Will Marshall is a 2nd year International Relations undergraduate student at King’s College London and MENA Editor for International Relations Today.
Reflecting on the tumultuous events of recent weeks in the world of international politics, it is easy to understand the lack of airtime being given to yet another fierce battle which continues to rage on the dusty streets of Central Asia’s most war-torn country. Whilst the eyes of journalists have been diverted by the what has been quoted as the worst week so far in Donald Trump’s already turbulent presidency amid allegations of financial fraud and election interference, Turkey’s ongoing economic crisis and the British Government’s shambolic preparations for a ‘No-Deal’ Brexit, the battle for the Afghan city of Ghazni, a strategically crucial city of 150,000 located on the main road between Kabul and Kandahar, passed relatively unnoticed by the majority of mainstream media outlets.
This apathy is reflective of the growing indifference of the international community towards Afghanistan, 17 long years after the 2001 US invasion of the country and with no end in sight. Despite the withdrawal of the NATO’s International Security Assistance Force in 2014, the anticipated transition of full responsibility for Afghan internal affairs to local security forces has yet to occur. The withdrawal of NATO Forces was hardly expected to occur overnight, with the Obama administration adopting a gradualist approach calling for a 50% reduction in US troops by the end of 2015 and a full withdrawal of combat forces by late 2016 as Western troops adopted a strictly advisory role. Unsurprisingly, given the history of foreign intervention in Afghanistan, this withdrawal has corresponded with a remarkable resurgence in the capacities of the Taliban. Following an estimated trebling of the groups strength from 20,000 to 60,000 in the four years since the NATO withdrawal, the Taliban are now thought to be active in 70% of the country’s provinces with militants in full control of 14%, the highest proportion of the nation’s territory since the 2001 invasion.
President Trump’s new strategy on Afghanistan, adopted over a year ago and designed to reflect this new reality has similarly failed to stem the insurgent tide. In an abrupt reversal of his previous promise to get out of Afghanistan Trump has significantly increased the US presence in the country with total troop numbers now in excess of 14,000 along with a significant escalation of counterterrorism and aerial operations. Despite this increase in capacity, US strategists have all but given up attempting to regain full control of the country as US Forces increasingly focus on the defence of major population centres such as Kabul, Kandahar, Jalalabad and Mazar-e-Sharif whilst leaving more remote outposts in the hands of poorly-trained and equipped local police. In all practical terms, this strategy means Kabul and its Western Allies have effectively conceded much of rural Afghanistan to the militants, giving them free rein over vast swathes of the nation’s territory.
It is precisely such a strategy, the abandonment of vast hinterlands to militants in which they can operate relatively undisturbed that allows them to coordinate major offensives on urban centres, such as Ghazni, with impunity. Coupled with repeated attacks in recent months against symbols of Afghanistan’s fragile institutional and democratic capacities – such as Islamic State’s attacks on a Kabul military hospital this March resulting in the deaths of over 100 civilians and, later this May against a voting centre, again in Kabul, with 69 confirmed fatalities which further serve to undermine the authority of President Ghani’s already tenuous authority. Thus, it is increasingly apparent that for neither Kabul nor Washington there is no clear endgame for what a post-conflict Afghanistan might look like, never mind a clear strategy to bring such an outcome about. As the Guardian’s Simon Tisdall concisely puts it, in the absence of a ‘fight to win’ strategy, ‘the US is in a triple bind: it cannot win the war, it cannot halt the war and it cannot leave’.
However hard it may be to swallow for those who have dedicated the best part of two decades to fighting militancy in the country, a negotiated settlement between the Taliban and Ghani’s National Unity Government seems to be the only hope for America if it is to have any chance of a full withdrawal from Afghanistan at any time in the next decade. Even the usually tough-talking Trump Administration has recognised the necessity of finding a workable, long-term settlement in the war-torn country with its agreement to begin secret talks with the Taliban last month in Qatar. Despite the distinct possibility of a breakthrough deal on the table, one which could transform the country’s political landscape, there remain immense obstacles to peace in Afghanistan after four decades of almost continuous conflict.
Firstly, there is the issue of bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table in the first place. In spite of Washington’s desire to play the role of facilitator for an ‘Afghan-led, Afghan-owned’ peace process, the Taliban refuse to entertain the prospect of face to face talks with Kabul, rather insisting on negotiating indirectly via the US. This is because the Taliban leadership continue to frame their struggle in the language of Pashtun Nationalism as much as religious extremism and thus see their as one against foreign interference. Through such a lens the US remains their principal adversary, even though the vast majority the insurgency is now conducted against local security forces loyal to President Ghani’s Regime, which in the eyes of the Taliban remains little more than an American puppet and therefore not a legitimate foe.
Though signs of Taliban cooperation are increasingly encouraging, with local commanders generally respecting a three-day ceasefire with Government Forces over the Islamic holiday of Eid in May, the thorny issue of what exactly the militants may demand as part of a comprehensive settlement remains. The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, the Taliban-controlled regime which controlled the country from 1996 to 2001 became infamous for its draconian rule over the country, implementing strict sharia law with public executions and amputations for acts deemed ‘un-Islamic’, the banning of television, music and cinema and the expulsion of women from public life in their extreme interpretation of the local Deobandi sect of Islam. Whilst the Taliban have so far been unclear about the extent to which they are willing to compromise in their strict imposition of Islamic law in any negotiated settlement, recent reports from inside Taliban-controlled territory suggest the militant group has come to recognise the importance of moderating their harsh rule and even cooperating with local government authorities.
Last year, a BBC report from Taliban territory in Helmand province reported an uneasy accord, with the militants allowing authorities to provide government-run health and educational services relatively free from interference. Meanwhile, the Taliban’s swift and effective, albeit harsh legal system has won them a degree of support from the local population, exasperated by the corrupt and inefficient bureaucracy of central government system of justice. However, such encouraging signs should be taken with a pinch of salt. The Taliban hold over much of their territory remains tenuous compared to what it was under the Islamic Emirate and the group are likely keen to consolidate their base of support in areas under their control by moderating their approach. There is little to suggest the militant groups ultimate objective of establishing a state ruled under strict sharia law in Afghanistan have shifted. Nevertheless, their newfound flexibility implies the group may be able to adapt and come to a workable and mutually satisfactory compromise with the government when it comes to establishing a future settlement.
Another issue is the Taliban’s professed commitment to Pashtun Nationalism. In fact, in many ways the group are just as much a nationalist as a religious movement. Despite being the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan, the Pashtuns, concentrated in the south and east of the country, represent just over 40% of the total population. Taliban rule enshrined Pashtunwali, the traditional tribal code of the Pashtun people across Afghanistan, a move which did much to antagonise the country’s other minority groups including Tajiks, Uzbeks, Turkmen and Hazara who regarded such a policy of Pashtunisation as a form of ‘internal colonisation’. The discrimination against Afghanistan’s ethnic minorities under Taliban rule was not limited merely to the imposition of alien social norms such as the mandatory wearing of the burqa and blatant favouritism towards Pashtuns when appointing officials and administrators, but at times spilled over into outright genocide, including the infamous three-day long massacre of the Hazara population in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif during August 1998. Given such bitter experiences it is unsurprising that the prospect of the Taliban returning to take a stake in Afghanistan’s governance is regarded with trepidation by the country’s non-Pashtun population. It goes without saying that any such agreement between the Taliban and Kabul would require stringent legislation to ensure all Afghanistan’s minorities feel invested in and represented by a new administration as well as sufficient checks and balances in place to keep the Taliban’s inherently expansionist tendencies in check. Nevertheless, in practice implementing policies to ensure all of the country’s diverse population feel invested in the system is easier said than done, a fact illustrated by the experiences of the current Ghani Administration.
For any negotiated settlement between Kabul and the Taliban to be effective a fundamental prerequisite is the existence of a strong and united central Afghan Government, something which has been sorely lacking in successive administrations following the US invasion of 2001. The current National Unity Government led by President Ashraf Ghani is a case in point. The administration has been riven by internal turmoil ever since its inception by disputes between Ghani and his senior officials, notably Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah over the governance of the country. Again, ethnicity and ethnic favouritism is a major point of contention with Ghani, one of the few senior Pashtun politicians to side with the US and its Allies against the Taliban standing accused of ‘extreme Pashtun Nationalism’ and Abdullah suffering similar accusations of a pro-Tajik bias. Whilst this may or may not be an exaggeration (certainly the degree of discrimination is far from the policy of ethnic cleansing endorsed by the Taliban) the fact remains that ethnic favouritism remains rife under Ghani. For example, of all officials appointed to the President’s Office of Administrative Affairs in September 2015, 75% were Pashtuns compared to just 14% Tajiks who represent Afghanistan’s second largest minority. Meanwhile, in September 2017 the Government was subsumed by scandal following the leaking of a confidential memo stating ‘Tajiks and Uzbeks, who work completely under us [Pashtuns], should be appointed symbolically so that people think every ethnicity is represented here’, further legitimising accusations of systematic discrimination.
A further bone of contention is ongoing debate over the core nature of governance. Ghani, on one hand advocates for a more centralised form of government with increased power in the hands of Kabul. Abdullah, on the other continues to advocate for further decentralisation, perhaps realising Afghanistan’s minorities may feel more investment in a system of governance which provides them considerable autonomy over their own affairs. Moreover, the drive for increased centralisation has generated further friction between Ghani’s government and Afghan elites, with the President accused of being an ‘arrogant micromanager’, having ‘no close friends, no feel for politics’ and being ‘the leader of a country that only exists in his own mind’. These considerable fissions among the country’s political class suggest Afghanistan’s government remains far from being capable putting forward a strong, unified front in negotiations with the Taliban.
Perhaps the greatest issue plaguing Kabul however, is the inability of the regime to provide basic services, infrastructure and security for its population. As we have seen repeatedly in other so-called ‘failed states’ in the region such as Syria, Iraq, Somalia and Yemen the single biggest factor facilitating the spread of extremism is the inability of a state to fulfil basic obligations to its citizens which grant the state its legitimacy. When a regime is unable to provide effective security to its population from mass shootings and suicide bombings, when key public services such as healthcare and education are chronically underfunded and public sector wages six months in arrears, when the justice system is slow, corrupt and ineffective, these are the conditions which lead a state such as Afghanistan into a crisis of legitimacy such as that which it has faced the past 17 years. Despite the hostility the majority of Afghans hold towards the Taliban and its ideology, with a recent Asia foundation poll revealing 80% of the population have no sympathy towards the Taliban at all, it is easy to understand how the degree of security life under the militants provides and its swift, though harsh form of justice proves an attractive alternative to those let down by the failings of the central government.
Thus, the resolution of Afghanistan’s multiple issues of governance is a fundamental prerequisite to engaging in negotiations with Taliban. Failure to resolve these issues and provide a credible alternative and counterbalance to the organised and highly motivated militants is merely setting the Kabul regime up for failure. The Taliban are likely to drive a hard bargain and will take any opportunity to undermine Kabul along the way. If the central government is unwilling or unable to present a united front, reduce corruption and provide the basic services its citizens expect from it, opening into negotiations may do more harm than good for Afghanistan’s fledgling democracy.
Finally, there is the issue of continuing foreign interference in Afghanistan and the challenges this provides to negotiators striving for a workable settlement. Afghanistan has long been the epicentre of regional clashes of interest, a fact reflective of its strategic geopolitical location between Central Asia, the Islamic world and the Indian subcontinent. This fact of life for policymakers dealing with Afghanistan has long been a source of trouble when dealing with the Taliban. Ever since the Soviet invasion in the 1980s the Pakistani Government has more or less openly supported fundamentalist militant groups in Afghanistan, keen to limit Indian influence in the country and build strategic depth. This has taken the form of providing military hardware, training and logistical support as well as providing a safe haven for Taliban fighters in Pakistan’s tribal areas along the Afghan border. Seeing the Taliban as Pakistan’s proxy there is a high probability the Pakistani Government will do its best to sabotage the formation of a stable Afghanistan in which the Taliban are represented but with firm limits to the extent of their power. The support Pakistan provides to militant groups has been one of the key factors limiting the success of the US-led coalition. There are however, signs that Washington is finally hardening its stance with President Trump suspending military aid to Islamabad this January accusing the Pakistani Government of ‘nothing but lies and deceit’ in response to US military aid.
Whilst the US may be making progress regarding Pakistan, other regional and global players are increasingly taking advantage of Afghanistan’s instability to further their own agenda. Russia, ironically given their historic enmity, has maintained covert links with the Taliban for several years. Like the US, Russia sees the threat from international terrorism as one if its major security concerns. However, the Taliban have been keen to affirm that their strategic concerns do not extend beyond Afghanistan. It is on these assumptions that Russia has come to an uneasy accord with the militants, recognising the reality on the ground that the Taliban will not be defeated militarily and are more or less a permanent feature of the Afghan political landscape. Moreover, the emergence of Islamic State’s Khorasan Province in Afghanistan during early 2015 has given a common cause for concern for both countries. Moscow, on one hand fears the groups expansion in Central Asia and into Russia’s sphere of influence which in turn could provoke unrest among Russia’s large Muslim population. Meanwhile, The Taliban have long been viewed with contempt by the Islamic State who despise the Taliban’s parochial and nationalistic goals, seeing the Pashtun tribal influences on Taliban rule as deviating from true Islamic law. Perhaps most significantly, building bridges with the Taliban will aid Moscow in its bid to undermine NATO in Afghanistan. This is linked to Russian efforts to destabilise the West and its allies across the globe, as is the case in Ukraine and Syria.
Further meddling by foreign powers for strategic purposes places yet more strain on the fragile Afghan peace process. In July, Russia’s Special Envoy to Afghanistan, Zamir Kubalov announced his intention to invite the Taliban to engage in Russian brokered peace talks in Moscow alongside the Afghan Government. Whilst the negotiations have been postponed for the time being, owing to the demands of the Afghan Government that the peace process be ‘Afghan-led’, the emergence of a parallel peace process to that spearheaded by the US suggests that Afghanistan is increasingly becoming drawn into the strategic conflicts of regional and global powers. Such a development can only be bad news for the Afghan Government and their Western partners as they strive to achieve the stability necessary for a negotiated settlement to be put into practice.
Whilst the fires of Ghazni die down Afghanistan, after 17 years of war finds itself at a crossroads. On one hand, both the Taliban and the Afghan Government appear to be ready and willing to come to the negotiating table, though each only on their own terms. On the other, there remain formidable obstacles to negotiators seeking an inclusive, workable and long-term peace. Continuing Taliban obstinance, the division and corruption of the Afghan Government and meddling by foreign powers pushing their own strategic objectives all serve to undermine the fragile prospects for peace. Nevertheless, for the first time in 17 long years the prospect of Afghanistan’s major political players coming to an accord appears a realistic possibility. We can only hope that the Afghan political class and international community take advantage of this opportunity to put aside their differences and make the peace that Afghanistan deserves a reality.