19 September 2016

Afghanistan's Unending Civil War

Despite Western backing, the government has been unable to suppress the Taliban and gain control of the country.


To say that Afghanistan’s security forces are weak is an understatement. But the country’s real problem is that it lacks a social contract between its various stakeholders and a government that’s able to govern. As a result, what exists is a chaotic situation in which the faction with the most power dominates the battlefield. Opposition to the Taliban is the only real factor that binds together the various factions of the current beleaguered political system, and that is not enough to prevent them from devolving into militias.Introduction

As the security situation in Afghanistan deteriorates, the most reasonable question to ask is whether the Western-constructed regime is on the verge of total collapse. In many ways, the state never really took off, and civil war has continued uninterrupted for the past 37 years.

Not a day goes by without at least one report of Afghan government forces struggling to defend territory against Taliban insurgents in one part of the country or another. We have previously discussed how after 15 years and over $100 billion in expenses, the Western-backed Afghan state lacks the ability to stand on its own feet. In this Deep Dive, we will examine the state of affairs on both sides of this conflict. Through a comparative analysis, we will show how,even after decades of conflict, an end to the civil war is unlikely for the foreseeable future.

It is well established now that Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) cannot hold the line against Taliban forces without U.S. military assistance. According to an Aug. 28 assessment from the Institute for the Study of War (ISW), “the ANSF lacks the capability to engage in simultaneous operations in multiple regions.” This has allowed the Taliban to seize districts in multiple provinces. To a great extent, the government, while it remains at war with the Taliban, is also in conflict with itself.

The ANSF has never been militarily effective. The political infighting between the various factions within the Afghan polity makes matters worse. The insurgency is no longer only among the Pashtuns, the largest ethnic group in the country. In fact, the crisis of governance has come to a point where the insurgency has now spread across the country’s vast territory and includes various ethnic groups.

The State of the Taliban

When the Taliban first emerged as a force in the mid 1990s, their opponents banded together in a group called the Northern Alliance. This moniker was based on the fact that the anti-Taliban coalition was dominated by the country’s ethnic minorities (Tajik, Uzbek, Hazara, etc.), who inhabited the northern half of the country. The Taliban represented the Pashtuns, who are concentrated in the southern half. That divide quickly became meaningless. Within a few years of their seizure of Kabul in 1996, the Taliban were able to expand their control into the northern provinces.

From their capture of the largest northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif in 1998 till the toppling of their regime in 2001, the Taliban controlled large parts of the north. Badakhshan was the one province on the country’s northern periphery that remained out of their reach. Fifteen years after they lost power, however, the Taliban insurgency is raging in the north. At least three districts of Badakhshan are under their control and in nine others they remain on the offensive.

They could not have reached the northernmost province in the country, which borders Tajikistan, China and Pakistan, without a robust presence in other parts of the Uzbek- and Tajik-dominated northern provinces. The Taliban currently have an active presence in each of the provinces that lie between Kabul and Badakhshan. They control districts in Takhar, Kunduz, Panjshir and Baghlan provinces. A similar situation exists further west in the provinces that are located along the border with Iran, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

The jihadist insurgents have been making these advances at the same time that they have been extremely active in the east and in their core turf in the southern provinces. In some of the eastern provinces along the border with Pakistan, they face some competition from the Islamic State, which has established a presence there. However, IS has been unable to make any major headway in what is already a saturated jihadist market dominated by the Taliban and their allies. Over the past couple of years, some Taliban commanders have defected to IS. There is also a spillover effect from Pakistan, where a major military offensive has pushed elements from the Pakistani Taliban east. This group is now headquartered in eastern Afghanistan and some of its members have pledged allegiance to IS.

The biggest gains made by the Taliban are…

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