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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

2 Comments leave one →
  1. July 14, 2021 3:23 pm

    Thanks for the the through presentation, Tim. Bleak.
    What role does opium play in the politics?

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