While many hoped to see the Taliban stumbling after Mullah Omar’s death and a descent into disunity,  the movement is showing renewed vigor and is restoring through a new wave of attacks on Afghan cities.

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Taliban have emerged stronger under  Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansoor

The potent attacks on Afghanistan’s urban hubs have coincided with an Eid message from new supreme leader Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansoor demonstrating that the Taliban Movement of Afghanistan has lost little ground in its ongoing war with the US and the Afghan government.

Mullah Mansoor’s latest Eid message not only called for unity among the Taliban rank and files, but also repeated their unchanged terms for a so-called “resolution” of the Afghan conflict. These conditions include not only complete withdrawal of all occupying forces from the country but also repeal of the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA), signed with the US in 2014 by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.

It is not hard to see that Mullah Mansoor’s message and his latest demands have undercut efforts to restore peace to the country. The message makes clear that the Taliban would not engage in talks unless all their preconditions have been met. It explicitly stated:

“If the Kabul administration wants to end the war and establish peace in the country, it is possible through ending the occupation and revoking all military and security treaties with the invaders.” He went on to say that “The Islamic Emirate (Taliban) believes if the country is not under occupation, the problem of the Afghans can be resolved through intra-Afghan understanding.”

The timing of the new leader’s address was not random: It was delivered on the eve of the first anniversary of President Ghani’s ascension to power on Sept. 28, 2014. The international community regards it as the Taliban’s response to Kabul’s efforts and mediation by Pakistan, China, and the US to bring the warring sides in the Afghan conflict to the negotiating table. All such efforts must be deemed a failure because of the Taliban’s latest military effort to regain control of the country, or at least a portion of it.

General expectation with Omar’s death and rival Islamic State’s (IS’s) emergence in Afghanistan was that the Taliban would suffer setbacks. This has not happened. Subsequent events, if anything, have neutralized such expected fallout for the Taliban.

The biggest mitigating factor is that internal opposition to Mullah Mansoor’s appointment as Omar’s successor and the Taliban’s new leader is fading. This makes Mansoor’s position stronger. Mullah Omar’s only surviving brother, Mullah Abdul Mannan and Omar’s eldest son Mulla Mohammad Yaqoob, pledged allegiance to Mansoor on Sept. 15. This ended a rift that emerged after the latter made a hurried decision to get himself chosen by the Taliban’s Rahbari Shura (leadership council) as the movement’s new leader over Mansoor. This is a major victory for Mansoor as Mannan and Yaqoob presented the real challenge to his leadership.

While some Taliban sources still consider Mansoor’s selection as leader to be invalid, his opponents has been practically rendered leaderless now that Yaqoob and Mannan are backing him. In addition, the opposition camp has suffered some serious setbacks over the last few weeks. In fact, some of the clerics who joined the anti-Mansoor camp were won over. Others gradually became neutral in the succession dispute. Mullah Dastagir and Mullah Nazar Muhammad, two vocal clerics who previously questioned Mansoor’s succession to Omar, have now accepted his leadership and pledged allegiance to him.

It is important to keep in mind that these developments occurred in the month of September. What these developments mean for the over-all Taliban movement should also be assessed in the context of the Taliban’s attacks on the city of Kunduz and its surrounding areas. The mitigation of Taliban internal division is making them stronger and allowing them to mount operations such as the one that briefly captured the city of Kunduz.

Battles have raged around Kunduz for the last eleven days as government forces, backed by US air strikes, have tried to drive out the Taliban fighters. The city’s brief capture was one of the biggest victories of the “Islamic Emirates” in the 14-year insurgency.

According to some sources, the Taliban’s Kunduz-attack was an effort on the part of Mullah Mansoor to shrug off the impressions of “internal disunity” in Afghanistan. That’s why instead of keeping the city under their control, they quickly resorted to guerrilla tactics rather than hold it. While it is evident that they could not have kept the city under their control for long, the fact that they easily pushed Afghan forces out of Kunduz in the first place must be taken seriously in assessing the Afghan security forces’  ability to contain the Taliban outside urban areas.

More organized attacks

Until recently, the Taliban have been focusing more on rural areas. However, since Akhtar’s ascendance to a position of power, the number of big and fully organized attacks on cities has dramatically increased.

This renewed wave of attacks will have serious repercussions for the entire region, not merely for Afghanistan. As far as Pakistan is concerned, these attacks have caused a serious dilemma for it. On the one hand, it is engaged in a war against the home-grown ‘Taliban movement of Pakistan.’ On the other hand, it is making desperate efforts to broker “peace” on all fronts, FATA, Baluchistan and Afghanistan, to smoothly go through the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.

Pakistan does understand that as long as war keeps on going in Afghanistan, Pakistani Taliban, too, will keep fighting. In fact, the very reason for the Pakistani Taliban to have launched their movement is Pakistan’s so-called “alliance” with the US in the latter’s “war on terror.”

However, given the increasing intensification of the conflict in Afghanistan, the US’ complete withdrawal seems to be a remote possibility. Following the Taliban’s attack on the city of Kunduz, the President Obama said the US will “try” to broker a political settlement before making any new “military commitments.”

According to some reports appearing the Western media, President Obama is seriously considering a proposal to keep as many as 5,000 to 7,000 US troops in Afghanistan beyond 2016, a move that would end his plans to bring US troops home before he leaves office.

The proposal, which was originally placed in August by Army Gen Martin E. Dempsey, then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has acquired even more significance in the context of Russian military engagement in Syria against IS.

Considering the United States’ own plans regarding counter-terrorism, it seems that the US would find itself in a very difficult situation if it were to leave Afghanistan. Since the emergence of IS in Afghanistan, the question of placement of the number of US troops in Afghanistan has become even more significant. Apart from the proposal to keep 5000 to 7000 soldiers in Afghanistan, Dempsey’s plan also includes maintaining a few bases that could be used as “lily pads” to launch strikes against groups that threaten the US’ vital interests in the region.

The lily-pad bases would potentially house American drones and fighter jets as well as elite counter-terrorism troops, and could be at Bagram air base north of Kabul and one or two other airfields, said senior administration officials who spoke to The Washington Post on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal planning.

President Obama’s “we still have business in Afghanistan” rhetoric stands to signify the US’ plan to prolong its stay in Afghanistan to contain the Taliban and to counter-balance Russian tactical maneuvering in the Middle East.

Hypothetically speaking, were the US to leave Afghanistan and were Afghanistan to “fall” to IS in any possible way, Iran and Russia might feel it necessary to strike IS inside Afghanistan too. Given the fact that Afghan officials have already been speaking of a covert alliance between Iran and the Taliban, this postulation seems to be somewhat possible. Were this to occur, Russia might be able to significantly neutralize the US’ presence in what is known as Russia’s “under-belly.”

Although an alliance between Russia and the Taliban seems improbable, it does seem possible if constructed through careful mediation by Iran and Pakistan, especially the latter who seems to have re-established its military relations with Moscow in the last year or so and who already have historically “friendly” relations with the Afghan Taliban.

The US officials cannot be unmindful of such a scenario eventually taking place. Hence, a renewed emphasis on retaining a large enough force in Afghanistan.

On other hand, if the US does decide to keep additional troops in Afghanistan, it will certainly not help them reach a political settlement with the Taliban. Such is the dilemma of the current phase of the war in Afghanistan! Instead of coming to an end after almost 14 years, it seems to be expanding as new actors prepare to take a plunge into it.

Salman Rafi Sheikh is a freelance journalist and research analyst of international relations and Pakistan affairs. His area of interest is South and West Asian politics, the foreign policies of major powers, and Pakistani politics.

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