Moving Forward in Afghanistan: The Taliban

Though 2001 marked the end of the Taliban’s tyrannical rule over Afghanistan, their influence has never fully ceased. Twelve years later, the Sunni Islamic extremist group has considerable influence over Afghanistan’s post-war future. As American troops withdraw and power is handed over to the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), the question remains: Will the Taliban continue down the path of violence and insurgency, or will they attempt to be part of the political process?

Insurgency on the rise

On April 3rd, 2013, Taliban insurgents attacked a government compound and in the process, killed 10 Afghan soldiers and 34 civilians. Nine days later, in Kunar Province, all 13 soldiers working at an Afghan National Army (ANA) outpost were killed in another Taliban attack. [1] Indeed, the violence in Afghanistan this year has seen a sharp increase. According to the United Nations’ semi-annual report on civilian casualties in the war in Afghanistan, the number of Afghans killed or wounded in the first half of this year rose twenty-three percent from the same period last year. Between January and June, 1,300 civilians were killed and 2,500 were injured. [2] The Taliban and other insurgency groups are responsible for seventy-five percent of civilian casualties, which often result from attacks on Afghan forces. [2] Furthermore, suicide attacks average 150 per year since 2009. [3] However, despite the group’s resilience, it is extremely unlikely that it should regain the power it once had over Afghanistan. Rather, its leaders hope to consolidate footholds in the south and the east to undermine both the established government and the American troops that will stay behind to provide support for Afghan forces. [3] In fact, data provided by the Afghanistan NGO Safety Office demonstrates that the focus of the war has changed to match this goal. The primary battlegrounds have shifted to areas of the country that previously had been minimally affected by the war. These parts tend to have scare foreign military forces on the ground, presenting a challenge for Afghan security forces, which now must move into new areas. As the NGO report stated, “‘Until the Afghan national security forces demonstrate an ability to ‘hold’ deteriorating provinces where they stand alone, they cannot be viewed as successfully filling the gap left by international military forces.’” [1]

Afghan security forces gaining power

Despite such challenges, however, Afghan security forces appear strong. On June 18th, Afghanistan’s president Hamid Karzai and the NATO secretary-general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, announced that the ANSF had taken control of the fight against the Taliban. The ANSF has joined forces with the Afghan National Army (ANA) in the last two years and demonstrated great progress. The ANSF clearly controls the large cities, in which a significant portion of the population lives and the main lines of communication are located. Additionally, NATO has declared that the ANSF’s special forces are not only highly competent but are also able to conduct complex operations. Nevertheless, if the Afghan forces are to succeed, they will need plenty of help. The ANA still needs “help with military advice, intelligence collection, logistics (a weak point), air support, counter-IED (improvised explosive devices) capabilities and medical evacuation,” according to The Economist. [4] They will need fuel and ammunition, air support, and help with evacuations and detecting IEDs. [5] Such much-needed support has always been slated to come from an enduring American force in Afghanistan. Yet, recent events call the future of such provisions into question.

Controversy over peace talks

In June, peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government in Doha, Qatar were announced. However, that same month, the Taliban raised their flag over their newly opened office in Doha, claiming the title of embassy of the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.” Unsurprisingly, President Karzai did not react positively to the news and he canceled the talks. [6] However, he also blamed the United States for supposedly trying to take control of a peace process that he believes should be Afghan-led. Afraid the US would try to come to an agreement with the Taliban, which does not negotiate with governments it views as illegitimate (the Karzai government, for example), he consequently suspended negotiations over the bilateral status-of-forces agreement (SOFA). This agreement is necessary to provide a legal basis for foreign troops staying in Afghanistan after 2014. [4] Frustrated by Karzai’s actions, the Obama administration has since implied that the possibility of no troops remaining, the “zero option”, is a real one. Unfortunately, such measures could seriously undermine the interests of both Karzai and Obama. Without the SOFA, the Afghan forces would sorely lack the stability they need, dampening morale and encouraging the Taliban. It would not be too dramatic to say that failure to keep troops in Afghanistan could potentially lead to civil war. Such were the consequences when the lack of a similar agreement in Iraq ended in the early departure of all American forces, resulting in bloody sectarian violence. [6] Both Obama’s and Karzai’s reactions are somewhat understandable, however, as each is clearly pandering to his political base. Americans are weary of war, and since many do not understand the nuances of the situation in Afghanistan, they simply want their troops to come home. Karzai, on the other hand, aware his time in office might be limited, is scrambling to “preserve what he sees as his legacy”: for example making sure he and his family can stay in Afghanistan after he leaves office. Having not yet found a successor, he may invent a political crisis in order to push back elections. [6] One thing is certain, however: Obama must leave a force behind to ensure Afghanistan’s success and minimize potentially devastating consequences.

The “New” Taliban?

The raising of the Taliban flag over the Doha office is just one of the mixed messages the insurgents are sending regarding their role in Afghanistan’s future. Their affront to Karzai could have been an attempt to try to attain acknowledgement as an alternative to the current government.[7] Indeed, there have been indicators of a more moderate Taliban. According to the Congressional Research Service, the advisors to Mullah Omar, the leader of the Taliban, are realists who understand that the group will not endure without international legitimacy, and have indicated they are open to compromise with the West. [3] Furthermore, the Taliban recently declared they “‘would not allow anyone to threaten the security of other countries from the soil of Afghanistan.’” [7] The statement is hopefully the first sign of a public break with Al Qaeda. Moreover a statement released prior to the opening of the Doha office announced that the office would allow the Taliban “‘to improve its relations with countries around the world through understanding and talks,’” and made mention of potential future meetings with Afghan officials. [7] Yet, the raising of the flag came across as not only a direct slight to Karzai and a block to effective communication, but also as an indication that the Taliban is not willing to share power. Sure enough, the group announced at the end of July that it would not be participating in the presidential election next year. Mullah Omar released a statement saying that the Taliban would continue to attack foreign forces in Afghanistan and would only recognize a fully Islamic government. [3] However, the Taliban have evolved somewhat in their views. Their attempt to distance themselves from Al Qaeda is significant, and they have also recognized the importance of a modern education to accompany a religious one. Furthermore, Mullah Omar has encouraged his followers to avoid civilian casualties in their fight against coalition and Afghan forces. Nevertheless, civilian casualties continue to rise, to the Taliban’s frustration. [8] In May, a suicide bombing on the International Committee of the Red Cross, a group the Taliban have recognized for its work in Afghanistan, prompted the group’s leaders to release a statement declaring that “‘Those people who harm the commoners by misusing the name of mujahid or kidnap people for ransom or follow personal goals under the name of jihad, they are neither mujahedeen nor belong to the Islamic Emirate.’” [8] Hopefully, the Taliban will continue to become more moderate as they modernize.

The role of the Taliban in Afghanistan’s future remains uncertain, to say the least. Their rhetoric appears to contradict itself and change focus frequently. Over the past few months, they have indicated openness to negotiation with the West and Afghan officials, and then proceeded to insult President Karzai and declare that they will neither support a non-Islamic government nor the presence of Western forces in Afghanistan. President Obama’s and President Karzai’s own political agendas only further muddle the issue. What is abundantly clear, however, is that the road to peace in Afghanistan will be a long and tumultuous one. Afghanistan is still extremely fragile and it must not fall into a bloody civil war similar to the one in Iraq. With any luck, Obama, Karzai, and Omar will recognize the urgency of the situation and work to make communication a priority. The Afghanis should not hold their breath.

[1] http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/20/world/asia/study-finds-sharp-rise-in-attacks-by-afghan-taliban.html
[2] http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=207209844
[3] http://www.cfr.org/afghanistan/taliban-afghanistan/p10551
[4] http://www.economist.com/news/asia/21579874-peace-afghanistan-distant-not-impossible-talking-taliban
[5] http://www.economist.com/news/asia/21582051-security-forces-are-just-strong-enough-contain-taliban-holding-their-ground
[6] http://www.economist.com/news/leaders/21582008-hamid-karzai-and-barack-obama-should-stop-playing-games-afghanistans-future-why-zero-not
[7] http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/19/world/asia/taliban-ready-for-peace-talks-to-end-afghan-war.html?pagewanted=all
[8] http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/07/world/asia/leader-says-taliban-will-sit-out-2014-afghan-election.html

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