December 30, 2014

TSG IntelBrief: The Next Battles of the Afghan Civil War

• After more than 13 years since the fall of the Taliban, the group remains the greatest threat to Afghanistan’s future prospects, despite unprecedented international effort and expenditure to oppose its resurgence

• Almost 26 years since the withdrawal of Soviet forces, Afghanistan remains in a state of civil war, as it battles to determine the character and future of the country

• The root causes of the insurgency remain as they were in 2001 and in 1989, though there have been tremendous tactical successes whose impacts have ebbed and flowed through the years

• While Afghan security services are suffering the brunt of the attacks, violence against civilians in 2014 has increased to the highest levels since 2009, with even worse prospects for 2015 as attacks move away from foreign bases and into population centers

• With continued international support, the Afghan people will continue their decades-long civil war against dissolution and extremism, but with new ‘weapons’ that provide guarded optimism but no guarantee.


The end of U.S. and NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) combat operations in Afghanistan doesn’t mean the end of Afghanistan’s conflict. The civil war that tore apart the country from the withdrawal of the Soviet Union in 1989 hadn’t ended before U.S. troops began operations in November 2001, and has yet to conclude. The underlying issues—an extremist Taliban movement that is anathema to modernity, persistent poverty, and strong-man provincial government at the expense of national rule—remain as pertinent now as they were decades ago. The next battles of the Afghan civil war will be fought militarily, politically, and socially by Afghanistan's citizens, to determine the character and future of the country.

The Afghan people have never stopped bearing the brunt of the violence, even during the years (2009-2012) when foreign troop casualties were at their highest. During the 13 years of combat, 3,485 foreign troops were killed, with 2,356 of them U.S. military personnel. By contrast, in the first 10 months of 2014 alone, 3,188 Afghan civilians and 4,600 Afghan security personnel were killed, both increases over the previous year. Tragically, 2015 has the potential to continue the upward spike in casualties.

While the 13 years of international combat operations haven’t defeated the insurgency, they have, to a degree, provided Afghanistan other ‘weapons’ with which to fight. The Taliban seized power in 1996 by uniting a segment of the population against the endemic corruption, brutality, and warlordism that exploded after 1989, but also by fighting fiefdoms and not a true national opponent. While there are significant issues concerning the Afghan armed services and security forces—such as high desertion, uncertain loyalties, and spotty leadership—there is at least a foundation of national defense that can be improved upon. The training and other support will be vital towards preventing an Iraqi-style collapse, though they are no guarantee.

Another weapon that didn’t exist for most of the 25-year civil war is the potential for political stability and inclusiveness. In the 13 years between the withdrawal of Soviet forces and the selection of Hamid Karzai as the interim Afghan president by the June 2002 Loya Jirga, the transfer of power was done by bullet and not by ballot. The many tragic flaws of Karzai’s rule don’t negate the historic accomplishment of a peaceful transfer of power to his successor, Ashraf Ghani. Elections do not produce democracies by themselves, of course, but they are better than warlords battling for control of Kabul. The political progress might be fraught and leaves much to be desired, but it is a true accomplishment achieved at great cost to all involved.

The last weapon is a society that is resilient in the face of so many years of war. The U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan was named “Enduring Freedom.” The same adjective, ‘enduring,’ can be used to describe an Afghan society that has suffered such grievous losses yet continues to slowly seek a better path. The ethnic and tribal divisions that have exacerbated so much of the fighting are still in play, but they haven’t brought the country back to complete chaos because the Afghan people didn’t let them.

The 13-year international combat mission in Afghanistan couldn’t end what is almost a 26-year ongoing civil war; no foreign troops are able to achieve that by force of arms alone. As Afghanistan enters 2015, it remains to be seen if, armed with the additional weapons of national defense capabilities, an improving if imperfect political process, and a bloodied but resilient society, the Afghan people can.


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