The Afghan conflict and prospects for a political settlement

Amin Saikal
16 October 2018

As violence and bloodshed continue unabated in Afghanistan, the need for a viable political settlement of the long-running conflict grows stronger by the day. The Afghan and American leaderships have stepped up their efforts in this respect. Yet, the prospects for stability and security in the war-torn country appears as elusive as ever since the US-led intervention toppled the medievalist Islamic rule of the Taliban seventeen years ago.

Two important, unresolved factors have thwarted a political settlement so far. One is the growing strength of the Pakistan-backed Taliban and their affiliates. They are enabled to maintain their pre-conditions for the departure of foreign troops and declaration of Afghanistan as an Islamic Emirate as it was the case when the groups was in power from 1996 to 2001. Another is that the Afghanistan conflict is now deeply entangled with regional rivalries and disputes.

The Taliban are well aware of the weaknesses of the Afghan government and its inability to meet their fundamental demands. President Ashraf Ghani's administration is riddled with internal power and ethnic rivalries and backstabbing, rampant corruption and malpractices at all levels. Its writ over the country is very limited. The Taliban have widened their territorial control over the last four years since the withdrawal of most of the US, and its NATO and non-NATO allied troops. According to a report of the US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, the Taliban by November 2017 exercised jurisdiction over 13 percent of the 407 districts or some 700,000 people in Afghanistan, but these figures have risen sharply since then. A February 2018 BBC report claimed that the militia threatened some 70 percent of Afghanistan, which seems to have been borne out by the events on the ground. 

The Taliban were able to overrun Ghazni, a major city south of Kabul, and block the Kabul-Kandahar highway for nearly a week in mid-August. They were finally dislodged by the Afghan security forces, with the help of US air cover, but at the cost of hundreds of civilian lives and substantial economic and physical destruction of the city. However, since then they, in conjunction with their rival extremist group of the so-called Islamic State (IS) or what has operated in Afghanistan as IS-K (Khorasan) since 2016, have executed more bloody attacks and made more territorial gains across Afghanistan. The northern and eastern provinces have borne the brunt of their operations, with Kabul's security also being shattered to its core. Based on a United Nations report, Afghanistan sustained 1600 civilian deaths in the first half of 2018 alone, not to mention the hundreds who were injured.  

Meanwhile, the Afghan Security Forces (ASF) have suffered casualties and desertion at an unaffordable degree. Their ability to keep the Taliban and IS-K fighters from taking over many provincial capitals has been at least partly due to backing from US air power and American and other special forces. President Ghani has admitted that without such support his government would not survive more than six months, although seasoned observers would not give it even that long.

In effect, the Ghani government, which has unprecedentedly become ethnicised and which some analysts have claimed to be in favour of the president's own ethnic group in the socially mosaic Afghanistan, is not in a strong position from which it could negotiate with the Taliban effectively. In the event of any power-sharing arrangement as part of a political settlement, the Taliban is likely to prevail and IS-K may well have the necessary space to continue its operations.

The other dimension of the Afghanistan conflict is that the lack of national political consensus and unity are paralleled by a similar problem at the regional and international levels. Afghanistan has become a zone of rivalries between Pakistan and India, Iran and Saudi Arabia, Iran and the United States, and Russia and the US. The conflicting interests of these actors are played out in the country in ways that prevent them from finding the necessary common ground in support of a stable Afghanistan. 

President Donald Trump's policy approach to the Afghan situation has not paid off. He has reversed the counter-insurgency strategy of his predecessor, Barack Obama, to that of the counter-terrorism policy of the George W. Bush era. The central plank of his approach has stressed the importance of 'killing terrorists' irrespective of how Afghanistan is governed or who governs it. It has also sought India to expand its involvement in Afghanistan so as to neutralise Pakistan's support of the Taliban, and at the same time has painted Iran as the number one menace in the region. 

Afghanistan is badly in need of good governance, and a decoupling of the country from regional disputes and conflicts. An increase in India's activities in Afghanistan can only stimulate Pakistan to maintain its support for the Taliban and affiliated groups as a potent lever of influence in shaping Afghanistan's future in favour of Islamabad. Similarly, Washington's hostilities towards Iran leaves Tehran little choice but to do whatever it can to make life difficult for the US in Afghanistan. This has involved close cooperation with Russia, whose relations have also hit rock bottom with the US.

A resolution of the Afghanistan conflict needs to be tackled at the national and regional levels. The two are interlinked. The US-led involvement, which has endured for too long and has reached an exhaustion point, should vigorously be linked to improved governance and de-escalation of tensions with Pakistan, Iran and Russia. Only such a development can lead to a viable political settlement of the Afghan conflict. Yet, given the overall prevailing situation, this may not come soon enough for the suffering people of Afghanistan, a majority of whom continue to live in poverty and insecurity, despite the US and its allies having invested heavily in blood and money in the country.

Amin Saikal is Distinguished Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University, and Visiting Professor at the Royal Danish Defence College, and author of the forthcoming book, Iran Rising: The Survival and Future of the Islamic Republic (Princeton University Press).

This story was first published in the Danish Kristeligt Dagbald newspaper.