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Afghanistan in 2022: Less fighting but bleaker humanitarian prospects

January 12, 2022

Summary: Afghanistan in 2022 will see much less violence than the last few years.  There is currently no appetite amongst an exhausted populace for a continuation of conflict.  But expect the year to be dominated by major, overlapping, economic and humanitarian crises that will painfully impact on society.  The Taliban regime will be repressive and unpopular, struggling with basic principles of governance, while deliberately suppressing women’s participation in society and the economy.  Some armed resistance – Islamic State and NRF – is likely: mainly terrorist in nature, in 2022 it will be insufficient to seriously challenge the Taliban.     

FILE – Hundreds of Afghan men gather to apply for the humanitarian aid in Qala-e-Naw, Afghanistan, Tuesday, Dec. 14, 2021. In a statement Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2022, the White House announced $308 million in additional humanitarian assistance for Afghanistan, offering new aid to the country as it edges toward a humanitarian crisis since the Taliban takeover nearly five months earlier. (AP Photo/Mstyslav Chernov, File)

Although the crumbling of the Afghan security forces and the ceding of territory to the Taliban was gathering pace and clearly visible by late 2020 and early 2021, the collapse of the Ghani government and the rapid return by force of the Taliban in August 2021 took analyts by surprise. 

This time last year, I agonised over the use of cliché as I tried to predict the direction in which 2021 would take Afghanistan.  I thought progress on talks would be limited, that the Taliban were preparing for an uncompromising return to power and we could be looking at a slow slide into civil war.  So I was partly right.  I now think the threat of civil war has temporarily receded – primarily because of sheer exhaustion with war.

The Taliban are not a “popular” movement.  They lack legitimacy of any sort other than the gun.  They won a war and hold the positions of government by force.  Although they have described their regime as “interim”, this looks more likely a delay and distraction tactic rather than a genuine intention to move towards a representative diversity of ethnicities, religions and gender in their administration.  They have no intention of submitting their regime to any kind of popular vote.  That would be a suicidal political risk.  Their tactics include propaganda, suppression and intimidation of journalists and intelligentsia.

The international community reacted to the Taliban’s return with horror and, perhaps inevitably, incoherence.  For centuries, Afghanistan has been a “rentier state”, dependent upon funding from external sources.  In its most recent incarnation, 75% of its government spending came from the international community, predominantly from the US.  Many forms of aid and development support have been frozen.  The Biden government will not be in any haste to unlock the billions of funding they held on behalf of the previous government.  What funding does come from the international community will be conditional and primarily for immediate humanitarian purposes: no one, thus, far, wishes to make things easy for the Taliban.

Afghanistan faces another bleak and difficult year, but perhaps the troubles will be of a different character.  For the moment (and this “moment” may stretch into years), widespread violence will give way to a series of humanitarian and economic crises.  A strict and intolerant Taliban system of government, unsuited for administration and seemingly indifferent to suffering of fellow Afghans, will exacerbate these difficulties.  It seems unlikely that the Taliban will be formally recognised by the international community this year.

After forty years of almost continuous conflict, there does not appear to be any real appetite amongst Afghans for a rapid return to fighting.  This will assist the Taliban as they grapple unimpressively with the complexities of governance.  Their repressive measures to suppressive dissent will be recognisable by dictators over the world.    

But there is armed resistance inside the country.  The National Resistance Front, under Ahmed Shah Massoud’s son Ahmed Massoud and Amrullah Saleh, the former vice-President of the former regime, declared its hand within minutes of the fall of Kabul.  Other than some messy and inconclusive skirmishes in the Panjshir valley that appear long over, it has yet to prove itself as a durable element in Afghan political and military circles.  This does not mean that it should be overlooked.  After the 2002 defeat of the Taliban, they spent years in exile in neighbouring Pakistan, regrouping and developing allies, media networks and resistance capabilities.  Despite somewhat vaingloriously declaring they would stay and fight in the Panjshir, Massoud and Saleh pragmatically decamped to Tajikistan.  If they are going in any direction, they will probably follow a similar path to the Taliban.  They will likely to be forced to play a waiting game, certainly over the next 12 – 24 months.   

Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) will not give its attempts to violently destabilise the country.  Their activities are currently focused on Kabul and the east, in particular Nangarhar.  They are looking to attract Taliban members that may be disillusioned with the compromises (and even boredom) of governance.  Some reports suggest ISKP is reaching out to former members of the military and intelligence communities of the Ghani regime, but this is hard to verify. 

2022 will see lower levels of violence than have been seen for many years.  But this doesn’t mean Afghanistan is moving in a positive direction.  All sides are regrouping and reassessing the new alignments on the chessboard and watching to see how the Taliban perform in their new and unfamiliar positions of responsibility.  They are unlikely to do well.  By the end of 2022, the population may be feeling frustration.  Anti-Taliban factions will be looking to take advantage of the Taliban’s difficulties with social, economic and humanitarian matters.  Expect to see a mix of popular protest and sporadic armed resistance.

One Comment leave one →
  1. January 12, 2022 3:23 pm

    So many lessons for the ‘great’ and other powers here, which will never be effectively learned.
    Sad, as usual…

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