published for security reasons, who said the searches appeared indiscriminate and were spreading fear… Since the Islamist group took over the country in August, observers have warned of emerging signs of a crack-down on dissent and reprisals against former security force members and activists.”[3]

The operation took place in several provinces and was aimed at targeting potential opponents of the Taliban.  But the exact motivations – and the intelligence information upon which the searches were based – are a little unclear.  The Taliban have cited targeting of kidnappers and criminals, as well as efforts to seized weapons, and equipment belonging to the former government.  It might even be considered a pre-emptive strike against growing resistance to the Taliban rule amongst some groups.  

“At a news conference on Sunday, the Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, insisted that the recent searches were aimed at rooting out ‘kidnappers, thieves, evil elements and other criminals.’ He also dismissed accusations of misconduct, characterizing the operation as ‘professional’ and ‘well-planned.’  The operation began in areas seen as resistant to Taliban rule and comes ahead of spring, long known as Afghanistan’s ‘fighting season,’ when the Taliban would launch offensives against the previous government.”

Now, the insurgents-turned-rulers are contending with a reinvigorated threat from the Islamic State affiliate in the east and a budding armed resistance in the north.”[4]

Dozens of Taliban checkpoints have sprung up across Kabul, part of a broad search operation in several provinces.

Figure 1 Taliban checkpoint in Kabul, March 2022, Victor J. Blue for The New York Times[5]

“Trucks with heavy machine guns stopped at street corners, unloading men in camouflage carrying radios and assault rifles. Going door to door, they barged into homes, tossed open drawers and pored through cellphones — looking for any connection to an armed insurgency…The sweep, which began on Friday, has spanned several provinces and remains underway, is the largest operation of its kind since the Taliban seized power in August and the first carried out in daylight.


The searches stoked alarm among many Afghans, some of whom reported mistreatment and property damage by Taliban forces, and offered the latest evidence that the new Taliban, like the old ones, were relying on police-state tactics to assert their authority and stamp out dissent…The search operation began early Friday as dozens of checkpoints spread across Kabul, initially focused on the city’s northern neighborhoods…Taliban soldiers broke the locks on front doors, damaged televisions and storage boxes, and destroyed yards by digging for contraband, according to interviews with nearly a dozen Kabul residents.  In a country where privacy is sacred, many saw the home intrusions as an unforgivable offense reminiscent of two decades of foreign occupation.”[6]

Either way, such unpredictable Taliban activities – which international forces learnt the hard way only serve to inflame – will keep the population fearful and resentful. 

[1] ‘Afghanistan: Taliban carrying out door-to-door manhunt, report says’, BBC News, 20 Aug. 2021, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-58271797

[2] Abbasi, F., ‘In Afghanistan, Burning Our Past to Protect Our Future’, Human Rights Watch, 1 Mar. 2022, https://www.hrw.org/news/2022/03/01/afghanistan-burning-our-past-protect-our-future

[3] ‘Taliban begin house searches, sparking fear, diplomatic criticism’, Reuters, 28 Feb. 2022, https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/taliban-begin-house-searches-sparking-fear-diplomatic-criticism-2022-02-28/

[4] [4] Gibbons-Neff, et al, ‘Taliban Search Operation Echoes Resented U.S. Tactics’, The New York Times, 2 Mar. 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/03/02/world/asia/afghanistan-taliban-resistance.html

[5] https://www.nytimes.com/2022/03/02/world/asia/afghanistan-taliban-resistance.html

[6] Gibbons-Neff, et al, ‘Taliban Search Operation Echoes Resented U.S. Tactics’, The New York Times, 2 Mar. 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/03/02/world/asia/afghanistan-taliban-resistance.html

UN Secretary General Report on Afghanistan: “staggering scale of vulnerability across the country”

February 11, 2022

The UN Secretary General submitted its latest report on Afghanistan to the Security Council on 28 January 2022.  It is a 16-page update on the political, security, economic and humanitarian situation. Some brief highlights [and my comments in square brackets].

Overview

  • Afghanistan is undergoing multiple crises – humanitarian, economic, banking – as well as the lack of an “inclusive” government. 

Conflict

  • The level of fighting has decreased significantly – by 91% over August-December 2021 compared to the same period last year.  Armed clashes dropped from 7,430 to 148.  Nangarhar, Kandahar, Kabul and Kunar still see levels of violence.  An increase in attacks against individual Taliban members as well as some intra-Taliban clashes.
  • Still violence of other kinds, including criminal and local conflicts over land and property, including forced evictions of minority groups, often facilitated or tolerated by the Taliban. 
  • The National Resistance Front [headed by Ahmed Massoud and Amrullah Saleh] operate in Panjshir province and part of neighbouring Baghlan.  They are not achieving much.  [But worth remember that in 2002-03, the Taliban were broadly at this point after their defeat…]
  • The Taliban’s security priorities are ISKP and the NRF.  ISKP attacks increased over August–December 2021 compared to the same period in 2020 – from 20 to 152.

Political

  • All government appointees appear to be Taliban, mainly religious scholars and clerics.  Many members of the new government are on the UNSC sanctions list.
  • The 2004 Constitution has been suspended, pending review to ensure laws are compatible with Sharia.  The National Assembly, the Human Rights Commission, Parliament, election management and women’s affairs have all been shut down.

Human Rights

Humanitarian

  • Half the population are in need: “one of the worst food insecurity and malnutrition crises globally” – second drought in four years.  9 million are at emergency levels of food insecurity.  Afghanistan’s GDP has contracted by 40%.
  • Last year, 670,000 were displaced.  This on top of the 5 million displaced since 2012.
  • Impact of economic crisis – women and children at risk from exploitation and abuse – trafficking, selling children, child marriage, recruitment and use of child soldiers, forced labour.  Unconfirmed reports of an increase in domestic violence.
  • “staggering scale of vulnerability across the country”

Ukraine and Russia: credible and serious risk of imminent Russian attack

January 14, 2022

US Officials Said Russia Is “Preparing For An Invasion Into Ukraine”

“As part of its plans, Russia is laying the groundwork to have the option of fabricating a pretext for invasion, including through sabotage activities and information operations,” a US official told BuzzFeed News.

This is looking really serious now – and playing out like some kind of Tom Clancy novel.

In my part of the world, Sweden is adopting a more visible defensive posture on the island of Gotland in response to reports of Russia landing craft moving through the Baltic sea, with troops and armoured vehicles in and around the port of Visby.

Sweden’s military said on Thursday (13 January) it was ramping up its visible activities on the Baltic Sea island of Gotland amid increased tensions between NATO and Russia and a recent deployment of Russian landing craft in the Baltic. Moscow has spooked the West by massing troops near Ukraine, sparking fears that it is considering invading. Moscow denies any such plans, saying it can deploy forces on its territory however it chooses. Gotland, Sweden’s biggest island, is strategically important and lies around 330 kilometres from Kaliningrad, the headquarters of Russia’s Baltic Fleet. In 2019 Sweden deployed an updated ground-to-air missile defence system on the island.

Strategic Swedish Island Likely To Reject Russian Request For Harbor Space

In my view it is highly unlikely Russia will attempt any military action in the Baltic at this moment. But it could certainly act as a “shiny thing” distraction tactic, to get Europe looking in a different direction than Ukraine.

Afghanistan in 2022: Less fighting but bleaker humanitarian prospects

January 12, 2022

Summary: Afghanistan in 2022 will see much less violence than the last few years.  There is currently no appetite amongst an exhausted populace for a continuation of conflict.  But expect the year to be dominated by major, overlapping, economic and humanitarian crises that will painfully impact on society.  The Taliban regime will be repressive and unpopular, struggling with basic principles of governance, while deliberately suppressing women’s participation in society and the economy.  Some armed resistance – Islamic State and NRF – is likely: mainly terrorist in nature, in 2022 it will be insufficient to seriously challenge the Taliban.     

FILE – Hundreds of Afghan men gather to apply for the humanitarian aid in Qala-e-Naw, Afghanistan, Tuesday, Dec. 14, 2021. In a statement Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2022, the White House announced $308 million in additional humanitarian assistance for Afghanistan, offering new aid to the country as it edges toward a humanitarian crisis since the Taliban takeover nearly five months earlier. (AP Photo/Mstyslav Chernov, File)

Although the crumbling of the Afghan security forces and the ceding of territory to the Taliban was gathering pace and clearly visible by late 2020 and early 2021, the collapse of the Ghani government and the rapid return by force of the Taliban in August 2021 took analyts by surprise. 

This time last year, I agonised over the use of cliché as I tried to predict the direction in which 2021 would take Afghanistan.  I thought progress on talks would be limited, that the Taliban were preparing for an uncompromising return to power and we could be looking at a slow slide into civil war.  So I was partly right.  I now think the threat of civil war has temporarily receded – primarily because of sheer exhaustion with war.

The Taliban are not a “popular” movement.  They lack legitimacy of any sort other than the gun.  They won a war and hold the positions of government by force.  Although they have described their regime as “interim”, this looks more likely a delay and distraction tactic rather than a genuine intention to move towards a representative diversity of ethnicities, religions and gender in their administration.  They have no intention of submitting their regime to any kind of popular vote.  That would be a suicidal political risk.  Their tactics include propaganda, suppression and intimidation of journalists and intelligentsia.

The international community reacted to the Taliban’s return with horror and, perhaps inevitably, incoherence.  For centuries, Afghanistan has been a “rentier state”, dependent upon funding from external sources.  In its most recent incarnation, 75% of its government spending came from the international community, predominantly from the US.  Many forms of aid and development support have been frozen.  The Biden government will not be in any haste to unlock the billions of funding they held on behalf of the previous government.  What funding does come from the international community will be conditional and primarily for immediate humanitarian purposes: no one, thus, far, wishes to make things easy for the Taliban.

Afghanistan faces another bleak and difficult year, but perhaps the troubles will be of a different character.  For the moment (and this “moment” may stretch into years), widespread violence will give way to a series of humanitarian and economic crises.  A strict and intolerant Taliban system of government, unsuited for administration and seemingly indifferent to suffering of fellow Afghans, will exacerbate these difficulties.  It seems unlikely that the Taliban will be formally recognised by the international community this year.

After forty years of almost continuous conflict, there does not appear to be any real appetite amongst Afghans for a rapid return to fighting.  This will assist the Taliban as they grapple unimpressively with the complexities of governance.  Their repressive measures to suppressive dissent will be recognisable by dictators over the world.    

But there is armed resistance inside the country.  The National Resistance Front, under Ahmed Shah Massoud’s son Ahmed Massoud and Amrullah Saleh, the former vice-President of the former regime, declared its hand within minutes of the fall of Kabul.  Other than some messy and inconclusive skirmishes in the Panjshir valley that appear long over, it has yet to prove itself as a durable element in Afghan political and military circles.  This does not mean that it should be overlooked.  After the 2002 defeat of the Taliban, they spent years in exile in neighbouring Pakistan, regrouping and developing allies, media networks and resistance capabilities.  Despite somewhat vaingloriously declaring they would stay and fight in the Panjshir, Massoud and Saleh pragmatically decamped to Tajikistan.  If they are going in any direction, they will probably follow a similar path to the Taliban.  They will likely to be forced to play a waiting game, certainly over the next 12 – 24 months.   

Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) will not give its attempts to violently destabilise the country.  Their activities are currently focused on Kabul and the east, in particular Nangarhar.  They are looking to attract Taliban members that may be disillusioned with the compromises (and even boredom) of governance.  Some reports suggest ISKP is reaching out to former members of the military and intelligence communities of the Ghani regime, but this is hard to verify. 

2022 will see lower levels of violence than have been seen for many years.  But this doesn’t mean Afghanistan is moving in a positive direction.  All sides are regrouping and reassessing the new alignments on the chessboard and watching to see how the Taliban perform in their new and unfamiliar positions of responsibility.  They are unlikely to do well.  By the end of 2022, the population may be feeling frustration.  Anti-Taliban factions will be looking to take advantage of the Taliban’s difficulties with social, economic and humanitarian matters.  Expect to see a mix of popular protest and sporadic armed resistance.

Second verse, same as the first…

January 6, 2022

I don’t know enough about Kazakhstan to make an informed comment.  But I can make an emotive one.  The path to the protests, the reactions of the ruler and the deeply disturbing scenes as the confrontation unfolds have been repeated all my adult life.  Why do old men cling on to power – and do so in such corrupt and violent manners?  Power-hungry dictatorships – of whatever political hue – operate and react in the same way.  The goal is to stay in charge at all costs – power for its own sake.  They are not generally very effective at running an economy or accepting and acting on criticism (although Vladimir Putin seems always to play a poor corrupt hand very well).  They scoop up and exploit the assets of the country to maintain their own power and lifestyle.  They rely on oppression, friends and family in key ministries and relentless propaganda.  This is an expensive and inefficient way to run a country.  Small wonder that, for example, a massive, resource-rich country like Russia has a GDP smaller than Italy.

In such a society, it often only needs a simple, single trigger to get people on the streets.  A hike in the price of fuel, the arrest or disappearance of a member of an opposition party or the uncovered excesses of a corrupt minister all fit the bill.  Government, opposition and people are all generally surprised when protests turn violent. 

Poorly trained and heavily armed police and army do the rest.  The Arab Spring was a good example of how things can fall apart quickly.  Gunfire, teargas and rubber bullets were the primary forms of engagement with popular demands.  

Dictators are stuck.  There are no off-ramps.  No one ever retires peacefully once they have a few human rights violations under their belt.  To reduce the repression and invite political reform cries out “weakness”, inviting popular uprisings or a palace coup.  The usual response is to double down with violence, often urged on by fellow members of the card-carrying dictator club, anxious they might be next.  A narrative of “outside provocation” (read as: America, NATO or the West) gushes from government-controlled media.  I see that Russia has warned other countries to keep out of Kazakhstan’s internal affairs, while inserting its own paratroopers into the country.  The VDV are historically known for their ability to defuse angry civilians with tact, negotiation, good-humour and soothing words.  I am doing irony here. 

False narratives and disinformation flood the airwaves.  Some of this is based on manufactured lies – traditional dictatorial bullshit – others on genuine misunderstanding and misperception in fast-moving, volatile and frightening environments.

             Two scenes from the social media footage of recent developments in Kazakhstan I have seen dozens of times over decades:

  • Wide boulevards at night.  Army trucks and light armoured vehicles are attempting to navigate through a shouting crowd of several hundreds of demonstrators running around and between the vehicles and in the road.  The military vehicles are almost certainly trying to extricate themselves as quickly as possible.  I found myself anxiously willing no one to get run over.  It reminded me of the fall of the Soviet Union in the Baltic states where Russian BMP armoured vehicles attempted to drive out of an angry crowd.  Many of the crowd were in front of the vehicle physically trying to push it back.  A BMP does not do nuanced driving.  Nor does it offer wide all-round visibility to the driver, who was almost certainly a frightened, poorly trained, conscript fearing a petrol bomb or being torn apart.  Belching and revving its engine it lurched forwards and crushed some of the protestors.
  • A group of Kazakh army personnel (at least they were well equipped and in military camouflage – but perhaps that passes for a police uniform in those parts).  They had been stopped by an angry crowd.  Sat in the back of their stationary truck they were made to dismount and, pushed and pulled, lie down in submission on the ground, surrounded by hostility.  I remember footage of a bridge in Istanbul, during the so-called “coup” in 2016, in where a group of terrified conscripts were dismounted, disarmed and stripped of their gear. Some were beaten to death.  In the brief footage I saw, the Kazakh troops were not beaten.

Violence and brutality rapidly escalates in situations where no one really understands what is going on and people are scared.  Reaction leads to overreaction.  A terrified young conscript should not ideally be held responsible for the situation a dictator puts him in.   But angry crowds who have just witnessed one of their own being shot or crushed are likely to lynch those that are close to hand.  This is more likely to be a young kid in a uniform in the wrong place at the wrong time than a secret police chief or a corrupt minister.

This is all naïve analytical stuff, I know.  I don’t have a sense for how effective Kazakh political opposition parties are (or even if any exist), but I suspect a lot of angry Kazakh citizens will be aware of the tragedies that are Syria and, closer to home, Belarus. The balance of probability is that they conclude that legitimate protest and reform is not achievable or would come at an appalling cost.  The options are “Syria” or continued repression garnished with shit economy.  Here’s how it plays out:

  1. The protests are crushed violently including by military force from fellow dictators, mainly at Russia’s direction
  2. Many protestors are killed, arrested or “disappeared”– accurate figures will never be known
  3. Additional repressive measures are developed by the Kazakh government, with Russia’s assistance
  4. The population go back to being resentful
  5. Government-controlled media outlets praise the defeat of “NATO gangsters” and warns the west not to consider meddling in the internal affairs of Kazakhstan

Don’t know what the answer is. 

Here are some lyrics from Joe Strummer, taken from the song “Groovy Times”, by The Clash, written in 1978, that speak to the volatility and risks of civil protest and the importance of propaganda to the authorities:

They discovered one black Saturday

That mobs don’t march they run

So you can excuse the nervous triggerman

Just this once for jumping the gun

As they were picking up the dead

Out of the broken glass

Yes it’s number one, the radio said

Groovy times have come to pass!

Migration crisis headed to Europe?

December 10, 2021

Summary: With no positive outcomes for Afghanistan any time soon, people-smugglers report that twice as many Afghans are leaving Afghanistan than they did in 2014

Depressing listening from the BBC’s “Briefing Room” of 9 December 2022.  An impressive selection of experienced Afghanistan analysts (Sekunder Kermani, Mike Martin, Ahmed Rashid, Laurel Miller and Ashley Jackson) gave a uniformly grim overview of the prospects facing the country in the coming months. 

The Taliban’s harsh system seems ill-equipped, unwilling and unable to transform from fragmented guerrilla factions into coherent governance.  The international community offers little other than handwringing concern and a continuation of sanctions in the midst of a “perfect storm” of humanitarian crises.   As Ashley Jackson put it, it is hard to imagine a policy more likely to radicalise Afghanistan, increase the drug trade and drive up migration.  Mike Martin put the chances of disintegration or localised civil war at 50/50 in 2022.    

It seems inevitable that some form of new migration crisis is headed towards Europe, perhaps impacting as early as Spring 2022, according to Mike Martin.  He noted that in October alone, around 300,000 Afghans had moved into Iran from Nimruz province in south-western Afghanistan.  Although Iran is often a final destination because of the black-market employment opportunities, it is also a major springboard for further onward migration into Europe, via two main routes (Turkey-Greece-Italy-France and Turkey-Balkans/Eastern Europe-Germany).  The statistic that shocked me came from the people-smugglers in the area who reported that twice as many Afghans were leaving Afghanistan than they were in 2014.

Having covered quite a few Afghan asylum seeker cases since 2012, up until now, the majority of Afghan asylum seekers to the UK were young, poorly-educated males, in their teens and early twenties.  It seems plausible that a more diverse selection may head to Europe this time, including women, the educated middle class (doctors, lawyers, academics, journalists) and ex-government and ex-military.  This would be a worrying “brain drain” at a time when the country is on its knees.  Perhaps smuggling routes, tactics and techniques are also adapting to bypass European reluctance to see another “2014”.

Afghanistan over the next two years: what types of violence, what types of triggers?

September 15, 2021
Saleh and Massoud: The Afghan leaders challenging the Taliban | Taliban  News | Al Jazeera

Summary: Resistance to the Taliban is not yet inevitable.  Much depends on how they perform in government.  But resistance – and triggers of this resistance – could come from a diverse range of sources, not all of it violent. 

The sudden collapse of the Ghani government and its military in mid-August allowed the Taliban to walk into Kabul unchecked and victorious.  The entire country is now under the control of the Taliban.  Aside from ongoing, hard to verify, sporadic clashes in the Panjshir valley, fighting across Afghanistan has stopped. 

Every side was taken aback by the suddenness of the Taliban’s victory, including the Taliban.  Ahmad Massoud, self-styled leader of the National Resistance Front (NRF), based in the Panjshir, called for a “National Uprising” within days of the Taliban’s victory.  This call has not been heeded, largely because no one is resourced to achieve this and many sections of the population are appreciating a respite from nationwide violence – however it came about and whatever the concerns about “Taliban 2.0” as a guarantor of this peace.

There are many warning signs about a likely Taliban performance in its new role of nation builder.  The Taliban, absolutely acknowledged as fierce and effective guerrilla fighters, do not appear to have any credible skills or competences for governing, despite having had twenty years in which to formulate a plan and learn from the mistakes of their previous stint in government and the fresher mistakes of the Karzai and Ghani governments.  Their announced selection of ministers – almost entirely drawn from Taliban military and religious cliques – is painfully narrow and self-serving, excluding women, ethnicities and religions.  Reports of post-victory revenge killings and abductions are multiple and credible.  Indications of angry disputes within the Taliban leadership as they divided up the spoils of government also point to future turbulence. 

Many see a return to conflict as unavoidable.  Some, such as Mr Massoud, are advocating it.  But wider conflict – the collapse into a new version of the four decade civil war – may not (yet) be inevitable.  The Taliban are broadly expected to deliver three things: governance, human rights and counter terrorism.  They have made lukewarm commitments to all three.  But it is not realistic to judge the Taliban on progress thus far: they have barely formed a government and have not begun to announce detailed policies, let alone implement them.  It will need at least the rest of the year to form a picture of the direction in which the Taliban intend to travel.  If they are able to demonstrate efforts to address these issues – perhaps not succeeding, but at least showing some willingness to try – it is possible that the population may grudgingly tolerate extensive restrictions of social and cultural life in exchange for a respite from violence and a large reduction in government corruption.

But the early indicators suggest that the Taliban are likely to provoke, alienate and discriminate.  They already seem more disposed towards the use of coercion and violence to secure compliance rather than persuasion, advocacy and diversity of opinion to develop good governance and popular support.

There are several factors that could serve as a trigger for resistance against the Taliban.  Resistance does not necessarily mean violence, but some triggers could certainly lead to violent resistance.  Resistance could come in different forms and violence from different directions.  

What could trigger resistance to the Taliban?

  • Taliban policies – abusive human rights, harsh justice, discrimination against minority social groups, refusal to share power, counter-narcotics (leading to unemployment and economic collapse in some parts of the country). 
  • Taliban incompetence – poor of clumsy governance leading to (further) deterioration of the economy and national infrastructure.  Poorly handled security issues, e.g. actions taken against ISKP leading to civilian casualties in the course of counter-terrorist operations.  Failure to deliver on signature Taliban policies (e.g. corruption and counter-narcotics).
  • Taliban repressionabuse of human rights, excessive violence against peaceful demonstrations, eviction of social groups, illegal detention, torture.
  • Taliban internal conflictdisputes over policies and power-sharing between different factions of the Taliban.
  • Popular protest – marches, demonstrations, social media, calls to action.
  • External actions/actors – US/CIA overt/covert activities (e.g. backing the NRF with weapons and funding).  Pakistan/ISI overt/covert interference in Taliban governance, leading to backlash from some Taliban factions and/or parts of the Afghan population.
  • Humanitarian problems in the country – poorly handled by the Taliban, unemployment, food insecurity, collapsed infrastructure, population displacement.

What forms could resistance and violence take?

  • Internal to the Taliban government – (in the worst case a collapse of government and a “Taliban civil war”) power struggles, battles over succession and leadership, battles over policies such as counter-narcotics and their relationship to Al Qaeda.  Internal Taliban resistance could see factions disengaging with the leadership, perhaps setting up semi-autonomous areas of influence in the country or leading to stagnation of policies and governance.  It could also look like a shooting war between factions.
  • Resistance movement(s) – the classic form – local “mujahideen-style” groups, hearkening back and emulating the strategies and tactics of resistance against the Soviet Union.  The NRF has already declared its hand (although calling for national resistance so soon looks highly premature).  They may have the lead in the months to come: Ahmad Massoud (left in the top picture) has been educated, styled and designed to be a resistance leader (think: if all you have is a hammer, you see every problem as a nail).  But he is largely unproven.  He appears to have joined forces with the “caretaker President”: the former First Vice President from the old government, Amrullah Saleh (right in the top picture).  These are two potentially very powerful rallying flags for disaffected groups and holds open the door for a strong “Taliban are illegitimate” narrative.  But other warlords escaped the country and have the potential to regroup and return to the great game: Dostum and his son, Yar Dostum, Mohammed Atta, Ismail Khan.  Other, lesser, warlords and militia leaders may also enter the fray, perhaps capitalising on, or driven by, local events (Taliban repression) in their own provinces.  They are unlikely to act any time soon: survival is prized over premature and vain-glorious demonstrations.  They will watch and wait, biding their time and assessing the state of play.  The Panjshir valley and Bamian province may see their own indigenous resistance groups developing if the Taliban drift into aggressive repression rather than respectful negotiation.  Other provinces might throw up spontaneous leaders and localised resistance, dependent on Taliban action (or inaction).
  • Terrorist – The Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) will remain operational inside Afghanistan in the eastern provinces, Laghman, Nangarhar, Kunar, Nurestan.  They will continue to present a direct challenge to the Taliban.  The guerrilla poacher has now turned government gamekeeper: it will be interesting to see how the Taliban approach counter-terrorism, particularly now they they have the military hardware and trappings of an American-style army.  Other terrorist groups may also prove a threat to the Taliban government if it is perceived that they are not sufficiently hard-line or there are local disputes over assets, influence and religious interpretation.
  • Popular – It is a cliché that the Afghan population are not the same as they were under the last Taliban regime.  They are younger, better educated and far better connected and networked through the same media that the Taliban benefited from.  They have a much better understanding of their country, their politics and the international community outside of Afghanistan.  Their expectations have vastly changed.  We have already seen demonstrations, protests, passive resistance since the return of the Taliban – both inside Kabul and across the country.  Women’s protest movements seem to particularly perplex the Taliban.  Social media footage of journalists and women being beaten and dispersed with gun butts and gun fire spread quickly.  The Taliban may soon understand that they are now as much at the mercy of film showing death and injury to civilians as were the Ghani government and the US  military.  Protests that are violently targeted can lead to more protests and more clampdowns by an inexperienced government commanding ill-trained fighters.  It is possible that forms of “passive resistance” could become more creative, particularly if the Taliban use violence to suppress more overt demonstrations – graffiti, art, music, historical cultural references, fashion, Islamic debate, quotations from the Koran, underground media organisations, websites, blogs.  A few weeks before the collapse of the government, thousands of Afghans raised their voices above the roofs of the major cities to reject the Taliban.  Such massed vocal protest could be difficult for the Taliban to suppress and could rapidly catch on.
  • US/external – If the Taliban are patently failing to rein-in extremist groups (Al Qaeda is the most prominent) or the Taliban are otherwise proving problematic, the US has a sliding scale of overt, deniable and not-so-deniable options – sanctions, drone strikes, missiles, assassinations, bribes and arrests. 
  • Pakistan/external – military support for the Taliban (or a particular faction of the Taliban) and targeting of opponents of the Taliban, either of the military or covert type.
  • “Rogue violence” – contractors and mercenaries (Erik Prince, Wagner…), local Illegal Armed Groups, militias or criminal gangs/narco-traffickers, aiming to knock out an opponent or destabilise an area for a specific agenda.

Conclusions

Some of these forms of resistance are already happening – fighting in the Panjshir, anti-Taliban demonstrations and internal Talban disputes.  More organised forms of resistance – the NRF and other local warlords – will take longer, perhaps months, perhaps years.  To rally supporters, secure external backers, gather finances, create networks, access weapons and develop popular support takes time.  Mr Massoud and Mr Saleh would do worse than to look at the example of the Taliban’s defeat twenty years ago: spend a year or three in exile in a safe haven, regroup, mourn your dead, lick your wounds, identify the lessons and reach out to possible supporters.  And, above all develop a very powerful media machine that exposes every real, imagined or invented mistake the Taliban make.

But sudden incidents, such as a Taliban violent clampdown, Taliban internal fighting or a humanitarian disaster might trigger spontaneous resistance in particular parts of the country, perhaps exacerbated by a specific grievance or social, economic and geographical condition.  There are a lot of weapons and trained gunmen, many of them currently unemployed, across Afghanistan.  Many could be motivated and mobilised if the cause (or price) was right.  Such flashpoints might snowball.  But no one – certainly not “old school” warlords like Dostum or Ismail Khan – will want to jump in too early, while the Taliban still have the intangible factor of “momentum” in their favour and the population are still insufficiently angry.  Time must be bided.

It is striking how many of these triggers are dependent upon the Taliban’s actions.  The Taliban have entered government in a rush and extremely naively.  The totality of their victory has made them arrogant and intolerant.  Their language and actions are very “macho” and aggressive, their narrative at pains to celebrate military victory as proof that they are right.  Will they embrace the decidedly non-macho, complex, boring and largely thankless task of administration?  Is it possible they will moderate their stance once they fully comprehend the social, political, economic and humanitarian obstacles facing them?  Do they have the stomach for compromise and discourse?  Hard to tell, but probably not.  At any rate, the early signs are not very encouraging.  Twenty years ago, it was the Americans that proved to be the agents of the Taliban’s destruction.  This time, it could be the Taliban themselves.   

August 31: Evacuation deadline stands

August 25, 2021

Summary: The Kabul airport evacuation organised by several thousand “infidel” Western soldiers is a brain drain of talented Afghans and a poor look for the Taliban who want to begin presenting themselves to the international community as a credible government.  It is a chaotic media circus.  Western forces are operating in a high risk environment, hostage to accidental clashes or a “deniable” attack from a variety of terrorist sources.  They do not want to be there any longer than they have to. 

Much debate and speculation in the last few days about whether America will extend the time needed to continue the evacuation of Afghans and internationals from Kabul airport (other international forces will fall into step with whatever American decision is taken).  Yesterday a Taliban press conference stated that they would not permit an extension. President Biden appears to have accepted this, stating that the 31st August deadline would remain (while hastening to claim that the US evacuation programme was on track).  Boris Johnson’s online G7 group seems have amounted to little more than sternly “insisting” that the Taliban allow safe passage for other Afghans wishing to leave Afghanistan after the evacuation.  It seems as if the British part of the evacuation could stop in the next day or two.

Assessment 

                It is worth remembering the 31st August 2021 marker is an artificial deadline.  The deadline agreed at the Doha Peace Agreement, signed in February 2020, was for American forces to be out by 1 May 2021.  It rapidly became apparent to Joe Biden’s administration, after inheriting some shoddy and cynical Trumpian homework, that extracting all US troops and equipment was a tall order that could not be achieved by then.  The deadline was extended without Taliban consent, defiantly – but also quite bizarrely – to 11 September 2021, the 20th anniversary of the Al Qaeda attacks on mainland America.  Perhaps quickly recognising that these optics were not good, the deadline was rowed back slightly, to 31 August.  That date has not been agreed in any conference or treaty, it exists as a quirk of international fate. 

                The Taliban do not want this deadline extended.  Six thousand-plus infidel soldiers are spoiling their victory parade.  It is not a good look for the leadership: they are keen to present themselves as a credible and natural government in waiting.  This international crisis, playing out in the full glare of the media is not helping.   Many of Afghanistan’s best and brightest – many formerly targets of the Taliban for assassination – are leaving, perhaps for good, and will no longer be available to rebuild the country under Taliban direction.  One wonders what the Taliban – particularly the younger fighters in from the provinces – make of these scenes.  Their propaganda machine has told them for years that they are overwhelmingly popular, the historic vanquishers of infidel invaders, liberating a grateful people. But this grateful populace seem to flee in terror wherever they go.

                The international forces are in an exceptionally high risk environment.  The risks of accidental clashes are high – both sides appear to be shooting bursts of gunfire in the air as a crude method of crowd control.  The Taliban have darkly warned of “consequences” if the deadline is breached.  It is perhaps unlikely that the Taliban will launch direct attacks against the Americans and British, but “deniable” attacks could come from many sources.  Islamic State, rebuilding their strength in eastern Afghanistan, are opposed to the Taliban and would love to create more violent mayhem.  Other groups – the Haqqani Network, Al Qaeda, remnants of the former army and police and even nascent anti-Taliban forces are lurking in the wings.  If a rocket or suicide bomb landed in the crowded environment of the airport the impact could be catastrophic.

                The situation at the airport has become a media circus – a numbers game in which western governments brandish statistics to demonstrate progress (as they did every year in Afghanistan).   Last year western European governments were broadly hostile to the idea of Afghan refugees and asylum seekers.  This time next year, they will likely be the same.  This is a brief window of compassion, perhaps laced with some cynicism.  European governments do not want to be on the wrong sign of a photograph of a baby being thrown over barbed wire. 

But, as long as an international airlift continues, fearful Afghans will keep coming.  In a crisis, those affected do not make good decisions.  Rumours and misinformation spread easily.  As the deadline draws nearer, the panic may increase – and so might the risk of deaths to stampede,  gunfire or a terrorist bomb.  It is unlikely that the US and British forces – operating from this highly vulnerable arena – will ignore the deadline or specify the actual date and time they will leave.  It may well be before the 31st.

Are the Taliban’s problems only just beginning?

August 18, 2021

Summary: Now the Taliban are “administrators” of a complex, modern country that is extremely hostile to them. This is likely to be less exciting and much more difficult than being a resistance fighter. Do they have any of the skills necessary?

No one can claim that the Taliban had it easy over the last twenty years – crushing defeat, exile, slow, hard fought and vicious insurgency battles, with a steady attrition of fighters.  Only in the most recent years did they start to experience the heady excitement of possible military victory.

But now they are high profile and public officials – administrators – under the intense and largely hostile scrutiny, thanks to twenty years of advancement in social media technology, of the Afghan population, the neighbouring countries and the international community.  They are no longer resistance fighters hiding in the shadows.  It will presumably no longer be sufficient to blow something up and declare it a “victory”.  With painful irony, they will now have to grapple with the widespread destruction of infrastructure that they were largely responsible for destroying.

Running an entire – and relatively modern – state is a job which they performed very badly a quarter of a century ago.  They were entirely unsuited then and will likely struggle in many ways now.   Here are a few quick and dirty bulletpoints (welcome any comments):

Taliban challenges:

  • Establishing a credible government – how “inclusive” will it be?  Will there be representatives from other ethnic groups and minorities – Hazara?  Women?
  • Achieving international recognition/removal of “terrorist” status
  • Lack of legitimacy – having taken the government by force
  • Distrust from almost every ethnic and social group in the country
  • Controlling the excesses of their fighters – looting, rape, revenge killings – and other looters/criminal gangs and opportunists (some may even be masquerading as Taliban)
  • Convincing international community to provide aid
  • Unlocking national bank reserves funds – held in US?
  • Expressing/explaining in specific detail their thus far extremely vague concepts of Islam and Sharia – what is “appropriate Islamic behaviour”? What will the punishments be for non-compliance?
  • Establishing credible law and order – at the moment no army or police, just thousands of armed fighters on the streets
  • Disarming, demobilising and reintegrating potentially hundreds of thousands of fighters (both Taliban and ex-ANSF) who have suddenly become unemployed.  Idle gunmen may drift towards crime, warlords or other insurgent groups (e.g., but not exclusively, Islamic State)
  • Frictions and splinters within the Taliban – moderates and extremists, young and old. As the Taliban leadership is forced to finally take a formal (and perhaps uncomfortably pragmatic) position on many issues – amnesty for government workers, Sharia, constitution, women, education – it may turn out that there are fundamental disagreements. 
  • Running a modern state – you need real expertise to deal with the economy, employment, education, electrical power grid, fuel distribution, food, road and communications infrastructure, population displacement, law courts, police, telecoms, international, national and local government issues and the infrastructure of governance – this expertise is currently fleeing the country (or was assassinated by the Taliban)
  • Demonstrating “popular support” – no evidence that the Taliban have the majority of popular support, despite their assertions. What would the Taliban do if it was clearly and peacefully demonstrated that they were neither popular nor desired? (is a question that journalists could ask them…)   
  • Responding to criticism, popular protests and intense questioning from journalists and the population.  Social media advances mean that the younger, better educated and aware Afghan population can see immediately what the Taliban are doing, expose it and criticise it
  • Relationship with Al Qaeda
  • Tackling the Islamic State presence in eastern Afghanistan
  • The issue of refugees and people fleeing the country. It is never a good look for a new government if everyone is trying to leave. Likely many of the skilled and educated people that know how to run a modern country have already left in fear of their lives.  How to develop confidence such that the “brain drain” slows and reverses?
  • Continuation of the civil war?  Already seeing reports of former First Vice President, Amrullah Saleh decamping to the Panjshir valley and declaring himself “caretaker President”, a statue of a Hazara leader blown up in Bamian and a demonstration in Nangarhar waving the Afghan national flag.   Dostum and Atta escaped north, most likely nursing wounds and plotting.  Doubtless many other former government and military officials will turn up elsewhere – US? India?  Iran? Europe? Doesn’t mean anything necessarily at present (and I think even the fiercest opponents of the Taliban may be enjoying the lack of fighting over the last few days). But the country is in a volatile state and at real risk of small flashpoints escalating into larger problems.  Well-armed but perhaps less well trained and educated Taliban fighters may not be the best at crowd-control and defusing situations.  In the longer-term – 6, 12, 24 months? – perhaps we will see more organised rebellions and bids to overthrow the Taliban
  • I have kept the most cynical point for last.  If the Taliban are now the Kabul government, everyone knows where they live.  They can no longer hide in caves or neighbouring countries.  They will be much more easily reached by air, IED, missile or drone strikes in future.    
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