Between 20 and 28 January 2018, Kabul was hit three times by urban terrorism, killing at least 130 people. The Taliban claimed two of the three attacks, one targeting the Kabul Intercontinental Hotel (20 January) and the other consisting of a terrible attack through an ambulance (27 January). Daesh is not outdone, with an attack near a military academy in the capital (28 January), but also targeting the offices of the NGO Save the Children in Jalalabad (25 January).
Beyond the news, terrible, we must have in mind the state of affairs in Afghanistan in 2018. According to a recent study by the BBC, over several months, the legal government of Afghanistan actually holds only 30% of the country. In the rest of the country, home to 50 percent of the Afghan population, the Taliban have at least one “open and active physical presence”. How to explain such a disaster? The fault of foreign forces? If we listen to the authorities in Kabul and Washington, the case is heard: everything is the fault of the Afghan regional environment. Pakistan is the main scapegoat. But some Afghan and American officials do not hesitate to blame Iran and even Russia. In Afghanistan, for example, some people accuse the Russian services of having helped the Taliban to take Kunduz in 2015 and 2016 .
The problem with these accusations is that they are sometimes abusive or even false. For example, we know that Iran has forged links with the Taliban since the beginning of the 2010 decade, when the Americans themselves accepted the idea that defeating them militarily would be impossible, and that a political dialogue was needed in Afghanistan. No Iranian conspiracy against Afghan stability here, but then a simple recognition of the balance of power on the spot, as much in Tehran as elsewhere.
On the other hand, accusations involving Iranians and arms supply to the Taliban appear to have been exaggerated. Similarly, the Afghan and US authorities continue to claim that the Kremlin has provided weapons to the Taliban while the evidence is non-existent. As for the accusations against Pakistan, they sometimes fall into simplism, and rely on important omissions about a complex bilateral relationship. For example, the fact that geopolitically, Afghanistan and Pakistan oppose each other since the founding of this country. Kabul, in the continuity of Mullah Omar and the previous regimes in Afghanistan, persisted in not recognizing the Durand Line, the current border between the two states. The Afghan Pashtun nationalists supporting this policy can, from there, claim up to 60% of the Pakistani territory . In the past, Kabul has not hesitated to support Pashtun and Baloch separatists in Pakistani territory. It is in this logic of “cold war” that we must see the difficulties of cooperation between Afghans and Pakistanis. Today, if Pakistan has contacts, and perhaps ways to influence some of the Taliban, not only is it not the only one, but most importantly, it would be simplistic to imagine that they control them. Adding to the difficulty of the bilateral relationship between Kabul and Islamabad, it should not be forgotten that anti-Pakistani terrorist forces use Afghanistan as a refuge.
The Afghan accusations against Pakistan may now be turned against Kabul. Such a situation would require abandoning the search for a single scapegoat in the current situation, and a renewed effort by Washington to help cooperation between the two countries.
Finally, if you want to find a foreign leader for the Afghan situation, it would be good to look at the role of the United States itself. In the period 2001-2003, after militarily defeating Mullah Omar, the Americans missed the peace. They refused any idea of state building while this country devastated for more than 20 years at the time would have needed it. The choice to lead the war in Iraq ended up putting Afghanistan at the backburner at a time when winning peace, including helping the countryside and leading active diplomacy at the regional level, would have been possible. The desire to target Al Qaeda rather than work towards the stabilization of Afghanistan has led to collaboration with warlords who have nothing to do with human rights, their enemies but also civilian populations. Subsequently, according to Human Rights Watch, the United States has always preferred political and security gains over the short term, rather than taking Afghan rights seriously. According to the UN, in the first nine months of 2017, at least 38% of civilian deaths are due to bombing by international forces. These deaths undoubtedly help to fuel the Taliban rebellion until today. On the other hand, the effectiveness of these bombings is sometimes very debatable.
But limiting ourselves to criticism of Washington’s Afghan policy is not enough. The problems associated with the Afghan legal government and the resilience of the Taliban on the ground must be taken into account.
There is, of course, corruption, which explains many limitations in the fight against the rebels. One can take the example of “ghost soldiers”, existing only theoretically, but whose real wages are diverted. This scandal has weakened security forces whose losses on the battlefield are, moreover, “incredibly high”. The military situation is disastrous for Kabul: desertions are not uncommon, in the army and the police. And this, for several reasons: the importance of the number of deaths in the security forces precisely, the refusal to give his life for a regime that looks like a coalition of contrary interests rather than a democracy, the threats of the Taliban against members of the security services and their families…
In the face of weak power, the Taliban have good reason to feel strong. Financially, they have the means to lead their guerrillas against Kabul. With money from drug trafficking, they would be able to have 25,000 fighters (paid $300 a month) at their disposal. They have gone from opium taxation to mass production of heroin, and would have 500 laboratories dedicated to that in Afghanistan itself — further proof that they are sufficiently controlling a part of the Afghan territory to do as they please.
Indeed, the justice of the Taliban is more attractive than that of power: it does not ask to be bribed and is expeditious, but effective. Thus, in the context of the parallel administration of the Taliban, if the inhabitants of a zone complain of one of their representatives, the latter can be dismissed … It is not always so simple when it comes to a local leader supported by Kabul.
In addition, from Mullah Omar to the current leader, Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, the ideological positioning is clear, and may be attractive to some Afghans: a nationalism rejecting the foreign military presence, and the refusal to see Afghanistan use against another State … which amounts to rejecting both the Americans and transnational jihadists .
Although, they have managed to carry out their own regional diplomacy, the Taliban are not subject to the interests of foreign powers, retaining their nationalist character. This is a historical feature of the Taliban: as noted above, they are known to have refused any recognition of the Durand Line in the 1990s, despite the significant Pakistani support at the time. Far from opposing the Pashtun nationalism (what the Pakistani authorities wanted), they nurtured and radicalized it by associating it with Islamic fundamentalism.
And today, while still recruiting mostly in Pashtun, they are even able to find support in other Afghan ethnic groups, relying on the disaffection of some Uzbeks, Tajiks and Turkmen against the government of Kabul.
As a result, in addition to being a military and terrorist threat, the Taliban are increasingly emerging as a serious political alternative to legal power.
However, the rebellion is not as strong and united as one might think: divisions have clearly emerged once the death of Mullah Omar, in fact from April 23, 2013, was confirmed (summer 2015), even earlier. The Taliban must also take into account the Daesh competition. Moreover, some rebels, ideologically harder, do not necessarily want to fight the Islamic State. More broadly, what is called “Taliban” is often less of a monolithic rebellion than a host of local rebellions in response to Kabul’s poor governance, or American military choices. The Taliban are strong only because of the weaknesses and mistakes of Kabul and Washington.
The inability of these capitals to find a way to forge a regional “entente cordiale” that takes into account the interests of the main players in the zone is another difficulty in stabilizing Afghanistan.
The victory of the rebellion against the legal power of Afghanistan is not inevitable. And the long history of Afghanistan reminds us that the idea of the country as necessarily the “cemetery of empires” is a simplistic approach of the past more than a reality. Peace in this martyred country requires a logic that is not only military but, more than ever, diplomatic, taking into account the human and geopolitical realities of the region.
By: Didier Chaudet