Fears of civil war mount as violence surges in Afghanistan

Soldiers stand guard during General Staff of the Armed Forces Gen. Mohammad Yasin Zia's visit to Camp Commando, Afghanistan, Wednesday, 28 April 2021. [Getty]
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Herat and Kabul
08 June, 2021
In-depth: Amid the withdrawal of foreign forces, a surge in violence across Afghanistan's provinces has left many fearful that the country could further fragment.

The Taliban attack in the Farsi district of Herat began in the middle of the night with a tremendous explosion and lasted until the early morning on 3 May.

The blast destroyed a lot of the bazaar and left hundreds of families displaced. It also resulted in many casualties among the security forces.

“I am among the nearly one thousand displaced families,” dentist Ahmad Noorzai told The New Arab. “We moved to another village. Around 15 people were killed.”

There has been a surge in violence since the 1 May deadline for the withdrawal of US troops passed

The 24-year-old father says his shop and home were both destroyed in the onslaught.

The attack was among hundreds carried out by the Taliban that have taken place on a daily basis throughout the country in recent weeks. Since the passing of the 1 May US troops withdrawal deadline, there has been a surge in violence.

At least four districts were taken by the Taliban in May. On Sunday, it was reported the group had captured a further four provinces.

Violence has been escalating across the country since the start of peace negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban in September.

A view from the site after at least 80 people, mostly schoolgirls, were killed in three back-to-back blasts targeting a school in Afghanistan's capital Kabul on 8 May 2021. [Getty]
A view from the site after at least 80 people, mostly schoolgirls, were killed in three back-to-back blasts targeting a school in Afghanistan's capital Kabul on 8 May 2021. [Getty]

But the number of attacks has spiked again after the 1 May deadline passed and US troops remained in Afghanistan – a breach of the US-Taliban agreement signed in February last year which has angered the Taliban.

Under this deal, all foreign troops were to depart Afghanistan in exchange for security guarantees from the Taliban.

Heavy fighting has continued in the Farsi district, including an attack on Saturday, but government forces have just about managed to cling on.

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“We transferred our wounded last night and we stationed the commandos there. The mayor was wounded,” said Herat’s provincial governor Sayed Qatali, speaking the following day.

With many of Herat’s districts coming under siege in recent weeks, the governor says his biggest fear for the moment is the Taliban, describing the group’s tactics as “guerrilla warfare”.

“There is an assumption that when the Taliban enters city centres, there will be a fight against them but local power brokers such as General Abdul Rashid Dostum and Ismail Khan don’t have the capacity to fight the Taliban,” governor Qatali told The New Arab.

However, he says he is also concerned that these same power brokers – or warlords – are waiting for the Afghan security forces to collapse so they can fill the power vacuum – a concern shared by others.

No one expected the US to leave this quickly and Afghanistan's institutions are not prepared for it

Governor Qatali believes an unconditional withdrawal at this time will leave Afghanistan in a weak position when it comes to fighting terrorism.

“In Syria and Iraq there was an ideological force against ISIS. Unfortunately, in Afghanistan we don’t have such a force. The majority of the population do not support the Taliban,” he says.

In April, General Kenneth Frank McKenzie, commander of US Central Command, admitted that containing terrorism threats would be extremely difficult following the departure of US troops in September but “not impossible”.

He said long-range missiles, crewed aircraft or Special Operations raids to strike located targets could be used by the US military.

ANA Special Forces Commandos regroup in formation after performing a war-game exercise showcasing their capabilities and strength. [Getty]
ANA Special Forces Commandos stand in formation after performing a military exercise on 28 April 2021. [Getty]

On 8 May, just days before the start of Eid, the country was rocked by a devastating attack near Sayed Ul-Shuhada High School in west Kabul.

At least 80 people are believed to have been killed – most of whom were schoolgirls – and more than 160 injured.

The area is home to many from the Hazara ethnic group, the majority of which are Shia Muslims. Although the Afghan government blamed the Taliban, the group denied and condemned the attack. The area has previously been targeted by Sunni Islamist militants.

The unquestionable outcome of the attack, though, is that in a country already wracked by ethnic divisions, those fragmentations have only been exacerbated, and trust in the country’s security forces further depleted.

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The biggest concern for senior analyst on Afghanistan for International Crisis Group (ICG), Andrew Watkins, is the collapse of the Afghan security forces, which would lead to a fracturing of the country as different power brokers stake claims to different regions.

“The real danger is whether or not community leaders across Afghanistan start to question why their men in the north, in places like Badakhshan or Kunduz, are being sent down to southern provinces to fight and die for the Afghan army, when the Taliban are threatening their homes,” he said.

“The minute community leaders start encouraging men to defect or come home and serve in local militia instead, that’s when things will get worse.

“You often hear reference to ‘institutions’. No one’s talking about the local school board or Central Bank – what they’re all getting at is the military and defence institutions. Everything hangs on the integrity of these institutions.”

This time around there will be more resistance. It's already emerging – we can see it. People in the villages are equipped and ready to fight

On the topic of increased attacks, Watkins points out that a surge in violence inflicted by the Taliban when the weather turns in Spring is not a new development.

“They have done so for the last 17 or 18 years and they don’t need a reason to continue what they’ve already been doing,” he said.

“Is there always a bit of political meaning when there are major political developments underway - absolutely, but there is a bit of a danger trying to attach what these actors are doing to what we’re seeing in the news, because they were going to do this anyway.”

The Taliban’s military objectives are unclear, he says, but it’s likely that a main objective is to continue to try to make the Afghan government appear weak.

US - Afghanistan - Taliban - GETTY
A mural with images of US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad (L) and Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, in Kabul, 31 July 2020. [Getty]

Watkins also describes the decision of an unconditional withdrawal as an “incredibly demoralising thing for anybody in Afghanistan to hear, not just for government officials, or for people who want to see current leaders of the Afghan government remain in power, but even people who want to see change, who have issues with the way the US has intervened in the country”.

Rangin Dadfar Spanta, former security advisor to Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani, is critical of the decision for the withdrawal to be unconditional.

“No one expected the US to leave this quickly and Afghanistan’s institutions are not prepared for it. It’s an opportunity and a threat; an opportunity because after 43 years of foreign interference and foreign forces being in Afghanistan, we have the chance to lead the country in our own way. I know it’s going to be challenging but we have to, otherwise, there will be endless foreign involvement,” he said.

There has been remarkable progress compared to the 1990s. But this progress will all be impacted by the unconditional – or non-responsible – withdrawal

“However, we’ve achieved things like building an army, a police force, an education sector and a change in attitude towards women’s rights. There has been remarkable progress compared to the 1990s. But this progress will all be impacted by the unconditional – or non-responsible – withdrawal.”

Dr Spanta says he is not convinced of a country-wide Taliban takeover.

“The Taliban can take over more districts but it will not be possible for them to take over the country. There is a lack of support for the Taliban not just amongst other ethnic groups but also among the Pashtun population [the Taliban is predominantly Pashtun],” he said.

Like others, the security expert’s concern is of fragmentation throughout the country. He envisages a much more “bloody and brutal” civil war should the situation deteriorate to that extent.

“This time around there will be more resistance. It’s already emerging – we can see it. People in the villages are equipped and ready to fight,” said Dr Spanta.

Yet he still holds out hope for a power-sharing deal.

“Peace negotiations will be the best thing for us. That’s a good way for the Taliban to come and be a part of the government.”

Charlie Faulkner is a freelance journalist based in Afghanistan. She has previously lived and reported from Turkey and Jordan. Her work focuses on migration, economics, conflict, human rights, gender issues, and culture.

Follow her on Twitter: @Charlie_Faulk