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.
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.
ISLAMIC STATE (IS)
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.
US-LED INTERNATIONAL COALITION
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.