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December 17, 2016

Neither winning nor losing


December 17, 2016

Since the Isaf drawdown from Afghanistan in December 2014, America’s ad hoc and confusing policies, the incompetence of the Afghan government and the Taliban’s inflexibility towards peace talks has complicated the stalemate in the Afghan conflict.

As 2016 ended, the lingering deadlock has increased the insecurity, giving the Taliban a tactical upper hand and keeping Kabul on a perpetual defensive mode. The perpetuation of conflict has allowed spoilers on both sides to exploit the situation for political and economic stakes.

In the 2016 spring offensive, Operation Omari, the Taliban continued with the 2015 military strategy of ‘capture and hold’ in areas across Afghanistan. They further increased the pressure on major Afghan cities. At present, 35 of Afghanistan’s 400 or more districts are under the Taliban control and 116 others are disputed. Moreover, as in the previous year, there was no lull in fighting during the winter of 2015-16. The brief capture of strategic areas had a huge psychological impact on the battlefield, boosting the Taliban’s morale and demoralising the ANSFs.

The Taliban’s two-pronged offensive in the north and south neutralised the poorly resourced and geographically constrained Afghan forces during the combat. This has confounded Kabul’s problem as the government is confronted with a perilous choice: to either remain overstretched throughout Afghanistan and face the Taliban attacks or retreat from the strategically less significant rural areas and concede more territory to the Taliban. The former is financially and logistically unsustainable and the latter is politically costly. 

In the first eight months of 2016, the Afghan forces have suffered around 15,000 casualties, including more than 5,500 deaths. The desertion rate of the Afghan forces increased to 33 percent compared to 28 percent in 2015. As many as 2,199 Afghan security personnel quit their jobs, leaving the military strength at about 170,000. Without the help of the US Special Forces, the ANSFs would have lost major parts of Farah, Kunduz and Helmand provinces to the Taliban this year.

Another concerning trend witnessed in 2016 was the abandonment of the security check posts and surrenders of the Afghan forces during the fighting. The Taliban also shot videos of the captured soldiers: those who promised to leave the army and not rejoin the fight were allowed to reunite with families.

The on and off Afghan peace talks were scuttled when the US droned the Taliban chief, Mullah Akhtar Mansour, in April. The US targeted Mansour expecting to create organisational dissension, factional fighting and leadership disputes within the Taliban movement. However, the selection of Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada as the new leader was swift and smooth. Mansour’s killing did not affect Taliban’s battlefield victories or organisational coherence in a major way.

In addition, Pakistan’s deteriorating ties with the US and Afghanistan also contributed to the derailment of the peace process. In October, the Afghan government covertly reached out to the Taliban’s Qatar office to restart the stalled peace process. Although some exploratory meetings were held, the Taliban eventually refused to resume the negotiations.

In 2016, notwithstanding several setbacks, the Islamic State of Khorasan (ISK) also emerged as a potent conflict actor in the Afghan war. Unlike last year, when ISK came across as a divisive actor between various militant groups in Afghanistan, the group emerged in 2016 as a unifying force. The ISK’s resilience to survive the US airstrikes, the Afghan forces’ ground offensive, and the Taliban’s reprisal attacks makes it a force to reckon with.

The ISK also struck a tactical agreement with the Taliban to give up inter-group fighting. Following this, the ISK has shown extended outreach, sophistication, and growing cooperation with other militant groups, such as the Lashkar-e-Islam, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, Jamaat-ul-Ahrar and Jundullah. These marriages of convenience allowed the ISK to mount large-scale attacks in Kabul, Jalalabad and Ghor and hit targets as far across as Balochistan.

Another worrying trend during 2016 was the increasing number of sectarian attacks in Afghanistan. Though sectarian violence has prevailed in the Afghan conflict in some form or shape since 2014, this year the frequency of these attacks increased significantly. It is worth pointing out that the ISK carried out all these attacks. In most cases, the ethnic Hazara community, who are predominantly Shia, was the victim of this sectarian violence.

Part of this anti-Shia campaign by the ISK stems from the militant group’s extremist worldview and part of it has to do with the alleged participation of the Hazaras in the Syrian conflict. It is believed that as many as 4,000 Hazara from Afghanistan are currently fighting in Syria under the Liwa Fatemiyoun (The Fatimid Brigade) militant group. So along with the sectarian dimension, the ethnic and geo-political factors need to be taken into account to explain this trend.   

Despite the multitude of internal and external challenges, Afghanistan is not at the cusp of defeat. Unlike the Iraqi military, which collapsed in June 2014 with the rise of Daesh in Mosul, the Afghan army and police have neither crumbled nor become fragmented so far. In addition, the Taliban’s territorial expansion is not even close to vast swathes of territory that Daesh occupied in the summer of 2014 in Iraq. However, if the Taliban’s resurgence continues at the current scale and pace, there is a real danger that Afghanistan will gradually slip out of the Afghan government’s control.

The current circumstances in Afghanistan necessitate that all the stakeholders should return to the negotiation table to find a political solution. The recently-concluded peace deal with the former Afghan warlord and head of the Hezb-e-Islami, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, can serve as a general template.

While the Taliban should show more flexibility towards the Afghan government and constitution, at the same time, the national unity government should also grant some concession to the former. Clichéd as it may sound, peace in South Asia hinges on stability in Afghanistan.


The writer is an associate research
fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of
International Studies, Singapore.

Email: [email protected]


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