Farhan Zahid, is PhD Student, Vrije University Brussels.
Herman Matthijs, is Professor, Vrije Universiteit Brussel & Universiteit Gent.
Jacques Verraes is Assistant to the Deputy Director General for the European Research Area, Innovation and International Relations at the European Commission.
The views expressed in this article are solely those of the authors and may not, under any circumstances, be attributed to or be regarded as representing an official position of the EU Commission.
According to David Galula's counterinsurgency doctrine, Afghanistan offers the ideal venue for an armed insurgency. It is landlocked, and mountainous. Its rugged terrain provides opportunities for asymmetric fourth generation warfare. Its multi-ethnic society provides a conduit for the kind of violent upheavals that its history witnessed since the loose confederation of territories came into being in 1747."[t]he ideal situation for the insurgent would be a large land-locked country shaped like a blunt-tipped star, with jungle-covered mountains along the borders and scattered swamps in the plains, in a temperate zone with a large and dispersed rural population and a primitive economy."
In his seminal work on suicide terrorism, Robert Pape empasized foreign occupation as the main cause that can spark off insurgency. It is the rallying ground and driving force that pushes nationals to launch suicide attacks. Pape would definitely agree that foreign occupation has always been the reason that Afghan people joined hands to oust foreigners.
The question now is whether sheer opportunism would be a sufficient ground to lift Taliban to power again? In other words: will the foreign occupant leave a power vacuum that would this constitute a real, credible and sufficient cause for Taliban to re-occupy its former position? Will the withdrawal of the US and its allies from Afghanistan announced for 2014 create a void, or has the incumbent Afghan government been sufficiently prepared to govern the country? What threat will Taliban under the leadership of their supreme leader Mullah Omar pose to the incumbent authority, and can it make a comeback or even retake Kabul?
History-smart observers may be tempted to draw a parallel with what happened in Vietnam in 1975 where the pretender to power made a come-back after the foreign occupant that had pushed it into submission left the country.
Think-tanks seem to outdo each other with bleak prospects for the sustainability of Afghanistan's recognized government. The recent report of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) highlighted the government`s weak organization and management capacities and an editorial of the New York Times painted a grim picture of the Afghan National Security Forces.
Inductive reasoning on the basis of eye-catching, negative news makes pessimism look like a rational option. It is indeed relatively easy to construe doom scenarios by pointing at widespread corrupt practices of the Karzai administration, maladministration and nepotism. Without countervailing forces they could indeed be the hook with which Taliban could make a successful throw to power. The coalition partners' lack of interest to invest in the socio-economic development of the Afghan economy can be tossed in to bolster that point of view, because such anemic factors were present in the past and did indeed pave the way for the Taliban insurgency. The 2011 report of Transparency International that ranked Karzai-ruled Afghanistan as the 180th most corrupt country out a list of 182 countries provides a convenient and hard-fact argument to underline the gravity of the situation.
This paper will add elements to the argumentative mix of factors that will hinder Taliban and mete them out to corruption and political disinterest as factors that will abet it.
Any explanatory model that sacrifices multi-variant input for prime-time simplicity will do wrong to the fact that Afghanistan is a highly polarized, complex, and heterogeneous society that has to cope with multi-ethnicity and multi-sectarian creeds. This does not just make analysis more challenging. It simply is the intricate gambit of Afghan political reality. It is probably also the cause that no government, that of Taliban included, has ever been able to consolidate its grip over all parts of the country, neither by attempting to rule it by centralized government, nor by administering it in a decentralized way.
The ambition of the authors is to demonstrate that the balance of odds and opportunities tips in favor of factors that will impede Taliban to march to Kabul. Although things may not be as good as they ideally should be, they are neither as disastrous as they used to be in post-Soviet Afghanistan.
The factors are bundled into ten reasons that each for itself, and taken together explain why it will be unlikely that Taliban will rise to power again.
Present-day Taliban overwhelmingly rely on hit-and-run techniques to fight conventional forces, or in a more formal language: they excel in asymmetric warfare.
Two phases can be distinguished in the emergence of Taliban militia. They coincide with the two phases of the Afghan Civil War: 1989-1992 and 1992-1996.
The first phase commenced in 1989 when the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan, and ended with 1992 victory of mujahedeen groups that toppled the pro-Soviet Afghan government under President Najibullah. This phase witnessed concerted efforts of all Afghan mujahedeen to oust the government.
The first test was the Jalalabad offensive (March-June 1989) which was important for two reasons.
In the first place it brought mujahedeen factions together in a single force with a common goal. In the second place it transformed the mujahedeen into a conventional force instead of the hitherto haphazard gathering of parties that fought a ten-year asymmetric war against the Soviets.
The mujahedeen were backed by the US, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia that provided it with the means to hasten the end of the Soviet-supported Kabul regime. The expectation was that the high-profile offensive that resulted in the fall of Jalalabad would obliterate the Kabul regime in a matter of days and permit the mujahedeen to occupy Kabul within no more than 6 months.
But things turned out differently: the battle of Jalalabad that followed the offensive ended with a humiliating defeat of the mujahedeen factions. Afghan government forces backed by the air force and armored divisions inflicted a crushing defeat on the seven main mujahedeen parties that had been involved in the war since 1979. This showed the importance of conventional forces in third generation warfare. The mujahedeen forces that were trained and equipped to wage an asymmetric war, could not bear the brunt of one-to-one, eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation in a typical battle field situation, and lost at Jalalabad.
It took mujahedeen forces three more years to enter Kabul and they only succeeded because the first president of Russian Federation, Boris Yeltsin, decided to stop supporting the Afghan communist government. The Russian policy decision ended the supply of arms, ammunition, spare parts and most importantly: fuel.
The cash-strapped Afghan government could not bear the expenses of conventional warfare any further. The fuel shortage also meant that it lost its air superiority. Afghan Army units subsequently started to disintegrate and defected to different Afghan mujahedeen groups. Among them were the pilots along with their fighter planes. Therefore, before the government could wage any battle for Kabul, it had already lost it to the mujahedeen.
Factors unrelated to any mujahedeen fighting prowess changed the situation and resulted in the fall of Kabul to the opposition of the pro-Soviet Government of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan.
This paved the way for the second phase of Afghan Civil War (1992-96) which would see the rise of Taliban and its occupation of Kabul in 1996. The endemic power struggle amongst mujahedeen groups during this period provided a propitious environment for Taliban to take over Kabul.
The main question here is whether or not the post 2014 situation will resemble the one that existed in 1989 or 1992? For the following reasons the answer to this question is negative.
First of all, mujahedeen groups, commonly referred to as the Peshawar Seven that operated in the 80-ies under the umbrella organization known as the Islamic Unity of Afghanistan Mujahedeen were better armed, trained, and equipped than present day ragtag Afghan Taliban groups, scattered around Afghanistan. None of todays` Taliban factions or parties is monolithic, left alone unified as to their command or operations.
Contrary to Taliban, the Afghan mujahedeen had a base in Peshawar, Pakistan to prepare their operations. Moreover although not unified, they had at least a single umbrella organization.
The Taliban insurgents are not or barely under a unified command. Their supreme commander Mullah Omar is not in direct contact with decentralized and autonomous Taliban field commanders and the only way of obeying his orders is through a tribal oath taking system on his name. The Taliban command structure is therefore by any measure much weaker than of the Afghan Security Force. The same is the case with the Taliban shuras or consultative, and decision-making councils that are believed to be based in the Pakistan-Afghan border regions, and that are occasionally only in formal contact with each other.
Another difference between mujahedeen and Taliban is the involvement of State actors in their training. This is linked to moment of their appearance on the scene. The mujahedeen emerged in the late 70-ies and early 80-ies, the Taliban around 1996. Taliban can be considered as second generation mujahedeen. Some Taliban are children of the First Afghan War (1979-89) during which current top figures like Mullah Omar and his cronies, had been lower level mujahedeen commanders that fought the Soviets.
The mujahedeen had received their knowledge and combat skills from Pakistani Special Forces` instructors (the Special Services Group) who had been trained at US Special Forces academy at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
They had learned to wage an asymmetric war against the Russians but with little overall success, and failed to damage the formidable Soviet war machine, even with Stinger missiles although it provided them some strategic edge.
Apart from battle skills, mujahedeen were unable to hold territories under their control for longer periods.
In armed insurgencies holding territories marks a significant advance because it allows insurgents to establish themselves, gain the confidence of the local population and rally for their support. In the Sri Lankan Civil War for example, that lasted for around 30 years, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) guerillas were able to consolidate their territorial gains in northern Sri Lanka for certain extended periods of time, and even to manage districts, police the areas, and establish courts across areas under their control. That allowed them to gain confidence of local people who considered them as the legitimate power.
Other cases of insurgencies against States that were able to impose their rule on a territory for a certain period are for instance the Shining Path of Peru, the Columbian FARC and the Somalian Al-Shabab that all were able to impose their rule on a territory for a certain period.
The case of Afghanistan is different. Neither the mujahedeen nor the Taliban were able to successfully hold territories even in areas where they were considered strong enough to exercise regular power.
How to explain this situation?
In the first place Taliban did not set up or offer an alternative governance model, but merely took advantage of corrupt practices and weaknesses of the incumbent Afghan regime. They yielded opportunistic strength that was based on dissatisfaction rather than an alternative for the population at large.
The second explanation is that Taliban are not trained to govern a territory. This situation was exacerbated by the fact that with the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001 there were no longer Al-Qaeda-run camps in Afghanistan. Some training facilities were available in semi-autonomous tribal areas of Pakistan, being run by Haqqani Network, but the quality of the training could not be compared with that of mujahedeen in the 1980-ies. A good example of inferior quality of the training of Taliban is the Battle of Pajwai, near Kandahar in 2006. Taliban insurgents fought conventionally but could not resist the firepower of Canadian forces and its offensive was repulsed.
Having regard to what precedes, the conclusion seems justified that present-day Taliban like its mujahedeen predecessor is unfit to take on a well-trained and well-equipped conventional force. Moreover Taliban is and remains ill-prepared to establish or maintain territories for an extended period of time.
David Kilcullen, advisor to the US Defense Department, and an expert on counter- insurgency, estimated the strength of Taliban insurgents around 40,000, including 10,000 hardcore fighters, whereas the rest could be described as part-time or reconcilable. This is less than 1 on 750 (or 3000 depending on the population count) Pashtuns being engaged in the cause. The number of mujahedeen fighting in the Afghan War period was estimated at 45,000 by 1983 and inflated by 1986 to 180,000.
The number of militants has to be seen as an insurgent / population ratio in a given area. During 11-year long Vietnam conflict (1964-75) for instance, the allies faced a formidable Vietcong force of roughly 500,000 insurgents which makes about 1 in 350 South Vietnamese being involved in the armed conflict, with safe havens in Cambodia, Laos and North Vietnam. Moreover, they benefitted from a perennial supply of arms and logistics from the Soviet Union. Another example is the case of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). When the Sri Lankan military were facing off the Tamil insurgent leader Vellabhai Prabhakarn, the latter was commanding a force of 15,000-18,000 militants which makes 1 on 122 of the Tamil population, with some small fleet of naval boats and two aircrafts in their air wing. Tamil Tigers were armed to the teeth and had special squads of suicide bombers (Black Tigers).
The Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan do not enjoy such grandeur. As explained earlier the Taliban are not monolithic and lack a formal command structure contrary to the Vietcong and the LTTE. Its support base areas are located in Pashtun inhibited regions of Afghanistan and bordering areas of Pakistan, populated with Pashtun tribes. The command structure is loose, commanders are locals, and the groups could better be defined as Taliban-inspired than as being part of the movement per se. The motivation of the locals groups that joined the Taliban movement is rather because of local grievances or tribal rifts than for fundamental issues. By and large local people join the insurgency with only one idea in mind: to drive out non-regional, that is to say: foreign forces from (regions in) Afghanistan as this has always been the norm in the Afghan culture.
Afghan insurgent groups that call themselves "Taliban" are thus often local and independent groups with their own decision-making structures ("councils") and power-base to enforce the decisions. Internally these "Taliban councils" have rudimentary organizational structures, and lack discipline to contain violence within their ranks. As regards cooperation with other, external, stakeholders the lack of a governance tradition, of strategy, and of infrastructure to conduct concerted action avenged itself also here. The uncoordinated outbursts of sporadic violence claims many victims, because of which more Afghan civilians have been killed by local Taliban insurgents than by foreign and Afghan security forces combined.
The Taliban militia emerged during mid-1990s. It started out as an indigenous and, moreover, a local phenomenon. Only later the movement accepted logistical support and manpower from Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. It was primarily composed of ethnic Pashtuns of the southeastern provinces bordering Kandahar and nearby provinces, and was led by low-ranking Afghan War veterans such as Mullah Omar, Abdus Salam Zaeef, and Mullah Osmani.
Within no time their movement gained momentum because they could provide relative stability and order amidst the chaotic upheaval created by the warlords of mujahedeen factions. Their factional and ethnic infighting caused hundreds of thousands of Afghan civilians to flee whilst casualties were rising in the thousands. Alliances between these factions were unstable. The former mujahedeen militias of Gulbaden Hekmatyar and Ahmed Shah Masoud for instance, two of the Peshawar Seven that had fought for taking control of Kabul in 1992-93, formed on and off alliances with General Abdul Rasheed Dostum's Uzbek militia or with the Hazara militia.
In this turmoil, the Taliban gained support from the Afghan population because it was tired and wary of the ceaseless factional fighting and received financial aid from traders and merchants of that region.
Helped by popular support and logistic supplies the Taliban began its conquest of Pashtun dominated areas in southern and south-eastern Afghanistan that welcomed Taliban as the newly raised Islamist militia.
The Taliban march to victory over the mujahedeen was swift, mainly because of an element of surprise that was fueled by circumstantial popular and unexpected logistic support. No mujahedeen leader had anticipated the emergence of a new militia that was able to oppose it, and certainly not the support of neighboring Pakistan.
Pakistan`s attitude was indeed opportunistic, and surprising since it had been the primary backer of the mujahedeen during the Afghan War in collusion with the US. Mujahedeen leaders in general and Hekmatyar in particular, could never have imagined that Pakistan would abandon them.
Taliban owed its success to their mobility provided by four-wheel drive Toyota Hilux trucks, that could be quickly deployed, and to the firepower provided by mounted light and heavy machine guns. Hundreds of those trucks were provided by the Saudi government as soon as the Taliban had proved their metal and were henceforth recognized as a potent actor by Saudi and Pakistani governments against militias that were supported by other external actors.
The post-2014 scenario does not offer a stage for such surprises. Popular clamor will not call out for a stabilizing factor because the security apparatus that the NATO will leave behind, albeit imperfect, will prevent the chaos that existed when Taliban rose to power.
The Taliban march to Kabul in 1996 did not face any opposition worthy of that name.
In the past, no militia, either former mujahedeen groups or paramilitaries led by former Afghan Army generals, gave any importance to the lightly armed Taliban. Today however, the situation is being pretty much analyzed by both incumbent Afghan government and the coalition forces. The post-2014 situation will thus offer a scene quite different from that of the Najibullah-ruled Afghanistan of 1992.
According to Thomas Ruttig, the current insurgency can be divided in six segments:
1. The Islamic Movement of the Taliban,
2. The networks of the Haqqani and Mansur families in the South-East,
3. The Tora Bora Jehad Front led by Anwar-ul-Haq Mujahed in Eastern region,
4. HIG (Hizb-e-Islami, Gulbaden Hekmatyar faction)
5. Salafi groups in Kunar and Nuristan provinces (Eastern region)
6. Inter-related local ex-mujahedin, and Criminal groups, adopting Taliban-like language and behavior
Considering the Taliban as a movement, it is composed of fragmented units, scattered across the Pashtun belt, i.e. the eastern and south-eastern Afghan provinces, without any formal command structure. Moreover the units are very diverse and divided, which leads occasional fierce gun battles between different Taliban groups and Hizb-e-Islami (Hekmatyar) in different parts of Afghanistan.
Little or no interaction exists between insurgent groups under the Taliban banner. Taliban and Hizb-e-Islami (Hekmatyar) have entertained hostile relations since the early days of Taliban (1994-96). Gulbaden Hekmatyar was a promising candidate for a high post in the post-Soviet Afghanistan set-up and a favorite of Pakistan and to some extent d Saudi Arabia.
Taliban units were not as dedicated and motivated to the cause and agenda of the core Taliban cadre: ousting foreign troops and toppling the Afghan government. Many local Taliban groups had embraced the Afghan government's 2007 Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) program, offered by the Office of the Afghan Peace Council for Taliban rank and file to surrender and join the incumbent political set up.
Set Jones, Afghan analyst at the Rand Corporation, concluded in his study of 36 former Taliban fighters under the DDR program that three factors contributed to its success. In the first place perception of the Taliban fighters that the Government Forces were winning at national and local levels, in the second coercion in the implementation of the programme; and finally, in the third, recognition of local grievances. According to Jones, Afghan Taliban capitalized on the same factors in their conquest of Afghanistan during mid-1990s. The same factors could today still be applied by policy makers.
One report mentioned that some 5000 Taliban fighters joined and were rehabilitated under the said DDR program. Before his assassination in 2011, Afghan High Peace Council president Burhan Uddin Rabbani was able to develop contacts with reconcilable Taliban groups, and to forge ties with former Afghan Taliban leadership. Among those that became part of the peace process were Arsala Rehmani, Habibullah Fawzi, Sayeedur Rehman Haqqani, and Faqir Mohammad. Some of those leaders got elected in parliamentary elections and became members of both upper and lowers houses of the Afghan parliament.
Apart from defections, political engagement, relinquishment of arms, and joining the High Peace Council, an important number of high-profile and experienced Taliban leaders were either killed or captured during the last 11 years of fighting. The lack of able leadership that will or can fight for the Taliban cause will have a serious impact on post-2014 perspectives.
Soviets counter-insurgency strategies were ruthless. Thousands of Afghan civilians lost their lives as a result of indiscriminate Soviet bombings. In fact Soviets had caused their own defeat by making Afghans rise against them and their puppet Afghan communist regime. During the 10-year Soviet occupation, the strategy was to drive out a population that was deemed to harbour anti-government sentiments. The CIA-ISI-GID alliance took full advantage of that situation that was entirely of Soviet making and recruited thousands of insurgents from the refugee camps.
During the last 11-years however, we see no such deliberate killing sprees. Certainly there have been incidents where hundreds of Afghan civilians lost their lives in bombings but there was no mass exodus of refugees to neighboring countries. The Soviet strategy was doomed from day one and so was the communist regime that did not by any means try to win the hearts and minds of the population. Recalling the Afghan War of 1980s, Olga Oliker describes the response to the excesses of the Soviet forces' as follows: "Massive and systematic human rights violations by Soviet troops, robberies, inappropriate use of force, destruction of homes, and desecration of mosques were contributing to popular antagonism."
The US has fared much better, because the counter-insurgency (COIN) strategy had not as its object or effect to exasperate the Afghan population. First of all the reason to invade Afghanistan was different from the one of the Soviets that was inspired by geopolitical considerations. The US sought to destroy Al-Qaeda and its host Taliban regime for their involvement in the 9/11 attacks. Furthermore, the raison d`être of the prolonged presence of US and allied forces in Afghanistan was to keep it out of Al-Qaeda`s tentacles. From the beginning the US and coalition partners were reluctant to stay on and kept a light footprint for many years. The US troop level starting from 10,000 in 2002 gradually rose to 68,000 by 2009. It was only after the resurgence of Taliban that the surge initiative increased levels close to 100,000. Coalition partners also contributed another 50,000 troops. In 2001 the US policy was to defeat Al-Qaeda and destroy its safe havens in Afghanistan. When the Taliban regime refused to surrender known members of the Al-Qaeda leadership, it became henceforth target of US attacks.
It took several years before the coalition partners (27 countries) decided to invest in nation-building projects in Afghanistan. As for any comprehensive COIN strategy, roles had to be identified for non-governmental, supra-national, and civil society organizations, as well as for the private sector. The coalition partners initiated projects like Provincial Reconstruction Teams in Afghan provinces as a matter of public diplomacy. The UN, Chinese and Indian governments and several multi-national corporations invested in many socially relevant fields, from education to clearance of landmines and from the judiciary to investment banking.
The current US COIN strategy is based on ‘shape, clear, hold, build, and transfer.' By August 2012, the US and coalition partners transferred 75 percent of Afghan territory to the newly built-up Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). The withdrawal timetable demands (as per Lisbon Summit) foreign forces to stop being operational by the end of 2013 and withdraw all forces by the end of 2014. During the Chicago Summit it pledges were made by the US and its allies to aid the Afghan government with an annual 4.1 billion for the next 10 years (2014-24) in order to keep it operational. The decision is crucial and it clearly shows that the policy-makers are well aware of past Soviet mistakes.
The two strategies could be analyzed from a different angle: the number of civilian and combatant deaths as a consequence of the military intervention.
According to Nader Nadery, an Afghan analyst on the subject, "More than a million civilians died as Soviet forces propping up the government of Babrak Karmal waged a massive war against anti-communist mujahedeen forces... There was indiscriminate mass bombardment of villages for the eviction of mujahedeen,....civilian casualties are not at all comparable."
The Soviets and their allied Afghan military losses were huge in comparison with those of the US and its allies. During 9-year conflict, the Soviets lost 13,310 troops whereas the US and allies lost 3,000 troops during 11-years of warfare.
The situation that the US will leave behind is therefore is much less susceptible to be exploited by Taliban propaganda against the Karzai government, and is unlikely to find a population that is willing to act to take revenge.
The Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan got most of its support from Pashtun belt. "Most of the Taleban are indeed Pashtuns. This reflects patterns of ethnicisation that emerged during the civil wars between the late 1970s and 2001. As a result, it is justified to call the Taleban a (predominantly) Pashtun movement. But they are not ‘the movement of the Pashtuns' representing as they do only a minority of Afghanistan's largest ethnic group." 
Pashtun follow the Pashtunwali code which encompasses certain common tribal norms and values. Since the Taliban insurgents are predominantly Pashtuns they have taken full advantage of the culture and language practiced in Pashtun dominated areas of Afghanistan. The Pashtun ethnic group amounts to 42 percent of the Afghan population and spreads over southern and south-eastern provinces with some pockets in the north. Other ethnic groups in Afghanistan are Tajiks (27 %), Uzbeks (9 %), and Hazaras (9%) that are some of the fiercest opponents of Taliban and have not forgotten the way they were treated during the 5-year Taliban rule. The Pashtuns benefited from the five year Taliban rule (1996-2001) but it created on the other hand a trust-deficit in the supporting Pashtun community and other ethnic groups. During the current insurgency the Taliban have once again been able to get reasonable support from the Pashtun community. Other ethnicities are aware of this on-going relationship and are quite concerned about the possible repercussions for them in post-2014 scene. They have already started to seek support for Iran, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan to ensure their future as well as their survival.
Another question is about the reliability of support emanating from the Pashtun community; and whether the Islamist insurgency serves the Pashtun cause.
Even though the supportive Pashtun Community represents a large portion of the Afghan population, there are more [source needed] who support stability in Afghanistan and reject the Taliban version of Deobandi-Wahabi Islam. The number of Pashtuns on the payroll of the Afghan Security forces and of other civil institutions is considered to be in proportion with Pashtun demographic strength. Simply put, Taliban seem to ignite Pashtun nationalist feelings, and a significant proportion appears to sympathize with their cause, but when Taliban try to impose their harsh version of Islam, the support base is not substantial.
Michael Semple, a research fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy in Harvard Kennedy School, describes Pashtun dominated areas as primary recruitment centers for Taliban insurgents. Bushra Gowhar, a staunch opponent of Taliban and leader of Pashtun dominated Pakistani political party Awami National Party says, "Not all Pashtuns are Taliban....We are Pashtuns too. Taliban is a mindset. You have Punjabi Taliban too."
The level of Pashtun support can be gauged from the number of causalities of coalition troops fighting Taliban in Pashtun dominated southern and southeastern provinces of Helmand (819 killed), Kandahar (432), Kunar (168), Paktika (130), Zabul (101), Wardak (101), Ghazni (90), Khost (44) and Nangarhar (43).
The fact of the matter is that Taliban capitalized on serious Pashtun grievances for which the US was held accountable in the garb of ethno-nationalism. Examples of such instances are the harsh treatment of overly Pashtun Taliban prisoners at the hands of Tajik/Uzbek-dominated Northern Alliance during Operation Enduring Freedom, the under-representation of Pashtun in government institutions caused by the Karzai administration, illegal seizures of Pashtun lands in northern Afghan provinces by other ethnicities, removal of Taliban era Pashtun officials from posts in the new set-up, and lack of fair trial of Taliban combatants by the incumbent government. Addressing Pashtun grievances is essential to reverse Taliban momentum.
Another factor that influences the possibility of Taliban to rise to power is the degree of complacency of the geopolitical neighborhood. During their 5-year period in power, Taliban annoyed each and every neighboring State, because of a number of deliberate political choices that the Taliban made. Two examples are mentioned here.
In the first place they provided safe havens to Pakistani sectarian terrorists, belonging to Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ or Army of Jhangvi). This irritated Pakistan, which was the most supportive of Taliban of all countries and one of the three that recognized the regime in Kabul.
In the second place, they sheltered Russian and Chinese Islamist dissidents and provided bases for Uzbek and Tajik Islamist (Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and Islamic Jihad Union) to launch insurgencies against their States of origin which naturally upset the latter.
Afghanistan lies in a neighborhood that puts a high existential pressure on the government of each State. External actors have been on their guard over the future political set up of Afghanistan.
Central Asian States are concerned because of dreaded growing Islamist militancy within their borders. Iran, that considers itself as the custodian of the Shia community across the globe, is watchful because it could not tolerate an anti-Shiite regime back in Afghanistan.
Russians have their own apprehensions about the post-2014 scenario because the reinstatement of an Islamist government would likely encourage power aspirations of Muslim insurgents in the Muslim-majority Russian states of Chechnya, Ingushetia, Dagestan and Tataristan. The two brutal Chechen Wars (1994-96 and 1999-2009) are still fresh in memory and the numerous Islamist incursions in Dagestan, Ingushetia and Tataristan flag that the germs of revolt continue to smolder under the surface. For Russian defense analysts a Taliban takeover would be similar to reopen a barely closed Chechen chapter. The sense of trepidation lingers on because the past close ties between Al-Qaeda and Chechen Islamists during the time of Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. Thousands of Chechen Islamists received training in Al-Qaeda-run training camps in Afghanistan during that period. Furthermore, the Chechen Islamist leaders Ibn al-Khattab and Shamil Basayev had maintained close relationships with Al-Qaeda.
Taliban back in Kabul would mean the reopening of Al-Qaeda run camps to train for instance aspiring Chechen Islamist insurgents and the risk of a third Chechen war. Having learned from two previous expensive wars, both in terms of human (5000 soldiers killed in first Chechen War and 3725 in Second) and material losses, Moscow does not want another Islamist government back in Kabul.
But Indians may be the most concerned. Competing with Pakistan's $300 million, Indian investment in Afghan development projects has hitherto, reached the $1.2 billion mark. It is currently involved in the construction of highways for new trade routes to Afghanistan, in cooperation with Iran, via the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas.
The Indian presence in Afghanistan also serves the wider geo-political motive of checking Pakistan by applying pressure on its government. A firm Indian footing in Afghanistan is indeed quite disturbing for Islamabad. Time and again the Pakistani government has accused Indian consulates in the Afghan cities of Heart and Jalalabad to ignite nationalist insurgencies in the Pakistani province of Baluchistan at the Afghan border along the British-drawn Durand Line (1893), the current Pakistan-Afghanistan border that has always been a bone of contention between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Even the relatively Pakistan-dependent Taliban has refused to recognize this line. Islamabad is concerned that growing Indian involvement in Afghanistan, coupled with pending border issues could once again become a headache for Pakistani policy-makers. Albeit these concerns, a cash-starved Pakistan is in no position to pursue any future policy objectives in Afghanistan, contrary to India that does not face the same limitations.
Chinese have invested heavily in the Aynak copper mines south of Kabul and in the exploration of oil fields located in northern oil-rich provinces Sar-e Pul and Faryab, which are estimated to hold around 87 million barrels. In other sectors of the Afghan economy the level of Chinese investment would increase after 2014.
All factors taken together appears to give strong indications that Afghanistan's neighbors would not be willing to let Taliban get to power again as they did in the 80-ies and 90-ies.
Afghan Taliban have managed to inflict considerable damage to allied forces. According to one study, more than 2000 US and allied soldiers have lost their lives during last 11-year conflict and 8,756 Afghan National Security forces killed in Taliban attacks. But Taliban losses were also quite significant. It is estimated that 10,000 to 20,000 Taliban insurgents so far have fallen in the same period.
Civilian casualties stir emotions of revenge that are ready to be directed against an appropriate target. After the fall of Kabul in December 2001, the Taliban thus directed the ire of the people to the US Special Forces by exploiting the highhandedness of anti-Taliban Northern Alliance troops, mainly composed of Tajik militiamen against civilian population in the Taliban stronghold of the Pashtun-dominated provinces. Civilian casualties as a result of allied bombing provided Taliban further solid grounds for recruitment. They were also able to muster sympathies and a stable supply of fresh recruits from victims' families and peer groups.
The hundreds of Taliban prisoners, who were slaughtered by Uzbek militia under the command of Rashid Dostum, added to the injury caused by air strikes on Pashtun targets that resulted in heavy collateral losses. Pashtun felt that they were the victim of ethnic pressure and the target of foreign occupational forces. The Qala-i-Jangi massacre of 400 Taliban prisoners reinvigorated this feeling and Taliban fully capitalized on it. At other occasions civilian casualties and incidents of Koran Burning at the Bagram base, and desecration of bodies of Taliban fighters by US soldiers fueled by exaggerated Taliban propaganda, made Taliban recruitment efforts in Pashtun-dominated provinces rather easy.
Well-coordinated guerilla attacks by Taliban caused huge material losses to allied forces in Afghanistan. In one recent attack at Camp Bastion in the Helmand province for instance, the Taliban insurgents managed to breach the security barriers and destroyed 8 Harrier fighter jets stationed at the base, costing more than $200 million in losses. In several well-planned prison breaks the Taliban were able to release hundreds of inmates, including several commanders.
The Taliban attacks touched its zenith during 2006-09. But the policy of the surge that was inaugurated by President Obama reverted the Taliban momentum and forced insurgents to retreat from urban centers in southern and south-eastern provinces.
Operation Moshtarek (Battle of Marjah) and other related military operations in the southern provinces provided the allied forces (US, Afghan and British) a considerable advantage that drove Taliban out from their strongholds. These operations did not only destroy Taliban bases, and clipped their influence in poppy growing areas in and around the Helmand valley, but also evaporated the cash flow that supported its operations. Simply put, the surge produced pretty much the desired result.
One notable achievement of the rebuilding of Afghanistan has been the rearing of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF): the Afghan National Army (ANA) and the Afghan National Police (ANP). Admitted, both institutions have been suffering from setbacks (desertions, absence without leave authorization, low-quality training, high illiteracy rate, corruption, highhandedness, green-on-blue attacks, and occasional defections) but despite these the ANSF appeared to be able to establish itself as a force that is able to withstand the Taliban conventional assaults .
The bigger picture thus allows a moderately positive, we dare: almost hopeful, assessment for the future. With a 200,000 strong ANA and 150,000 ANP the Afghan forces took control of 75 percent of Afghan populated areas and are able to conduct independent operations against Taliban insurgents.
The impact of this build up is felt in Taliban ranks. It is developing infiltration strategies to launch so-called green-on-blue attacks that touched high levels in 2012. ANP's highhandedness and corruption are important issues that Taliban successfully capitalized on. ANA has fared much better in this regard.
ANSF must be fully ready to assume security in the course of 2014. NATO forces intend to end operations by the end of 2013 and by the end of 2014 the withdrawal should be complete. In the words of NATO secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen:"Our strategy is to build up the capacity of the Afghan security forces and gradually hand over to them lead responsibility for the security across the country. Soon we will have reached the goal of 352,000 Afghan security forces. And they are already taking lead responsibility in areas where 75% of the Afghan population lives.
Our timeline is to complete this transition by the end of 2014. At that time, our current ISAF combat mission will end. From 2015 it will be followed by a NATO-led mission to train, advice and assist Afghan security forces."
Another key achievement is National Directorate of Security (NDS), the Afghan premier intelligence agency that has been quite successful in averting some Taliban attacks. Established in 2002, the NDS has developed into a full-fledged organization with 15,000-30,000 active duty personnel. Many of the military operations and night raids are conducted on the basis of intelligence provided by NDS. The NDS network has widened during the last 10-years and the thwarted insurgent attacks are ample proof of its effectiveness.
A stressful situation is the ever present risk of green-on-blue attacks. As of April 10, 2013, a total of 76 of such attacks took place, peaking in 2012 which 44 attacks causing 61 deaths in Coalition troops. As a consequence the training program is slowing down and at times foreign governments have pulled out military trainers involved in training of the ANSF. The number of coalition casualties increased in green-on-blue attacks from 1 percent in 2008 to 15 percent in 2012 which affected the morale of ANSF personnel partnered with coalition forces.
Recruitment targets are still meeting the demand notwithstanding the infiltrations by Taliban in the ranks of Afghan security forces, causing additional trouble to operational capabilities.
President Karzai has repeatedly expressed confidence that the 352,000-strong ANSF will be able to take full control even before the planned withdrawal of coalition forces.
According to William Byrd, an expert on Afghan affairs at the US Institute of Peace, "[t]he most that probably can be hoped is that the army continues to hold Kabul and other major cities. It is not likely to ever become an effective counter-insurgency force."
According to David Galula, popular support comes always in a bell-shaped curve during insurgency, with a big bulge in the center preferring to stay neutral, and minorities on both sides of the bulge actively support one of warring sides. Thus, winning hearts and minds of the large, neutral section of the population is absolutely crucial. "If the insurgent manages to dissociate the population from the counter-insurgent, to control it physically, to get its active support, he will win the war because, in the final analysis, the exercise of political power depends on the tacit or explicit agreement of the population or, at worst, on its submissiveness."
The Taliban rule during the period 1996 to 2001 left nightmares behind, which continue to haunt the memories of the majority of the Afghan populace. Those five year were nothing less than hell for moderate Pashtun as well as for non-Pashtun ethnic minorities. The fact that a strong Kandahari lobby was calling the shots in all major decisions in Mullah Omar's kitchen cabinet was one reason that a number of high-level Taliban leaders defected to the Karzai administration after the fall of Taliban in late 2001.
The 2011 Asia Foundation survey of the Afghan people shows a plunging support for Taliban, and Afghans are indeed weary of the rising insecurity that it causes. Due to this, the maladministration and corruption of the Karzai administration does not seem to put off the Afghan population, of which only 29 percent were found sympathetic to Taliban. "The survey found that an overwhelming majority of Afghan adults, 82 percent, back reconciliation and reintegration efforts with insurgent groups. It said that the number of people who said they sympathized with the aims of Taliban had dropped to 29 percent compared to 40 percent last year and 56 percent in 2009."
It are not the Afghan government's corrupt practices but Taliban's ruthless past that even with such poor governance more Afghans (46 %) are satisfied and optimistic (40%) about future.
Before US forces' ‘surge' in Afghanistan in 2008, the Taliban insurgents were controlling most of the rural areas around Pashtun urban centers in southern and south-eastern Afghanistan. While controlling these areas the Taliban miserably failed to provide any concrete alternative to locals except that they were fighting to drive out foreign forces from Afghanistan, which works like magic from a historical perspective to muster support from local Afghans. But once the forces gone, the unpopularity of Taliban is likely to bar them from recruits, a power base, and popular acceptance.
Taliban faces sectarian issues within the Afghan society. The overall religious mindset in Afghanistan has been influenced by Al-Qaeda during the Taliban period, in particular because of the consistent Saudi involvement since the early days of Afghan War (1979-89).
The current religious-political bent of mind within Taliban ranks is more tilted towards Saudi-Wahabi (Sunni) school of thought, blending with Deobandism, the South Asian version of Wahabism.
Several sectarian minorities are weary of a Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. Ethnic Hazaras (9 % of the Afghan population) are not only non-Pashtun but also Shia. The majority of ethnic Tajiks are adherents of Sufi-Sunni Islam, and Uzbeks of the north are from both Shia and Sufi communities. Uzbeks fiercely fought the Taliban invasion of the north and it took Taliban years before their final capture of the city of Mazar-e-Shariff in 1998.
Memories of massacres of Uzbeks and Hazaras by Taliban during battles of Mazar-e-Shariff and Hazara Jat, added with betrayals and harsh treatment of Uzbek and Hazara prisoners by the same is not easily forgotten. Currently only the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and its offshoot, the Islamic Jihad Movement (IJU) are supportive of Taliban but a great number of their fighters are not native Afghans but dissident Islamists of Central Asian States that were not involved in the Afghan war .
The sectarian divide in Afghanistan is mostly brushed aside by policy experts because of already present ethnic differences. It would be a dire mistake not to factor it in when considering the post-withdrawal socio-political set up of Afghanistan.
Sectarian clashes are on the rise in the west-Pakistani province of Baluchistan (bordering with the Kandahar, Nimroz and Helmand provinces of Afghanistan) between Sunni (Pashtuns) and Shia (Hazaras), and there are reasons to believe that such clashes will continue to emerge in post-2014 Afghanistan. Another matter of concern is the strong presence of Al-Qaeda in eastern Kunar and Nuristan provinces.
Having regard to the sectarian violence in Iraq, al-Qaeda and its affiliates and to some extend Taliban may be able to put salt in the wounds of the sectarian divide in Afghanistan.
The multi-sectarian nature of the Afghan society counter balances attempts to monopolize power. It does not only pose problems for any ruling regime but also for Taliban insurgents themselves to muster support for their ambitions to return to their former position of power in the Afghan society. The haunting memories of past atrocities committed by Taliban will further play against it.
Any reflection on a post-withdrawal scenario, quite naturally speculates about Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. Stakes are high. Since 2002, more than 500 billion USD has been invested in Afghanistan by coalition countries. A large part of this amount was spent on the military costs of Operation Overseas Contingency, and on the build up of the Afghan security forces. The problematic part is that not much has gone to civil development projects.
Thus, keeping Afghan forces functional was the pivotal concern for the US, followed by the development of Afghan institutions. Money started pouring in with the launch of the ‘surge' in 2009 which period also marked the renewal of interest in Afghanistan after the end of war in Iraq.
In both NATO summits on Afghanistan (Lisbon and Chicago) its participants decided to continue taking measures beyond 2014 to sustain the ANSF and pledged a hefty 40 billion USD package for the next 10-years. The Chicago Summit declared: "The preliminary model for a future total ANSF size, defined by the International Community and the Government of Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, envisages a force of 228,500 with an estimated annual budget of US$4.1billion, and will be reviewed regularly against the developing security environment."
A substantial financial footprint is essential to maintain a sustainable Afghan security. We want to believe that lessons have been learned from the disastrous Russian 1992 withdrawal, when President Boris Yelstin withdrew all logistical and financial support from Afghanistan, crippling an already vulnerable country and leaving it without defense against the invading mujahedeen forces.
In the light of the above mentioned ten reasons that make a return to power of Taliban all but likely, the NATO strategy has a fair chance to work.
Although the Afghan Taliban remains a formidable guerilla force and a possible insurgent contender which poses risks for international terrorism, our conclusion is that the fall of Kabul to Taliban is unlikely.
Any scenario that comes to a contrary conclusion includes a concomitant renewed Al-Qaeda threat. Al-Qaeda relied heavily on Taliban and this would, in our view, not be different now. If Taliban would return in power, Al-Qaeda could revive its dreams of getting back lost safe havens in Afghanistan, which are essential for its survival and future course of action.
The NATO strategy is based on a 352,000 strong Afghan National Security Force, which is bold and ambitious, given the current nature of casualties, desertions, and the low quality of training. But whatever the size and operational abilities of the ANSF, it will be formidable enough to confront ragtag Taliban groups at conventional fronts. With air support and foreign advisors present in Afghanistan, the Afghan security forces would even fare better after the withdrawal, since they will then be on their own and fight for their own survival with a renewed will.
According to one Afghan War era study, the Soviet-backed Afghan Security Forces fought well when the Soviets were not around. When embedded in the Soviet forces, the Afghans never had to plan, organize and lead operations, but when their Soviet mentors got out of the picture they became more effective.
During past 11 years Al-Qaeda has been able to launch international terrorist attacks through its affiliates. It was not instrumental in planning, financing, and executing a counter-insurgency operation in Afghanistan in the manner of the 9/11 attacks. The dismemberment of its bases and the lack of safe havens for planning and training the terrorists were the main cause of its power reduction The biggest challenge for US and its allies will be to maintain their vigilance for possible Taliban resurgence and to exert influence to prevent this from happening, to contain new terrorist threats, as was for instance the motive of Operation New Dawn (war in Iraq).
Afghanistan must remain on our radars, the screens watched, and signals dutifully interpreted. Doing so we can avoid that a situation re-emerges that would create fresh threats and give Al-Qaeda and its affiliates a chance to train and plan attacks.