30 June 2018

What Lies Beneath the Enduring Stalemate in Afghanistan

The stalemate in Afghanistan endures, with the Afghan government continuing to control the country's urban areas while the Taliban command large areas of the countryside. Foreign support, the Afghan government's failures and the Taliban's deep ties within Afghanistan's rural social fabric are central to the persistence of the Afghan insurgency. Negotiations are the only real alternative toward ending the conflict in the short term, but myriad obstacles stand in the way.

Almost 17 years after the start of the war in Afghanistan, the Taliban insurgency rages on with no end in sight. And despite the launch last summer of a new strategy and a considerable ramp-up in air power, the United States appears no closer to breaking the stalemate, in which the central government in Kabul continues to control Afghanistan's urban areas and the Taliban exerts influence over wide swaths of the countryside. Foreign support and the failure of the Afghan state are central to the continued endurance of the Afghan insurgency. Another key element — often overlooked — is the Taliban's success in establishing deep ties within Afghanistan's rural social fabric.

The Big Picture

As the first half of 2018 comes to a close, Stratfor's forecast on the war in Afghanistan is on track. In our 2018 Annual Forecast, we said the addition of a few thousand U.S. troops would be insufficient to break the stalemate between Kabul and the Taliban, while U.S.-Pakistan relations would deteriorate. Both have borne out thus far. Even as U.S. defense policy shifts toward a focus on great power politics, the threat of transnational jihadism emanating from Afghanistan remains a serious threat that will continue to require U.S. and NATO resources for the foreseeable future.

Foreign Support for the Taliban

The Taliban have benefited greatly from foreign support over the course of the Afghan war. In particular, the Taliban's relationship with Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency has allowed the insurgency to develop a relative sanctuary within Pakistan where it could recuperate and regenerate and from where certain leadership elements of the Taliban continue to direct parts of the war effort. Recently, there also has been considerable evidence that factions of the Taliban are receiving substantial assistance from Iran and Russia. Assistance from Iran has likely played a role in facilitating the Taliban's recent gains in western Afghanistan, particularly in Farah province. The Taliban, through their links to the outside world, have also been able to import everything from fertilizer for their improvised explosive devices to night vision gear, which has enabled them to conduct a growing number of nighttime operations.

The National Unity Government between President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, ridden with corruption and mismanagement, has also failed to provide rural Afghans an enticing enough alternative to the Taliban. Corruption exacerbates the systemic problems besetting the central government in Kabul, which include not only a heavy reliance on external sources of funding but also the historic difficulty of bringing the mountainous and demographically diverse country under effective central rule. Afghanistan's fragmentation affects the Taliban, too. The movement is broken into different factions, which greatly complicates peace negotiation efforts.

The Taliban's Shadow Government

While the Afghan government struggles to extend its authority over the country, the Taliban have their own significant problems gaining popular support. Polling over the past decade has consistently highlighted the Taliban's weak popularity in Afghanistan. Annual polls by the Asia Foundation routinely find that more than 90 percent of Afghans fear the Taliban because of their extremist views. Nevertheless, these figures mask the significant support for the Taliban in the Pashtu-dominated rural areas of the country. Further, the Taliban increasingly have recognized the need for even greater popular support before they can ever hope to make long-lasting gains in Afghanistan's urban and minority-populated areas and have bolstered their efforts in this regard. In February, for example, the Taliban offered to guard the construction of the Afghan portion of the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline. More recently, the movement's main branch, the Pakistan-based Quetta Shura, implemented an unprecedented three-day cease-fire against the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces in response to Ghani's own cease-fire in honor of the Eid holiday marking the end of Ramadan. Over the past several years, the Taliban have increased their efforts to establish their movement in the north and recruit from the minority Uzbeks and Tajiks who live there under its Shura of the North, another of its main branches operating in Afghanistan. The group has also conducted large-scale food distribution campaigns, which it has heavily publicized as part of its propaganda efforts.

Underpinning these efforts is the Taliban's deep-rooted social presence in Afghanistan through its local shadow governments. A detailed study published June 21 by the Overseas Development Institute highlights how the Taliban have been able to build a significant governance structure in practically all of the significant districts that they contest in Afghanistan. The study depicts how the Taliban have moved away from attempting to coerce people into falling into line and instead are attempting to build influence by providing functional services, particularly in health, justice and even in education.

These findings underline how the Afghan government is in many ways its own worst enemy. Fed up with the pervasive corruption in the Afghan governance system, local Afghans have long turned toward the Taliban to provide alternative services. Recognizing this dynamic, the Taliban have begun to capitalize on this advantage over the past few years by attempting to build up a widespread, accountable and effective alternative governance structure in the areas it contests. The success of the Taliban's shadow government system undercuts Kabul's attempts to extend its authority over much of Afghanistan's conservative rural terrain, reinforcing the underlying stalemate between the Afghan government and the Taliban.

Maintaining Local Support

One of the greatest challenges for any insurgency is financial sustainability. Insurgents usually need multiple funding streams, both for the sake of redundancy in case one avenue gets cut off as well as to sustain the high costs of the war effort. Invariably one of the most important sources of funding for an insurgency is taxation. In pursuing this approach, however, the insurgents must be careful to not alienate the local population by demanding too much and must also seek to provide a service in return.

This is another area where the Taliban's shadow government has been quite successful. The sustainability of the Taliban's taxation model is clear; after almost two decades of war, the Taliban is still able to extract considerable funding from the local population. Again, the Taliban have been greatly aided by the fact that the Afghan government is seen as highly corrupt in the particularly important area of opium cultivation — and is even seen as a threat to the local livelihood. Despite their previous opposition toward opium cultivation in the 1990s, the Taliban have long since altered their stance on the issue and have worked to extend their governance and taxation over its cultivation. In fact, in the last few years the Taliban have even begun to process opium syrup into heroin themselves, setting up some 500 makeshift labs across Afghanistan.

In contrast, the Afghan government's poppy eradication efforts have been notoriously ineffective. Opium production remains at record levels. Moreover, the government's eradication efforts, often done with the urging of its foreign supporters, like the United States, have often backfired by driving local cultivators toward the Taliban. Government corruption once again exacerbated the problem, with corrupt local officials siphoning off large amounts of funding that had been earmarked to pay farmers for the destruction of their crops. Further complicating the government's eradication efforts is the fact that it has struggled to offer farmers alternative sources of livelihood to opium cultivation, part of the ongoing challenge of diversifying the $19.4 billion economy while simultaneously waging a war.

With international forces backing the Afghan National Security Forces, and with the Taliban deeply unpopular in urban and minority areas, it will be very difficult for the insurgency to seize and hold Afghanistan's cities. On the flip side, however, the Afghan government is not in a position to restore its authority over much of the Afghan countryside. The resulting stalemate, in which the Taliban's deep bond within the rural social fabric of the country plays a key part, is unlikely to be broken by military force alone. That leaves negotiations as the only real alternative toward ending the conflict in the short term — negotiations that remain highly vulnerable to the byzantine interests within the country and the shifting positions of external parties.

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