The Afghan conflict and peace prospects

( Note on how to cite this journal: Author, Date of the post, WMO Conflict Insight, Title of the post,  ISSN: 2628-6998, https://worldmediation.org/conflict-insight )

What is the conflict about?

The United States government, following the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 in New York that killed more than 3.000 people, identified the terrorist organisation al-Qaeda, and its leader, Osama bin Laden, as masterminds that organised the attacks. 

Bin Laden, a Saudi Arabian national, had been openly confronting the U.S. and assuming the realisation of terrorist attacks on U.S. targets in Africa and the Middle East during the 1990s. To avoid being captured by U.S. forces, bin Laden had taken refuge in different countries before being taken under the protection of the Taliban, the regime of orthodox Islamic clerics that was governing Afghanistan at the time of the 2001 terrorist attacks in New York.

Following the attacks, the U.S. government demanded that the Taliban handed-over all al-Qaeda leaders hiding in Afghanistan, threatening the Taliban with dare consequences if they didn’t (Council on Foreign Relations, no date). The Taliban requested that the U.S. presented evidence of the involvement of bin Laden in the New York terrorist attacks as precondition to handing him over (The Guardian, 2001). The U.S. reply to the Taliban request of evidence was that there was no need of discussing bin Laden’s culpability, since they simply knew bin Laden was guilty (The Guardian, 2001). Upon the refusal of the Taliban to hand over bin Laden, the U.S., with British support, started bombing Afghanistan on 7 October 2001 (Council on Foreign Relations, no date). 

The bombing was supported on the ground by forces provided by, mainly, Afghan opponents to the Taliban regime. The Taliban regime was quickly and progressively defeated across Afghanistan. After the fall of Kabul in November 2011, the UN invited Afghan factions, excluding the Taliban, to agree on an interim government. An international security assistance force was established by the UN Security Council to support the newly established government. The Taliban and al-Qaeda leaders ended up retreating, dispersed, and hiding in the Afghan mountains and across the border in neighboring Pakistan (Council on Foreign Relations, no date). Bin Laden was nowhere to be found. 

The U.S., the UN and international and national NGOs engaged in the reconstruction of Afghanistan. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) took progressive control of the international security assistance force and, alongside U.S. military forces, became involved in combatting the remaining Taliban forces. Since then, U.S., NATO, and Afghan troops have been fighting the Taliban until today. In 2006 there was a significant surge in attacks by the Taliban, significantly organized from safe havens in Pakistan. The Taliban gained increasing control of Afghan territory, today controlling over one-third of the country. The war is declared stalemate by the U.S. (Council on Foreign Relations, no date).

According to a study carried out by Brown University, more than 147.000 people have died in the Afghan conflict since the U.S. invasion in October 2001 (Gandhara, 2018).

In 2019, preliminary peace talks between the U.S. and Taliban that started 10 years earlier reached its highest ground, the discussion centering in the complete removal of U.S. troops and the Taliban assuring that Afghanistan will not become a safe haven for terrorist groups. The Afghan government are not yet participant of peace talks with the Taliban (Council on Foreign Relations, no date).

What parties are involved in the conflict?

The known parties that are mainly involved in the conflict include the Taliban, the U.S., NATO forces and the government of Afghanistan.

The Taliban are an islamist movement that originated in the southern Pashtun regions and were lead by Sunni Hanafi clerics at the time of the Mujahedin fight to expel the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Following the expulsion of the Soviet army, the Mujahedin, representing different regional and ethnical groups of Afghanistan, ensued in a civil war that saw the Taliban taking control of the vast majority of the country. The Taliban imposed their own version of Shari’a law and governed Afghanistan until the 2001 U.S. invasion. Today they are a largely united movement with their leadership mainly based in Pakistan (Gandhara 2017).

There are different factions within the Taliban, ranging from moderate to radical. It is not easy to determine the level of unity of these factions and whether one voice represents them all. For example, different factions have been attending preliminary peace talks held in Qatar, Istanbul, and Moscow. According to the Turkish news channel TRT, the Afghan government held informal meetings in Istanbul in 2018 with Taliban factions representing Quetta Shura (council of leaders of the Afghan Taliban), Haqqani Network and other factions, while the Taliban’s main spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahed, denied their involvement in the talks. The news channel reports that talks may have been held with breakaway factions such as the ‘Mullah Rasul’ group. (TRT World, 2018)

According to The Intercept, the Taliban factions that are currently holding peace talks with the U.S. are mainly moderate factions, and that the key challenges to these peace talks are the radical Taliban factions that “(…) enjoy safe havens in Pakistan”. (The Intercept 2019)

Thomas Ruttig describes the Taliban as a broad movement that is a network of networks, including, for example, the Haqqani network, a member of the Taliban’s Leadership Council (Afghanistan Analyst Network, 2012). There are also references to the Afghan Taliban and the Pakistani Taliban or Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the latter one significantly more factionalized than the former one (Oxford Analytica, 2015). 

In 2015 a new player emerged in the Afghan conflict. The Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP), mainly composed by factions of the Pakistan Taliban, and in a lesser degree by factions of the Afghan Taliban, were officially recognized by the Iraq and Syria based Islamic State group (Oxford Analytica, 2015). 

The origins of ISKP starts with the TTP factions moving into Afghanistan since 2010, fleeing Pakistani military operations targeting them. Initially welcomed by the local population, who felt they had to support their Pakistani Pashto brothers persecuted by the Pakistani army, the TTP slowly became a powerful armed group ruling the occupied Afghan regions, until they formally allied themselves to Islamic State. Along with TTP/ISKP progressive acquisition of power during 2014 and 2015, the local Taliban moved “from passive resistance to head-on confrontation”, their rivalry and animosity growing progressively along with armed confrontation. At the same time that Taliban started fighting ISKP to regain their lost territory, the U.S. and Afghan government started also targeting the ISKP. In parallel, across Afghanistan, several groups, mainly from Taliban factions, started proclaiming affiliation to ISKP (Afghanistan Analyst Network, 2016).

What are the common enemies?

Besides the already discussed war between the Afghan government and its U.S. allies against the Taliban and against ISKP, and between the Taliban and ISKP, other regional and global forces are participating of the conflict in Afghanistan to defend their interests.

Afghanistan and Pakistan

The Afghan government views Pakistan as the “center of the Taliban”, providing refuge to the Taliban, treating wounded Taliban fighters, and providing them support in general. In turn, it is believed that Pakistan may be losing ground and relevance as stakeholders in Afghanistan, if they withdraw support from the Taliban. This way, they do not see contradictory supporting the Taliban in some regions in Afghanistan, and combating them in some others (The Diplomat, 2018). 

Furthermore, Pakistan may be interested in the Taliban fighting ISKP, who are active in Pakistan since, on the one hand, they were originally attacked by the Pakistani military when they were part of TTP, and on the other hand, because the ISKP consider Khorasan Province to include Pakistan and would like to install an Islamic State in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Pakistan also views with concern the establishment of a stable government in Afghanistan that, as per currently, has close ties to India (The Diplomat 2018).

The U.S. and Iran

The U.S. President, Donald Trump, began threatening Iran 12 days after taking office in 2017. Since then, escalating measures have been taken that may indicate the U.S. is prepared to go to war with Iran (The New Yorker, 2019). 

The 1979 Ayatollah’s Islamic revolution deposed the western-backed Iranian Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, and, following a series of events that “plunge the two countries into an obsessive crisis in relations from which they have yet to emerge…”, the U.S. and Iran have been foes ever since (BBC, 2015). 

Considering the large military presence of the U.S. in Afghanistan, and not only (the U.S. has military bases right across the Persian Gulf in Bahrain, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, and in neighboring Kuwait and Iraq), the Iranians have serious reasons for feeling under threat.

Since the 2011 U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, Iran “views the Taliban as a useful point of leverage against the U.S.”, providing them with financial and military support (The Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, 2019).

The U.S. and Russia

Russia is naturally concerned of the U.S. military presence just south of its borders. Ever since the end of the cold-war, Russia and the U.S. have gone through periods of lesser cooperation and greater competition. The easterly move of NATO, incorporating to its alliance former Soviet Union States, is perceived by Moscow as a threat (Australian Institute of international Affairs, 2018). More recently, with the crises in Syria, Ukraine and Venezuela, where the two countries have found themselves in opposite sides of the conflicts, tensions have arisen. Russia and the U.S. geopolitical interests are, in most of these conflicts, including the one in Afghanistan, in direct confrontation. 

Russia and the Taliban both perceive the Islamic State as an enemy. Russia has fought the Islamic State in Syria and sees it as a serious threat to stability, not only in Afghanistan but also in the Central Asian region. Russia is concerned that ISKP could spill beyond the borders of Afghanistan and destabilize Russian allies in the region, the former Soviet Union states like Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, among others. The U.S. military believes that Russia has not only had diplomatic relations with the Taliban, but that they have provided them with military support as well (The Diplomat, 2018).

This complex international geopolitical context in which Afghanistan is submerged has basically contributed to the survival and resurgence of the Taliban. As simply summarised by Abubakar Siddique, 

“After 9/11, rivalries such India versus Pakistan, Saudi Arabia versus Iran, Russia versus the United States, and the United States against Iran have greatly aided their survival and capacity to spring back from extinction [of the Taliban]” (Gandhara 2017).

What are the prospects for peace?

As mentioned under point 1 above, the U.S. is holding preliminary peace talks with the Taliban, the discussion centring in the complete removal of U.S. troops and the Taliban assuring that Afghanistan will not become a safe haven for terrorist groups. The preliminary peace talks are mainly taking place in Qatar (Council on Foreign Relations, no date). This is a unilateral initiative taken by the U.S., with the Taliban as sole counterparts for the time being.  

In parallel, informal peace talks have been held in Istanbul and Moscow. In Istanbul, a meeting was held between the Afghan government and the Taliban during last January. Although this has been denied by the spokesperson of the main Taliban group, Zabihullah Mujahed (TRT World, 2018). The Taliban consider the government a “puppet regime” that does not represent Afghans citizens and responds to the orders of the “foreign invaders”, the U.S., and thus, they do not negotiate with the puppet government Voice of Jihad, 2018). This may indicate that a Taliban faction, different from the main group holding talks with the U.S. in Qatar, may have attended the meeting in Istanbul. The Moscow peace talks in turn, bring together the Taliban (the same group that is holding peace talks with the U.S. in Qatar), political representatives from Afghanistan’s opposition parties, including Afghanistan’s former president Hamid Karzai, and representatives from neighboring countries. It is believed that these parallel peace talks may have been supported by the Taliban to purposefully sideline the Afghan government, instill division amongst Afghans, further weakening the government and increasing their bargaining power (RFEFL, 2019). 

According to all parties, peace talks are progressing satisfactorily, although no concrete results have been produced yet. The U.S. and the Taliban have seemingly reached to a draft agreement on some issues, but one of the key unresolved disputes is their direct dialogue with the Afghan government (Aljazeera, 2019).

In the meantime, the government of Afghanistan feels “furious”, “sidelined and frustrated” for being left out of these ongoing peace talks (RFEFL, 2019).

Taking into consideration the complexity of the Afghan conflict, and the multiplicity of actors involved, it is unlikely that a resolution to the conflict can be reached by solely fulfilling the interests of the U.S. and the Taliban. For a broad agreement on a peace deal, all key players must be involved in the peace process, or, as a minimum, the interests of most key players will need to be satisfied. With the withdrawal of the U.S. and NATO troops, as is in principle agreed by the U.S., the key interests of the Taliban, Iran, Russia, and Pakistan may be met. It will remain to be seen if an agreement on a power-sharing deal can be reached, involving a government with representation of key political parties and the Taliban. As long as there is a stable government in Afghanistan, that fights against the establishment of terrorist safe havens, this should satisfy the interests of all players, the U.S., Russia, Iran, Pakistan, and the Taliban (if the powersharing deal fulfils their minimum requirements, yet to be known), at least in what ISKP is concerned. The absence of an agreement will most probably result in ongoing civil war.

In the case such sort of peace agreement is reached, it will clearly resolve the most significant part of the Afghan conflict, but the eradication of ISKP, who most likely will continue terrorising Afghans and creating havoc. ISKP may be even strengthened with the inclusion of more radical Taliban factions who will not be satisfied with anything short of establishing an Islamic Emirate or state in Afghanistan and who do not want to join a coalition government. Following the removal of U.S. and NATO troops, it will be up to the shuffled Afghan army and Taliban fighters, who will need to lead the fight against a strengthened ISKP. The likelihood that aid money from foreign donors will keep on dropping in a post-agreement era (since 2011 aid money for Afghanistan has been dropping steadily), in an economy that is already highly dependent on foreign aid (according to Afghan Analyst Network, 2018, 66% of the government’s budget for year 2017 was provided by donors), may result in further deterioration of government services, including security.

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