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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.    

Are the Americans too hasty in their withdrawal?

August 17, 2021

Summary: Worth remembering that the international withdrawal began in 2011 and was achieved by December 2014. Also worth remembering: how quickly major world events become academic debating points about what should have been done…

Seeing criticisms in the media about the chaos at the airport being caused by the unseemly haste of the international American withdrawal from Afghanistan.  Difficult to disagree with in the context of the last few days, particularly whether the internationals should have earlier identified and processed those Afghans that clearly needed to go with them.  But whether the US could/should have predicted the speed of the Taliban advance in the last days and weeks (aka the collapse of the Afghan security forces) will now forever remain a moot point. If various intelligence organisations need to have a “lessons identified” moment, then I am sure they will do so…

But notice of intention to leave was given over ten years ago.  It is at least worth holding in the back of the memory that the US/international withdrawal in fact began in 2011, aiming for a withdrawal deadline – which it achieved – of December 2014.  Despite the fretting of many analysts about the risk of collapse back into civil war (self included), this did not happen.

Around 2010 there were something like 140,000 international soldiers in Afghanistan.  By the time December 2014 arrived, a residual force of 10 – 12,000 remained, providing training, air support and logistical back-up.  This force was slowly reduced during Trump’s time in office – down to 7-8,000 and then to 2,500 by the time Joe Biden became President earlier this year. Apologies if I am a bit hazy on the precise figures and timeline.

There is a debate as to whether a small force like this could/should have stayed almost indefinitely and that this would have been the solution to propping up the Ghani government and preventing a Taliban takeover.  It is another academic point now, overtaken by events – i.e. an analyst can now never be wrong on the issue!  But if the Taliban believed this was the US strategy, then US casualties would have started to increase again. I also think that larger complex terror attacks would have returned to Kabul.

But, in the wider context, US withdrawal was well advertised and I do not think a sudden injection of US (and British?) forces against the rapidly advancing Taliban, even to hold Kabul “open” to allow further evacuations, would have helped much and would likely have led to very bloody urban combat.

Taliban Triumphant

August 16, 2021

Summary: Stunning everyone (likely including the Taliban) with the speed of collapse, the Taliban have captured Kabul, President Ghani has fled and thousands of Afghans are trying to escape from the airport. To all intents and purposes the Taliban now control Afghanistan. All eyes on the Taliban’s next moves.

Well, this was me a month ago:

An aggressive and thus far successful military surge by the Taliban is creating a fear of an imminent Taliban return to power.  This is certainly one possibility, but a collapse of the government does not look likely at present. 

Taliban sweep into Afghan capital after government collapses

Inevitable.  Well, in the several hours of hindsight that we now have, it is easy to say that the Taliban’s takeover of the country was bound to happen.  I didn’t see it like that and it means I got it wrong.  The sheer speed of collapse took me by surprise even though I felt I had a reasonable understanding of how Afghan conflicts can work – much posturing, demonstration, followed by negotiations and then a rapid – often very rapid – changing of allegiance once it becomes clear the way the wind is blowing.

There were several “collapse models” from recent history that I was thinking about:

1989 – 1992 – The Najibullah regime: An Afghan government put in place by the Soviets when they left.  The conscript army and air force was propped up by the Soviets, trained, funded and equipped.    Its speedy demise was widely predicted and yet it held on against confident and powerful Mujahideen for over two years.  Rapid disintegration did occur, but only when the Soviet Union collapsed and it became clear that no more money, weapons and advisors would be forthcoming.  President Najibullah was tortured and hung from a lamp post when the Taliban finally caught up with him.

1994 – 1995 – The rise of the Taliban: The tide turned against a weak and divided coalition government as the Kandahar-based Taliban raced north-west up the ring road to Herat and north-east to Kabul.  Striking tribal deals as they went, many groups simply fell into line without resistance, recognising the Taliban as a powerful and growing force that had the momentum (and Pakistani support).

Late 2001 – collapse of the Taliban: I was an analyst watching from London as this happened.  Weeks of bombing and no shift in Taliban positions.  Then a fracturing of Taliban resolve around Mazar-e Sharif and further nudges from General Dostum, the CIA and US Special Forces.  The Taliban resistance crumbled and then shattered.  Then, as now, the speed of collapse was something to behold.  As analysts, watching the Taliban retreat pell-mell southwards, we kept expecting them to dig in for a last stand – would it be Kabul?  Would it be Kandahar?  Nothing like that.  Taliban groups – and groups notionally “Taliban” for a few months or years simply dispersed into the countryside, fled to Pakistan or joined the “boulder rolling downhill” momentum that was the Northern Alliance anti-Taliban coalition.

December 2014 – withdrawal of NATO:  A wild card example here.  While not strictly a collapse, it is worth remembering that NATO had “left” Afghanistan once before.  International troop levels peaked around 2011 at 140,000 or so.  By December 2014, NATO had officially withdrawn and the remaining force levels stayed at 10 – 12,000 for some years, until President Trump reduced them even further in 2020.  There was much analytical concern in 2014 – 2015 that this might trigger a collapse into civil war and a Taliban return.  It didn’t happen – but it served to trigger the debate about how few US troops could be left in order to prop up the government and gave hope (false hope as it turned out) that the Afghan government could survive another international downsizing.  I can see in my analysis that I was drawn more to this model and the Najibullah one, thinking that perhaps Ghani’s government would lurch downwards as the US left in 2021 but would recover to retain control of the key cities and communication networks and not entirely collapse.

Why did it happen so fast?  I think it was a combination of Taliban work striking behind the scenes deals with key players in the provinces, the brittle nature of much of the army and police (the relatively high quality of Afghan commandos and special forces notwithstanding, the regular army and police had high desertion rates, low morale and frequently were not paid or supplied).  But also it was this less tangible issue of momentum and survival instinct – judging which way the wind is blowing: ensuring that you are not going to go down fighting for a cause that looks lost.  Once this thinking takes hold, that battlefield empties rather quickly.   

The Taliban, the Afghan population and the international community appear all equally stunned by speed of the turnaround and the scenes in Kabul.  All eyes are on the Taliban’s next steps.  I will try and put down some thoughts shortly about the coming prospects.  I think the Taliban’s problems are probably only just beginning.

Where is Afghanistan going?

July 14, 2021

Summary

An aggressive and thus far successful military surge by the Taliban is creating a fear of an imminent Taliban return to power.  This is certainly one possibility, but a collapse of the government does not look likely at present. 

Prospects for Afghanistan

The Taliban are aggressively surging into the power vacuum left by the international departure and it is unclear whether the Afghan government forces have the resolve and capability to resist their advances.  The risk of a new implosion into civil war is very real.[1]  In June 2021, the United States intelligence community warned that the Afghan government could collapse as soon as six months after the US withdrawal is complete.[2]

Background

In February 2020 the US and the Taliban signed an agreement intended to prepare the way for the withdrawal of American soldiers, for talks to commence between the Taliban and the Afghan government and for there to be a significant reduction of violence by all parties.  In reality, the violence resumed and increased.  The situation is highly fragile.[3] 

To be clear, the February 2020 agreement was not a peace deal and it was not an agreement between the Afghan government and the Taliban.  After many months of further delay, in September 2020, the Taliban and the Afghan government finally sat down together.[4]  But the talks have not moved forward since then and the Taliban have continued to fight across the country,[5] with violence levels increasing.  It is unclear how the Taliban envisage their future role in society and government, and how (and even if) they might reintegrate.  Many doubt the Taliban’s negotiating sincerity.  Wider dialogue and reconciliation will pose major challenges.  As one commentator observed in January 2020,

“…the whole thing could unravel when it comes time for intra-Afghan talks…The temporary ceasefire, if agreed upon, may provide a new lease on life to the on-again, off-again peace talks. A more permanent agreement, however, faces a number of pitfalls that could scuttle the ultimate objective of bringing lasting peace to Afghanistan…Who is going to amass what gains and on what terms and conditions in the post-withdrawal Afghanistan is so far a guessing game…the Taliban’s possible inclusion in power-sharing in Kabul is seen with concern for two major reasons: The militia’s desire for power and their world view.”[6]

Current situation

The new US administration has pressed ahead, with unseemly haste, with the final reduction of American troops.[7]  Other residual international forces have followed suit.  Most recent reporting suggests that the US withdrawal is 90% complete and will complete its withdrawal by the end of August 2021.[8] 

The speedy American troop disengagement – which in some areas has resembled flight – has emboldened the Taliban and left the Afghan military dismayed.  The next twelve months will be volatile and the security situation will remain fragile as the Afghan armed forces attempt to regroup and rebalance themselves.  Much depends now on the extent to which the international community – and this predominantly means the United States – continues the flow of money, weapons, equipment, training, logistics and intelligence support to the Afghan government and its military.  Fighting could well intensify, as the Taliban and the Afghan government grapple for territorial control and bargaining chips for any negotiation.  On top of this – and largely lost in the noise of the US withdrawal and the Taliban advances – there are major tensions within the Afghan government leadership.[9]  The hasty US-Taliban peace agreement followed by the precipitous US military departure, in the absence of a wider Afghan discussion and reconciliation, has increased instability.[10]

Most recent UN data for 2021, comparing the casualties in the first quarter of each year since 2009 shows a concerning and significant uptick in casualties in January to March 2021:[11]

It is highly likely that new UN figures – probably due this month – will show a further increase.  The US has been heavily criticised for this very hasty dismantling of its operation.[12]  The Pentagon is concerned that Al Qaeda could once again pose a threat to the US mainland from Afghanistan in as little as two years.[13]  The United States intelligence community judges that the Afghan government could collapse as soon as six months after the US withdrawal is complete.[14] 

In May 2021, the credible American analytical group, The Long War Journal, gave this assessment of areas controlled and contested by the Taliban.  It judged that the Taliban had doubled the areas that they controlled or contested between 2018 and May 2021:

“The number of Afghan districts controlled and contested by the Taliban has nearly doubled since early 2018, according to an ongoing study of the security situation by FDD’s Long War Journal. The expansion of Taliban power in the past three years, even as U.S. and NATO forces were present in the country, is an ominous sign for the future of Afghanistan.  In January 2018, when Resolute Support tried to shut down reporting on the status of districts, LWJ assessed that the Taliban controlled 45 of Afghanistan’s 407 districts, or 11 percent, and contested 117, or 29 percent. Today, LWJ assess that the Taliban controls 87 districts, or 21 percent, and contested 214, or 53 percent…Today, the Taliban directly threaten 16 of Afghanistan’s 34 provincial capitals, including Maidan Wardak and Pul-I-Alam, the capitals of Wardak and Logar provinces respectively. These two provinces are outside of the capital of Kabul and are the gateway to Kabul City.”[15]

In early July 2021 it gave an even graver assessment:

“Afghanistan is at risk of complete collapse after the Taliban has made dramatic gains in recent days, striking at the heart of the Afghan government’s base of power in the north while seizing control of large areas of the country – often unopposed by government forces.

The security situation has deteriorated rapidly. In the lax six days alone, the Taliban has taken control of 38 of Afghanistan’s 407 districts – nearly 10 percent of the country – and most all of them in critical areas.

In all, the Taliban currently controls 195 districts and contests another 129 districts…Prior to the Taliban’s offensive, which began in earnest on May 1 – upon expiration of the date that the U.S. government originally committed to completing its withdrawal under the Doha Agreement – the Taliban controlled just 73 districts and contested another 210.

Put simply: The Afghan government controls only a little more than 20 percent of the country at the moment.[16]

As at mid-July 2021, the Taliban are reported to be making extensive and rapid territorial gains across the country, including in northern Afghanistan, an area that is not their traditional heartland.[17]  The Taliban have even claimed to control 85% of the country.[18]  However, caution needs to be applied to any assessment.  The security situation is fluid – and increasingly so at present – in many rural parts of Afghanistan.  We should be careful about attempting to judge who “controls” what piece of land at any given point in time: both the government and the Taliban are prone to giving out inaccurate information, either by accident or design.  Taliban groups can dominate particular routes, towns and villages over prolonged periods, simply by setting up a few checkpoints or mobile Sharia courts, without necessarily formally controlling a district.  The Taliban establish “shadow governors” and aim to create the impression of a governance structure where they get the chance.  Conversely, government forces often define “control” of a village or district simply by running a patrol through it from time to time or by flying the Afghan flag from the roof of the main police or local government headquarters.  Although many districts have been fiercely fought for, others are “wet paper bags” to be yielded without resistance to any armed group that shows up with three men and an AK-47.

Nevertheless, it is clear that the Taliban have made some speedy gains in the last few weeks.  The Long War Journal providing the following assessment, covering the period from April to early July 2021:[19]

Concern over human rights

The Taliban were notorious in the 1990s for a harsh regime.  Human rights are a rapidly increasing concern amongst humanitarian organisations as the Taliban capture many new areas of the country.[20]  Because of the fluidity of the situation, accurate reporting is difficult to access.  But many ethnic and social groups are worried.[21]  There are strong indications that human rights abuses and reprisals are taking place. 

“Many Afghans who hoped the Taliban would reform their extreme views amid ongoing talks with the Afghan government and the U.S. troop withdrawal have been disappointed by the new severe restrictions imposed on the local population in some of the districts that they have recently captured. 

Several residents of Balkh, a district in northern Balkh province that is located 20 kilometers north of the provincial capital, Mazar-e Sharif, confirmed to VOA that the Taliban have distributed leaflets, ordering locals to follow strict rules that are similar to those they imposed on Afghans when they last governed the country from 1996 to 2001.”[22]  

Particular targets appear to women, ethnic minorities and religious groups, media and those who are perceived to have collaborated with the government.  Human Rights Watch have warned that human rights abuse might intensify as the Taliban gain further power:

“Heather Barr, a HRW senior researcher for women’s rights in Asia, said that reports about the Taliban recent crackdown on women and media were ‘not very surprising’ since her organization’s investigation has found that ‘the Taliban’s policies are not that different from what they were in 2001.’ 

It is ‘very concerning indeed for human rights,’ Barr told VOA, adding that ‘some of these abusive attitudes are actually intensifying as they are feeling triumphant in gaining control of more and more territory.’ 

The watchdog group in a report last year said although the Taliban, at least at the leadership level, have portrayed themselves as having reformed their hardline views, they have continued to impose extreme restrictions enforced by the militants.”[23]   

The Taliban appear to purposefully assassinating government military pilots.[24]  There are concerning reports that the Taliban recently executed a large group of Afghan commandos as they surrendered.[25] 

Where is Afghanistan going?

Prospects are extremely bleak for Afghanistan now.  The future looks likely to see much intensified violence.  Various permutations of civil war (either a “stable” civil war, where the government controls the cities and main roads in a broad stalemate, or a more brutal “swirling” civil war, with a collapsed government and a return of ethnic and military warlords) are real possibilities.  The US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, a credible US government watchdog, described the security situation as “perhaps the most complex and challenging period in the last two decades”.[26]  There are a range of directions in which the country could travel. 

Much depends upon the extent to which the Taliban manage to achieve power and control in the country.  If the Taliban press ahead, aiming at some form of military victory and/or dominant but unaccountable share of governance, they will meet resistance from the government, significant sections of the population and the international community.  Outcomes will be permutations of the following:

  • A continued civil war
  • A return to a highly repressive regime, threatening the human rights of many, but particularly some specific social, ethnic, religious and gender groups
  • A collapsed or splintered state
  • Humanitarian collapse: population displacement, flows of refugees, food insecurity, economic failure, increased drug production and trafficking 

It is at least plausible that the Taliban could reach a reconciliation with the Afghan government and some form of power-sharing deal.  This represents the goal of the Afghan government, Afghanistan’s neighbours and the international community.  The Taliban may or may not recognise that, should they be required to submit their preferred manner of government to the will of the people in a popular vote, they are unlikely to secure much support.  A process that brings the Taliban into the existing government structure would certainly mitigate some of the dangers of the Taliban – a harsh, oppressive regime that abused human rights.  This currently looks unlikely while fighting is ongoing and would likely be a fragile and volatile state of affairs, prone to relapses, even if a deal could be reached. 

At present, the Taliban have the military upper hand, appear very confident and are pushing into hitherto government-controlled areas with relative ease.  Far better, from their perspective, to push on with military force and secure a situation where, if talks do begin they already look like the de facto governing body in Afghanistan.  If the military tool gets blunted, then there is an alternative solution.  A process of dividing up government ministries and provinces within a small group of male, white-bearded power-brokers currently to be found within insurgent, government and local power-brokers.  There are many ethnic, political, religious and military figures outside of the Taliban who might be convinced to divide up the pie in this way as long as they are clear beneficiaries and there is little accountability from the population.  This might end up with large parts of the country officially or unofficially under Taliban control.

Key drivers to watch for in the coming months:

  • Fragmentation of the Afghan military – surrenders, desertions, defections, casualties.  No sign of this as a significant problem at present and it would probably need tens of thousands of ANA soldiers to desert/defect for it to be considered an issue.   
  • Control of Kabul and provincial capitals – serious problems if these fall to the Taliban.
  • The role of warlords – Afghan regional players (think Dostum, Ismail Khan, Hekmatyar, etc) raising their own private armies and later perhaps striking private deals with the Taliban.
  • Waning or lukewarm support from the US and the international community.
  • The role of Pakistan, specifically its levels of covert and overt support for the Taliban.
  • Increased flows of refugees into neighbouring countries – particularly Pakistan and Iran – and later into Europe.
  • Increase in human rights abuses – targeting individuals, ethnic, social and gender groups.  

The next six to twelve months will be crucial.  But violence and instability is likely to continue to impact Afghanistan for at least the next 5 to 10 years.  This is a grim read from The Economist:

“The zealots of the Taliban, who harboured Osama bin Laden and were overthrown by American-backed forces after 9/11, have made a horrifying comeback.  They are in complete control of about half the country and threaten to conquer the rest.  The democratic, pro-Western government fostered by so much American blood and money is corrupt, widely reviled and in steady retreat…In the best-case scenario, strong American support for the government…might succeed in producing some form of power-sharing agreement.  But even if that were to happen—and the chances are low—it would be a depressing spectacle. The Taliban would insist on moving backwards in the direction of the brutal theocracy they imposed during their previous stint in power, when they confined women to their homes, stopped girls from going to school and meted out harsh punishments for sins such as wearing the wrong clothes or listening to the wrong music.

More likely than any deal, however, is that the Taliban try to use their victories on the battlefield to topple the government by force… At the very least, the civil war is likely to intensify, as the Taliban press their advantage and the government fights for its life. Other countries—China, India, Iran, Russia and Pakistan—will seek to fill the vacuum left by America…America is abandoning an entire country of almost 40m people to a grisly fate.”[27]

Perhaps there is a small slice of optimism.  At the moment, the loose power vacuum is extremely alarming.  There are several reports of Afghan army units surrendering, disintegrating, collapsing or even fleeing into another country.  The Afghan military is scrambling to keep up.  Rapid collapses and fluid power vacuums have happened before: the Najibullah regime collapsed in 1992 in the face of the mujahideen and the withdrawal of Soviet support, the mujahideen collapsed in the mid-1990s in the face of the Taliban, the Taliban collapsed in late 2001 in the face of American air power.  In these situations many armed fighters realigned themselves, flocking to join what they perceived as the “winning side”.   It is difficult to understand clearly what is happening on the ground across the country – claims and counter-claims muddy the analytical waters – but some realignment of loyalties should be an expected part of the process in the face of a major strategic shift in the balance of power. 

If the Afghan military forces hold together and provide some military rebuffs to the Taliban – perhaps quickly recapturing some key districts – the Taliban military fire can be dampened for a period.  As confident Taliban forces surge across the country, they are suffering significant casualties as well – many are being treated in Pakistani hospitals.[28]  One of the problems the “victorious” mujahideen experienced as the Soviets withdrew in the 1988-90 period, was over-confidence, leading to many poorly-judged attacks against well dug in and well-equipped and supported conscripts.  This led to high levels of casualties.  There are no conscripts in the ANA and significant parts of the Afghan military are now quite good – certainly well-experienced and battle tested.

A stabilising of the military situation by the time winter comes is a plausible outcome.  Rebuffs and bad weather would take the edge off Taliban offensive operations.  This could allow a period for the international community to redirect the Taliban and the government back into talks.  So what we are seeing now is probably a downward lurch that can be arrested.  It does not yet look like a collapse into fragmentation.


[1] Miller, L., ‘The Myth of a Responsible Withdrawal From Afghanistan’, Foreign Policy, 22 Jan. 2021, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/afghanistan/2021-01-22/myth-responsible-withdrawal-afghanistan

[2] ‘Afghan Government Could Collapse Six Months After U.S. Withdrawal, New Intelligence Assessment Says’, Wall Street Journal, 23 June 2021, https://www.wsj.com/articles/afghan-government-could-collapse-six-months-after-u-s-withdrawal-new-intelligence-assessment-says-11624466743

[3] Nossiter, A., ‘The Taliban Think They Have Already Won, Peace Deal or Not’, The New York Times, 30 Mar. 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/30/world/asia/taliban-victory-afghanistan.html  and ‘Afghanistan violence jumps 50 percent amid peace talks: Watchdog’, Al Jazeera, 5 Nov. 2020, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/11/5/afghanistan-violence-jumps-50-percent-amid-peace-talks-watchdog

[4] ‘Afghan-Taliban peace talks an “opportunity for peace”’, BBC News, 12 Sep. 2020, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-53976968

[5] Constable, P., ‘Taliban shows it can launch attacks anywhere across Afghanistan, even as peace talks continue’, The Washington Post, 25 Oct. 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/afghanistan-violence-peace-talks-taliban/2020/10/25/4161716e-156c-11eb-a258-614acf2b906d_story.html

[6] Khattak, D., ‘The Pitfalls in Afghanistan’s Peace Process’, The Diplomat, 24 Jan. 2020, https://thediplomat.com/2020/01/the-pitfalls-in-afghanistans-peace-process/

[7] Herman, S., ‘US Troops to be Out of Afghanistan by Sept. 11’, VoA, 14 Apr. 2021, https://www.voanews.com/usa/us-troops-be-out-afghanistan-sept-11  and Gibbins-Neff, T., Schmitt, E., and Cooper, H., ‘Pentagon Accelerates Withdrawal From Afghanistan’, The New York Times, 25 May 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/05/25/us/politics/us-afghanistan-withdrawal.html

[8] Greve, J., ‘Joe Biden says US to pull its forces out of Afghanistan by 31 August’, The Guardian, 8 July 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2021/jul/08/joe-biden-afghanistan-military-pullout-ahead-of-schedule

[9] Bezhan, F., ‘Kabul Chaos: Afghan Election Dispute Could Spill Over Into Peace Process’, RFE/RL, 26 Feb. 2020, https://www.rferl.org/a/afghan-election-dispute-ghani-abdullah-peace-process/30456566.html

[10] Dobbins, J., et al, ‘US-Taliban Negotiations: How to Avoid Rushing to Failure’, The Atlantic Council, 3 Sep. 2019,  https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/new-atlanticist/us-taliban-negotiations-how-to-avoid-rushing-to-failure

[11] ‘Afghanistan Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict First Quarter Update: 1 January to 31 March 2021’, UNAMA, 14 Apr. 2021, https://reliefweb.int/report/afghanistan/afghanistan-protection-civilians-armed-conflict-first-quarter-update-1-january-31

[12] Gannon, K., ‘US left Afghan airfield at night, didn’t tell new commander’, AP News, 6 July 2021, https://apnews.com/article/bagram-afghanistan-airfield-us-troops-f3614828364f567593251aaaa167e623

[13] ‘Militant groups could pose threat to US in two years from Afghanistan: Pentagon’, Ariana News, 18 June 2021, https://ariananews.af/militant-groups-could-pose-threat-to-u-s-in-two-years-from-afghanistan-pentagon-leaders/#.YMwhsJkMrTM.twitter

[14] ‘Afghan Government Could Collapse Six Months After U.S. Withdrawal, New Intelligence Assessment Says’, Wall Street Journal, 23 June 2021, https://www.wsj.com/articles/afghan-government-could-collapse-six-months-after-u-s-withdrawal-new-intelligence-assessment-says-11624466743

[15] Roggio, B., ‘Taliban control in Afghanistan expands significantly since 2018’, Long War Journal, 14 May 2021, https://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2021/05/taliban-control-in-afghanistan-expands-significantly-since-2018.php

[16] Roggio, B., ‘Afghanistan at risk of collapse as Taliban storms the north’, Long War Journal, 5 July 2021, https://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2021/07/afghanistan-at-risk-of-collapse-as-taliban-storms-the-north.php

[17] Gul, A., ‘Taliban Capture at Least a Dozen Districts as Afghan Fighting Rages’, VoA, 3 July 2021, https://www.voanews.com/south-central-asia/taliban-capture-least-dozen-districts-afghan-fighting-rages

[18] ‘Taliban say they control 85% of Afghanistan, humanitarian concerns mount’, Reuters, 10 July 2021, https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/militia-commanders-rush-aid-afghan-forces-against-taliban-2021-07-09/

[19] ‘The Taliban’s increasing hold over Afghanistan’, AFP News Agency, 8 July 2021, https://twitter.com/AFP/status/1412970979320426501

[20] ‘Afghanistan: Taliban Forcibly Displace Civilians’, Human Rights Watch, 7 July 2021, https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/07/07/afghanistan-taliban-forcibly-displace-civilians

[21] ‘”My Future Is Now.”  An Afghan Woman from a Threatened Minority Wrestles with What Happens When the U.S. Withdraws’, Time, 28 June 2021, https://time.com/6075566/hazara-shia-afghanistan/

[22] Niazman, G., ‘Taliban Impose New Restrictions on Women, Media In Afghanistan’s North’, VoA, 9 July 2021, https://www.voanews.com/extremism-watch/taliban-impose-new-restrictions-women-media-afghanistans-north

[23] Niazman, G., ‘Taliban Impose New Restrictions on Women, Media In Afghanistan’s North’, VoA, 9 July 2021, https://www.voanews.com/extremism-watch/taliban-impose-new-restrictions-women-media-afghanistans-north

[24] Castronuovo, C., ‘Taliban targeting Afghan pilots for assassination as US withdraws: report’, The Hill, 9 July 2021, https://thehill.com/policy/international/middle-east-north-africa/562316-taliban-targeting-afghan-pilots-for

[25] Haltiwanger, J., ‘Viral video of Taliban executing 22 Afghan commandos as they surrendered ignites more criticism of Biden’s withdrawal’, Business Insider, 13 July 2021, https://www.businessinsider.com/video-shows-taliban-executing-22-afghan-commandos-cnn-2021-7?r=US&IR=T

[26] ‘Quarterly Report to the United States Congress, SIGAR, 30 July 2020, https://www.sigar.mil/pdf/quarterlyreports/2020-07-30qr.pdf

[27] ‘America’s war in Afghanistan is ending in crushing defeat’, The Economist, 10 July 2021, https://www.economist.com/leaders/2021/07/10/americas-longest-war-is-ending-in-crushing-defeat

[28] Noorzai, R., ‘Taliban Active in Pakistan as Dead and Wounded Militants Arrive from Afghanistan’, VoA, 13 July 2021, https://www.voanews.com/extremism-watch/taliban-active-pakistan-dead-and-wounded-militants-arrive-afghanistan

Taliban reportedly making rapid advances

July 8, 2021

It makes worrying reading. This report is based on analysis by the Long War Journal. Both the Taliban and the Afghan government are prone, both deliberately and unintentionally, to making inaccurate statements about “who controls what”. So this remains a fast-moving and volatile situation, with districts falling in and out of Taliban control from day to day. Maybe in the weeks and months to come the situation will become clearer. This filling of the vacuum does not necessarily herald a total collapse, but prospects are bleak at the moment.

NYT: Uptick in surrender rates of Afghan forces?

May 27, 2021

Summary: The flow of defections and desertions between government and Taliban forces is probably a good indicator of the direction the conflict is headed.  The New York Times report that the negotiated surrender rate of Afghan government forces to the insurgents is speeding up.

The RAND National Defense Research Institute produced an interesting study in 2010 that looked at how insurgencies end.  The paper, by Ben Connable and Martin Libicki, studied 89 insurgencies of varying duration, intensity and character.  They rightly and carefully caveated their findings, cautioning against taking generalised historical findings as a prescription for dealing with current insurgencies.  In 2010, they clearly meant Iraq and Afghanistan.  I have always found the report a useful place to kick-start my thinking.  For this blogpost, I am purely focused on Afghanistan. 

I will crudely sketch in their key findings for context, highlighting in bold the issue I am thinking about today and putting my general comments in square brackets.  I think I need to look through all these findings again and revisit the report in slower time:

Key findings:

  • Modern insurgencies last approximately 10 years and the government’s chances of winning increase slightly over time
  • Withdrawal of state sponsorship [i.e. Pakistan] cripples an insurgency and can lead to its defeat 
  • Inconsistent or impartial support to either side generally presages defeat [i.e. what international support will the Afghan government be able to rely on post-2021?]
  • Anocracies (pseudo democracies) [the flawed Afghan government?] do not often succeed against insurgencies

Key indicators of the progress of the insurgency:

  • The rate of desertions, defections and infiltrations can often indicate significant trends in the course of the conflict
  • The willingness/unwillingness of the civilian population to report on insurgent activity reflects govt COIN success or failure

Additional findings:

  • Complex insurgencies, with more than two protagonists, lead to messier and more protracted endings [what happens when warlords and other factions get involved?]
  • Over the long run, it is more common for governments to outlast insurgents – going against conventional wisdom [i.e. the Taliban’s “they have all the watches but we have all the time”]
  • Insurgencies perform better with a command hierarchy and rural terrain
  • Terrorism often backfires – indiscriminate terror is often a sign of over-confidence or weakness
  • Weak insurgents can win
  • Sanctuary is vital to insurgencies [i.e. Pakistan]

The study offers up the idea of rates of defections and desertions as a potentially useful indicator for the direction in which the conflict was tipping.  The New York Times has a concerning article out today highlighting the increasing pace of surrenders by government forces to the Taliban.  Laghman province is the main subject of the report:

“Ammunition was depleted inside the bedraggled outposts in Laghman Province. Food was scarce. Some police officers hadn’t been paid in five months.

Then, just as American troops began leaving the country in early May, Taliban fighters besieged seven rural Afghan military outposts across the wheat fields and onion patches of the province, in eastern Afghanistan.

The insurgents enlisted village elders to visit the outposts bearing a message: Surrender or die.

By mid-month, security forces had surrendered all seven outposts after extended negotiations, according to village elders. At least 120 soldiers and police were given safe passage to the government-held provincial center in return for handing over weapons and equipment… Since May 1, at least 26 outposts and bases in just four provinces — Laghman, Baghlan, Wardak and Ghazni — have surrendered after such negotiations, according to village elders and government officials. With morale diving as American troops leave, and the Taliban seizing on each surrender as a propaganda victory, each collapse feeds the next in the Afghan countryside.

Among the negotiated surrenders were four district centers, which house local governors, police and intelligence chiefs — effectively handing the government facilities to Taliban control and scattering the officials there, at least temporarily.  The Taliban have negotiated Afghan troop surrenders in the past, but never at the scale and pace of the base collapses this month in the four provinces extending east, north and west of Kabul. The tactic has removed hundreds of government forces from the battlefield, secured strategic territory and reaped weapons, ammunition and vehicles for the Taliban — often without firing a shot.

The base collapses are one measure of the rapidly deteriorating government war effort as one outpost after another falls, sometimes after battles, but often after wholesale surrenders.

The surrenders are part of a broader Taliban playbook of seizing and holding territory as security force morale plummets with the exit of international troops… The surrenders are the work of Taliban Invitation and Guidance Committees, which intervene after insurgents cut off roads and supplies to surrounded outposts. Committee leaders or Taliban military leaders phone base commanders — and sometimes their families — and offer to spare troops’ lives if they surrender their outposts, weapons and ammunition.

In several cases, the committees have given surrendering troops money — typically around $130 — and civilian clothes and sent them home unharmed. But first they videotape the men as they promise not to rejoin the security forces. They log their phone numbers and the names of family members — and vow to kill the men if they rejoin the military.

“The Taliban commander and the Invitation and Guidance Committee called me more than 10 times and asked me to surrender,” said Maj. Imam Shah Zafari, 34, a district police chief in Wardak Province who surrendered his command center and weapons on May 11 after negotiations mediated by local elders.

After the Taliban provided a car ride home to Kabul, he said, a committee member phoned to assure him that the government would not imprison him for surrendering. “He said, ‘We have so much power in the government and we can release you,’” Major Zafari said.

The Taliban committees take advantage of a defining characteristic of Afghan wars: Fighters and commanders regularly switch sides, cut deals, negotiate surrenders and cultivate village elders for influence with local residents.”

There doesn’t appear to be any significant government punishment for desertion.  Desertion has been a major problem in the ANA – I might even call it commonplace.[1]  In the early years of the ANA’s creation, soldiers would spontaneously return to their homes and villages to help with the harvest or to physically hand over their wages in the absence of electronic banking systems, or during the winter (traditionally the end of the “fighting season”) or for Ramadan.  Others have deserted out of frustration – lack of wages, food, uniforms, time off, poor equipment or corruption in the senior levels of command.  More recently, high levels of casualties in the war against the Taliban are a more worrying reason for desertion to increase.  SIGAR report the ANA as currently at only 75% of its official strength.[2] Most of the efforts to curb desertion in the ANA revolve around improving the conditions of the soldiers – wages, living conditions, food and contact with home.  I do not know the precise punishments for deserting from the Afghan National Army – or even if there is a set of formal penalties.  One report in 2015 from the US military journal, Stars and Stripes, suggested that there was no official penalty (my highlight in bold): 

“Matiullah Laghmani was done with the army.  One day in 2013 he asked the army trainers at his base for a day of urgent home leave, then never returned.  The Afghan security forces are losing some 4,000 members per month, American officials say, an attrition considered among the highest in recent military history.  While battlefield casualties, which have increased over last year, account for some of the losses, the vast majority are soldiers and policemen who, like Laghmani, simply go absent without leave, Gen. John Campbell, commander of the NATO-led coalition, said recently.  Like many other recruits, Laghmani, 25, had turned to the army as his only chance for employment. But only a few months later, his family began receiving threats from the Taliban.

‘The army was the only option for me, but very soon I realized that my family will suffer if I stayed there,’ he said.

There is no legal penalty for soldiers and police who decide to quit before their term of enlistment is complete.”[3] The Afghan government and military are not well resourced to prosecute desertion and do not appear to treat it as a serious crime – it is too commonplace: high casualties, low morale, poor treatment and low pay are some of the reasons for high levels of desertion. 

What is being described here does not entirely fit the Connable and Libicki definitions of either desertion or defection.  But it certainly seems to have an effect in areas where the local security forces are under-resourced, unsupported and with low morale. It seems to be a well-structured process of negotiation and agreement – including documenting and photographing – by which the Afghan security forces agree to take themselves off the battlefield.  However, it is also fair to note that when an Afghan fighter defects, deserts or withdraws from the battlefield, he may not stay in that situation indefinitely: a perceived change in military or financial fortunes could see fighters returning to the fray on the same side or a different side.

 Need to keep an eye on this.


[1] Amani, S., and MacAskill, A., ‘Desertions deplete Afghan forces, adding to security worries’, Reuters, 18 Jan. 2016, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-afghanistan-army-desertions/desertions-deplete-afghan-forces-adding-to-security-worries-idUSKCN0UW1K3

[2] ‘Quarterly Report to the United States Congress’, SIGAR, 30 July 2019, https://www.sigar.mil/, p.64.

[3] Smith, J., ‘Tide of desertions – among highest in recent history – strains Afghan forces’, Stars and Stripes, 3 Sep. 2015, https://www.stripes.com/news/middle-east/tide-of-desertions-among-highest-in-recent-history-strains-afghan-forces-1.366071

UK Govt advises British Nationals to consider leaving Afghanistan

April 25, 2021

Just noticed this change of the UK government travel advice: nowhere in Afghanistan is considered safe and UK citizens should consider leaving…

“The FCDO advises British nationals in Afghanistan to consider leaving by commercial means, in view of the likely heightened security risks. This change in the level of advice follows public statements by the Taliban which may increase the possibility of attacks after 1 May. The security situation will remain uncertain, with the possibility of heightened threats.

Thomas Barfield – CFA talk, 22 March 2021

March 29, 2021

It is always interesting to hear the thoughts of Thomas Barfield, one of the leading Western experts on Afghanistan and author of “Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History”.  He spoke via Zoom conference organised by the UK Conservative Friends of Afghanistan group on 22 March.  These are my notes of his talk, slightly reordered into themes.

History

There have been many different regime types in Afghanistan: in the last 40 years there has been a cycle of falling governments and rising insurgencies.

Foreigners enter Afghanistan for their own reasons and Afghanistan has never successfully been colonised.  The British Raj had no interest in Afghanistan per se, but for its own defence of the British Empire, for use as a buffer state with no need to colonise it

In Afghan history the greatest period of violence was during the time of the Amir Abdur Rahman, during the late 1880s to 1890s.  During King Amanullah’s time in 1929 there was a brief period of civil war but no long term insurgency – in a fifty year period from then there were no insurgencies in Afghanistan, largely because the government was careful not to overreach

Soviet intervention in Afghanistan in the 1980s.  Having an international sponsor makes it hard for the rebels to topple the government

In 1992 there were two choices as the Najibullah regime was collapsing – Massoud, who was actually in country and fighting or the group of 7 party leaders from Pakistan.  The wrong decision was made – a group of 7 leaders came from Pakistan and seized power.

The 2001 US intervention

The US was trying to rebuild Afghanistan in its own image, with the help of some particular groups in Afghanistan.  If the international community goes, does the money go as well?  The Afghan regime cannot survive the loss of international aid

The US did not go into Afghanistan to fight the Taliban – Al Qaeda were the terrorists, the Taliban were not.  The US could have reconciled with the Taliban but the US has a “with us or against us” mentality.  The US did go into Afghanistan to build, but, over time, Afghanistan became a different project.

In 2001 the US could have created a stable Afghanistan but did not recognise that the war was over.  In 2002-03 it was very safe to travel.  An opportunity was lost – it was not inevitable that an insurgency would be created, governments and external sponsors made it happen

Iraq lost its sovereignty when the US invaded, Afghanistan did not (the Northern Alliance liberated Kabul).  At the Bonn conference the US did not claim to be the rulers of Afghanistan – Afghanistan could have told the Americans to get lost.

Political situation

The new Afghan constitution is the 1964 revamped, with the word “King” removed and “President” inserted.  It is fit for a tyrant or a monarch.  The president can appoint any provincial governor – the local people have no say.  In the 20th century, all Afghanistan’s leaders have either been overthrown or assassinated.  But, unlike the Balkans, no ethnic leader has threatened to seek independence – Afghanistan is not likely to break up.

Afghanistan has never had a census – the Pushtuns claim a majority, but who knows?  All ethnic groups claim they are twice their actual size and so everyone claims they are being “cheated” if they lose government positions in aid of balance and equality.  In the absence of facts from a census, every group makes claims.  But each ethnic group has a majority in one area.  Barfield favours the idea of an Afghan federation, with 4 or 5 regions rather than running at the provincial level – you should not run everything from Kabul

Afghanistan is rich in resources, but foreign interference needs to cease.

Afghanistan allows the recognition of political parties but follows leaders or ethnic groups.  How can parliament be reorganised?  In 2001, liberal “statebuilding” has created a highly centralised government (the Amir Abdur Rahman would have been proud!).  Ought to separate the “administration” – courts, police, bureaucracy – from policy.  Afghanistan’s leaders are never chosen by a Loya Jirga

Afghanistan is not a liberal state, it is an autocratic one.  There are no institutions that can intervene to protect – Kabul politics is national politics.  A change to the ways in which power is distributed is necessary.

The Taliban

It is not clear who the Taliban are now.  Some want the Islamic Emirate back.  Today the Taliban have a robust media structure and are more nationalist.  The violence is overwhelmingly Afghan killing Afghan – is this still a legitimate jihad?  The Taliban are also present in the north and the west.  Is the Taliban a unitary force – who are we negotiating with?  Who do the Taliban representatives in Doha actually represent?  This is a proxy war with the Taliban as a proxy of Pakistan.  While Afghans have the capacity to reconcile amongst themselves, the US is negotiating with a Pakistan proxy insurgency

The Taliban’s problem now is that they have been out of Afghanistan for many years – the Afghanistan they remember from 2001 has long gone.  The population is very young, communications networks and education are very extensive now, there are few Taliban who are prone to compromise or who even understand the current problems in Afghanistan.  If the Taliban alienate the international community, they will be back in the same desperate situation as they were in 2001

Pakistan’s role in supporting the Taliban

Pakistan’s role – 30 years of support for the Taliban (and ISI support to the Mujahideen, with the US and Saudi)

Post-2001, the US did not recognise that Pakistan was actually a belligerent.  Pakistan was a nuclear power with a population of 180 million and a long tradition as a US ally.  In dealing with Afghanistan, particularly in the 80s, the US tended to ask/defer to Pakistan.  Afghanistan as “Pakistan’s 5th province”.  In the 1990s, Kandahar even had a Pakistan area code

Prospects for talks and the future

It was a mistake at Bonn not to incorporate the Taliban

The issue of dealing with the Taliban needs to be internationalised: China and others need to be involved – the neighbours, Iran, Russia… There are many good reasons for the neighbours to seek stability in Afghanistan, even they do not like the US

Federalism – there is a need to devolve power – don’t focus on the provinces, focus on the regions: policies that may work in Kandahar may not work in Mazar… If the Taliban are popular in the south then let them run for election.  The problem at the moment is that everything is zero sum.  Are the Taliban now more willing to accept foreign aid (in the 1990s it was the UN that fed Kabul, not the Taliban).  But while the Taliban may now recognise that they need international aid, will American Congressmen sign off millions of dollars once the Taliban start closing down girl’s schools?  The Taliban’s best ally is Pakistan and Pakistan is broke (i.e. if you are going to pick patrons, pick one that isn’t broke…)

Prospects for the Turkish Summit – it won’t work.  This is not a Bonn 2001 situation, wrapping up a war.  It needs to be much more multi-lateral.  It needs an accord amongst rival states: UDS, China, Russia…  It needs the UN and also the EU (there are more EU troops in Afghanistan than American).  Europe is much better at getting disputing factions somewhere where the ground is neutral (ie maybe Norway instead of Doha or Moscow…?).  And the UK also.  Mediation should not be done by the US and Khalilzad, it needs someone from the UN to broker a deal – need to stop outside interference, the US is too bilateral. 

Tim comments:

A couple of points that occur to me from this very useful talk:

The role of hindsight: I increasingly find myself wondering about the role hindsight is playing when I hear expressions like: “it was a mistake not to bring the Taliban in at the Bonn Conference”, “the US could have reconciled with the Taliban” and “in 2001 the US could have created a stable Afghanistan but did not recognise that the war was over…An opportunity was lost”.  It seems to me to be equally plausible that if the Taliban had been brought to the table and been given government roles at Bonn in a power-sharing arrangement with the Northern Alliance and the international military presence never established itself in Afghanistan in 2002 (with the US rushing into Iraq), the civil war could have resumed again 12 months later.  That period of time – 2001-2003 was still all about warlords, foreign influence and authoritarian grabs for power in an unstable and swirling environment. Would Pakistan have learnt any lesson about not interfering in Afghanistan if there was no ISAF?

Role of Pakistan: It was noticeable that Barfield points the finger very clearly at the Taliban’s relationship with Pakistan – Pakistan using the Taliban to fight a proxy war in Afghanistan. 

The prospects for the future: Mr Barfield makes some important comments about what is needed to “solve” Afghanistan. 

  • Afghanistan is rich in resources, but foreign interference needs to cease.
  • The peace process needs to be much more multi-lateral.  It needs an accord amongst rival states: US, China, Russia… 
  • Pakistan needs to stop using the Taliban as a proxy for its own agenda in Afghanistan
  • Federalism – there is a need to devolve power from Kabul
  • Afghanistan is not a liberal state, it is an autocratic one.  There are no institutions that can intervene to protect – Kabul politics is national politics.  A change to the ways in which power is distributed is necessary.

These points are hard to disagree with.  But, in terms of successful implementation, achieving these goals seem either very unlikely, exceptionally difficult (a lot of working parts need to be working in the right directions) or still at some point 30, 40 or fifty years into the future. 

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