World
Andrei Akulov
September 27, 2013
© Photo: Public domain

With ISAF to leave Afghanistan in 2014, the Taliban exercising control over large portions of the country against the backdrop of raging civil war is quite a probable scenario. The popularity of Taliban is growing because of huge unemployment, drugs, poverty and corruption. Mullah Omar controls military operations in southern Afghanistan, specifically in the Helmand, Zabul, and Kandahar provinces. These areas make up the significant majority of Taliban operations in Afghanistan. The executive leadership, known as the Quetta Shura Taliban (QST), is reportedly based out of Quetta, Pakistan. Taliban Commander Gulbuddin Hekmatyar controls military operations in much of northern Afghanistan, mainly in the Kunduz, Baghlan, Kunar, Kipsa, and Laghman provinces. Though not officially part of the Taliban, the Haqqani Network operates Taliban operatives in the regions around Kabul… Military operations take place in Khost, Wardak, and Logar, among other provinces. Attacks and operations across the border, in the FATA regions of Pakistan, also have heavily influence and overlap with Afghan Taliban operations.

The Taliban is a long way from being defeated and has been growing in strength. The US troop surge of 2010 stopped the Taliban's momentum in the south, but it brought about no big gains in the center and the north. The US has actually lost any chances to gain peace, so it is holding talks with Taliban on what is often called «surrender terms». 

True, Afghanistan is not a «safe haven» for al-Qaeda at present. Its strength in the country has been reduced, but it is still very much there. The first half of 2013 showed a rise of 24% compared with 2012 in civil casualties. The ISAF territorial gains are by no means irreversible. Since 2001 insurgents have killed more than 3,000 coalition troops. On and off members of the Afghan security forces turn their arms on coalition troops. At least 60 NATO servicemen were killed in such attacks last year while many more Afghan security force members have been killed by their colleagues, in so-called «green-on-green» attacks. U.S. military action and Pakistani arrests have put pressure on Mullah Omar, but experts say the Taliban is biding its time, believing that though it might not be able to pursue a monopoly of power after NATO's departure, it can consolidate footholds in the south and east. 

The question of whether the trajectory will be relatively stable or whether Afghanistan is on a path to a renewed civil war has been a subject of vigorous and inconclusive debate. While skepticism coexists with great hope for the future of post-2014 Afghanistan, many uncertainties remain. Notably, there is a combination of factors poised by different degrees to shape whether Afghanistan will slide back to a crisis or whether it will sustain itself on a stable enough path. Those factors include: a level of overall international assistance and the sustainability of the Afghan National Security Force (ANSF), the outcome of the 2014 elections, the prospect of a political settlement, future of the insurgency and regional dynamics.

A March 2013 working paper by the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS) projects three likely outcomes: «a weak and divided state, a state that either devolves into regions controlled by power brokers or warlords, or one that comes under at least partial Taliban and extremist control». Anthony H. Cordesman of CSIS projects that the ultimate result may be an Afghanistan that fractures along ethnic, sectarian, and tribal lines. Toby Dodge of the International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS) forecasts that the Afghan president will likely have to embrace the rules of Afghan politics that existed prior to 1979 in which «the center returns to a mediating role between the regions». Brian Michael Jenkins of RAND Corporation forecasts: What eventually will happen, then, is not clear. Ideally, the Afghan government will survive the economic crisis; the country will elect a new government as it is scheduled to do in 2014 and will hold its own militarily, although probably not to the nation’s frontiers. The Taliban and the Haqqani Network will expand their area of influence, probably with assistance from Pakistan, while Afghan opponents of the Taliban and Pashtun domination will prepare their own defenses. The civil war will escalate, and in a worst-case scenario, Afghanistan will descend into chaos – a giant Somalia in the heart of Asia». According to British Commons cross-party defence committee’s chairman James Arbuthnot, experts who gave evidence to the committee concluded «there was a 50-50 chance of Afghanistan descending into civil war».

Russian expert Vyacheslav Belokrenitskiy, Deputy Director of the Institute of Oriental Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences, believes there two possible scenarios for the development of events after law enforcement powers are transferred to Afghan authorities. One scenario involves maintaining the current state architecture with Presidential and Parliamentary elections, economic growth and a reduction in the cultivation and production of narcotics. This can be described as a constructive scenario. The second (catastrophe) scenario assumes that attempts to maintain balance and stability in the state will fail, if not immediately after the transfer of power to the local authorities, then later, when the number of foreign troops and foreign assistance dwindles. At that point (some time after 2016-2017) a devastating fight for power could break out, leading to a Taliban resurgence and the fragmentation (and even disintegration) of the country. This worst-case scenario would threaten security and stability across Central Asia. The expert believes there is a possibility the potential refugees will flee Afghanistan, creating a belt of instability in the border areas. A worsening situation in South Asia and its potentially destabilizing effect in Central Asia pose a serious danger for Russia. Russia will seek to mitigate this instability, countering the military and political threats that arise, terrorism and religious extremism, and using bilateral mechanisms of cooperation and interaction in international structures such as the SCO and CSTО.

The upcoming withdrawal of NATO-led forces from Afghanistan can lead to development of situation following the Syrian scenario, Chief of CIS Counter-Terrorism Center, Police Colonel-General (three stars) Andrey Novikov said at the session of heads of counter-terrorism agencies of the CIS countries as part of the exercises «Ala-Too-Anti-Terror 2013» in Bishkek on September 25, 2013. The withdrawal of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan (ISAF) will inevitably lead to intensification of internal political struggle for power in the country. There probability is high that the turf hostilities will turn into an armed confrontation between different actors. That is what happened in Libya, Syria, and a number of other Middle Eastern states. The General also said that if the situation in Afghanistan goes out of control due to internal armed conflict, a flow of refugees is to be expected in northern provinces increasing the risk of armed gangs penetration and illicit arms trafficking from the country. According to Mr. Novikov, CIS states nationals, including natives from the North Caucasus and other Central Asia, take part in Syrian conflict as mercenaries, no exact figures are known. The concern expressed is fully justified, these people have accumulated great combat and terrorist activities experience to be used on the territories of the countries they come from, or other politically unstable states. 

 In May, Russia’s military intelligence agency, the GRU, said it expects the influence of the radical Islamist Taliban to grow in Afghanistan after international coalition forces are pulled out. GRU head Colonel-General (three stars) Igor Sergun said the situation in Afghanistan poses a «serious challenge to international stability» and the ISAF withdrawal could also increase the threat of terrorism and religious extremism. «A diversified terrorist network, including suicide bomber training camps has already been established in the country and the Taliban has close links with foreign terrorist structures whose militants, having gained combat experience in Afghanistan, could be sent to other hot spots across the world», he told an international security conference in Moscow. The situation could get even worse if those militants resume cooperation with al-Qaida and use force to establish «a global caliphate» from Morocco to Malaysia, he said. Sergun also commented on the situation in war-torn Syria, saying that radical groups will continue to impose their conditions on the way the country is run, relying solely on the use of force. That could provoke the country’s breakup, an increasing flow of refugees to neighboring countries and further destabilization of the situation, the GRU chief said. He also pointed to the growing number of supporters of the armed jihad from Europe within the Syrian opposition. «After they acquire practical combat experience they can be expected to return to their countries where they will be able to apply it on the European continent», said the General.

This September the Collective Security Council of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) passed a resolution on Syria and the situation around the country. Among other things the document reads that the CSTO member states are seriously concerned about the situation in Syria and around it as well as the situation in Afghanistan. Like in the case of Afghanistan, the member-states believe any international interference with the Syria conflict outside the UN Security Council would be illegal. The practical steps to address the Afghan situation include enhancing the military component of the organization, including the formation of the CSTO collective forces, and the step-by-step implementation of the CSTO’s response plan against threats and challenges that originate from Afghanistan and the Middle East, especially having Syria in mind. The priorities include tighter cooperation to enhance security at the external borders, the advancement of tight interaction between the Organization and the Council of border guard commanders of the CIS states and intensive joint combat training and preparation peacekeeping operations. Interaction between the Organization and other international and regional organizations is to be promoted. 

Addressing the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit on September 13, President Putin said: «We welcome the efforts of the Afghan government for the promotion of national reconciliation process and the preparation to the presidential elections in the country in 2014… The dialogue with the armed opposition can have a positive effect only if the militants unconditionally observe the main reconciliation principles». He named the laying-down of arms, the recognition of the Constitution of Afghanistan, a final breaking of the ties with al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations among them. «We believe that after 2014 any foreign military presence in Afghanistan should be based on a decision of the UN Security Council», the Russian leader noted against the background of US-led attempts to tackle the problem of Syria going around the UN. «The involvement of the SCO observer countries in the SCO Anti-Terrorism Structure, the counterterrorism military exercises Peace Mission-2014 and the fulfillment of the SCO Anti-Drug Strategy would play an important role in this work», Vladimir Putin believes.

* * *

The risk that Taliban-inspired militancy will spread into Central Asia is now a critical concern for regional powers. The SCO, the CSTO, Russia, India, Pakistan, Iran and other actors have an important role to play gradually involving Afghanistan into the cooperation process and keeping away the repetition of Syrian scenario there. Afghanistan now needs vast economic programs provided by world community and under United Nations control. The time is ripe for concerted international efforts to prevent the worst outcome. 

The views of individual contributors do not necessarily represent those of the Strategic Culture Foundation.
Will Afghanistan Follow Syria’s Scenario?

With ISAF to leave Afghanistan in 2014, the Taliban exercising control over large portions of the country against the backdrop of raging civil war is quite a probable scenario. The popularity of Taliban is growing because of huge unemployment, drugs, poverty and corruption. Mullah Omar controls military operations in southern Afghanistan, specifically in the Helmand, Zabul, and Kandahar provinces. These areas make up the significant majority of Taliban operations in Afghanistan. The executive leadership, known as the Quetta Shura Taliban (QST), is reportedly based out of Quetta, Pakistan. Taliban Commander Gulbuddin Hekmatyar controls military operations in much of northern Afghanistan, mainly in the Kunduz, Baghlan, Kunar, Kipsa, and Laghman provinces. Though not officially part of the Taliban, the Haqqani Network operates Taliban operatives in the regions around Kabul… Military operations take place in Khost, Wardak, and Logar, among other provinces. Attacks and operations across the border, in the FATA regions of Pakistan, also have heavily influence and overlap with Afghan Taliban operations.

The Taliban is a long way from being defeated and has been growing in strength. The US troop surge of 2010 stopped the Taliban's momentum in the south, but it brought about no big gains in the center and the north. The US has actually lost any chances to gain peace, so it is holding talks with Taliban on what is often called «surrender terms». 

True, Afghanistan is not a «safe haven» for al-Qaeda at present. Its strength in the country has been reduced, but it is still very much there. The first half of 2013 showed a rise of 24% compared with 2012 in civil casualties. The ISAF territorial gains are by no means irreversible. Since 2001 insurgents have killed more than 3,000 coalition troops. On and off members of the Afghan security forces turn their arms on coalition troops. At least 60 NATO servicemen were killed in such attacks last year while many more Afghan security force members have been killed by their colleagues, in so-called «green-on-green» attacks. U.S. military action and Pakistani arrests have put pressure on Mullah Omar, but experts say the Taliban is biding its time, believing that though it might not be able to pursue a monopoly of power after NATO's departure, it can consolidate footholds in the south and east. 

The question of whether the trajectory will be relatively stable or whether Afghanistan is on a path to a renewed civil war has been a subject of vigorous and inconclusive debate. While skepticism coexists with great hope for the future of post-2014 Afghanistan, many uncertainties remain. Notably, there is a combination of factors poised by different degrees to shape whether Afghanistan will slide back to a crisis or whether it will sustain itself on a stable enough path. Those factors include: a level of overall international assistance and the sustainability of the Afghan National Security Force (ANSF), the outcome of the 2014 elections, the prospect of a political settlement, future of the insurgency and regional dynamics.

A March 2013 working paper by the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS) projects three likely outcomes: «a weak and divided state, a state that either devolves into regions controlled by power brokers or warlords, or one that comes under at least partial Taliban and extremist control». Anthony H. Cordesman of CSIS projects that the ultimate result may be an Afghanistan that fractures along ethnic, sectarian, and tribal lines. Toby Dodge of the International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS) forecasts that the Afghan president will likely have to embrace the rules of Afghan politics that existed prior to 1979 in which «the center returns to a mediating role between the regions». Brian Michael Jenkins of RAND Corporation forecasts: What eventually will happen, then, is not clear. Ideally, the Afghan government will survive the economic crisis; the country will elect a new government as it is scheduled to do in 2014 and will hold its own militarily, although probably not to the nation’s frontiers. The Taliban and the Haqqani Network will expand their area of influence, probably with assistance from Pakistan, while Afghan opponents of the Taliban and Pashtun domination will prepare their own defenses. The civil war will escalate, and in a worst-case scenario, Afghanistan will descend into chaos – a giant Somalia in the heart of Asia». According to British Commons cross-party defence committee’s chairman James Arbuthnot, experts who gave evidence to the committee concluded «there was a 50-50 chance of Afghanistan descending into civil war».

Russian expert Vyacheslav Belokrenitskiy, Deputy Director of the Institute of Oriental Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences, believes there two possible scenarios for the development of events after law enforcement powers are transferred to Afghan authorities. One scenario involves maintaining the current state architecture with Presidential and Parliamentary elections, economic growth and a reduction in the cultivation and production of narcotics. This can be described as a constructive scenario. The second (catastrophe) scenario assumes that attempts to maintain balance and stability in the state will fail, if not immediately after the transfer of power to the local authorities, then later, when the number of foreign troops and foreign assistance dwindles. At that point (some time after 2016-2017) a devastating fight for power could break out, leading to a Taliban resurgence and the fragmentation (and even disintegration) of the country. This worst-case scenario would threaten security and stability across Central Asia. The expert believes there is a possibility the potential refugees will flee Afghanistan, creating a belt of instability in the border areas. A worsening situation in South Asia and its potentially destabilizing effect in Central Asia pose a serious danger for Russia. Russia will seek to mitigate this instability, countering the military and political threats that arise, terrorism and religious extremism, and using bilateral mechanisms of cooperation and interaction in international structures such as the SCO and CSTО.

The upcoming withdrawal of NATO-led forces from Afghanistan can lead to development of situation following the Syrian scenario, Chief of CIS Counter-Terrorism Center, Police Colonel-General (three stars) Andrey Novikov said at the session of heads of counter-terrorism agencies of the CIS countries as part of the exercises «Ala-Too-Anti-Terror 2013» in Bishkek on September 25, 2013. The withdrawal of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan (ISAF) will inevitably lead to intensification of internal political struggle for power in the country. There probability is high that the turf hostilities will turn into an armed confrontation between different actors. That is what happened in Libya, Syria, and a number of other Middle Eastern states. The General also said that if the situation in Afghanistan goes out of control due to internal armed conflict, a flow of refugees is to be expected in northern provinces increasing the risk of armed gangs penetration and illicit arms trafficking from the country. According to Mr. Novikov, CIS states nationals, including natives from the North Caucasus and other Central Asia, take part in Syrian conflict as mercenaries, no exact figures are known. The concern expressed is fully justified, these people have accumulated great combat and terrorist activities experience to be used on the territories of the countries they come from, or other politically unstable states. 

 In May, Russia’s military intelligence agency, the GRU, said it expects the influence of the radical Islamist Taliban to grow in Afghanistan after international coalition forces are pulled out. GRU head Colonel-General (three stars) Igor Sergun said the situation in Afghanistan poses a «serious challenge to international stability» and the ISAF withdrawal could also increase the threat of terrorism and religious extremism. «A diversified terrorist network, including suicide bomber training camps has already been established in the country and the Taliban has close links with foreign terrorist structures whose militants, having gained combat experience in Afghanistan, could be sent to other hot spots across the world», he told an international security conference in Moscow. The situation could get even worse if those militants resume cooperation with al-Qaida and use force to establish «a global caliphate» from Morocco to Malaysia, he said. Sergun also commented on the situation in war-torn Syria, saying that radical groups will continue to impose their conditions on the way the country is run, relying solely on the use of force. That could provoke the country’s breakup, an increasing flow of refugees to neighboring countries and further destabilization of the situation, the GRU chief said. He also pointed to the growing number of supporters of the armed jihad from Europe within the Syrian opposition. «After they acquire practical combat experience they can be expected to return to their countries where they will be able to apply it on the European continent», said the General.

This September the Collective Security Council of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) passed a resolution on Syria and the situation around the country. Among other things the document reads that the CSTO member states are seriously concerned about the situation in Syria and around it as well as the situation in Afghanistan. Like in the case of Afghanistan, the member-states believe any international interference with the Syria conflict outside the UN Security Council would be illegal. The practical steps to address the Afghan situation include enhancing the military component of the organization, including the formation of the CSTO collective forces, and the step-by-step implementation of the CSTO’s response plan against threats and challenges that originate from Afghanistan and the Middle East, especially having Syria in mind. The priorities include tighter cooperation to enhance security at the external borders, the advancement of tight interaction between the Organization and the Council of border guard commanders of the CIS states and intensive joint combat training and preparation peacekeeping operations. Interaction between the Organization and other international and regional organizations is to be promoted. 

Addressing the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit on September 13, President Putin said: «We welcome the efforts of the Afghan government for the promotion of national reconciliation process and the preparation to the presidential elections in the country in 2014… The dialogue with the armed opposition can have a positive effect only if the militants unconditionally observe the main reconciliation principles». He named the laying-down of arms, the recognition of the Constitution of Afghanistan, a final breaking of the ties with al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations among them. «We believe that after 2014 any foreign military presence in Afghanistan should be based on a decision of the UN Security Council», the Russian leader noted against the background of US-led attempts to tackle the problem of Syria going around the UN. «The involvement of the SCO observer countries in the SCO Anti-Terrorism Structure, the counterterrorism military exercises Peace Mission-2014 and the fulfillment of the SCO Anti-Drug Strategy would play an important role in this work», Vladimir Putin believes.

* * *

The risk that Taliban-inspired militancy will spread into Central Asia is now a critical concern for regional powers. The SCO, the CSTO, Russia, India, Pakistan, Iran and other actors have an important role to play gradually involving Afghanistan into the cooperation process and keeping away the repetition of Syrian scenario there. Afghanistan now needs vast economic programs provided by world community and under United Nations control. The time is ripe for concerted international efforts to prevent the worst outcome.