Will the Afghan military be able to fight back the Taliban once the NATO troops have left? | Photo: flickr, Al Jazeera English | CC BY-SA 2.0

Withdrawal of NATO troops – Comeback of the Taliban?

Although peace agreements in armed conflicts in which at least one party has framed its demands in religious language are rare, they do exist. In particular, peace agreements have been reached with certain kinds of Islamist groups. After several rounds of unofficial and official negotiations, and a military stalemate between Afghan and NATO forces and the Taliban, former U.S. President Trump announced a peace agreement with the group in February 2020. However, after President Biden’s recent announcement to unconditionally withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan, the prospects for an agreement or even a ceasefire between the Taliban and the Afghan government seem bleaker than ever, with the Taliban resurging and U.S. diplomatic leverage decreasing.

Resurgent Taliban

The Afghan Taliban have fought several Afghan governments and two great powers during the last decades. After they were defeated in 2001, the remaining leadership could slowly rebuild the organization from their sanctuary in Pakistan. External sanctuaries increase the opportunities for mobilization, which in turn increases rebels’ bargaining leverage with their opponents. At the same time, the Taliban reorganized inside Afghanistan by transforming into a decentralized network of fighters and field commanders with a relatively large degree of autonomy. The widespread corruption of the new Afghan government, the persecution of Pashtun communities for their real or alleged support for the Taliban, and perceived and real grievances of Pashtuns were important factors in the resurgence. What further contributed to the Taliban’s revival since 2003, was the Bush administration’s occupation with fighting an insurgency in Iraq. The consequent lack of attention to Afghanistan soon backfired. By 2005-2006, the Taliban were back in the southern half of Afghanistan. Starting in 2009, they expanded into the north and established a foothold in areas where they had not been strong before, while also building up relations with non-Pashtun religious leaders and fighters. By the time the U.S. started paying attention again under President Obama, matters had spun out of control, especially after the Taliban took the city of Kunduz in 2015, showing their ability to threaten urban areas and the capital itself.

According to the most recent annual threat assessment of the U.S. intelligence community, the Taliban are confident that they can achieve military victory, while the Afghan government will struggle to fight back once the coalition forces have left. When President Biden announced that the withdrawal of U.S. troops would be delayed, the Taliban threatened U.S. and other foreign forces. The group also distanced itself from a recent U.S. peace initiative and declared its representatives would not attend peace talks in Turkey aimed at producing a ceasefire with the Afghan government and an interim government.

Despite significant casualties in their ranks, the Taliban have steadily grown stronger in recent years. Under the Trump administration, the stalemate between the two sides persisted. A “mutually hurting stalemate” is key to successful conflict resolution. However, Trump had made clear his desire to “get the hell out” from early on, while the Taliban knew that time was on their side. Other jihadist groups might conclude that perseverance pays out in the end.

Increased violence

Another sign of a resurgent Taliban, and a further obstacle for a peace agreement with the Afghan government, is the increasing number of fatalities – a trend which has not been disrupted by the U.S.-Taliban negotiations. According to own calculations based on ACLED data, since the U.S. started negotiating with the Taliban in 2018, yearly fatalities have continued to rise from 36,606 in 2017 to over 41,000 in 2018 and 2019, falling to 20,886 in 2020, probably in relation to the peace agreement with the Trump administration. In 2021, 17,727 people from all conflict parties have already been killed so far. In violent events between armed actors and civilians, the number of fatalities increased from 1,403 in 2017 to approximately 1,530 in the following three years. In 2021 alone, 911 fatalities were reported so far. Since by the ACLED definition civilians are unarmed non-combatants, civilian fatalities likely represent the highest share among these numbers. The violence was only paused during short ceasefires on the occasion of Eid al Fitr in 2018 and 2020 (in context of the Ramadan feast), as well as during the ‘reduction of violence’ week-long period preceding the Doha agreement in February 2020.

According to UNAMA (United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan), the Taliban were responsible for 43.5 percent of all civilian casualties from January to March 2021, while the Afghan national security forces were responsible for 17 percent. Hopes that were raised by the beginning of intra-Afghan peace negotiations in September 2020 were not fulfilled. To the contrary, during the six months between October 2020 and March 2021, UNAMA recorded a 38 percent increase in civilian casualties in comparison with the same period in 2019/2020.

Shortly after U.S. and NATO troops began to withdraw in early May 2021, the Taliban started offensives in the south and the north of the country. In the last week of April, at least 44 civilians and 139 government troops were killed – the highest weekly death toll since October 2020, according to data gathered by The New York Times. Furthermore, attacks against schools and education centers have increased (the Taliban have denied involvement). What is more, in recent months, a series of targeted killings against civil society in which election activists, female judges, and media workers were targeted has shattered the country. No group has claimed responsibility. But in a private briefing, a NATO official recently reckoned that the Taliban are behind the majority of the attacks.

Have the Taliban changed?

It is of particular concern – not only for the chances of a peace agreement with the Afghan government – whether the Taliban have changed. As the Taliban seem bent on taking control of Afghanistan once more, many fear a return to the pre-2001 period.

However, as Afghanistan expert Thomas Ruttig has noted, this system was more nuanced than described by most Western observers, with the Taliban not implementing all bans and regulations evenly, differences between individual Taliban commanders, and some local leverage to exert concessions. What is more, the Taliban’s control over large parts of Afghanistan has made it necessary to interact with groups outside their original Pashtun constituency and to develop ever more comprehensive forms of governance. With this, the Taliban seek to out-govern the state. Some locals view the Taliban as a less corrupt and more efficient service provider than the Afghan government. Thomas Ruttig has argued that the Taliban learned from their mistakes in the pre-2001 period which ultimately led to their defeat. “Awareness grew within their movement, that their own (repressive) policies had resulted in global isolation as well as opposition from many Afghans, including those who had initially welcomed the Taliban when they almost ended the inter-factional wars of the 1990s”. This resulted not just in a change of rhetoric, but also influenced some of their policies, notably foreign policy, the use of media, and education. However, this is likely driven more by political imperative than by a change in core ideas.

The experience of de-facto governing Afghanistan from 1996 until 2001 has also transformed the Taliban with regard to how they position themselves toward the international community. They seek to gain international recognition. This is similar to Hayat Tahrir al-Sham in Syria, only that the latter is in a position of military weakness in contrast to the Taliban. However, the Taliban are highly dependent on foreign aid in a state where 80 percent of expenditures are paid by international donors. The Taliban lack the means and personnel to run a government by themselves. The aspiration (and need) for some form of international recognition is an important source of leverage for international actors when engaging with the Taliban.

A final issue that is often brought up in discussions about whether the Taliban have changed is their relation to international terrorism, especially al-Qaeda. U.N. experts and U.S. military officials have concluded that the Taliban have not cut their ties to these groups. According to a U.N. report, the Taliban and al-Qaeda continue to collaborate on the battlefield. In the context of the negotiations with the Trump administration, the Taliban also refused to pledge that Afghan soil is not used by “terrorist” groups in the future, simply saying that they would not allow Afghanistan to be used as a launching pad for international attacks.

Conclusion

What can we learn from other jihadist groups and the Taliban’s history about their future behavior? As noted by Thomas Ruttig, “the post-2001 Taliban have proved to be a learning, more political organization that is more open to the influence of external factors. They are pursuing their political aim, namely regaining power and establishing what they call a genuinely ‘Islamic government’, with political methods now as well as with military methods”.

However, looking at other jihadist groups such as ISIS, which resurged in Iraq and Syria since 2011 after nearly being defeated (although lacking the recognition the Taliban enjoys through the peace negotiations with the U.S.), the Taliban might also have learned other lessons – namely how to rule their “Islamic Emirate” in a more efficient and long-term way. Here, they build up on the longest-lasting jihadist state-building project in the contemporary period. They might be less brutal and more responsive to Afghan civilians this time. Still, they are mainly interested in monopolizing power, which will make them rely to a significant degree on violence, also because militias formerly backed by Western forces will fight for keeping their spheres of influence.

Regine Schwab

Regine Schwab

Regine Schwab ist wissenschaftliche Mitarbeiterin im Programmbereich „Transnationale Politik" und Mitglied der Forschungsgruppe „Terrorismus“ an der HSFK. Zu ihren Forschungsinteressen gehören Syrien und der Nahe Osten, Rebellengruppen und politische Gewalt. / Regine Schwab is postdoc at PRIF’s research department „Transnational Politics“ and member of the research group „Terrorism“. Her research interests are, inter alia, Syria and the Middle East, violent Islamist groups and political violence.

Regine Schwab

Regine Schwab ist wissenschaftliche Mitarbeiterin im Programmbereich „Transnationale Politik" und Mitglied der Forschungsgruppe „Terrorismus“ an der HSFK. Zu ihren Forschungsinteressen gehören Syrien und der Nahe Osten, Rebellengruppen und politische Gewalt. / Regine Schwab is postdoc at PRIF’s research department „Transnational Politics“ and member of the research group „Terrorism“. Her research interests are, inter alia, Syria and the Middle East, violent Islamist groups and political violence.

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