History, Profiles, Reviews, Occasional Meanderings
Note: I originally wrote this for a publication on a news site, but they rejected it “for policy reasons”. I thought I’d best print it afore it becomes outdated.
Afghanistan: Lessons from the Past, Implications for the Future
2015 Copyright etc
With the eventual drawdown of the United States and NATO, the Afghan regime that rode to power on their backs in 2001 finds itself in a difficult position not dissimilar to that of the former USSR-imposed regime of Najibullah Ahmadzai after its patrons withdrew; as then-opposition leader Burhanuddin Rabbani remarked of Najibullah, Kabul’s regime is “like a suspended teardrop, about to fall.”
Yet Najibullah hung on to power surprisingly long after the Russians withdrew in 1989; it wasn’t until Apr 1992 that he was eventually ousted, bringing into place a dysfunctional “Islamic State of Afghanistan” officially under Burhanuddin’s leadership that from the outset was imperilled by vast mistrust between the commanders and leaders that had brought about Najibullah’s downfall. One important measure that Najibullah had taken in this respect was to encourage mistrust and divisions among his opponents, primarily by using a “carrot and stick” approach, offering amnesty to some mujahidin defectors while officially cutting back his regime’s notorious abuses, as well as his secret service playing off commanders against one another.
This was not, of course, simply Najibullah’s doing: a variation of competing sponsors—from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to Iran and the United States—as well as competition over finances, clans, ideology or simply ambitions meant that the mujahidin had, from the late 1980s onwards, begun to seriously fight amongst themselves. The longest-lasting such enmity emerged between Gulbadin Hekmatyar and Shah Massoud, who had already fought each other in northern Afghanistan well before Massoud marched into Kabul in Apr 1992, prompting a ferocious battle between the pair and their respective supporters that claimed thousands of lives.
That conflict, and the splintered Afghanistan that emerged, offers lessons for both today’s Kabul regime and the Taliban insurgency as well as their respective supporters. Kabul has, of course, long tried to wheedle away Taliban fighters from the front: former president Hamid Karzai famously called them his “brothers” and he tried to promise some amnesty; additionally, the United States and NATO—rather ironically given the tens of thousands of troops they maintained to prop up the Kabul regime—tried to portray the Taliban movement as simply an agent of Pakistan, downplaying the considerable support it enjoyed at rural Afghanistan and especially in the south and east. The links that the Taliban undoubtedly enjoyed with Pakistan’s army and intelligence were always equivocal, and based more on mutual interest and a common narrative of Islamic jihad against invaders rather than control by one party over the other.
In this respect the TTP insurgency that mushroomed in Pakistan from 2007 was an unlikely boon for the Kabul regime and its backers, and there is some evidence of links between Afghanistan’s secret service and members of the TTP insurgency, such as former TTP third-in-command Latifullah Mehsud (the enemy of my enemy, and so on). Pakistan, for its part, had overplayed its hand under Pervez Musharraf’s regime in trying to simultaenously satisfy and outsmart the United States: repeated incursions into the historically autonomous FATA northlands, which were meant to appease the United States’ calls to “do more” and which agitated more locals than they were worth, only galvanized the TTP narrative that Pakistan was an agent of the United States, killing FATA locals, and helped draw people towards the TTP, who quite ironically ignored the repeated orders of Taliban leader Mohammad Omar, to whom they claimed to answer, to focus on the invasion of Afghanistan. Not until Pakistan tried its own “carrot and stick” approach, drawing such commanders as Khalid Sajna away from the TTP’s hardline commanders Fazlullah Hayat and Abdul-Wali Omar, did the TTP begin to fragment.
For their part, the Taliban leadership want to avoid the same sort of splits in their ranks, especially as much of Afghanistan has come under their control. The belated exposure that their respected founder Mohammad Omar had passed away—perhaps as early as Apr 2013—was a potent attack at any faultlines. Omar’s eventual successor and confidante, Akhtar Mansoor, long faced accusations of ambition, especially by Taliban commanders who felt that his Ishaqzai clan was overrepresented in the leadership. One of these dissidents, former Kabul corps commander Abdul-Rauf Khadim, eventually split from the Taliban and this year joined the extremist group, self-styled “Islamic State of Iraq and Levant”, who have attemped to open a franchise in Afghanistan and wipe out the Taliban insurgency. It is quite likely that Khadim did this more over his dispute with the Ishaqzai leaders, especially Mansoor, than any ideological relation with ISIL, who have managed to alienate an impressive number of Islamic groups from Syria, Iraq, Libya, Chechnya as well as Afghanistan.
But even apart from defectors, there has been disquiet at Mansoor’s ascent. There has long been dispute, most notably with famous field commander Abdul-Qayum Zakir, over Mansoor’s proximity to Omar. Though Zakir promised to be “the most obedient Taliban” member if Mansoor was properly picked as leader, a number of Taliban officers have tried to push Omar’s eldest son Mohammad Yaaqub as successor. Yaaqub’s supporters criticized the selection process and claimed that many officers had simply not attended the shura where Mansoor had been picked. The discord appears serious enough for Omar’s brother, Abdul-Mannan Houtak, to publicly request a peaceful mediation.
Nonetheless, the fissure should not be overestimated. Tensions are not a novelty to the Taliban leadership—its founder, Omar, was reported to have had considerable differences with his second-in-command Mohammad Rabbani, while many prominent Taliban commanders conflicted during the 2000s—but a strength that they have traditionally shown is to overcome or suppress such rifts. One of the causes d’etre of the Taliban foundation had been to quell the autonomy of powerful commanders, so that even at the height of the tensions between Zakir and Mansoor the campaign continued largely unabated. The fact that Mansoor’s second-in-command was named Sirajuddin Haqqani, the aggressive Zadran commander whose father Jalaluddin Haqqani had been a formidable commander of both insurgencies against Russia and the United States and a pragmatist leader with experience of the mujahidin rifts in the 1990s, should probably help, as should the support of another prominent eastern commander, Abdul-Latif Mansoor. The fact that, unlike the competing sponsors of the mujahidin against Russia, the Taliban’s jihad has only a handful of foreign sponsors, particularly Pakistan, should also help.
However, Kabul is not out of cards. One chip is the strength of largely autonomous militias, especially that of Abdul-Rashid Dostum, whose appointment as Ghani’s vicepresident underscores the Afghan regime’s reliance on strongarm fighters. An infamously brutal predator, Dostum nonetheless has experience as a hefty paramilitary commander since he fought for the Russian occupation during the 1980s. During the 1990s he effectively ruled northern Afghanistan as an autonomous state separate from the rest, with its own currency and airlines, trading independently with the Central Asian states. The Junbash militias he commanded received the support of Central Asian leaders, especially Uzbekistan dictator Islam Karimov with whom Dostum shares ethnicity, and it is clear that Ghani needs Dostum’s muscle more than vice versa.
Tajik-dominated former mujahidin militias have also proven hardened opponents against the Taliban advance. The most formidable such leader, arguably, is Ismail Khan, who unlike many such militia leaders seems to command genuine local support after decades as Herat’s effective ruler, without the reputation for gratutious violence than some others. Though Ismail’s tendency towards autocracy has provoked some dissent, as has a troubled relationship with Kabul, it is difficult to find another commander with a similar level of local legitimacy. Finally, a number of minority militias are likely to remain embittered opponents to the Taliban advance, with memories of a scorched-earth campaign in the Hazara-dominated Bamyan region. Again, the price for Kabul’s survival seems to be the return of often exceptionally vicious militias over a state army, many of them also favoured by the United States for their uncomplicated ruthlessness.
This runs the additional risk of an ethnicization and communalization of the conflict as occurred in the 1990s—though there are some Tajiks and Uzbeks in the Taliban army’s ranks, the vast majority remain Pashtun fighters and that is unlikely to change. Pro-regime Pashtuns, such as southern leader Gulagha Sherzai, have been widely loathed for thuggery; many of Sherzai’s abuses were responsible for provoking surrendered Taliban officers, including current leader Akhtar Mansoor and former commander Abdul-Ghani Baradar, back into the insurgency. Furthermore, Taliban commanders like Abdul-Majeed Nurzai and Abdul-Mannan Abdul-Rahim enjoy strong roots and considerable respect in such regions, as do Haqqanis, Mansoors and other mujahidin veterans in the east.
Another important card in Kabul’s pack is the occupation itself as a diplomatic tool and military force. Unlike the Russian withdrawal, done with overwhelming foreign pressure, NATO and the United States are likely to have a considerable residue in Afghanistan for several years. Having officially withdrawn in 2014, the United States nonetheless maintains a garrison of some ten thousand troops. Effectively, the Kabul regime has been forced into dependency on external benefactors—something that jars a considerable number of traditionally autonomous Afghans, even those opposed to the Taliban insurgency—but it remains an important chip.
It has been in an effort to prolong this occupation that Kabul has attempted to play up the threat of a Taliban alliance with the bloodthirsty ISIL group; an article published by the sympathetic RFERL website drew nearly exclusively on Afghan security officials to construct the case of such a partnership. In fact, quite the opposite has taken place: whatever ISIL recruits in Afghanistan have fought fiercely versus the Taliban fighters especially in the eastern province of Nangarhar. ISIL has been particularly bitter towards the Taliban movement because Al-Qaeda’s leader, Ayman Zawahiri, proclaimed his allegiance to Mohammad Omar, “Commander of the Faithful”; news of Omar’s death was met with gleeful derision by ISIL ideologues online, who accused Zawahiri of either dishonesty or allegiance to a corpse.
Perversely, therefore, the prospect of an ISIL outgrowth chimes in with two of Kabul’s short-term objectives. Firstly, ISIL are a direct challenge to the Taliban. Secondly, the longer ISIL stays the more inclined the United States and NATO will be to extend their stay in Afghanistan and thereby protect Kabul’s embattled regime. How much influence ISIL have is unclear; they have attracted headlines and a number of recruits, most notably the dissident commander Abdul-Rauf Khadim and the former TTP commander Saeed Khan-Orakzai, but their success on the battlefield has been minimal and, as elsewhere, enormously exaggerated by their active media efforts.
Whether or not ISIL present another significant force on the scene, however, the Afghan landscape has already become extremely complicated. What Afghanistan needs more than ever, is a decrease in equivocal external interference—most obviously the occupation itself, which is increasingly unpopular within the countries that constitute it, but also Pakistan’s support of the Taliban rebels and the support given by Iran, the United States and the Central Asian dictatorships for various pro-regime militias—and thereafter a reconciliation between the various groups. Thirty-six years of nearly endless conflict has exhausted the people, and reconciliation between enemies has a long tradition in Afghanistan. But the calculations and objectives of various actors have made the possibility of a reconciliation as unlikely as it is necessary.