September 17, 2015
TSG IntelBrief: The Next Chapter of the Afghan War
Afghanistan has been through 35 years of nearly continuous war and it does not appear likely the fighting will end anytime soon. The conflict is now entering a new chapter, in which the government—fragile and dysfunctional in the best of times—faces a long-time foe in the Taliban and a new foe in the so-called Islamic State, which is trying to gain ground in the troubled region. The government of President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani will begin its second year on September 21 as the country's challenges grow and outside assistance dwindles. The international community, which already suffers from ‘Afghan fatigue,’ is struggling to deal with other pressing regional issues, such as Syria and Iraq, that have pushed Afghanistan once again to the periphery.
Recent events highlight the challenges with which the government and the social fabric of the country must contend. Newly selected Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Akhtar Mansoor has, for now, avoided a leadership fight with the family of deceased founder Mullah Omar. Mullah Omar’s brother, Mullah Abdul Manan, and Omar’s eldest son, Mullah Mohammad Yaqoub, initially refused to support the leadership of Mullah Mansoor—threatening to split a group already reeling from the duplicity involved in keeping Mullah Omar’s death a secret for two years. The public support for Mansoor by Omar’s family is an important development that will help the group maintain unity at a time when it is making serious gains across the country.
The group’s resilience and resurgence was demonstrated by the September 14 prison break in Ghazni, an operation that resulted in the escape of over 350 prisoners. As witnessed in Iraq with the Islamic State and in Yemen with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, mass prison breaks are devastating to counter-terrorism efforts. Nothing keeps a member loyal to a terror group more than freeing him or his family members and friends from prison. The Afghan government now has to contend with hundreds more Taliban supporters or fighters while trying to address systemic problems in the security of its prison system. Previous Taliban prison breaks—including one in 2011 that freed more than 500 prisoners in the Taliban heartland of Kandahar—have shown just how much the group can assert its will in locations assumed to be secure.
Adding to the problem is the emergence of the Islamic State in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Particularly along Afghanistan’s eastern border with Pakistan’s tribal region, the Islamic State is finding some level of operational support and success. On September 13, Islamic State fighters attacked a paramilitary checkpoint in the long-troubled area of Bajour, where al-Qaeda fighters once lurked in the mid-2000s. There were no reports of casualties, but the attack is remarkable for the Pakistani government’s limited ability to control events in the region, meaning the group could grow relatively unimpeded until it becomes a true menace. Afghanistan will likely prove tougher soil for the Islamic State to put down roots, but in border areas such as Nangahar, Paktika, Kunar, and Nuristan, the group will find some level of support.
The next chapter of the endless Afghan war will be a four-way battle between a weakened central Afghan government, a Pakistani government intent on maintaining influence, a powerful and relatively unified Taliban, and an Islamic State determined to play a destructive role in the region.
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