Both the Kabul government and the Taliban find themselves under threat from a new insurgency, but there are also grounds for hope, argues Michael Semple
To understand the growing complexity of Afghanistan’s drawn-out conflict, it pays to look at the little-reported battle for control of the centre of the northern district of Darzab. It involved not only government and Taliban forces, but a more recent element, Islamic State.
Fighters led by Hekmat, a well-known local commander, attacked Darzab on June 19, threatening to overwhelm the police and Ministry of Interior-supported militia who protect the district headquarters. Two months earlier Hekmat had proclaimed his allegiance to Islamic State, defying efforts by Taliban envoys to get him to return to the fold.
In response, Shamsullah, the strongest of the Uzbek insurgent commanders in Jowzjan Province still loyal to the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate, sent his men into action. Those government personnel in Darzab who had not managed to escape to the army post overlooking the town surrendered to him. Local elders typically try to mediate in such circumstances, and reassured the personnel that the Taliban would guarantee their safety. They had reason to be fearful: Hekmat’s declared affiliation to Islamic State meant that he might be under pressure to kill government prisoners. He stands accused of killing a party of International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) workers in nearby Qosh Tippa, an atrocity which led to that organisation’s suspension in the country.
The Afghan National Army unit in Darzab managed to hold on long enough for a contingent of commandos to be flown in. But the Taliban were not able to retain positions surrendered to them. A young man who had ostensibly gone over to the Taliban from Islamic State assassinated Shamsullah in his sleep, and under attack from Hekmat, the Taliban withdrew to their former positions in a nearby village. The Islamic State fighters briefly claimed to be in control of the district, and holding off the counter-attack by government troops.
Once the army makes a concerted push to retake districts, the insurgents normally withdraw, contenting themselves with a propaganda coup and whatever arms, ammunition and vehicles they have managed to seize. By the fifth day of the battle, Darzab had started to fit the pattern, with the National Army and local Ministry of Interior personnel re-entering the administrative headquarters and pushing Islamic State to the outskirts.
The three-way battle for Darzab did not come out of the blue. It was preceded by a long period in which insurgents wrestled for control of the hinterland, with the government strikingly absent from the story. For two months the Pakistan-based Taliban leadership debated who to blame for the rise of Islamic State in northern Afghanistan, and how to drive them back. But so far their attempts to persuade Hekmat to back down, or Taliban commanders to take serious military action against him, have all failed.
In many rural areas, the Taliban had begun to consider themselves the dominant power, rather than the Kabul-related authorities. They levy taxes and enforce summary justice. Anyone defying their authority, whether an outspoken individual or someone like Hekmat leading an armed group, can expect to be dealt with as a rebel. But the commanders who operate under the Taliban banner in northern provinces such as Jowzjan, Faryab and Saripul, have grown disillusioned with the movement since the demise of the original Emir, Mullah Omar. They have been reluctant, therefore, to co-operate with the envoys sent from Quetta to suppress the Islamic State rebellion.
Meanwhile, a parallel story has played out on the government side. Communities in Darzab aligned with the Kabul-based order have been complaining for months that they face increased threats from both the Taliban and Islamic State. The Ministry of Interior failed to take their requests for reinforcements seriously, they say; from their perspective, their men have been left alone to defend the villages against the insurgent onslaught, with little sign of the lavish security resources provided by the United States.
In many ways, events in Darzab reflected in miniature the latest state of political and security challenges at the national level in Afghanistan. But it is important to learn the right lessons, both from the clashes in the north and the suicide bombing next to the diplomatic area in Kabul a couple of weeks earlier, which killed about 150 people, mainly civilians, and caused blast damage across the city centre.
The May 31 explosion bore the hallmarks of attacks by the Haqqani Network, despite Taliban attempts to deny responsibility, and the sense of insecurity and outrage it provoked triggered demonstrations. More casualties followed, both from firing by presidential security guards and from suicide bombers attacking funerals. A security crisis became a political crisis, with parliamentarians lambasting the performance of security chiefs, and the former head of intelligence, Amrullah Saleh, resigned from his advisory post in protest.
While the Kabul authorities were quick to blame the Haqqani Network and its ISI backers for their problems, however, commentators and even diplomats have started to suggest that the cliquish, non-collegiate approach of the presidential team and security chiefs is also thwarting attempts to stabilise the situation. The government’s authority and ability to control security have seriously eroded, but the conflict is no longer simply the Islamic Emirate against the government and Nato, as it was 10 years ago. The erosion of Taliban leadership authority has been every bit as profound as that affecting the Kabul government.
In some ways Afghanistan is rapidly reverting to a version of the factional conflict of the 1990s, before the rise of the Taliban. Armed groups are carving out territory, claiming to protect the population, while supplying themselves from the proceeds of extortion and taxation of the narcotics trade. They can choose to fly the flag of either the Islamic Emirate or Islamic State, but assert a higher degree of autonomy than was tolerated in the days of Taliban leaders Mullah Omar or Akhtar Mansoor.
Continued Pakistan covert support for the Haqqanis and other jihadis is certainly a factor in undermining Afghan security, but it is by no means the decisive factor. The spectacular success of the Afghan government in alienating its own population and much of the political class also contributes to the political and security crisis. There has been no progress in checking patronage within the security institutions, including the police. Popular complaints about corruption are as ubiquitous as ever.
But there are also grounds for hope, in both Darzab and Kabul. The conflict is deeply unpopular, and Afghans overwhelmingly desire an end to the war. Despite all the frustrations at the ineffectiveness of the government, expressed both by the demonstrators in Kabul and the Darzab representatives whose demands for supplies and reinforcements went unheeded, Afghans are still bound by a dream of national unity and a desire to have their fair share in a system centred on Kabul.
The legitimacy of the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate is rapidly eroding, now that it is factionalised and struggles to hold together Ishaqzai fighters, dependent on the Helmand drug trade, the Haqqani Network, dependent on Pakistan, and emergent warlords in other parts of the country. The notion that such a combine could be engaged in a holy jihad, or produce an alternative national government, becomes increasingly implausible. Therefore Afghans, including Taliban followers, realise that their only hope of peace and stability lies in reform of the Kabul government and some arrangement to bring the armed opposition in from the cold.
The US decision to commit an additional 4,000 troops to Afghanistan might appear an inadequate response to such a complex situation. However, it does signal that the centre will hold in Kabul, and that the US is still committed to seeing Afghanistan succeed. It would probably be unwise to bank on the Afghan government doing much more to stabilise the situation: history teaches that Kabul’s key role is to ensure that the police and troops are paid. One should also look to the role of local power brokers, those to whom communities naturally turn for protection.
If these power brokers refrain from opportunistic efforts to destabilise the government, and instead focus on co-ordinated efforts to defend their communities, then the Kabul-centred system will survive for now. But this still leaves the question of who could lead a re-energised peace process, which can reach out to all those Taliban who have been alienated by factionalisation of their movement and the abandonment of its idealism. There is little evidence to suggest that either the regional diplomatic initiatives which are so popular in Kabul, or the government’s internal mechanisms, have much credibility with the Taliban.
But the US generals who signed off on the troop commitment, and the Afghans who struggled to keep Islamic State out of Darzab, all know that their efforts will only make sense when someone gets on with the business of bringing the Taliban face to face with other Afghan political actors, to agree cessation of hostilities and then start work on political reforms.