Author: Nathanael Chouraqui

Nathanael Chouraqui
Researcher on Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan

The who’s who in the Afghan conflict

Nathanael Chouraqui
Nathanael Chouraqui | April 11, 2017

Many people remain unaware that there is a war in Afghanistan impacting the lives of millions of people.

Whilst the conflict is complex and involves multiple actors, four of them are pivotal.

U.S. and British Army Soldiers take a tactical pause during a combat patrol in the Sangin District area of Helmand Province, Afghanistan (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Daniel Love)


The Taliban, a hardline Islamist political and religious faction, emerged in the mid-1990s in northern Pakistan following the withdrawal of Soviet troops. In power in Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001, they are now estimated to control about 30% of the country.

The Taliban were the original targets of US-led intervention in 2001. In the aftermath of 9/11, the US sought to overthrow an organisation that had provided sanctuary for Osama Bin-Laden’s Al-Qaeda organisation.

After being toppled by the coalition, the Taliban have mainly reverted to guerrilla and terrorist tactics. The group routinely and deliberately targets the civilian population and, in 2016 alone, the U.N. attributed an estimated 5,000 deaths and injuries to their activities.

While traditionally operating in rural environments, the ultra-conservative Islamist organisation have expanded into urban centres in the past 12 months and alarmingly increased their territory. They have reduced the area under Afghan government influence to less than two-thirds of the country.

Criminal activities have become a cornerstone of their funding, including illegal mining, heroin laboratories and kidnapping. Recently their operations have expanded into the illegal harvesting and selling of pistachios, reportedly earning the Taliban $15million per year.

Peace talks involving the Taliban have been sporadically held since 2012, without any political solution. Internal divisions and rival factions plague the Taliban movement and peace efforts, something the assertive rule of new leader Hibatullah Akhundzada (since May 2016) has so far failed to suppress.


Capitalising on the regional destabilisation of the Middle-East, the so-called Islamic State (IS) has reportedly been operating in Afghanistan since 2014, in addition to their established territorial presence in Iraq and Syria. The number of IS fighters in Afghanistan is estimated to be between 1,000 and 5,000.

The bulk of the force is made of Taliban defectors and foreign fighters with little connection to the Syrian and Iraqi branches of IS.

In January 2015, IS announced the establishment of the self-styled caliphate in the “Khorasan province”, the ancient name for a region encompassing Afghanistan, Pakistan, and other nearby areas. And, in September 2015 the Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP) launched its first offensive against Afghan forces. The group initially grew quickly, and extended control over sizeable portions of territory in northern Afghanistan.

In 2016, about 900 deaths and injuries were attributed to ISKP. More recently, on 8th March 2017, ISKP claimed responsibility for the attack on a hospital in Kabul, where militants dressed as medics killed at least 49 people.

ISKP has struggled in its efforts to build local support. They are often seen as a brutal and foreign force, and have alienated the Afghan population.

After suffering numerous losses at the hands of both U.S.-backed Afghan forces and the Taliban, their territory has now considerably decreased. As a result, IS’s strength in Afghanistan is widely believed to be in decline.


Although the NATO coalition formally ended its 13-year combat mission in 2014, handing control over to Afghan forces, international troops are still present on the ground. About 13,300 troops remain there for training and counterterrorism operations, including 8,400 from the US.

There has been some uncertainty in the international community recently over the future of US presence in the country under President Trump’s administration. As the Taliban insurgency is gaining momentum, top U.S. generals and senators have argued in favour of an increased U.S. presence in the country.

Trump has emphasized the continuing importance of the U.S.-Afghanistan Strategic Partnership and his support for President Ghani’s government. But there has been no indication as yet as to whether the US will increase their deployment.


In Afghanistan, a government of national unity has been in place since September 2014 and is headed by President Ashraf Ghani.  Hampered by fierce political infighting and widespread corruption, the government and its 350,000-strong forces have appeared increasingly incapable of maintaining territory in the face of Taliban insurgency.

The Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), comprised of both soldiers and police officers, is plagued by management issues. For instance, it has been reported that the ANSF counts thousands of “ghost” soldiers, who are either dead men or fake names but receive full salary.

Governmental forces are assisted by pro-government militias and US-funded “local police” forces. Although established with the purpose of mobilizing the rural Afghan population against the Taliban, these groups have been accused of abuses against civilians, such as theft, extortion, and assault.

In 2016, reports have noted an increase in the number of members of the security forces defecting to the Taliban.

The government has recently announced it would double the number of special elite forces, currently at 17,000, in a bid to tackle the growing Taliban threat and reverse the conflict’s dynamic.

Beyond these four key actors, numerous other players are bearing on the balance of power of the conflict. These include both smaller insurgent groups -such as the Haqqani network or Al-Qaeda- and big international stakeholders  -in particular regional powers, Iran, Pakistan, China and India.

Money, Hunger and Crime: The disturbing economics behind the Syrian conflict

Nathanael Chouraqui
Nathanael Chouraqui | February 28, 2017
Photo: Pawel Krzysiek, ICRC

Photo: Pawel Krzysiek, ICRC

In the news on the Syrian war we hear much about Islamist groups, international power struggles and political grievances. But there is another side to the conflict, one where financial aid, smuggling, misery and crime are sometimes decisive in shaping the war.

Unemployment, heat and the causes of the crisis

We may mark the start of the crisis as March 2011 when, spurred by the Tunisian and Egyptian protests, predominantly young and provincial Syrians took to the street. To understand what led to that point, let’s make a quick historical detour.

At the end of the rule of Hafez al-Assad, father of the current President, Syria’s socialist-oriented economy was facing the challenge of a fast-growing population. Its model was sustained by state subsidies and largely dominated by the public sector, which was increasingly unable to provide jobs for this new generation. Youth unemployment was growing dramatically.

When Bashar Al-Assad took power in 2000, he announced the liberalization of the economy and cuts in public expenditure. But what he really did amounted to what economists call “crony capitalism”. The state’s alliance with big companies was strengthened at the expense of small business and the majority of Syrians who depended on subsidies.

In the 2000’s, the country experienced droughts and dust storms that affected millions of people, devastated the agriculture and prompted massive rural-urban migration. At the very moment extremes in climate were making the need for agricultural aid more pressing than ever, the government was cutting subsidies. Crucially, this further heightened the sense of inequality in Syrian society. Big cities were able to absorb migration more easily than provincial centers. Idlib, heavily impacted by the cuts, became a hotbed for the rebellion.

By 2011, the economic slump stoked political grievances contributing to the outbreak of protests.

Photo: Pawel Krzysiek, ICRC

Photo: Pawel Krzysiek, ICRC

A vicious cycle of violence and profit

More than five years on, the war has left the Syrian economy in tatters.

On the ruins of the formal system, a new war economy has flourished and profoundly reordered the Syrian social fabric. Dominated by the leaders of armed groups and their ties in business, the middle class has been left deeply impoverished and dependent on foreign aid, and a growing underclass has been deprived of livelihoods.

Looting, bribery and criminal activities form the basis of this new economy. Trafficking is rife, with fuel and tobacco smuggled to Turkey, antiquities pillaged, and weapons sold to rebels by corrupt government officers. The smuggling of refugees and kidnappings are widespread. Drug trafficking has expanded, with narcotics labs found in various regions. Even refugee camps have been turned into profitable businesses, with landowners asking for rent for people to stay. According to an aid worker in Atmeh, “some people there are selling their organs to survive and help their families”.

Importantly, what all these economic activities have in common is that they rely on the continuation of violence. In a war economy, key actors have an interest in ensuring war goes on, thus creating a vicious cycle of violence and profit.

Numerous local ceasefires have failed in part due to armed groups wanting to retain control over massively lucrative checkpoints in besieged areas. In several cases, rebels have prolonged battles to receive further funding from allied Gulf states. Some have prefered to sell arms rather than to use them to defend civilians against the regime’s forces.

Rim Turkmani, researcher at the LSE, summarizes the logic of the vicious cycle: “the main economic activities depend on violence and violence depends on those same economic activities.” It is hard to escape the conclusion that economic factors have been a significant driver in the duration of the Syrian conflict.

Economic forces do not only prolong the war but also shape its very dynamic.

In the case of the so-called Islamic State (IS), the economic strategy of the group helps explain a lot about its expansion. Many of IS’ first troop movements were aimed at controlling new resources. Rebels and government alike soon became dependent on IS for oil, especially in Idlib and Aleppo, which considerably strengthened the group’s positions.

Even IS’ recruitment is largely based on economic needs. In many areas, unemployment and starvation leaves men exposed to recruitment. The organization indeed pays the highest salaries for fighters in Syria, starting from USD 400 per month. According to various accounts, the bulk of IS forces is formed of men who do not necessarily believe in its ideology but had little choice” in the face of widespread destruction and misery.

Photo: Teun Anthony Voeten, ICRC

Photo: Teun Anthony Voeten, ICRC

Ways forward

So, where can the country go from here? There are no easy answers. The country and the region’s economic and natural resilience are both exhausted, and the war economy will likely plague post-conflict reconstruction.

Breaking this vicious cycle therefore has to be a critical step in any reconstruction plan. Recommended strategies, which all require political dialogue, have included counter-smuggling programs with Syria’s neighbors, lifting sanctions and rebuilding legitimate infrastructures profitable for both parties.

Considering the war economy the opposite way – as a paradoxical tool for peace – may also prove efficient. In Burma for instance, the regime granted informal business ventures to rebels as compensation for peace, leading to remarkably robust ceasefires.

Another step is to realize that one of the best prospects for reconstruction is to help ensure it is homegrown. Research has shown that the usual formula – planning reconstruction from a distant capital – has not worked, and has called for the involvement of communities as a way to increase efficacy and legitimacy.

Empowering the Syrians’ potential is key. And it is bigger than we may think. Many reconstruction initiatives already exist on the ground. A new project led by World Bank researchers is using satellite imagery and social media analytics to identify these “low-hanging fruits”.

Empowering the Syrians also means encouraging the return of the skilled population that fled the country. According to a UN survey in Greece, 86% of refugees have secondary or university education.

Finally, it is crucial that reconstruction and the ensuing economic boom benefit Syrians. It is important to learn from the past experiences of Iraq and Afghanistan, where most of the building materials used were imported, creating money and jobs elsewhere. To avoid this in Syria, one idea selected by the World Bank is to create an Advance Purchase Fund for potential buyers to give preference to construction materials made in the country.

As World Bank official Ferid Belhaj puts it: “Even before the dust settles, a post-war effort needs to be launched … to create the jobs and economic expansion that will restore hope, and help pave the long, uncertain way to reconciliation and peace.”

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