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Master’s Thesis: The Afghanistan conflict after 2014 – civil war, stalemate, insurgents and warlords

October 11, 2013

Afghanistan, Faryab, Soviet fort

Summary: The Afghan conflict does not suddenly end after 2014 even if the media and international community interest levels start to wane.  Predictions for the country seem to gravitate to two extremes: implosion into brutal civil war or slow recovery based on peace talks.  Civil war theory appears of limited use when considering Afghanistan’s condition.  But, with both the ANSF and the Taliban-led insurgency still in the field and ready to fight, and prospects for talks still looking very weak, perhaps a protracted military stalemate is the most likely outcome for the next five (or even ten) years?  The international commmunity might not allow Afghanistan to “fail”, but neither is it likely to intervene once again as decisively as it did in 2001.  Moreover, continued instability, corruption and  incapacity within central government may yet see the re-emergence of impatient and intolerant regional warlords willing and able to contest – alongside the Talban – for control of the state.   This could then push the country beyond a painful but broadly manageable conflict into a re-run of the 1990s maelstrom of internal conflict in which political control of the new powerful Afghan National Army would be crucial… 

I attach my Master’s thesis paper here: Revolutionary Outcomes: How the Afghanistan Conflict might evolve after 2014

I very much welcome any comments.

Here’s the abstract:

Master's thesis front coverAfghanistan’s complex conflict shows little sign of abating.  This paper looks at the nature of the conflict and factors that might influence its post-2014 direction.  It treats Afghanistan as a qualitative case study, using a hybrid of approaches and positions itself in the middle of historical context, civil war theory and the post-2001 political and military situation.  Although disagreements within broader civil war theory make analysis of Afghanistan challenging (how to address complex conflicts and concepts of stalemate might benefit from further exploration), Charles Tilly’s work provides a fresh perspective and a flexible platform from which to view the conflict.  The paper identifies areas analytically “less-travelled”: the idea that a military stalemate might be a long-term result after 2014 and that other political/military factions might also get drawn in to contest for control of the state.  It found that a struggle for army loyalty is plausible and could become a further danger to the stability of the country.  The international community and the Afghan population could perhaps give thought to three issues: the implications of the term “civil war”, how to consider and address the notion of stalemate after 2014 and, finally, that the Taliban might not be the only group contesting state control.

Thoughts and tentative conclusions:

Perhaps characteristic of many theses, I found my initial intention and research for the paper migrated during writing, sometimes because of analytical difficulties, other times because new approaches suggested themselves.

Analytically, Afghanistan is a very complex subject where solutions are slippery beasts that seem to generate two more problems for every “answer”.  Many theorists will point to the need to resolve “popular grievances” as a means of ending an insurgency.  This is hard to disagree with but, with four decades of ever-shifting grievance and violently contested politics in Afghanistan, it becomes hard to sift through and identify exactly what the relevant “causes” might be, let alone resolving them.  It was a struggle to avoid diverting down a multitude of avenues of analysis.  Initially I thought I would produce a paper looking at all aspects of Afghanistan post-2014 – security, political, economic and social – to, in effect, “solve” the problem.   Early on it became clear that this was neither viable nor desirable and would dissipate my analytical resources.

Instead, I looked at some analytically “less-travelled” but relevant issues.  These themes were interwoven and combined well to create, not only an important analytical and narrative thread (a civil war stalemate could ultimately fracture central government, making army loyalty crucial), but a constructive exploration from a new perspective.  Here, I found the Taliban still to be important, but less decisive and for different reasons.

If political dialogue is unsuccessful, a military contest remains indecisive and international support remains cautious, a form of stalemate is highly plausible for Afghanistan after 2014.  This could last for many years.  With reference to Tilly, I concluded that a threat to Afghanistan’s future beyond the Taliban’s insurgency could be the emergence of multiple sovereignties, where other political groupings develop the capability, intent and support to contest state control.  This could come from ethnic, religious or political factions already in existence or from coalitions yet to form.  It could certainly involve “pro-government” factions aligning with “pro-insurgent” groups.  In this scenario, the Taliban could become relegated – important, but not necessarily directly decisive.  Control of a powerful but fledgling army, whose loyalty is untested but justifiably questionable, would be crucial in a violent contestation for power.  Combining an extant insurgency with other contesting factions and a struggle for the army would produce a much more devastating civil conflict than would the current civil war stalemate.

IMG_0154After comparing “theory” to “Afghanistan”, I tend to sympathise with Nathan’s criticism (cited by Tilly) that quantitative analysis is undertaken without sufficient grounding in the peculiarities of the specific conflict.  The lack of consensus (Sambanis, Nathan, etc.) on the specific nature and causes of civil war was compounded, I felt, by the “hyper-complex” nature of the Afghan conflict.  On top of multiple layers of historic, ethnic, geographic and societal challenges, we must overlay four decades of swirling, destructive, conflict and a bewildering array of grievances, opponents, causes and external interventions.  For this reason it is possible to find many shades of civil war theory, however contradictory, present in Afghanistan.

Charles Tilly’s broad and flexible ideas enabled me to step out of the complexity and take a less cluttered perspective of the conflict and to stimulate thinking that took me beyond standard assumptions.  Exploring the potential for a stalemate in Afghanistan – which I conclude is a very plausible option after 2014 – was difficult to develop as I could find little detailed writing on this phenomenon, with significant disagreement on how and when a conflict finally concludes.  Theory perhaps could reflect further upon how “hyper-complex” conflicts can best be studied and how concepts of “stalemate” could be refined.

Final remarks

The international community and the Afghan population could give thought to three areas: the wider implications of an Afghan “civil war”, how to consider and address the idea of a long-term stalemate after 2014 and, finally, whether the Taliban are the only alternative contenders to government and, if not, how and why others might emerge.  The international community has frequently taken a short-term approach to Afghanistan: consideration of the themes I have explored here, and how they might be engaged with, could encourage a more practical, constructive and longer-term perspective on the country.

Although theory is less than consensual on nature, cause and course, it helped me to conclude that Afghanistan is in a state of civil war.  This was in spite of the fact that the term is barely used to describe the current conflict and only deployed when discussing past history and possible futures.  This is probably because – as theory also noted – the subjective nature of the term itself makes it an important political and propaganda tool, with significant implications for particular behaviours within the Afghan and international communities.

Although civil war theory does not offer a “solution” to the conflict as such, the work of Charles Tilly was particularly instructive as a prism through which to view the conflict.   Afghanistan’s unique history lends itself well to an examination of the role of fluid multiple sovereignties vying for power.  Tilly’s work on the control over the coercive means also points to the importance of understanding the strength and loyalty of the new Afghan army and to consider the implications of its “failure”.

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