Prospects of an Afghan Peace (Part I): Structural obstacles and Taliban momentum

Analytics | Philip Roehrs-Weist | 8-02-2019, 08:55


With the Doha talks showing significant progress over the last couple months, Afghan opposition leaders negotiating with the Taliban in Moscow recently and President Trump once again floating the idea of withdrawing troops from Afghanistan in his state of the union address, it seems like Washington's military disengagement is just a matter of time. With the main security guarantor of the Afghan government out of the picture, will peace be possible in the war-torn country? The first part of the analysis will give a short overview of the structural problems plaguing Afghanistan and the current momentum of the war.


Root causes of conflict: Ethnic conflict and weak state institutions

It seems to have become common knowledge that Afghanistan is a place of instability that is almost impossible to govern. A graveyard of Empires. A mere tribal frontier of neighboring civilizations. While these images might sound like stark simplifications, most experts do not really hold a more optimistic view on Afghan affairs. The problems haunting Afghanistan are systemic in nature, therefore the country's history is often referred to as an indication for future instability.

The most obvious feature of Afghan society is the fractured landscape of ethnical identities. The Afghan constitution mentions fourteen main ethnic groups but there are far more smaller groups.

According to the CIA Factbook, there are no official figures of Afghanistan's ethnic demographics due to the sensitive nature of this information. Nevertheless, it is estimated that 42% of the population is Pashtun, 27% is Tajik, 9% is Hazara, 9% is Uzbek, 4% is Aimak, 3% is Turkmen, 2% is Baloch and another 4% belong to other groups.  

Being a multi-ethnic society in itself presents challenges but having a demography that is strongly botched towards one group that has historically been dominant (indicative of this is the fact that Pashtuns as a group originally bore the name Afghans), accelerates conflicts and creates a domestic security dilemma between factions, where it is already hard to establish trust. The Taliban is primarily described as a fundamentalist Islamist movement. Yet, the group's is also overwhelmingly Pashtun and generates most of its support from its ethnic allegiance rather than its religious-political doctrine. It has to be said that the Taliban are obviously not the only political faction representing the Pashtuns, which are further fragmented along tribal lines - both former president Karzai and current president Ghani are also Pashtuns for example. Yet, it is by far the strongest Pashtun organization in numbers and support among its ethnic kin-group. This support stems from the hope of many Pashtun tribesmen that the Taliban will be able to re-establish full Pashtun dominance over Afghanistan.

In combination with Afghanistan's weak state institutions, the gaps between its many ethnic groups and tribes become ever more difficult to bridge. In its State Fragility Index, the Fund for Peace currently only rates eight states as worse than Afghanistan. Worrisome is the lack of trust in Afghanistan's supposedly democratic Institutions that have been set up after the U.S. invasion in 2001. Political coalitions are still mostly based on power politics and not on a shared political agenda. The problem of societal fragmentation is that it is usually circular as the lack of trust prevents the building of reliable state institutions, while the absence of such institutions means there is no sustainable forum for dialogue to build trust. Afghanistan is a tragic example of this. Even under a multi-national effort led by the U.S., state-building has largely failed in Afghanistan.

The prospects for stability under future state-building efforts without significant foreign assistance are therefore slim.  


Current dilemma: Unfavorable balance of power

To achieve long-term peace, there needs to be a balance of power between the Afghan government coalition and the Taliban that drives both sides towards a compromise. The current peace talks come at an unfavorable time though, with the government struggling to hold off further Taliban advances.

A symptom of the general lack of statehood is the state of the Afghan security forces. The government struggles to fill the ranks of its military and police forces to the authorized size of 352.000 as the level of violence remains high. The Afghan forces continued to shrink, even after the U.S. military increased its air strikes against the Taliban in 2018. At the moment, the combined strength of the Afghan security forces stand at just over 308.000, down from 312.000 a year ago and nearly 316.000 in 2016. This pace of capability loss should raise alarm bells, especially as these losses occurred with U.S. advisors and military forces still present. The intensity of the fighting also did not result in a territorial consolidation as the percentage of territories controlled by the government shrank to 54% (56% in 2018). All of this indicates that the current stalemate was only sustainable due to the significant U.S. military presence.

Furthermore, Washington carried most costs (around 4bn $) for arming, training, paying and sustaining those security forces. Consequently, there are fears that there will be a reduction in financial aid along with the reduction of the U.S. military footprint. This is a plausible scenario, as the Trump administration seems eager to cut the costs of its engagements across the Greater Middle East. It might not come immediately but with the Afghan War disappearing from the public eye in America, the option of cutting costs regardless of its danger will be increasingly tempting. It is doubtful that Kabul would be able to carry the immense costs of its security forces.  

A third factor that could undermine a future peace is the fragility of the governments war-coalition. Even though Kabul made early progress in its proclaimed goal of disarming, dissolving or integrating the numerous local militias into the state security forces, these seem to be back in fashion as the government had to rely on alliances with tribal warlords to counter the Taliban in rural areas. These parallel-security structures that are mostly organized along existing conflict lines do not just undermine the centralization efforts by Kabul but they have also to be seen as temporary alliances. If a peace agreement would break down, these warlords might jump ship and bandwagon with an advancing Taliban to secure their own survival or a future power position. It has to be assumed that the Taliban are aware of the fragile nature of its enemies coalition.

By negotiating from a position of strength, the Taliban's willingness to reach a sustainable peace agreement that limits its own role has to be doubted. The incentive to hold on to such an agreement would be even weaker if we consider that during a new outbreak of conflict the Afghan security forces will probably not be up to the task of containing a renewed Taliban advance.

Yet, there are some reasons to be hopeful. There have been recent reports about clashes between different Taliban factions. Infighting is nothing new for the group but clashes usually occurred during times of leadership change. This time around, they are likely caused by diverging standpoints on the negotiations. Even though it is unlikely that the group will break apart, there might be defections of its more radical Islamist members in case the more moderate factions agree to a peace deal. This would come at a time when the Taliban have been challenged by the Aghan franchise of ISIS in some regions of the country. So far, ISIS could not effectively appeal to the Afghans, mostly due to the established position of the Taliban. If the radical wing of the Taliban breaks off though, the balance of power within the Islamist camp might shift and the Taliban might be transformed into a more moderate organization overall. The infighting should, therefore, be closely monitored by all parties involved in the peace negotiations.

Due to the very real possibility of another Taliban victory and the distrust between ethnic groups, the government should also attempt to remind the local warlords of the brutal Taliban reign from 1996 to 2001. Holding the line against an advancing foe might then seem like the better option compared to life under Taliban rule. Especially non-Pashtun groups that have been victimized under the Taliban are promising targets for such a strategy. Nevertheless, the tribal leaders would have to clearly signal their readiness to fight and give up any opportunist maneuvers, something that appears rather unlikely when it comes to Afghan politics. The emerging tensions on the highest political level under the current two-track negotiation process between the government and prominent opposition figures are showing how well the Taliban are able to divide the anti-Taliban camp.

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Additionally, Kabul would also have to urge its own security forces, especially the police, to refrain from corruption and personal vendettas along the existing ethnic conflict lines in order to make a more united coalition possible. Even if this could be achieved against all odds, it still has to be doubted that continuing losses in security forces capabilities and the end of U.S. assistance could be compensated by a newfound anti-Taliban coalition alone.  

All these factors considered, it is rather unlikely that the Afghan government will be able to establish a long-term peace with the Taliban on its own. Kabul should, therefore, start to lobby for other foreign powers to back the stabilization of Afghanistan.


The next piece in this series will explain why strategic factors will force Afghanistan's neighbors to step up their engagement in the aftermath of a U.S. retreat.

About the author:

Philip Roehrs-Weist

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