An analysis of the actors, of the dynamics and the complexities of a country in continuous evolution and (for now) at constant war
Afghanistan is a country whose political, ethnic, and religious peculiarities have their roots in geography. Indeed, thanks to its privileged position in the heart of Asia, Afghanistan has always been at the core of those routes that merchants used to trade and exchange ware, innovations, and tendencies across Europe, the Middle East and Asia. This inevitably exposed Afghanistan to many – and diverse – cultural, linguistic and religious influxes that favored the emergence in the country of a multiform reality, characterized by the coexistence – often tense and difficult – of different identities.
The ethnic and tribal side is where diversity and fragmentation are deep the most: alongside the Pashtun majority, many other groups – such as Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks, Aimaks, Turkmens and Baluchis – do live in the country. In addition, the fact that each area of the country is traditionally inhabited by a specific tribal group gives to the ethnic map of Afghanistan neat and clearly demarcated borders.
However, the impact that geography had – and has – on the country involves also the political reality. Afghanistan, in fact, has a territory which is mostly mountainous and this peculiar topography has historically made it difficult to bring under the control of the central power those areas that geography has doomed to be distant from Kabul. This reality, so inherently fragmented that each area is de facto under the control of local militias and groups, continues to be one of the toughest challenges for the Afghan state (and its allied forces), that struggles to establish an undisputed presence in the whole country.
2015 was a year of changes for Afghanistan: ISAF, the mission with which NATO intervened in Afghanistan in 2001, reached its end in December 2014 and the new Resolute Support Mission brought with it a considerable reduction of the NATO forces deployed in the country. The responsibility of defending Afghanistan from the Taliban insurgence shifted in this way (at least to a great extent) to the Afghan forces (ANSF). The ANSF, though, seem not to be ready yet for such a tough mission: despite having significantly improved their operation capacity and having in more than one case retaken territories occupied by the Taliban, there are a series of weaknesses and internal problems that limit their capacity of acting autonomously and efficiently.
On the one side, there are external challenges such as the tactic difficulties inherent in the deployment of forces on a territory whose geographic characteristics – as seen above – make connection, the movement of troops and military communications hard. On the other side, there are internal problems, such as the declining recruitment and and the growing problem of the so-called ghost soldiers. In addition, the withdrawal of American trainers and advisors has deepened the problems related to leadership within the army, where most appointments to the highest ranks are still largely influenced by political calculus and tribal affiliations.
If to all this, then, the qualitative and quantitative limits in terms of equipment and weapons are added, it is possible to find an explanation for the losses suffered by the Afghan forces throughout 2015 and the low credibility of the national forces in the eyes of the population (especially in those rural and peripheral areas that are most difficult for the army to reach).
Conversely, the reduction of NATO and American presence benefited the Taliban. Taking advantage of the lower number of foreign forces active on the ground and of the limits of the Afghan forces, Mansour founded the cohesion and credibility of the Taliban on a series of military victories and territorial conquests that have interested not only the usual provinces of the south, but also a number of provinces in the north. Under the leadership of Mansour, thus, the Taliban obtained major successes (emblematic the temporary occupation of Kunduz) and achieved the maximum level of territorial expansion since 2001: to date, the group controls seven districts in the provinces of Paktika, Zabul, Kandahar and Nimroz, and threatens crucial urban centers such as Lashkar Gar and Mazar-e-Sharif.
This Taliban resurgence, moreover, led also to a rise in the number of terrorist attacks. These attacks – from which not even Kabul was spared – confirm how the capacity of planning and operation within the Taliban front has been growing over the last year, and they also remind how the Taliban find a significant strength in the blind ideological-religious commitment of their combatants.
2015 saw an increase in the number of civil and military casualties, revealed the weaknesses of the ANSF, and highlighted the Taliban’s resilience. This trend seems likely to protract throughout 2016, but its future development will depend on four main factors:
- The cohesion within the government – Two years after the formation of the National Unity Government of Ghani and Abdullah, many of the programs and reforms that had been promised are still in stalemate, reminding how the Afghan policy continues to be conducted largely on the basis of personal and tribal bonds, and how state institutions and their functioning are dependent on such bonds. This incapacity on Ghani’s part of breaking with the traditional rules of power has inevitably widened the gap between Kabul and the Afghan population. In particular, in many rural and peripheral areas the central government lacks credibility, and the Taliban have often exploited such state of things to win the locals’ support through institutions of shadow governance. Only a central government cohesive and independent from power games could thus gain the people’s trust and thus cancel the support that the Taliban have in many areas and that allows them to expand influence and territorial control.
- NATO and USA presence – The reduction of the Western presence in Afghanistan was accompanied by a serious deterioration of security within the country, with an Afghan Army and an Afghan Air Force not ready yet to fight autonomously (or at least not fully and not everywhere) against resilient and ideologically-motivated enemies such as the Taliban are. This situation led Gen. Nicholson (USA commander in Afghanistan) to ask President Obama a re-thinking of the American plan to further reduce the troops on the ground. An immediate revisal of both the NATO and the American strategies is indeed necessary to avoid the future collapse of the Afghan state, and it should take into account not only the military dimension but also the civilian and the political ones. Only in this way it is possible to prevent the legitimate non-intrusion in the Afghan affairs from becoming a dangerous de facto abandonment.
- The cohesion within the Taliban – The election of Mansour as “commander of the faithful” in summer 2015 caused divisions and defections on the Taliban front. To deal with this situation, Mansour tried to strengthen the cohesion of the group and the credibility of his own leadership by rejecting the dialogue with Kabul and embracing instead a brutal strategy. His killing last May came thus at a delicate point of the Taliban’s life, and the future developments in Afghanistan will depend in large part on the level of cohesion that the new leader Akundzada will be able to give to the group: the more Akundzada is able of making the group united, the more difficult it will be for the ANSF to sustain the fight.
- The role of Pakistan: “terrorist haven” vs. “peace broker” – Since the first days of his Presidency, Ghani has made of the rapprochement to Pakistan one of the firm points of his foreign policy, to build a cross-border cooperation in the fight against terrorism. However, Islamabad’s commitment to induce the Taliban to negotiate and to deny them any safe haven has appeared more than once to be weak and dubious. An increased and less ambiguous commitment on part of Pakistan would play a crucial role in changing the balance of forces and the international community should push in this direction, aware that no victory can be obtained as long as the Taliban enjoy a safe haven in Pakistan.
Further variables that should be taken into account in evaluating the balances of forces in Afghanistan are:
- The role of the Northern power brokers – Especially in the North of Afghanistan there are political and military leaders (such as Dostum and Atta) who – being each strong of the support of his own tribal group – fight against the Taliban and compete among themselves for the role of security providers and the locals’ support. Their preeminence on the local scene is thus the manifestation of two realities: the persistence of secular ethnic-tribal bonds, and the incapacity of the government of ensuring security to its people. Getting closer to those power brokers is thus necessary for the government if it wants to strengthen its legitimacy and to make more efficient and coordinated the fight against the Taliban;
- The role of the Haqqani network – Since the appointment of Sirajuddin Haqqani as deputy of Mansour, the role and influence of the Haqqani Network within the Taliban has been growing and has led to an increase in the number of attacks against civilians. The recent death of Mansour and the ascent of a new leader will difficultly reduce the role of the Haqqanis, who – being traditionally hostile to any negotiation and supporting instead a total war against Kabul – could exploit new rooms of actions created by the current stage of transition and exasperate even more the security scenario;
- The presence and strength of ISIS – After entering Afghanistan with the name of ISIS Khorasan, ISIS is now the common enemy of the Taliban, Al Qaeda and the Afghan government. At the moment, its presence in the country is still limited, but a future expansion of its ranks might lead the NATO and the USA to rethink their presence in Afghanistan, and – in the long run – it might even lay the foundations for a dialogue between Kabul and the Taliban, on the basis of their common interest in defeating ISIS.