The Afghanistan Bulletin
Afghanistan and the Potential for Civil War: Assessing Stability
By Tiffany Hung
The Taliban is a conservative, political, and religious Islamic group that emerged in Afghanistan in the 1990s. They eventually seized the capital, Kabul, and gained effective control over most of the country. Following concerns of the Taliban’s harsh treatment towards Afghan citizens and the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in efforts to help the Northern Alliance end the Taliban regime. After many years of not being in control, the Taliban regained possession of Afghanistan after the United States withdrew its troops from the country in August 2021. The withdrawal was promised in a 2020 peace agreement with the Taliban.
Source: Foreign Policy
Today, the Taliban have been running the country for over a year and have imposed harsh interpretations of Islamic law that have concerned the international community. While they express their authority in Afghanistan, the regime itself has its own issues within the movement. The Taliban is broken up into many internal divisions that control certain regions or provinces. Because of the different factions, many of the factions’ goals and beliefs do not align with each other. The differences in opinion cause arguments and added tension between the groups. Resistance forces have also expressed concern over the Taliban’s structure and harsh ruling which has resulted in many violent clashes between the two groups. On top of structural disagreements, the country is going through a humanitarian crisis in which millions of people live in poverty, basic human rights are restricted, physical punishments are practiced. With the divide between the factions, the tension between the regime and resistance forces, and the ongoing humanitarian crisis, the likelihood of a civil war is possible and a concern for many Afghan citizens. The stability of Afghanistan is also highly threatened.
The Taliban consists of several factions in their regime, but two factions play a bigger role in the organization. These divisions are led by two senior Taliban figures: “political leader Abdul Ghani Baradar, who co-founded the group with Mullah Mohammad Omar and whose power base is in Kandahar, and sanctioned terrorist Sirajuddin Haqqani, who heads the affiliated Haqqani network and is close to al Qaeda.” While these leaders compete for power, the local branch of the Islamic State is attaining recruits that are disillusioned with the Taliban’s political direction. The divisions between the two leaders and their factions in addition to the Islamic State’s recruitment challenges the regime’s control of Afghanistan and risks the chance of a civil war.
When two parties are competing for power, it is unlikely that they are willing to compromise because of their desire for complete control. That is the case here between the Taliban’s two biggest factions. The unwillingness to compromise only stirs the pot and adds tension between the divisions which could potentially become violent. The factions competing for authority also emphasize how unprofessional and unorganized the Taliban is while they run the country. If they cannot contribute uniformed and collective decisions as an organization, decision-making for policies in Afghanistan is nearly impossible.
The Islamic State’s recruitment of soldiers also plays a significant role in the instability of Afghanistan. It does not help that one of the leaders, Sirajuddin Haqqani, has close relations to terrorist regimes. Their recruitment adds more members to their organization and helps them carry out attacks within the country and region. On December 12th, a hotel in Kabul was attacked as the attackers opened fire in the building leaving 21 people dead. Later on, ISIL claimed responsibility for the attack via their Telegram channel. This attack seemed to target Chinese nationals as this hotel was frequently occupied by them. Although no foreigners were killed, this incident increases civilian fear and distrust for the Taliban as they should be encountering measures to prevent such tragic events. International observers may also view the Taliban’s ruling as irresponsible and could back out of funding the country when Afghanistan needs it the most. The increase of attacks adds more weight on the Taliban’s control as a regime when they are already fragmented and cannot come up with significant solutions.
Resistance forces started gaining traction again as soon as the Taliban regained control. This is due to conflicting views of the Taliban’s beliefs and rulings. Because of the regime’s ruling, Afghanistan “is now perhaps the most dangerous country in the world, controlled by Taliban terrorists who are sheltering dozens of anti-Western jihadi groups while torturing, raping, starving, and killing their Afghan opponents.” Thus, many resistance groups have formed in hopes to overthrow the regime. Some of the most known resistance groups are the National Resistance Front (NRF), the Afghanistan Freedom Front (AFF), and the Afghanistan Islamic and National Liberation Movement. Many members of these groups were former officials of the previous Afghan government in hopes to turn the country back around. Their hope is to reduce or terminate the Taliban’s strict interpretations and fight against them to end their ruling. Ahmad Massoud, the leader of the NRF which is concentrated in the Panjshir Valley, states that “Afghanistan is turning into a hub for terrorism. And the goal of this terrorism is not to only have Afghanistan; the idea is to spread worldwide.”
Because of how resistance groups operate, they do not receive funding or international support. For example, the Biden administration denies supporting armed opposition and the resistance forces in Afghanistan use arms and violence to fight back. This limits the effectiveness of anti-Taliban resistance. As the Taliban use fear and violence to fuel their authority, the existence of resistance forces limits their power to an extent. These groups and the regime have been actively fighting each other. On September 14th, the Taliban stated that their forces had “killed at least 40 fighters of an Afghan insurgent group led by the son of a late anti-Taliban commander during renewed fighting in the northern Panjshir province.”
This recent incident illustrates the ongoing clashes between the forces and the regime. Since there are many resistance forces, they are spread out in clusters throughout the country, making it hard for the Taliban to fight against them all at once. The tension between these two parties also plays a role in Afghanistan's stability and the risk of a civil war. The constant fighting impacts the country as money is being spent on armed weapons and recruitment instead of focusing on the needs of the Afghan people. Between the resistance forces and the Taliban and their factions, one careless mistake by either group can set up a violent civil war as no side seems to be compatible with each other.
The Taliban regime has enforced many laws and restrictions in the country in addition to the harsh treatment of citizens and previous government officials. The group has intimidated journalists and restricted press freedoms. This action has resulted in many organizations shutting down due to lack of revenue to pay their workers. They have restricted women’s rights such as requiring women to completely cover their bodies and having to have a male chaperone when appearing in public. Protestors have been beaten, detained, and arrested by Taliban forces for speaking up against the discriminatory policies. Former Afghan officials have also been detained, arrested, and killed because of their previous government positions and beliefs. The Taliban has imposed many more rules and actions that violate basic human rights and will continue to do despite previous pledges to “respect the rights of women and minority communities and provide amnesty for people who supported U.S. efforts.”
These implementations indicate the threat of Afghanistan’s stability. The Taliban’s restriction of the press means that journalists and reporters are not able to express themselves as the regime has complete control. It also puts many workers in this field without a job when many Afghan civilians need one. Their crackdown on women’s rights is not only unfair but plays a detrimental role in Afghanistan’s society. With women not having opportunities to work, many of them and their families are living in poverty. The economy is also affected as there are not enough workers to produce capital for the country. Killing previous Afghan officials only illustrates the Taliban’s dislike towards them due to their contrasting beliefs. There are better options for dealing with their opponents, but the Taliban has chosen to go the inhumane route.
These examples illustrate that they are not capable of running Afghanistan as a normal country. They are not prioritizing what their country needs but instead prioritizing their own needs and funding their regime. Afghanistan has been suffering through one of the world’s largest and most complex humanitarian emergencies since before the Taliban takeover in 2021. With their ruling, the crisis has gone even worse. Acute malnutrition is now “entrenched across the country,” and for nearly a year, “over 90 percent of households have not been able to get enough food.” Many children have starved to death because of their parents not having the money to feed them. With the humanitarian crisis, many women and girls are also facing hardships as they face more obstacles because they are female. It is a complete circle in which all the problems are pointing back to the Taliban as they sit and watch the crisis unfold.
While the Taliban does not add value to a solution to the humanitarian crisis, many are fighting for their rights and a better economy. There has been an increase in the number of protests this past year due to the Taliban’s strict Sharia laws. Recently, more women have been protesting the Taliban since they came into ruling because of their crackdown on the rights of women and girls. Women began to protest “on the streets since the Taliban's first week in power, despite the grave risks they faced in doing so. By early September, women-led protests were taking place in Herat province in western Afghanistan and quickly spread across multiple provinces.” Instead of trying to listen to the voices of Afghan civilians, the Taliban takes a brutal approach when interacting with protestors. Their response includes beating, detaining, and disrupting protestors. They have even killed protestors on the streets. Women protestors in an interview stated that they were “wrongfully detained with their families, including small children. They experienced threats, beatings, dangerous conditions of confinement, denial of due process, abusive conditions of release, and other abuses.” Protestors are not able to exercise their rights to free speech and have a peaceful protest. The Taliban’s harsh response illustrates that the conditions of women and girls in the country are deteriorating. The deterioration impacts the stability of Afghanistan because women are important in many aspects of society and can bring huge value in Afghanistan’s economy when given opportunities. The increase in protests and the number of civilians that are anti-Taliban can also indicate the likelihood of a civil war against the regime.
While Afghanistan suffers a humanitarian crisis, the Taliban regime is only focusing on their organization and ways to fund their practices. One form of funding their organization is through drug trading. Since taking power last August, it was promised that there would be a crackdown on narcotics. In April, authorities “banned all cultivation of opium poppy and all narcotics under strict new laws.” They stated that those who violate the ban “will be arrested and tried according to Sharia laws in relevant courts.” While the regime issued a ban, this was most likely to encourage a better reputation to their name while it looks like they are helping the country. In fact, they are doing the opposite. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime has reported that since August 2021, opium cultivation has increased by 32%, or 56,000 hectares, compared to the previous year. This means that Afghanistan’s drug trade is thriving under Taliban rule regardless of their decree they issued in April.
Because of the spike in opium prices, this year’s harvest has been the most profitable for sales since 2017 as prices doubled. Afghanistan is one of the world’s biggest opium producers, and although the demand and prices for opium cultivation is high, it funds the regime and not the society. Drug trading gives the Taliban an opportunity to generate big amounts of revenue to fuel their illicit activities and repressive regime. They are well connected to regional and drug markets. “Along the Balkan Route from Pakistan, Iran, and Turkey to Europe, heroin and meth continue to flow in large quantities, supplying markets throughout and outside Afghanistan’s immediate region.” This gives a bad impression on the Taliban from Afghan civilians and the outside people looking in because of their hypocritical statements of banning opium cultivation. The increase of drug trading also emphasizes the regime’s network and willingness to do illegal activities while trying to run a country. This discourages the support of international partners and produces distrust amongst the civilians. Additionally, drug trading promotes the usage of opioids which can lead to harmful consequences or even death.
There are several factors that play into the stability of Afghanistan and the likelihood of a civil war. The divide between Taliban factions emphasizes miscommunication and distrust amongst each other. A government that cannot make uniformed and collective decisions will display uncertainty from their people. The fight for power between the factions illustrates that the groups are not compatible with each other, which can lead to a worsening situation. Resistance groups are actively fighting to overthrow the Taliban. There have been multiple breakouts and clashes between the two parties. If the clashes and violence continue, Afghanistan could spin downhill as the chance of a civil war is highly likely. The ongoing humanitarian crisis is a huge factor in the stability of Afghanistan. Many live in poverty and barely have funds to feed themselves or their children. There is a huge crackdown on women’s and human rights. Many people are restricted from opportunities of success, especially women. Protestors speak up for their rights but are shut down when the Taliban implements harsh consequences for their actions. Last but not least, the Taliban are clear that they act only in the best interests of their regime, disregarding the needs of Afghan society as a whole. Afghanistan's stability is likely to deteriorate as a result of the anti-Taliban sentiment and the lack of response to human needs.