Since the International Security Assistance Force drawdown from Afghanistan in December 2014, America’s ad-hoc and confusing policies, the incompetence of the Afghan government, and the Taliban’s inflexibility to peace talks have complicated the stalemate of the Afghan conflict. As 2016 ended, the lingering deadlock has increased the insecurity, giving the Taliban a tactical upper hand and keeping Kabul in a perpetual defensive mode. Moreover, the conflict’s perpetuation has allowed spoilers on both sides to exploit the situation for political and economic stakes.
In the 2016 spring offensive, Operation Omari, the Taliban continued with its 2015 military strategy of “capture-and-hold” areas across Afghanistan. They further increased their pressure on major Afghan cities. Presently, 35 of Afghanistan’s 400 districts are under Taliban control and 116 others are disputed. Moreover, like the previous year, there was no lull in fighting during the 2015-16 winter as well. The brief captures of strategic areas had a huge psychological impact on the battlefield: boosting the Taliban’s morale and demoralizing the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSFs).
The Taliban’s two-pronged offensive in the north and south neutralized the poorly resourced and geographically constrained Afghan forces during the combat. This has confounded Kabul’s problem as the government is confronted with a perilous choice: to remain overstretched throughout Afghanistan and face Taliban attacks; or retreat from the strategically less significant rural areas and concede more territory to the Taliban. The former is financially and logistically unsustainable, while the latter is politically costly.
In the first eight months of 2016, the Afghan forces have suffered some 15,000 casualties, including more than 5,500 deaths. The desertion rate of the Afghan forces increased to 33 percent as compared to 28 percent in 2015. As many as 2,199 Afghan security personnel quit their jobs, leaving the military strength at about 170,000. Without the help of US Special Forces, the ANSFs would have lost major parts of Farah, Kunduz, and Helmand provinces to the Taliban this year.
Another worrisome trend in 2016 was the abandonment of the security check posts and surrenders of Afghan forces during the fighting. The Taliban also shot videos of the captured soldiers: those who promised to leave the army and not to re-join the fight were allowed to reunite with families.
The on-off Afghan peace talks — under the framework of the Quadrilateral Coordination Group comprising of Afghanistan, Pakistan, China, and the US — were scuttled when US droned Taliban’s chief Akhtar Masnoor in April. The US targeted Mansoor expecting to create organizational dissension, factional fighting, and leadership disputes within the Taliban movement which struggled to choose Mullah Umar’s successor in 2015. However, the succession of Akhtr Mansoor in the form of Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada was swift and smooth. Masnoor’s killing did not affect the Taliban’s battlefield victories or organizational coherence in any major way.
If the Taliban’s resurgence continues at the current scale and pace, there is a real danger that Afghanistan will gradually slip out of the Afghan government’s control.
In addition to the above, Pakistan’s deteriorating ties with the US and Afghanistan also contributed to derailment of the peace process. In October, the Afghan government covertly reached out to the Taliban’s Qatar office to restart the stalled peace process. Some exploratory meetings were held but eventually the Taliban refused to resume the negotiations.
In 2016, notwithstanding several setbacks, the Islamic State of Khurasan (ISK) also emerged as a potent conflict actor in the Afghan war. Unlike last year, when ISK came across as a divisive actor between the various militant groups in Afghanistan, this year it emerged as a unifying force. The ISK’s resilience to US airstrikes, Afghan forces’ ground offensive, and the Taliban’s reprisal attacks makes it a force to be reckoned with.
Moreover, ISK also struck a tactical agreement with the Taliban to give up inter-group fighting, following which ISK has shown extended outreach, sophistication, and growing cooperation with other militant groups like Lashkar-e-Islam, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, and Jandullah. These marriages of convenience allowed ISK to mount large-scale attacks in Kabul, Jalalabad, and Ghor, and hit targets as far across as Balcohistan.
Another worrisome trend in 2016 was the increasing number of sectarian attacks in Afghanistan. Although sectarian violence has been present in the Afghan conflict in some form or shape since 2014, this year the frequency of these attacks increased significantly. It is worth pointing out that ISK carried out all these attacks, and in most cases, the ethnic Hazara Shia community was the victim of sectarian violence.
Part of this anti-Shia campaign by ISK resides in the militant group’s extremist worldview, and part of it has to do with the participation of the Hazras in the Syrian conflict on behalf of Iran. Iran has been recruiting, training, and sending Hazara Shias from Afghanistan to Syria. As many as 4,000 Shias from Afghanistan are currently fighting in Syria under the Li Wa Al-Fatimyun (The Brigade of Fatima) militant group. So along with the sectarian dimension, ethnic and geo-political factors need to be factored in to explain this trend.
Despite a multitude of internal and external challenges, Afghanistan is not on the cusp of defeat. Unlike the Iraqi military, which collapsed in June 2014 with the rise of Daesh in Mosul, the Afghan army and police have so far neither crumbled nor fragmented. In addition, the Taliban’s territorial expansion is not even close to the vast swaths of territory that Daesh occupied in the summer of 2014 in Iraq. However, if the Taliban’s resurgence continues at the current scale and pace, there is a real danger that Afghanistan will gradually slip out of the Afghan government’s control.
The current circumstances in Afghanistan necessitate that all the stakeholders should return to the negotiation table to find a political solution. The recently concluded peace deal with the former Afghan warlord and head of the Hizb-e-Islami, Gulbadin Hekmatyar, can serve as a general template. While the Taliban should show more flexibility towards the Afghan government and constitution, at the same time, the National Unity Government should also grant some concessions to the former. Clichéd as it may sound, the regional peace in South Asia hinges on stability in Afghanistan.