Almost exactly a year after the ISAF mission ended, British troops were redeployed to Sangin, bringing the continuing war in Afghanistan back into the spotlight. The war in Afghanistan is slowly slipping in importance in the news cycle. Attention given to Afghanistan in the last year has been predominantly in relation to ISIS, when headlines touted the creation of Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP). ISKP are a growing problem, but ISKP face the same problems that Al Qaeda faced in gaining large numbers of ideological recruits. This is because Afghanistan and the Pashtun population follows an ideologically different branch of Sunni Islam to that of ISIS. The threat of ISIS expansion has helped the President of Afghanistan’s appeal for extra support, and therefore Obama’s justification of the continued presence of US troops; but it has changed little on the ground.
So what is happening in Afghanistan? There are two different narratives that present different pictures of the state of the country. The first is a continuation of the idea of the “good war:” in short, that the war in Afghanistan has gone well. As evidence, the “good war” narrative points to the democratic transition of power in 2014, the improvement in human rights and women’s rights, and in standards of education. It also emphasises the fact that the Taliban have not taken any urban centres. In contrast to the “good war” narrative, there are pessimists who point to the total cost of the war in achieving limited success. The democratic transition of power was beset with problems: accusations of fraud, Abdullah Abdullah’s establishment of a parallel administration, and the ensuing negotiated settlement; it took seven months to appoint a cabinet, and Hamid Karzai has far from yielded all his influence on Afghan politics. While human rights and women’s rights have improved, corruption is still rampant; Ashraf Ghani was elected on a promise to resolve this issue, but has been handicapped by the deals he has had to make with ex-warlords to secure his power. While no urban center has fallen fully to the Taliban, the majority of Kunduz did briefly fall to the Taliban before they were pushed back. The Taliban have taken large swathes of the countryside, and are increasingly breaching the security cordon around cities. This threatens the advancements in civil rights and security. The Afghan Security Forces have also taken large casualties and suffered increased desertions, with some estimates suggesting that a third of their forces need replacing this year.
Ashraf Ghani has been less successful than many hoped in his first year, but it has not been a disaster. Just as Afghan National Forces are hurting, so are the Taliban. The Taliban’s leadership has gone through a painful transition after the passing of Mullah Omar. Mullah Mansour has taken on the leadership, but his right is contested within the Taliban, resulting in open conflict. Jalaluddin Haqqani also passed away; although the transition of power to his son Sirajuddin has been smoother, Sirajuddin lacks some of the prowess and unifying features of his “fountain of jihad” father. This suggests that 2016 may be the year of the Zartman’s Mutually Hurting Stalemate, and the beginning of a peace process.
Something Ashraf Ghani certainly achieved was vastly improving relations with Pakistan, widely acknowledged as key to the peace process. There has been discussion over the TAPI natural gas pipeline, and there are currently trilateral talks between China, Afghanistan and Pakistan attempting to bring the Taliban to a negotiated settlement. Pakistan has always been a difficult partner, with many within its security establishment viewing the Taliban as more natural allies than a government with a large Northern Alliance/Tajik presence supported by India and the West. If, and it is a big if, Pakistan can be persuaded to endorse and actively pursue a settlement, there is still the problem of getting the Taliban to accept it. The power structure of the Taliban and control the current leadership has over the insurgency in Afghanistan is not clear. Mullah Mansour may not be able to force the Taliban to accept a peace agreement, which risks undermining his leadership. This increases the likelihood that, with momentum in the Taliban’s favour, the insurgency’s leadership will continue to resist a peace process.
With a peace-process that appears unlikely to succeed – even if it does, it would likely take a long time to negotiate and implement – the situation looks likely to deteriorate in 2016. The government will struggle to maintain security and will likely lose more ground to the Taliban. A complete collapse is unlikely, since foreign powers prop up the government just as they did Najibullah’s from 1989-92; but the government may be forced to rely on private militias that are rumoured to be reconstituting already. (This presents a possible nightmare scenario of the civil war of 1992-96, where Najibullah’s forces and supporting militia fractured and splintered into smaller groups along with the Mujahidden, causing crippling conflict that allowed the Taliban to sweep to power). The reconstitution of private militias will mean the creation of more armed groups outside the government’s chain of command, risking further lawlessness. Afghanistan needs continued help and attention from the West, not abandonment in its hour of need.