Kabul is consistently losing control in Afghanistan’s provinces, which are falling to ISIS and the Taliban, especially in the country’s northern areas bordering with Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. Add to this the failure of the Afghan army to become professional, military defections and growing corruption. It is illustrative that in April, the Taliban staged attacks on the Afghan military with assistance from inside, and 35 soldiers have been arrested on suspicion of colluding with the Taliban.
This dire situation shows that there is little hope that Kabul is able to win the conflict militarily. It is increasingly obvious that the war can only be ended through a political settlement, and there are growing calls to make a deal with the Taliban to challenge the increasing presence of ISIS in Afghanistan. The Taliban, although designated a terrorist group by the UN, is still viewed as a nationally oriented movement and a lesser evil than ISIS. Traditional Talibs do not have plans for expansion outside Afghanistan and confine their ambitions to taking power in Kabul.
It is increasingly obvious that the war can only be ended through a political settlement
Meanwhile, ISIS is expanding in Afghanistan. The country’s federal government has virtually lost control over Kunduz, a northern province bordering with Tajikistan that shelters some 3,000 ISIS militants. There is every indication that the province’s police force is controlled by the increasingly powerful ISIS militants. The nearby province of Takhar is home to the same number of ISIS fighters, while other northern provinces of Faryab and Sar-e Pol are each home to between 2,000 and 3,000 ISIS members. The group is also present in the northern provinces of Jowzjan, Samangan, and Balkh, which are each home to up to 1,000 militants.
The attitude among Talibs toward the ISIS presence in the region is mixed, mainly because the movement itself is splintered. There are groups fighting on the side of ISIS, but there are also moderate, traditional Talibs waging a war against the group. The latter are ready to come to the negotiating table and their main demand is the withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan. However, the Afghan government considers the Taliban its main enemy, mainly due to the fact that it does not view ISIS as a political foe because the group is not engaged in a struggle for power in Afghanistan itself. Ideologically, ISIS has a much loftier agenda focused on establishing a so-called Khorasan Province spanning Central Asian regions, including China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.
The way Taalatbek Masadykov, a Kyrgyz expert and the former political director of the UN Mission in Afghanistan, has described his experience in negotiating with the Taliban is noteworthy. He said that at one of the meetings held with the Taliban in Doha, Talibs wondered where ISIS had got its technical assistance and why weapons had been transferred to the group at a time when the Taliban was about to win a battle against it. According to Masadykov, ISIS in Afghanistan is much better funded than the Taliban: each militant is paid over US$600 per month, whereas a Talib fighter receives no more than $300 monthly. Where is the financing coming from and why is the international community failing to stop such a considerable flow of money?
What are the prospects for the Afghan government?
In December, I attended a conference on countering terrorism at the Moscow Institute of International Relations and took an opportunity to listen to a report made by Dr Ivan Safranchuk, one of the leading Russian experts on Central Asian security policy. He presented three scenarios for Afghanistan and available options for Central Asian countries to tackle related security threats.
The first scenario implies the situation when the Afghan security forces have control over the country’s main centers, while the Taliban is still present but goes underground or dominates rural areas. The second scenario reflects the current situation when the Afghan security forces are locked in a stalemate and neither party is capable of defeating the other. The Afghan forces fail to defend a rural area, while the militants are already able to take over towns and districts. Safranchuk provided an example of 23 districts captured by the Taliban in 2015. It is crucial as a new phenomenon since, in previous years, the number of such takeovers ranged between one and four. The third scenario will take place when the situation deteriorates further and the Afghan forces are unable to liberate districts that are under the sway of the Taliban.
Central Asian states bordering Afghanistan are directly affected by the developments in this war-torn state and face a number of risks, including penetration of militants with forged passports, smuggling, the influx of refugees and even incursion into their territories. Safranchuk offered a number of alternatives to meet these risks, such as sealing the border, making deals with the Taliban, and creating military and non-military buffer zones on the Afghan side of the border.
However, he has noted that these options are available only in the second scenario when Kabul is able to either reach agreements with the Taliban or confer more powers to regional warlords, with whom the deals could be made over border protection and the establishment of buffer zones. Whereas the third scenario suggests that, with the situation getting worse, the Afghan government will be unable to take measures to meet security risks.
And this is the point when the Kabul government will fail as a legitimate authority.