Brief n.6, December 2020

On February 29, 2020, the United States signed a peace agreement with the Taliban, which, if implemented, would end nineteen years of US involvement in the war in Afghanistan. According to the deal, the US commits to withdraw all foreign troops from Afghanistan by April 2021, lift UN Security Council sanctions against the Taliban and not to interfere in Afghanistan domestic affairs. Taliban, in turn, pledged to prevent the use of the Afghan soil by any group or individual, including al-Qaida, against the security of the United States and its allies. The agreement also opened the way for peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban that began in Qatar on Sep. 12 2020.

Whatever the outcome of these negotiations may be, implementing it on the ground will be a daunting, if not impossible job. It will be very difficult to agree upon and then enforce a formula that would satisfy everyone. Afghan government and the Taliban spent over two months just to find common ground on procedural rules of negotiations, which they agreed upon in late November 2020, after Afghan Second Vice President Sarwar Danish urged the newly-elected President Biden to reconsider the ongoing peace talks with the Taliban. The current Afghan government would prefer to maintain the existing status quo backed by US military presence, if it wouldn’t be for the American pressure to negotiate. Factors that will affect any future peace agreement implementation are numerous and so are the challenges they create.

Weak government

Afghan central government remains weak and divided, plagued by corruption, incompetence, and nepotism. Its organization is sometimes confusing. Despite its centralized appearance, it functions more on the basis of informal negotiations and consultations with local powerbrokers. The existence of three overlapping legal systems – Sharia (Islamic Law), Shura (traditional law and practice), and the formal system under the 2004 Constitution makes governance difficult.

Despite important economic growth of the past fifteen years, Afghan government expenses continue to exceed revenues. Afghan economy relies on foreign assistance and export taxes; internal tax collection remains inadequate. Unemployment runs high; more than 55% of the population lives below the poverty line. Afghan informal economy based on illicit activities is estimated by US State Department to be about $ 4.1 billion. In 2018 Afghan opiate economy alone was worth between 6 and 11 % of Afghanistan’s GDP. It is down from 52% of nation's GDP in 2006, but this change reflects the economic growth of the past years, rather than the decrease in opium production. Afghan opiate economy provides employment for around 3 million people and exceeds the value of the country’s officially recorded legal exports of goods and services.

According to recent US estimates, early this year the government of Afghanistan controlled 133 districts (out of 399), with overall population of over 15 million people (out of 38 plus million people). Taliban controlled 75 districts with population of over 4,5 million people. Control of 187 districts remained contested between the government and the Taliban. In civilian matters the Taliban operates through the system of shadow governors and administrators, sometimes coopting the existing state administrations.

There are also clear divisions based on ethnic identities. Afghanistan is a multi-ethnic society, comprising of over fourteen different ethnicities. It is a traditionalist and rather complex tribal system. Loyalties run along tribal-clan-extended family lines.

Challenge: turning national system of governance into an efficient instrument to implement any future peace agreement.

The Taliban

Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan or the Taliban, is a loose association of predominantly Pashtun militant groups (although it has Tajiks and representatives of other ethnicities in its ranks). These groups share common Muslim fundamentalist ideology (the Deobandi school), and Pashtun tribal laws and customs. Taliban does not have a system of centralized command and control in a traditional sense, but functions more as a network, steered by a dozens of senior commanders regrouped in a Council of Leaders (the Quetta Shura), named after the city of Quetta in the Balochistan province of Pakistan where it has its siege. The structures of the Taliban are fluid. Nevertheless, it has, the code of conduct - the layha that all those who adhere to the movement should follow.

One of the leading factions of the Taliban is the so-called Haqqani Network, which operates in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Haqqani Network maintains close ties to the Pakistani intelligence service (The Inter-Services Intelligence - ISI). There are other factions, like the one loyal to Mohammad Yaqoob or the Qayum Zakir faction. Not all of the Taliban factions approve a peace settlement.

There are also Taliban splinter groups, like Hezb-e Walayat-e Islami, (Party of Islamic Guardianship), Feday-e Mahaz (Suicide Brigade) or the High Council of the Islamic Emirate. These groups do not recognize the authority of the Quetta Shura and often oppose it. In 2016 the High Council of the Islamic Emirate claimed responsibility for a bomb attack in Pakistan, targeting the Taliban chief Mullah Haibatullah Akhunzadah.

To what extent the Taliban factions will accept and interpret in a similar way a future peace agreement remains an open question. Some hardline Taliban commanders had already voiced their opposition to any peace deal.

Challenge: bringing all main Taliban factions to accept a peace settlement with the Kabul government.


The senior leadership of al-Qaida and hundreds of its armed militants continue to operate in Afghanistan. Relations between the Taliban, especially the Haqqani Network, and al-Qaida remain close. In 2016 the Al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri pledged his loyalty to Haibatullah Akhundzada, the newly appointed leader of the Taliban. The Taliban regularly consulted with al-Qaida during negotiations with the United States and offered assurances that it would honor their historical ties. Al-Qaida followers reacted positively to the US-Taliban peace agreement, considering it as a victory for the Taliban’s and the cause of global Jihad.

Challenge: suppressing any international threat emanating from al-Qaida in Afghanistan.

Islamic State

Islamic State first appeared in Afghanistan in 2015 when some Taliban fighters pledged allegiance to Abou Bakr al-Baghdadi. They were joined by the militants from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), who previously fought on the side of the Taliban. Islamic State - Khorasan Province (ISKP) has allied itself with the High Council of Afghanistan Islamic Emirate, a Taliban splinter group. ISKP fought the Taliban on a number of occasions. However, despite their hostilities, the Islamic State and the Taliban sometimes find common ground. In once instance, on March 25 2020 the Islamic State attacked a Sikh temple in Kabul. The attack, which killed 27 people, is believed to be a joint operation between the ISKP and the Taliban’s Haqqani Network. The late leader of ISKP, Aslam Farooqui, was a Pakistani national and a former Pakistani Taliban (Tehreek-e-Taliban) commander.

In early 2019 a group of Uzbek fighters split from the ISKP, accusing Farooqui of having ties to the Pakistani intelligence, and formed their own Islamic State group. The Uzbek IS operates in the northeastern provinces of Afghanistan, while ISKP forces operate in the eastern and southeastern provinces. They attack both civilian and military targets.

Challenge: decimating and suppressing all factions of the Islamic State in Afghanistan.

Shia Muslims

In Afghanistan Shia Islam is practiced by the Hazaras, who live primarily in the central highland region of Hazarajat. Shia Muslims constitute around 15% of the Afghan population. Hazaras have been Afghanistan’s most persecuted religious and ethnic minority for a long time. For the past twenty-five years, Hazaras were systematically targeted by the Taliban and recently by the Islamic State. A large Hazara community exists in Iran. It provides recruits for the Hizbollah Afghanistan (Liwa Fatemiyoun), a group that Iran uses in Syria to support Bashar Al Assad’s regime. The group is led by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commanders and trained and supplied by the Iranian military. In 1998, after taking control of the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif, the Taliban slaughtered thousands of Hazaras. They also massacred nine Iranian diplomats. Following the incident, Iran stationed 70,000 troops near the Afghan border.

Recently the Taliban tried to forge closer ties with Iran and demonstrate its good will towards the Hazaras by recruiting one of its local leaders from the Hazara community. The new governor of the Taliban’s shadow government in Balkhab district of Sar-e-Pul province in northern Afghanistan is an ethnic Hazara and a Shia cleric militia leader. However, considering the timing of this event (April 2020) this overture appears more of a public relations stunt, aimed at softening the Taliban’s image and strengthening its relations with Iran rather than a serious attempt to reconcile with its historic enemies.

Challenge: avoiding an armed conflict between the Taliban and the Hazara Shia Muslims, once the allied forces leave.

Abdul Rashid Dostum

Ex-First Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum, an ethnic Uzbek, is a former general in the Soviet-backed Afghan army. During the Soviet–Afghan War in the 1980s, Dostum fought against mujahedeen forces. During the 1990s, he became a warlord and fought against the Taliban. While most of the Afghan territory was conquered by the Taliban, Dostum maintained his own proto-state – the Northern Autonomous Zone – in the north of Afghanistan. In 2000 he had joined the Northern Alliance and in 2001, during the US invasion of Afghanistan Dostum became a US ally.

On a number of occasions Dostum forces were accused of committing war crimes, the most notorious being the 2001 Dasht-i-Leili massacre of two thousand Taliban war prisoners. In 2014 Dostum was appointed First Vice President of Afghanistan. He resigned in early 2020 and later was given the rank of marshal in the Afghan Army. Dostum is the leader of National Islamic Movement of Afghanistan (Junbish-i-Milli), a predominantly Uzbek political party that considered somewhat leftist. National Islamic Movement of Afghanistan has its own militia. Dostum maintains contacts with Uzbek, Kazakh, and perhaps Russian security services, and has a residency in Tashkent.

Dostum is a political ally of Abdullah Abdullah, the head of the High Council for National Reconciliation with the authority to handle and approve all affairs related to the Afghan peace process. He is also one the most irreconcilable enemies of the Taliban. In the past Dostum survived numerous assassinations attempts by the Taliban and ISKP.

Challenge: making Dostum and the Taliban forget old grievances and coexist peacefully in Afghanistan once allied forces leave.

Pakistan vs. India

Pakistan’s policy toward Afghanistan is driven by the concept of “strategic depth” - the idea that it is imperative to secure Pakistan borders from any hostile power presence, primarily India, by creating buffer territories. Pakistan inherited this concept from the British, who viewed Afghanistan as a buffer state between Russia and India. In Pakistan’s ideal world Afghanistan would be a subservient state dominated by Pakistan’s strategic interests.

In the 1980s, during the Soviet occupation, Pakistan supported the anti-communist rebels, as it was determined to prevent what it perceived as encirclement by India and a Soviet-backed Afghanistan. In the 1990s, Pakistan created, financed and armed the Taliban, aiming to quell the chaos and establishing a Pakistan-friendly regime. Not only Pakistan has a large Pashtun community (the second largest in the country), but many high-ranking Pakistan military commanders share the Islamist ideology of Deobandism, espoused by the Taliban. Suffice it to say that the sixth President of Pakistan, general Zia ul-Haq, was a Deobandi. Following the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, Pakistani intelligence maintained close, albeit covert, ties to the Taliban, as it watched from the sidelines India steadily increasing its presence in Afghanistan.

In the 1990s, India supported the Northern Alliance in its fight against the Taliban. In the post-Taliban period, when leaders of the Northern Alliances were integrated into the new Afghan government, India became one of the major investors in Afghanistan, spending more than three billion dollars on various infrastructure and humanitarian projects. It also provided the Afghan security forces with military training and equipment. In 2011 India and Afghanistan signed Strategic Partnership Agreement formalizing cooperation in the areas of security, law enforcement, and justice, and committing both parties to combat terrorist and criminal networks in the region.

Indian role in today’s Afghanistan is indisputable. Nevertheless, its consistent refusal to talk to the Taliban left it out of the peace process. At the same time Pakistan played a central role in facilitating talks between the US and the Taliban. Since January 2020, American Chief representative to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad went to India at least five times to meet India’s Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar and other high-ranking officials to discuss peace arrangements in Afghanistan. Khalilzad’s mission was to convince India to get involved in the peace process. However, Indian response remains muted.

It is clear that Pakistan will do everything to sabotage Indian interests in Afghanistan. If the Taliban becomes a ruling force in Kabul, Indian presence in Afghanistan will be marginalized. It is also plausible that once the coalition forces leave, Pakistan-based terrorist groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba or Jaish-e-Mohammed expand their operations into Afghanistan. What would the United States do in a situation like this, given that India is now considered a NATO ally, is an open question.

Challenge: avoiding a proxy war between India and Pakistan.

Future scenarios

Given the challenges facing the peace settlement, what are the possible scenarios for Afghanistan, once allied troops leave the country?

1. Given that Afghanistan is dependent on foreign financial assistance, and recently foreign donors pledged up to $12 billion in civilian aid over the next four years, the Taliban and its allies respect the arrangements agreed upon with the US and the Kabul government. The Taliban is able to suppress all internal dissent, but is unable to master majority of the votes. Taliban accepts the election results and participates in a coalition government. Coalition arrangements last for a while, but soon discord prevails. It leads either to provinces and districts acquiring a large degree of political autonomy, turning Afghanistan into a de-facto federation, or a central power paralysis and a renewed armed conflict between different political groups, backed by different foreign powers.

2. The Taliban, allying itself with Islamist parties, like Hezb-e-Islami , wins the elections. The Taliban expands its system of government that for the time being exists in the Taliban-controlled districts and establishes a repressive theocratic state, similar to the one that existed in Afghanistan in 1996-2001. Financial aid in this case, comes from the Persian Gulf donors. Northern regions resist and create, with the assistance of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, India and Russia, its own de-facto state.

3. The Taliban, frustrated with the hurdles of the election process, reneges on its obligations and resorts to a full-scale war against the government in Kabul. Given the weakness of the Kabul government and the upper hand that the Taliban has on the battlefield, it takes Kabul by force, sidelining other political groups in the country. A new civil war breaks out, leading to a de-facto partition of the country.