Brian M Downing
The war in Afghanistan continues. Over the years it’s changed from an effort to destroy al Qaeda, into a US-led counterinsurgency against a revitalized Taliban. Over the last few years it’s become a war of attrition between the Afghan army (ANA) and the Taliban. Meanwhile, al Qaeda is still there.
With warm weather and the new fighting season, the Taliban will launch a series of campaigns. In the last two years they’ve advanced steadily in the south and recently seized a district capital in Helmand province. What are the keys to the new fighting season?
The Afghan state
The Afghan government is hopelessly corrupt. Administrators at the district and provincial levels use their offices for personal gain and see nothing wrong with it. The central government has awarded, for a price, control of large amounts of the country’s resources to foreign enterprises, mostly Chinese ones. Ordinary Afghans are incensed by demands for under-the-table payments in order to obtain various licenses and even death certificates for loved ones.
The state is riven by ethnic mistrust and animosity. The Pashtuns are approximately 42% of the population, though they claim to be over 50%. Other peoples, including Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras, object to what they see as Pashtun presumptuousness and misrule. A power-sharing arrangement in Kabul between Pashtun and Tajik politicians is muddling through, if barely. A difficult year – one, say, that sees a provincial capital or two fall to the Taliban – might bring greater infighting and paralysis.
The Taliban, by contrast, are far less corrupt. Their courts are seen as fairer arbiters of basic disputes in the villages and towns they control. There is no reason to expect significant reform in the central government. As Bernard Fall once observed, a country losing an insurgency isn’t being outfought, it’s being outgoverned.
The same ethnic problems in the state naturally affect the army. The officer corps is disproportionately Pashtun, the rank and file disproportionately Tajik, Uzbek, and Hazara. Pashtun officers predominate in battalion and division commands – positions they’ve reached more by patronage networks than by professional achievements.
The bulk of ANA isn’t capable of aggressive operations against the Taliban. Instead they are garrisoned in towns and on bases. The inability to supply many of the latter leads to quick surrenders in the face of enemy sieges.
Operations against the Taliban are conducted mainly by elite units. This is the case in Iraq and Syria, too, as the bulk of their armies lack the will to conduct sustained operations against a determined enemy such as ISIL, the al Nusrah Front, and Ahrar al Sham. Special forces units are taking very high casualties and are overstretched. War-weariness, desertions, and resentment toward lackluster sister units and corrupt politicians may reach critical levels this year.
Over the last year the United States and other NATO partners have redeployed combat units to bolster ANA troops and act as reaction forces in the event of sudden Taliban successes, especially near provincial capitals.
The Taliban’s intentions cannot be known with certainty. A sense of their own momentum, bolstered by religious fervor, might make them feel they can break the ANA this year. The door will then be open to retaking Kabul and much of the rest of the country. A restored emirate would be at hand.
This is possible but unlikely. When the Taliban took control of much of the country in the mid-nineties, they faced an army with little in the way of air support and, once the Soviet Union fell, no foreign help. The ANA will have American air support which can devastate Taliban troop concentrations and convoys. Further, as noted, the US and other powers have redeployed troops into Afghanistan. More can be brought in on short notice.
The Taliban may have more modest objectives this year. They will try to seize and hold a few provincial capitals – Lashkar Gah in the south, Kunduz in the north, and perhaps others near Kabul. This will place them in a stronger position to negotiate a settlement which will cede them substantial parts of the country.
Russia is highly unlikely to send troops into Afghanistan again, but it does wish to advance certain goals there. One is to neutralize the rise of ISIL along its southern periphery, the other is to embarrass the United States. Russia can help bring about negotiations but in a manner that marginalizes the US position.
While the US, NATO partners, and the ANA have battled the Taliban over the years, al Qaeda and its international jihadi brethren have remained ensconced in eastern Afghanistan. ISIL, another international jihadi group, is establishing itself in parts of Afghanistan. There is similar ferment to the north in former Soviet republics which Moscow sees as part of its sphere of influence, or Near Abroad.
From Putin’s perspective, the Taliban, though uncomfortably close relatives of the guerrillas who ground down Soviet troops in the eighties, is now a potential ally. He is likely to recognize Taliban control of large parts of Afghanistan in future negotiations and help them extinguish ISIL before it spreads into his Near Abroad.
Washington supported Afghan guerrillas against Moscow. Putin is turning the tables – and undoubtedly appreciating the paradox. Meanwhile in Washington, the new president will better see the complexities of world affairs and perhaps also the relative artfulness of a more experienced hand.
Copyright 2017 Brian M Downing
Brian M Downing is a national security analyst who has written for outlets across the political spectrum. He studied at Georgetown University and the University of Chicago, and did post-graduate work at Harvard’s Center for International Affairs.