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Taliban: “surge” or “stalemate”?

June 11, 2013

By Tim Foxley

Summary: Taliban continue attacks. Remain unpopular.  Stalemate?

Interesting article from the Washington Post reviewing recent violent actions in Afghanistan.  It notes the suicide attack against the international airport in Kabul that occured on 9 June.  It gives the Taliban a little media PR “gift” by using the term”surge” used previously to describe US/Coalition reinforcements and associated operations to describe Taliban activities.  The Kabul attack was over very quickly and seemed to have achieved little – it looks to have been a carbon copy of previous attacks.  I have suggested before that the Taliban might be running out of ideas and media attention here.  Having Western media call their actions a “surge” probably doesn’t hurt, however – in the same way that the media happily ran with the term “Spring Offensive” – I may be wrong (going back nearly a decade here), but I’m sure the Taliban didn’t start using this term until Westerners did…

Photos of Afghan maps 006I find myself aligning myself to the quote from ISAF given in the report:

In a statement issued a week ago, a NATO coalition spokesman, Col. Thomas W. Collins, said the Taliban “simply do not have the manpower, capability or coherence in command and control to be considered a strategic threat.”

Well, perhaps not on their own.  But note this anonymous Afghan official who added:

“We don’t fear the enemy. We don’t need better equipment and technology, because those are things they don’t have. What we need is a stronger and better government,” one Afghan military official said. “People are dissatisfied with all the corruption, and there are splits even among our officers. We can’t afford to split into factions. This is very worrisome.”

I am trying to write a thesis at the moment, looking at where the conflict might go in the five years after 2014.  I find myself drifting to the word “stalemate”.  The US will not allow the ANSF to fail and the Taliban are not yet in a position where they really feel the need for credible talks and are still very ready to continue the fight.  No one ready to quit the field and too many thnigs to happen before any kind of dust settles – elections, transitions, etc.  No “hurting stalemate”.   The fighting continues.   But, as the Afghan official’s quote notes, the biggest risk is that government and ANSF fractures under the weight of discontented political and ethnic factions.

This is the sort of thing I am thinking in my draft paper:

If a political dialogue remains unlikely, a military stalemate exists and international support remains, I suggest we will see a form of status quo which I describe as “civil war-lite”.  But the insurgency remains as a volatile potential catalyst for additional armed and capable contenders to emerge in addition to the Taliban, by the fact of its abilities to aggressively disrupt and hamper all aspects of central government.  The trigger could be any number of specific political or military events, but I envisage in particular, the growing dissatisfaction of Afghan “warlords” currently aligned to the government at the government’s inability to deliver security to their regions.  We have seen, through history, how Afghan political alignments can shift, often with very destabilising consequences.

I therefore suggest that the biggest threat to Afghanistan’s future is the emergence of multiple sovereignties, where other groups develop the capability, intent and support to compete for power.  This can come from ethnic or religious groups and factions already in existence in the country.  This could certainly entail former government supporters aligning with insurgent groups.  Control of the fledgling army – whose loyalty is untested but questionable – will be crucial in this re-emergence.  A violent contestation of control of the Afghan National Security Forces by government factions and warlords on top of an extant insurgency would be a much more devastating “civil war heavy”.

Definitely welcome any thoughts on this…

2 Comments leave one →
  1. June 11, 2013 12:36 pm

    The Taliban aren’t yet ready to talk because they seem to think that somehow their actions in 2013 are going to affect that negotiation process. I do think “stalemate” is likely, with the Taliban controlling large (but largely non-important) swathes of Afghanistan, and the ANSF (w/varying levels of foreign support) controlling key population and trade centers. I don’t know that we’ll see the same fractured power structures that we have in the past, but I do see a future here where “winning” is going to be a much more nuanced concept.

  2. June 11, 2013 9:44 pm

    Gary thanks and agreed – too many new things for both sides to absorb from 2014 onwards, so both sides need to fight it out and see if anything has changed. And that will take at least 2-3 years. International Community will not let ANSF fail, but neither will they do anything particularly decisive to shove things in any useful direction. I am trying to spend more time now keeping track of grumblings and rumblings from the “factions”, aka, “warlords”, aka, “ethnic groups”, aka “former Northern Alliance”, etc, There was this tweet today about Fahim Khan apparently making some feisty statement:

    Sharifullah Sahak ‏@sharifsahak 58m

    VP #Fahim during IDLG meeting warned upcoming #Afghan gov if Mujaheen were ignored him and his men will take up arms and fight #Afghanistan

    Yes, posturing, of course pre-election manouevring – but still to keep track of I think. We had similar stuff from Ismail Khan a couple of months back and Dostum seems to have found his tweet button again. Maybe the Taliban aren’t popular or powerful enough on their own, but if other factions in government start to pull away, then thats when the real trouble will start.

    Cheers

    Tim

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