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What does civil war look like?…

July 3, 2012

By Tim Foxley

It is quite an easy option these days to warn about the risks of civil war in Afghanistan and I tend to do it myself.   I am not quite clear in my mind what a 21st century civil war in Afghanistan would look like – a rapid collapse of government followed by in-fighting of factions, a North/South partition or the slow erosion of government control  in the countryside but retaining the roads, cities and UN recognition.   Perhaps more importantly at the moment, I am trying to understand what the key indicators and warnings would be before we get to that stage.

Amrullah Saleh:

“You do not wake up one morning and the radio says it’s civil war,” Saleh told me. “The ingredients are already there—under the very watchful nose of the government and the armed militias loyal to the men who operate them. Under the very watchful eyes of the international community. Under the very watchful eyes of the whole world. In Kunduz, there is already a civil war.”

Is it fair to assume the international community would stick it out and continue to fund the country’s government or might it gradually lose interest?

For the moment, this is a very interesting yet ultimately depressing piece from Dexter Filkins that is well worth reading in full.  Most of the usual areas in this subject matter are covered: a large section on the civil war of the 1990s, noting that the same war lords from that period are still around, the Taliban are operating with increased impunity and the emphasis on how little tangible and lasting has been created by international efforts – aside from the new militia groups that are flourishing.

The Taliban were back, practically ignored by U.S. forces in the area. “The Americans have a big base there, and they never go out,” he said. “And, only four kilometres from the front gate, the Taliban control everything. You can see them carrying their weapons.” On a drive to Jalrez, a town a little farther west, Nasir was stopped at ten Taliban checkpoints. “How can you expect me to be optimistic?” he said. “Everyone is getting ready for 2014….”

“…Everyone is preparing,” he said. “It will be bloodier and longer than before, street to street. This time, everyone has more guns, more to lose. It will be the same groups, the same commanders.” Hezb-e-Wahdat and Jamiat-e-Islami and Hezb-e-Islami and Junbish—all now political parties—are rearming…”

“…As in the nineties, the militias around Kunduz have begun fighting each other for territory. They also steal, tax, and rape…”

What particularly struck me were the remarks from Amrullah Saleh – a relatively young ethnic Tajik politician, formerly head of the Afghan National Directorate of Security (NDS) the country’s intelligence organisation (from 2004 – 2010, I think).   Last year, when discussing the options for talking with the Taliban he said “They’re not our brothers they are our killers”.  This is what he says about support for the government and civil war prospects:

“We are obeying this government because it was sort of anti-Taliban,” Saleh told me. “If it becomes pro-Taliban, we topple it. Simple.”

Although Saleh, cut adrift from the NDS, probably does not have the powerbase that he used to, he probably speaks for a lot of senior Tajiks when he makes this statement.  Which should remind us that it takes two sides to talk and it takes two sides fight.  I am not convinced enough thought and effort has been put into the concerns (and powers) of the former Northern Alliance (Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara groups primarily) as we focus on “talks about talks” with the Taliban.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. El Snarkistani permalink
    July 5, 2012 6:33 am

    Saleh’s anti-Taliban rhetoric is precisely why he will be cut out of the peace process at some point.

    More pragmatic folks in the HIA will allow him to speak his mind for now, but when it comes to sitting down and hammering out the details, the Salehs of the world will not have nearly the place at the table that they do now.

    The current “Northern Bloc” grouping is going to have its power reduced significantly by future maneuvering from Karzai, leaving at the table the following 3 main groups:

    1) Hizbi Islami in Afghanistan (HIA)
    2) Afghan government: for now this is the HPC, but they’re irrelevant on a few levels, but they do “represent” GIRoA at this point.
    3) Taliban: in one form or another

    Mark it. This is how this will shake out.

    2004, it would have been different if the old NA types had presented a more united front to oppose Karzai and his successor (who will be beholden to Karzai regardless).

    However, PK has had the time to effectively maneuver around any serious opposition in that time.

    The fact that Dostum et al are asking for US support for their cause is a clear indication of how truly weak their position is in this country.

  2. July 6, 2012 12:28 pm

    El, thanks for this. I increasingly prefer the idea that “history rhymes” rather than repeats itself. You may well be correctly pointing to the weaknesses of Saleh and Dostum (I think you are), but we should avoid underestimating the ability of meddling regional and international players to promote and support them because they suit someone else’s agenda. Old warlord survivors (Dostum) can still be very helpful spoilers (to, for example, Turkey, India, Iran, Russia). Smart, articulate, Western-sounding, suit-wearing young pretenders (Saleh) might be attractive to simplistic-minded Western politicians looking to extract Western troops, demonstrate that it wasn’t all a complete waste of time and promote alternatives to Karzai.

    I sense that the (former) Northern Alliance/Bloc may well turn out to be its own worst enemy – there seem to be at least two of these groups at present. Perhaps they are only properly capable of unifying when the situation has already fallen apart? And I, myself, am probably guilty of using the shorthand “Northern Alliance” a little too much and implying too much capability and organisation as a result. So I’ll have a think about the way I express this in future!

    Although I don’t disagree with your “three main groups at the table” – HIA, Afg govt and Taliban – these are still very loose in way of definition. You noted in a previous comment that you felt the Taliban were “nearly irretrievably fragmented”. And I wonder how many “tables” will be sat at and talked over (Paris? Tokyo? Qatar? Germany?, etc, etc…?) and how many groups/players pulling strings behind the tables? US? Pakistan? Iran? HPC members linked to Northern blocs? HPC members linked to Taliban? Are we in danger of constructing a concept – “negotiated peace settlement at the table” – based on what we think must/will/should/ought to happen, rather than what may very well be a much muddier, confused, complicated, interference-riddled, long-drawn out and unsatisfactory reality?



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