Conflict Portrait: Afghanistan

The armed conflict between the Afghan government, along with its international allies, and armed radical Islamist insurgents intensified after 2014. At the end of that year, the mandate of the NATO-led ISAF combat mission expired, and the responsibility for security was officially handed over to the Afghan authorities.

ISAF was replaced by a far smaller follow-on mission, “Resolute Support” (RS), and a separate US anti-terrorism mission, “Freedom’s Sentinel”. RS will continue to train, advise and contribute logistical support to the Afghan armed forces. The largest RS contingent comes from the US, with the official number at 8,400 troops, as well as an additional 3,500 soldiers on short-term deployments and an unknown number of Special Operations Forces and other agencies’ forces. There are also 23,500 military contractors, 4,500 of which are trainers and on security duty.

Street scribe in Kunduz. Afghanistan has the highest illiteracy rate in the region and worldwide, yet currently in Afghanistan, only 3.7% of GDP is being spent on education. Photo:Thomas Ruttig

In light of the fall of Kunduz city to the Taliban in the autumn of 2015, the US government decided to stop its troop withdrawal. Following this, limitations for the use of air support and drone strikes have been gradually lifted.

After the announcement of the new US strategy for Afghanistan by President Donald Trump, some 3,000 additional US troops will be deployed. The Afghan government revised its decision to dissolve pro-government private militias. The Afghan Local Police – who operate formally under the Ministry of the Interior, but are in reality largely autonomous – are to be further expanded; the establishment of an Afghan Territorial Army under Ministry of Defence is planned. Those semi-regular forces constitute a serious conflict potential for Afghanistan’s future.

In his most recent reports, the UN Special Representative to Afghanistan reported to the UN Security Council that “[t]he overall security situation continued to deteriorate throughout 2016 and into 2017”, that its geographical scope extended (March 2017), and that it “remained intensely volatile” (June 2017). The reports for 2016 had already registered the highest number of armed clashes between the Taliban and government forces since the UN started recording incidents in 2007, surpassing the previous record year of 2011. Those levels remained largely unchanged in the first half of 2017.Currently, a debate about the deployment of additional US troops (expected at 3,900) is ongoing. The Afghan government revised its decision to dissolve pro-government private militias. The Afghan Local Police – who operate formally under the Ministry of the Interior, but are in reality largely autonomous – are to be further expanded. Those forces constitute a serious conflict potential for Afghanistan’s future.

Other key indicators confirm an intensification of the conflict. The number of Afghan civilian casualties registered by the UN remains on the highest level since 2001, with minimal fluctuation between 2014 and the first half-year of 2017. (The UN also points out that its figures are conservative.) The composition of the victims changes, though, with an increasing number of women and children harmed, and a rise in the percentage of civilian casualties caused by Afghan government forces and its international allies (mainly through the use of the air force and artillery), while the capital Kabul is particularly affected by terrorist attacks.

The scope of conflict-related displacement of Afghan civilians reached an absolute high in 2016 as result of an increase by 660,000 people; by July, more than 210,000 more IDPs were registered. In the first half of 2017, people were displaced from 29 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces and from 164 of 399 districts; 32 provinces and 104 districts received IDPs. Official US sources say that Taliban territorial control has expanded by one quarter between late 2015 and late 2016, with the government losing 10 per cent of its control, and it has remained roughly on that level since.

The Taliban – despite the emergence of an Afghan-Pakistani franchise of the Islamic State – remains the strongest component among the insurgents by far. The movement experienced a split after the death of their founder-leader Mullah Muhammad Omar, consolidated after the successor, his previous deputy Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansur, and displayed its resilience after Mansur’s death and replacement by Mawlawi Hebatullah Akhundzada.

The Taliban used the withdrawal of most western combat troops, shrinking western air support and the lack of coordination between the various elements of the government forces to intensify operations countrywide, operate in larger concentrations, and expand territorial control.

With the two-week long capture of the north-eastern provincial capital Kunduz at the end of September 2015, the Taliban scored their biggest military success since 2001. This success was close to being repeated in 2016 and 2017. A number of other provincial centres are under heavy pressure and have been attacked: these include Lashkargah (Helmand), Farah, Maimana (Faryab), Ghazni, Tirinkot (Uruzgan) and Pul-e Khumri (Baghlan). Important overland routes are interrupted regularly.

Small armed groups that declared allegiance to the Islamic State (IS) emerged in five of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces in late 2014/early 2015. They were soon diminished by Taliban and government forces. Those recognised by IS centre as a local franchise (Islamic State Khorasan Province), located in eastern Nangrahar, survived, but were also contained to parts of some districts. There are also opportunistic pro-IS groups in some northern provinces.

The 2015 Taliban success in Kunduz, in particular, undermined the confidence of large portions of the population in the Afghan government. This accelerated the 2015/16 refugee movements from the country that resulted in 250,000 Afghans reaching Europe to seek protection.

Causes and background

The main cause of the conflicts in Afghanistan is the confrontation between supporters and opponents of modernisation in one of the least-developed and most aid-dependent countries in the world.

In 2016, Afghanistan was ranked 169 (among 188) on the UN Human Development Index. Even before the economic crisis caused by the ISAF withdrawal and dropping international aid, the poverty rate remained “substantially unchanged” since 2007/08 at 36 per cent of the population, with another third not far above it – despite a “massive increase in international spending” and “strong economic growth” (World Bank); the World Bank also registered an “increase in inequality” over that period which, despite the lack of data, can be expected since to have risen further.

Between 2011/12 (Afghan year of 1390) and 2013/14 (1392), the poverty rate increased further to 39 per cent, or by 1.3 million people in absolute figures. Afghanistan’s drug economy – producing some 90 per cent of the world’s illicit opiates – continues to contribute to the funding of actors on all sides of the conflict, but also to the survival of a large portion of the population. 2016 saw another record high in both the areas cultivated with poppy and the opium output, while eradication efforts faltered.

Conflict over modernisation shaped Afghanistan’s development over the entire 20th century, and was internationalised in the context of the Cold War and as a result of the intervention of the Soviet Union in 1979. The US-led western intervention of 2001 did not resolve this basic conflict, but rather exacerbated it.

In its wake, Islamic conservative and Islamist forces came into key positions of government, parliament, the judiciary, security forces and the Islamic clergy. They have little interest in a functioning democratic set-up and modern, transparent governance.

The “National Unity Government”, which has been in power since September 2014, is largely paralysed by factional wrangling over key government positions. Reform plans remain largely stalled, Afghanistan’s political institutions weak. The separation of powers does not function well, the establishment of the rule of law is undermined by violence and corruption.

Political networks compete for economic influence and shrinking external resources. These networks often adopt mafia-like traits, particularly when they are connected to the drug economy. Parliament is fragmented as a result of the ban on party-based factions, due to the sidelining of political parties in general, and, in reaction to manipulations during the Karzai era, it continues to oppose the executive as a matter of principle. The judiciary is considered the most corrupt sphere of the state, the Attorney General’s office becoming an exception in recent times.

Conservatives and Islamists systematically oppose reforms denounced as “western”, such as those related to human rights. Former mujahideen, Taliban and communists in parliament adopted a self-amnesty for past war crimes in 2010. This left little room for pro-democratic forces. The insurgency is more a symptom than the cause of these shortcomings in the political system.

The conflict has also been aggravated by tense relations with neighbouring Pakistan. Since the establishment of the Pakistani state in 1947, both countries have been supporting armed autonomy, secessionist and other insurgent movements to further their own interests. Among them, the Afghan Taliban have been receiving support from Pakistan for a long time. Terrorist groups that had originally been promoted by Pakistan’s armed forces in order to utilise them in the conflict with India over Kashmir are now also active in Afghanistan. Pakistan is trying to prevent a pro-Indian tendency in Afghanistan’s policies.

Approaches to conflict resolution

Despite all the rhetoric and western-sponsored “peace and reconciliation programmes”, no genuine peace negotiations with the Taliban have ever been held. The US, throughout almost the entire period of the George W. Bush administration (2001–09), declined to reach out to them at all. This was based on the mistaken analysis that the Taliban and al-Qaida constituted a joint “terror syndicate”.

Instead of talks, the US aimed at military victory. A quasi capitulation of the entire Taliban leadership was rejected in late 2001; a group of high-ranking Taliban leaders who had returned to Kabul (some from US detention) was ignored as a possible channel to the active Taliban insurgents. Some of them joined the High Peace Council established by the Afghan government in 2010.

Between 2004 and 2007, the Afghan government and its international allies failed to use the Taliban’s internal debate on whether the means of serialised suicide attacks – imported from Iraq and killing mainly Afghan (Muslim) civilians – was “Islamic” or not.

In the course of this debate, a wing of the Taliban advocating a political solution to ending the war temporarily gained influence. But it was not until 2011 that direct talks were held in Qatar between representatives of the Taliban leadership and the US government. The channel had been opened by the German government, and the Qatari government was later involved at the request of the Taliban.

As a result, a US soldier was released by the Taliban in June 2014 in exchange for five Taliban leaders detained in Guantánamo. The talks broke down in March 2012, mainly due to attempts by the Karzai government to gain control over all negotiation channels. In the same year, the Afghan government prevented the UN from holding an “intra-Afghan peace dialogue” in Turkmenistan.

President Ashraf Ghani tried to initiate new negotiations with the Taliban in 2014/15, with the support of China – Pakistan’s main ally. Following Pakistani pressure on the Taliban, the first direct talks were held between the Afghan government and the Taliban in Pakistan in July 2015, facilitated by the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG) with government representation from Afghanistan, Pakistan, US and China. The talks were held in the presence of Chinese and US (but not UN) observers.

When Kabul and Islamabad violated the agreed confidentiality of the talks and broke the news of the death of Taliban founder Muhammad Omar, which had been kept a secret for several years, the Taliban left the talks. The channel broke down and the QCG faltered. At the same time, another channel used with the help of an international civil society organisation (with Taliban, but without direct Afghan government participation) also came under pressure and slowed down. The new Taliban leadership continues to reject (official) contacts with the Kabul government before the completion of western troop withdrawal; nevertheless unofficial contacts seem to continue.

Conflict history

The Afghan state grew unsteady in 1973 when the monarchy failed to respond to a multi-year drought crisis, and was overthrown by a military coup. The coup ended a 40-year period of relative internal peace.

On April 27, 1978, a coup d’état was launched by the communist People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA). The new government, along with its top-down reforms, was rapidly met with resistance. This led to a long civil war. The Soviet intervention in late 1979 internationalised the conflict. The Islamist mujahideen groups (tanzim) received military and financial support from the US, other Western and Arab countries (particularly Saudi Arabia) and China through Pakistan. Pakistan marginalised the non-Islamist leftist (Maoist), nationalistic and monarchist groups.

After the Soviet troop withdrawal in February 1989, the collapse of the USSR in 1991, and the subsequent discontinuation of Russian financial aid to Kabul in the following year, the mujahideen took over power in Kabul in April 1992. The attempts by various factional leaders to monopolise power triggered a new civil war. This was utilised by the Pakistani-backed Taliban to gradually take over the country. In 1996 they occupied Kabul, proclaimed an Islamic Emirate, and continued to host al-Qaida groups led by Osama bin Laden that had earlier relocated to Afghanistan. The Taliban radicalism and their violation of international human rights standards led the country into international isolation. After the terror attacks on 11 September 2001, their regime became the first target of the Bush administration’s “War on terror”, as the Taliban refused to hand over Osama bin Laden.

The “Bonn Process”, based on the UN-sponsored 5 December 2001 Afghanistan agreement concluded in Bonn, Germany, commenced the reconstruction of the country’s political institutions, which were supposed to return the Afghan state’s international capacity to act. Formally, the 2004 and 2009 presidential elections and the 2005 and 2010 parliamentary elections launched a democratic process. However, corruption and inefficiency in the state institutions and a lack of willingness among former warlords to share power have prevented democratic structures from consolidating.

  • This text is a thoroughly updated and version of a an article that first appeared in German at the website of the German Bundeszentrale für Politische Bildung (Federal Centre for Political Education, bpb).
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